When IPv4 addresses were created in 1981, there wasn’t even a thought that we would run out of IPs. As technology started to scale at an unprecedented rate, it became clear that there wouldn’t be enough IP resources for the entire world.
IPv6 was created to supersede the previous protocol, but that’s an entirely different topic, which I’ll cover later in this article. Starting from the 2000’s, it has been a hard-fought battle for companies to acquire enough IPs to sustain and scale businesses. Out of the 4.3 billion IPv4 addresses in total, all are allocated.
The major exhaustion happened in 2011 when all RIRs assigned their remaining address pools. That said, the majority of the Internet still uses IPv4 addresses. This is possible because of the ecosystem that was created as a result of the shortage.
With IPv4 IPs being recycled and reused, a relationship between private companies and RIRs was formed. Nowadays, a large part of IPv4 addresses is held by industry giants. While SMBs are struggling the most, all companies are affected. Having a lot of unused IP resources just waiting to be exploited is not ideal when they could bring extra revenue to the holder and allow SMBs to scale their operations.
There is a solution for the shortage, however, it’s not IPv6 which might seem like an obvious pick. First, let me explain why an updated protocol with a virtually infinite number of IPs will not solve the shortage problem. I’ll go on to cover the ways to actually overcome the shortage, or at the very least, co-exist with it.
A very relevant question often props up when discussing IP addresses: When will IPv6 completely replace IPv4? A likely scenario is that will never truly happen. What we know for a fact is IPv4 will always be on-demand due to the use of hybrid networks. Dual-stack technology allows the use of both types of IPs, as IPv4-only networks cannot communicate with IPv6-only networks and vice-versa.
For the last decade or two, we were trying to make IPv4 more efficient rather than transitioning to IPv6—and it shows. The Network Address Translation (NAT) method of mapping IP addresses was created to mitigate the shortage problem. While commendable, it came with its own shortcomings, notably slowing down network performance and the loss of end-to-end addressing. The mainstream market is working against a transition as the technology to make IPv4 efficient is bottlenecking the transition to IPv6.
In hindsight, the original long-term idea behind IPv6 was to use dual-stack technology until IPv6 completely replaces IPv4. However, the adoption process is not even close to the predicted growth. Early adopters of IPv6 are taking the risks, while the mainstream market is watching from the sidelines. The expansion requires a substantial investment, and it’s unlikely that the mainstream will invest if early adopters will fail. It’s still not certain how everything will turn out in the end but one thing is clear, IPv4 will stay for the foreseeable future.
Nonetheless, active IPv6 implementation is taking place on a massive scale, and it is influenced by the actual market. What we can do is create a more sustainable Internet using existing IP resources—IPv4.
There are a few roadblocks we need to pass, the obvious being the lack of IPs. They are allocated; however, they are not all used. What makes reusing a lot of IP resources a hassle are legacy issues on a RIR level. IP addresses are all the same, yet they are governed by a different set of rules depending on which RIR issues them.