Earlier this year, there were a smattering of media reports about the Internet running out of addresses. People who don't spend their days immersed in the Web world could be forgiven for wondering if this was another looming technology "crisis" like the Y2K bug.
The answer is no, but there is a transition coming - one that might be better compared to the switch from analog to digital television, or the implementation of 10-digit telephone dialling. So don't panic, but take the time to understand how you will adapt to this change.
Basically, it involves a new protocol called IP Version 6, or IPv6, that allows for more addresses.
Internet Protocol, or IP, is a way to address all the devices connected to the Internet. The current version of IP, Version 4, was designed in the 1970s to be able to handle 4.3 billion distinct addresses. Vinton Cerf, known as the father of the Internet, has said publicly he considered this "enough for an experiment. The problem is, the experiment never ended."
The Internet has grown beyond its creators' expectations. In February, the last blocks of IPv4 addresses were handed out to Internet service providers. That doesn't mean they're all gone - virtually all service providers still have individual addresses that are unassigned - but supplies are dwindling.
That increases the urgency of moving to IPv6, an update whose most significant feature is that it uses longer addresses so it can handle more devices. How many? Well, 3.4 times 10 to the 38th power, or 340 undecillion - 34 with 37 zeroes after it.
Even when all the IPv4 addresses are gone, the Internet won't suddenly stop working. Nor will it be impossible to add another device. Network administrators have used various tricks for years to connect more devices - multiple PCs within a company can share a single IP address, for instance.
IPv6 was completed in 1998, and technologists have been talking about it ever since, but the sense of urgency wasn't there. With the allocation of the last IPv4 addresses, there's a growing feeling that it's time to get on with the move.
The good news is that this will not be an overnight switch. "We're probably still looking at 10 years before you start seeing a prevalence of IPv6," says Jag Bains, director of network operations for Peer 1 Hosting, Inc., a Toronto-based Internet hosting company.
Businesses and consumers will switch gradually, but companies that are ill-prepared will be at a competitive disadvantage. Fast-growing business could find it hard to add enough addresses to keep up with their growth. New online services relying on plentiful IPv6 addresses could be out of reach.
"The time for sitting back is behind us now," says James McCloskey, senior research analyst at Info-Tech Research Group in London, Ont.
Most network equipment sold in the last few years can work with IPv6, says Jeff Seifert, chief technology officer at Cisco Systems Canada Co. in Toronto. Organizations won't need to replace hardware, or at least not much of it, but many devices will need to be reconfigured or updated to work with IPv6.
The first transition stage will be running the old and new IPs side by side (dual-stacking). That will mean providing both IPv4 and IPv6 access to the same Web pages, so that whichever device a visitor uses, he or she will reach essentially the same website. Dual-stacked access to the same website can be set up on a single server, says Chris Perry, director of advanced product support at Q9 Networks Inc., a Toronto-based data centre.
Many businesses, especially smaller ones, rely on Web hosting companies to operate the equipment on which their websites run. This will make the IPv6 transition easier, because hosting providers will take care of some of the technical issues for them. They will still need to check all their systems' IPv6 support, Mr. Perry says.
While ensuring that customers can get to your website is the major issue, the flip side of the coin is making sure your employees have access to websites and other Internet services as they move to IPv6.
Canada's major service providers say they are working on IPv6 support. Shaw Business and Cogeco Data both say they are providing customers with trial access to IPv6 services, while Rogers says it will do so later this year. Telus Corp. says it "will be ready in lots of time for the industry adoption of IPv6." Bell Canada says it has invested significantly in IPv6 preparations and is helping business customers prepare for the transition.
Several sites on the Web provide tests to determine whether a computer is set up for IPv6 access, such as www.test-ipv6.com. Hosting and Internet service providers and equipment suppliers can also help. There is still time, but IPv6 is coming.