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Solving the IP Address Shortage

The time to upgrade to IPv6 -- and take advantage of its innovative technologies -- is now.

Image copyright by iStockphoto.
Sometime in the near future, you may get a visit from your CIO to talk about IPv6, the technology industry’s remedy for the world’s shortage of Internet addresses. Here’s why you should listen.

Right now, the Internet relies on IPv4, an international communications standard that directs traffic across the sprawling worldwide network. It does that by assigning a unique numerical label, or address, to every device connected to the Internet. But as more and more devices link up, the current method, created in 1981, can’t keep up with demand. A new standard called IPv6 solves the problem by providing a huge number of new addresses -- 340 trillion trillion trillion, to be exact.

Even though the nonprofit organizations that allocate Internet addresses worldwide dished out their last batches of IPv4 addresses in February, shifting to the new standard will take much longer. Unlike the Y2K problem -- where organizations spent an estimated $300 billion worldwide in a race to fix date fields in computer software before the arrival of the year 2000 -- the move to IPv6 can be gradual. That’s because there are enough technological Band-Aids available to let IPv4 and IPv6 users co-exist for years.

Still, there are good reasons why government agencies should start thinking about upgrading.

Because IPv6 creates trillions of new Internet addresses -- and simplifies the task of managing Internet-connected devices -- it opens the door to innovative new technologies like sensor networks that could help communities tackle a range of public-policy concerns.

These networks, which would link together hundreds or even thousands of tiny, low-cost wireless sensing devices, could help emergency personnel automatically triage and track the status of large numbers of disaster victims, for instance. The same technology also could monitor the condition of bridges, highways and other critical infrastructure. Furthermore, networked wireless sensors could be worn on clothing or embedded in living spaces to remotely monitor the condition of elderly citizens, allowing them to safely remain in their own homes longer.

"We even developed a bike helmet with sensors in it, so if the person riding were to have a head injury, the helmet communicates with the rider’s cell phone to call 911," says Tom Siracusa, executive director of IP service development for AT&T Labs. "But for these applications to really scale, we need that explosive address space that IPv6 will provide."

Siracusa recommends that agencies develop a five-year plan for making their networks essentially bilingual. "IPv6 is almost like a second language. You can enable your network to speak both IPv4 and IPv6 through an approach called 'dual stack,'" he says. "By opening up that avenue to communicate both ways, you can selectively deploy new applications that use sensor networks without rewriting all of your existing systems."

That doesn’t mean the IPv6 upgrades can be put off forever, and some industry experts worry that state and local governments are ignoring the issue. John Curran, president and CEO of the American Registry for Internet Numbers, one of the groups that distribute IP addresses, warned state technology directors at a 2010 conference that states aren’t taking the IP conversion seriously, which could backfire when citizens can’t access government websites.

It may take several years to reach that point, but state and local leaders need to confront the issue now. Luckily investments in IPv6 won’t just make you compliant with the new standard, they’ll open some interesting new options for conducting the business of government.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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