New IP Addresses Safer, but Difficult to Implement

Dennis Faas's picture

The current address system for computers connected to the Internet (TCP/IP version 4) is entering its twilight. And while the process of introducing a successor is ready to go, critics suggest it is a complex and challenging undertaking.

The addresses in question are not website addresses: those have many more unused possibilities, albeit many of them hardly memorable or corresponding to common words. Instead, the problem is with Internet Protocol (IP) addresses, which correspond to an individual machine connected to the Internet, whether that be a standard computer or a server hosting a website.

Transmission Control Protocol / Internet Protocol (TCP/IP): Began in 1982

The current system, Internet Protocol version 4 (or "IPv4"), began in 1982 when the US Department of Defense declared TCP/IP as the standard for all military computer networking. It allowed for four billion possible addresses. (Source:

At the time it seemed absolutely unimaginable that there could ever be that many web-enabled computers operating in the world, but today that limit is fast approaching, thanks in part to the massive expansion of devices like smartphones, which require an IP address.

At the moment, only around 232 million IP addresses remain unallocated, and these should be fully accounted for halfway through 2011. Though some addresses will remain unused, they will all been allocated to specific continent-based registrars.

New System Means Billions of Addresses For Everyone

The "simple" solution is to switch to IPv6. For reference, IPv5 was used for an experimental system for video transmission, but never became an official protocol. (Source: That said, Internet Protocol version 6 allows for 128-bit addresses rather than the 32-bit addresses of Internet Protocol version 4: each bit is a single character in binary code and is either a 1 or a 0.

The practical result of these longer addresses is that while IPv4 is limited to 4 billion addresses, IPV6 allows for a potential 340 undecillion addresses: that's 340 followed by 36 zeroes. To put that into perspective, if there was a desktop computer allocated to each IPv6 address, you could pile them up in stacks of three and still almost cover the entire land area of the world.

New System Presents Challenges

The big problem with the switch is that every Internet-connected device will need to be made compatible with IPv6. In some cases that will be a simple software upgrade, but in others it could mean replacing an older device such as a router.

It could be the case that some Internet providers need to have multiple user's machines sharing a single IP address during the switchover, which could cause problems with web-based services that rely on being able to identify individual users. One expert likened it to "changing the roads and tires while continuing to drive along in your car." (Source:

The good news is that IPv6 will make the web safer. While encryption is optional in IPv4, every piece of data sent to and from an IPv6 address is encrypted, making some common tactics used by hackers today virtually useless. (Source:

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