Rhodri Marsden: Don't panic! The web isn't full to capacity – yet


Wednesday 19 January 2011 01:00 GMT

I wouldn't recommend that you warn your friends that the internet is filling up, any more than I'd advise Henny Penny to tell the King that the sky is falling in. But there must be some truth in it – the internet bit, I mean – because the Chief Internet Evangelist of Google says so. Why? Well, every connection to the internet (pictured) is given an IP address; these are forgettable sequences of four integers between zero and 255 separated by dots – for example But there are only 4.3 billion combinations of these, and that's no longer sufficient. Of course, when the internet was conceived by the US military, it had to connect only a few hundred computers, and the idea of 4.3 billion devices hanging together to enable us to watch cute animals cavorting on YouTube was preposterous. But we're now in a position where the authorities who dish out blocks of IPs to web hosting companies, ISPs and others simply have none left to give. They'd have a few more if they hadn't allocated vast quantities to American educational institutions who have little use for them, but it's proving difficult to get them back. So we need a new system.

This crunch point would have come a lot sooner were it not for clever workarounds. For example, you may have multiple computers at home or at work, but they generally connect to a router which, as far as the internet is concerned, uses up only one IP address, saving a lot of capacity. But internet use on mobile devices and in the developing world means that these workarounds are becoming a bit futile. And so we're finally seeing a reluctant but inexorable shift this year towards something called IP version 6.

It's safe to say that IPv6 is future-proof: it allows for more internet connections than there are bacterial cells on the planet, which would seem to be enough to be going on with. The difficulty, however, comes with making the change, as it essentially means a whole new tier of the internet. So if, in the coming years, a web service or website is available only via IPv6, you'll need an IPv6-friendly connection to access it. If you're running a PC with Windows Vista or Windows 7, or a Mac using OS X 10.5 or higher, your computer can handle it, though your router might need upgrading. But more importantly, your ISP needs to be geared up for IPv6; that requires investing cash, at a time when investing cash isn't a very attractive prospect. But the change is inevitable – it's just a question of when.

Facebook, Google and Yahoo! are participating in an awareness day on 8 June, when their sites will be available on IPv6. None of us will see any difference, as they'll be available the old way, too. But while IPv6 is really a problem for the technology industry that we consumers barely have to think about, we'll reap its benefits eventually, according to Simon McCalla at Nominet, the UK's domain name registry. "There'll be services available over IP6 that were impossible to offer before," he says, "like smart-metering, where every hour, your electricity meter automatically negotiates the best-value electricity contract for you." When every device has its own IPv6 address, remote communication between them will be a piece of cake. A television could talk to a fridge could talk to a phone, thousands of miles apart, without our having to supervise them. It might seem pointless now, but hey, that's what they said about the internet.


Ever wanted to know if you're feeling relaxed? Unsure whether that feeling of relaxation you're experiencing is real, and feel the urge to have it electronically verified? Well, there's an app for that: the XWave, now available for the iPhone, detects faint electrical impulses in the brain via a contraption which you pay $100 for and then strap on to your head. Cerebral activity is displayed on the screen, with a blue colour indicating that yes, you are indeed relaxed. But before we cynically dismiss this as the modern equivalent of the Fortune Teller Miracle Fish, the bit of red plastic you put on your hand in order to discover that you're "passionate", or "fickle", XWave also allows you to use your mind to control the movement of a ball on screen. Imagine the logical extension of this: controlling computer game characters without even moving. A boon! I mean, it's not as if we need the exercise...

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