In 2012, the Regional Internet Registry (RIR) for Europe, or RIPE NCC, claimed the five internet registries each had just 16.8 million IPv4 addresses left.
Since then, the uptake of IPv6 – while not quite as slow as people think – is not taking off at the rate needed to sustain internet growth.
RIPE NCC, one of the internet registries, has over 11,000 members and has been dishing out IP addresses since the 1990s.
The registry began by buying huge blocks of network addresses from the US. Originally, this is all it thought was needed.
“By the end of the 90s, or half way through the 90s, it became obvious that this ‘internet thing’ was running quite well.” Says Axel Pawlik, managing director of the RIPE NCC.
This is when the registries realised there were too few IP addresses.
It was decided the internet community needed to find a way to ration the remaining internet domain name blocks using domain name routing but, by the end of the 1990s and early 2000s, IPv6 development began.
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Low demand for IPv6
“The industry and suppliers made up some new things, like network address translators, which basically split addresses,” says Pawlik.
“We were hoping that IPv6 and the next generation would take off quickly, that all the internet service providers (ISPs) all over the world would be very reasonable,” says Pawlik. “Only that didn’t quite happen.”
No customers wanted IPv6 because there was no noticeable functional difference between IPv4 and IPv6 and so there was little demand – but about two-thirds of RIPE’s members have IPv6.
There have also been concerns about whether IPv6 will work as efficiently as IPv4.
“In the end, everybody will have to move to IPv6 and that is what we are seeing, from about 18 months ago,” Pawlik says.
The burn rate of IPv6 addresses should still be reasonable and take us safely 50 years into the future
The era of the internet of things
But the internet of things (IoT) is steadily growing and, as the prospect of a connected society looms, the need for a scalable internet becomes increasingly important.
“We have our computers, we have our gadgets and we will have many more,” says Pawlik.
“That means there will be many more addresses needed – there is no way that can function properly on IPv4.”
Pawlik explains that, as the internet and the number of IoT-enabled devices grows, maintaining old systems becomes more complex and expensive.
But instead of switching from IPv4 to IPv6, many are running parallel on two separate systems that are incompatible with each other, using temporary measures to help them communicate. As there is no central governing body, it could continue this way for quite some time.
“The internet is not a centralistic beast – it is not centrally administered,” says Pawlik.
“We have to rely on the ISPs or the operators to gradually introduce IPV6 services.”
Long-term prospects for IPv6
But will moving to IPv6 solve these issues in the long run? The number of available IPv6 addresses is so great that we will not see them run out in our lifetimes.
“The numbers are so high – 2128 is a really large number – and I don’t think we’ll see IPv6 run out, it will not happen.”
Pawlik hopes that some time in the future, these problems will be far behind us.
“The burn rate of IPv6 addresses should still be reasonable and take us safely 50 years into the future. By then, everybody hopes that they will have something completely new, something fresh, the new protocol to run the internet," he says.
"We’re trying to avoid making the assumptions that caused this problem in the first place.”