Are we running out of web addresses?

Every computer connected to the internet, from your phone to the Google servers, has an IP address, the numerical identifier that lies behind the URL we type in. Think of IP as the street address, and URL as the easier-to-remember PO Box. In a bit of a Y2K reload, the current IP system was designed with about 4.3 billion available addresses. Which is surely more than we would ever need, unless people suddenly start owning multiple web-enabled devices at the same time internet use starts expanding in developing countries.

The Wall Street Journal reports that, in a complete surprise to everyone, we are now running out of IP addresses. As of December, there were only 117 million left. For comparison, about 248 million new users joined Facebook in 2010. Assuming only half of new Facebook users are connecting on new devices, we should easily burn through the available addresses sometime this year.

As with Y2K, the solution (IPv6) is fairly simple and has been around for a while, but people have been reluctant to spend money on something that was not yet a problem. Expect to see IPv6 compatible devices and programs start rolling out with speed this year. However, this also means people on older systems may have comparability problems. Here are a couple tips to keep in mind to see your company through the transition:
1. Be sure any new hardware or software you get is IPv6 compatible. Anything that touches the internet will need to be checked. Some of your existing set-up may be upgradeable via patches and new drivers, so if you start having problems later this year check for updates.

2. This does not effect the supply of available domain names. URLs are limited almost exclusively by imagination, and worst case scenario, a new domain can always forward traffic to your existing website. Still, if you were planning on setting up a new domain in the near future, I would recommend doing so sooner rather than later.

3. Your clients may not have compatible systems. No word yet on how or when the change-over will start, but expect that clients with computers more than a few years old may not be able to access IPv6 websites. When your company makes the change, talk to your web host about keeping the old version available. I will keep an eye out for news on this subject, and post updates as they become available. For now, though, just plan on having the conversation.

More than anything, this is another reminder to maintain a high degree of flexibility in your online presence. It has become a virtual constant that every few years there will be some major shake-up that will require a fundamental reworking of how we put information online. Sometimes, as in this case, the change is technological, and once we get past the transition point there should be no interruptions in communications with your clients. Sometimes the change is in how and where people access information, and we must change format and delivery method to fit. In either case, flexibility and adaptability are key.

I am especially amused to see the WSJ describes IPv6 as allowing "for a near-infinite number of websites and devices." We've had such a good track record at predicting these things in the past that I'm sure it won't become a problem in the future. Not this time; not again.