Last modified: May 12, 1999 5:00 AM PDT
Net number system at a crossroads
Forget about ".com." The critical resource under the Net's hood is numerical addresses, and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers now is in charge of those, too.
Every online device or computer needs an Internet Protocol (IP) numerical address to connect to the global network. When the system was being designed, hardly anyone imagined that its 4.2 billion unique addresses would ever be exhausted. Just a few decades later, however, some in the technical community fear that the rapid pace of innovation one day may cause the Net to run out of numbers.
Demand for IP numbers is naturally growing due to the Net's evolution as a meeting place and marketplace.
A privileged few
While most companies have to fight for new IP addresses, others were granted huge blocks of numbers before anyone knew how precious they would be. Class A allocations are blocks that contain more than 16 million IP addresses:
|Holders of Class A allocations|
Compaq's Digital Equipment
Ford Motor Company
Interop Show Network
Currently, most online access providers and companies utilize a small batch of IP addresses by dynamically assigning the numbers based on demand when people log on to their networks. But with broadband services such as cable, customers must have their own dedicated number.
"It's going to come to the point where your TV remote is speaking IP to your TV, and they'll each need an IP address," said Paul Vixie, an architect of the Net's address system. Under such a scenario, a typical household could have more than 250 IP addresses, he added.
In a way the potential shortage of IP addresses is most analogous to the shortage of phone numbers that came about with the advent of fax machines and cellular phones, which has spurred the addition of new area codes.
And the perceived scarcity of addresses is just the beginning. As more computers connect to the Net, the databases that map the numbers are growing larger and becoming unwieldy. The ever-increasing size of the network's so-called routing tables has some Net programmers worried.
"There's going to be a point when machines can't handle the size," said Kim Hubbard, president of the American Registry for Internet Numbers, which is responsible for allocating and assigning IP addresses in the Americas.
Although there is hope that a new standard, IP version 6 (IPV6), could help alleviate both problems, the timeline for a rollout is sketchy--estimates range from the next 5 to 25 years. That's why many in the Net addressing trenches agree that allocation of these precious resources must meet strict guidelines.
"There is this constant tension about whose interest is being served," said Tony Rutkowski, principal consultant for the Next Generation Internet and a founder of the Internet Society. "It's a combination of how these IP addresses are allocated and to whom--and that is the rub."
New nonprofit in the middle
And now ICANN, which is mediating a number of other contentious debates, finds itself in the middle of the long-standing, international struggle over who should hold the key to the IP address treasure chest.
At a public meeting in Berlin later this month, ICANN is expected to take its most definitive step on the issue, creating an organization to tackle IP addressing.
Since last November, ICANN has been charged with overseeing the Net's technical administration, under a Memorandum Of Understanding it signed with the Commerce Department. ICANN also has been recognized by more than 25 nations in its new role.
So far, ICANN's challenges posed by IP numbering have been overshadowed by other topics, such as authorizing new companies to register domains ending in ".com" or adding new top-level domains such as ".web" and ".firm." Along with the fact that domains have been a well-publicized issue, ICANN's leaders also don't see the IP address issue as terribly pressing.
"We haven't needed to do anything in the way of [IP address] policy yet," said Michael Roberts, ICANN's interim chief executive. "There is potential scarcity. The thing to do is get moving on IPV6, which will deploy in an open and fair way based on reasonable need."
But a failure to adequately tackle a range of problems surrounding IP addresses ultimately could cripple the Net. In fact, charting a new IP numbering course may prove to be ICANN's most important contribution.