OECD Calls for Action on IP Address Depletion

Opinion: Calls for government and industry leadership to avert the coming crisis leave me unimpressed.

We first started hearing about the coming depletion of IPv4 addresses back in the '90s, and many scoffed at the notion. Sure enough, the adoption of NAT ended the crisis, at least for the short term back then. But here we are in the late '00s and we're back in crisis. Current research indicates that the last block of available IPv4 addresses in the pool will be allocated sometime in 2011.

It's not a pretty picture. Now a long and drawn-out study on the subject from the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) asks many of the same questions and makes a predictable selection of suggestions, none of which will change the basic facts.

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The report seems optimistic, as I once was, about the potential for re-allocating existing, but under-utilized address space. How much there really is may be debatable, but the real problem with the scheme is that recovering meaningful amounts of the space is politically inconceivable, It would require confiscating the space from its current owners and forcing them to reorganize their networks. Ain't going to happen.

And this is the irony of the proposal: It assumes a burden on the Internet community not too much greater than that for adopting IPv6, which makes the transfer moot anyway.

My last look at this problem left me pessimistic that much could be done until people were forced into doing it because of simple economic imperative. One day IPv4 addresses will be scarce enough that a market in them will have to develop, and a market will be the only efficient way to allocate them. If they get expensive enough, that will provide the impetus to adopt IPv6.

But until IPv6 is truly standard and the normal way people connect to other Internet destinations, things will get worse. The new layers of NAT-ing that will be necessary in order for IPv4 systems to communicate with IPv6 systems will break facilities that we take for granted now. Peer-to-peer operations, as a general matter, will not work under such circumstances. P2P networks will have to develop segregated between v4 and v6 versions. Which will people choose?

The OECD report recommends that governments blaze the trail by migrating to IPv6 in order to set an example and establish experience, but this would have the perverse effect of lowering the quality of service for many to access those government services. Guess which option politicians will choose when given the choice between sacrificing for the long-term good and providing services in the here and now?

IPv6 will happen, but it won't be from governments leading the way. Very little in the advance of practical technology happens that way. IPv6 will come for real when people have no choice but to adopt it.

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983.

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