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Online universe is about to grow

With Internet Protocol version 6, everything from cars to appliances can be logged in to the Web

By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / February 28, 2011

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Ten years ago, a popular gag went like this: A Web page offered only the message that “You’ve reached the end of the Internet. Go back and start over.’’

It’s not quite so funny anymore: The Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, the international organization that oversees 4.3 billion Internet addresses, said this month that the pool is finally running dry. The agency has allocated all of its addresses to businesses, universities, and governments around the world. Not all are in use yet, but they’re running out fast.

If nothing is done, the growth of the Internet will slow to a crawl as new online services scrounge for the few remaining patches of online real estate.

“When the Internet was conceived, they certainly didn’t envision that it would grow to the size and the popularity that it is now,’’ said Jason Livingood, executive director of Internet systems engineering at the cable giant Comcast Corp., which provides broadband service to 15 million homes and businesses. Comcast is one of the businesses that, along with governments and other organizations, have worked for years to end the online-address drought.

Thanks to those efforts, the online universe is about to expand.

The Internet Engineering Task Force, a global network of computer engineers and network administrators, is implementing Internet Protocol version 6, a new online addressing scheme so vast that humans will never use it up.

“There are essentially as many IPv6 addresses as there are atoms on the surface of the earth,’’ said Neil Gershenfeld, director of the Center for Bits and Atoms at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

IPv6 sets the stage for a truly connected world. With an unlimited pool of addresses, billions of manmade objects could all be logged into the global Internet — cars, appliances, even the bottles in our medicine cabinets.

An Internet address is similar to a phone number. When you type, say, "boston.com" into a browser, your computer translates those letters into the site’s true Internet address — which, in this case, is 66.151.183.41. Under the current addressing system — Internet Protocol version 4, or IPv4 — there simply aren’t enough of these phone numbers to keep the Internet growing.

There are already more networked devices than Internet addresses — more than 5 billion, according to the British technology consulting firm IMS Research. The Internet keeps growing, though, thanks to “network address translation,’’ or NAT, a gimmick that lets one address serve multiple devices. Your home broadband router has a true Internet address. It then uses NAT to assign local addresses to your laptop, your game console, and your smartphone, and then serves as their bridge to the Internet, passing data back and forth.

NAT works well on a small scale, but becomes clumsy and inefficient when applied to vast numbers of devices. “When you pass through multiple NATs, there are some applications that degrade, or don’t work as well, or break,’’ Livingood said.

One other trick is to reclaim IPv4 addresses that have been allocated but aren’t being used. For instance, because MIT played a major role in developing the Internet, it received 16.7 million IPv4 addresses.

Michail Bletsas, director of computing at the MIT Media Lab, estimates that the school uses only about 10 percent of them. “If it comes down to a point that the Internet stops working,’’ said Bletsas with a laugh, “we should give back those addresses.’’

But the real solution is IPv6, which features more than enough addresses for every device man can make. However, IPv6 is incompatible with today’s Internet addressing system. Google Inc., for example, already has an IPv6 version of its popular Internet search site. You can look for it at ipv6.google.com, but you’ll probably get a “site not found’’ message, because so many networks don’t yet recognize IPv6 addresses.

Some Internet providers, corporations, and government agencies have spent years upgrading their networks for IPv6. Others have held off, not wanting to invest the time or money.

“Only in the last couple of years have people started to take it pretty seriously,’’ said Andy Champagne, vice president of engineering at the Internet infrastructure company Akamai Technologies Inc. in Cambridge, which handles up to 30 percent of all data transmitted online.

Akamai has reconfigured its worldwide network of more than 80,000 servers to recognize both IPv4 and IPv6 and is working closely with its customers to help them make the transition. Comcast and other Internet companies are doing the same. They are all gearing up for World IPv6 Day on June 8, when major Web destinations such as Google, Yahoo, and Facebook will activate IPv6 versions of their sites. The test should enable Internet companies to make sure their networks are IPv6-ready. Most newer computers, routers, and modems are already compatible, so consumers should barely notice the shift from IPv4 to IPv6.

The nearly boundless supply of new addresses will help engineers like MIT’s Gershenfeld, who hope to build network connections into nearly every manmade object, creating an “Internet of things,’’ all interconnected. “A lot of the killer applications will be invisible,’’ he said.

As an example, Gershenfeld foresees homes and office buildings where every light switch, thermostat, and electrical outlet has a unique IPv6 address and a link to the Internet. Building heating and cooling systems consume three-quarters of the energy used in America, he said, and a third of that power is wasted. With connected power devices, building owners or utility companies could save money by optimizing a building’s energy consumption.

“To do that, IPv6 is essential,’’ Gershenfeld said, “because otherwise we don’t have the address space.’’

The same embedded network technology could lead to cars that silently track each other to avoid collisions, or medicine bottles that e-mail their owners to remind them to take their pills. It will be years before such gadgets become commonplace, but thanks to IPv6, the Internet will finally have enough room.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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