Brought to You by the Number “6”

February 4, 2009

Most of us may not realize, but over a decade ago, the Postal Service determined they are unable to assign addresses for every home and business anymore. You may not have even noticed that they began revoking unique addresses for individual postal customers. They replaced your address with a shared address, one that changes periodically and limits your ability to interact with postal customers all over the world.

Today, unbeknownst to you, when you send a package to your favorite receiver, they no longer receive it at their unique delivery location. It is first sent to a location that is shared by them and dozens (even hundreds) of nearby businesses, where someone reads the recipient’s name and delivers the package to the right location. In fact, because of a similar process in your neighborhood, that shipper couldn’t send you a package until after you sent one to them first. Even though their package has your name on it, the postal service just throws it in the trash because it has no record of you ever sending them something first.

Ok, enough of the fuzzy convoluted metaphor… I’m not talking about the postal service, rather the Internet.

Today there is a high probability that when you request a website from your browser, you are actually sending a request to a shared IP on a server that hosts several websites. The server must then look to see which site your request was for, and behave accordingly. Likewise, on your end of the connection, you are probably using a Network Address Translation (NAT) gateway, which permits you to have multiple computers on your network which all share one IP address on the Internet. This gateway won’t let anyone contact you unless you’ve contacted them first. On top of that, your IP address probably changes every few hours or days, and this makes it difficult to contact your computer remotely, even if you’ve set everything up to accept certain types of unsolicited connections.

Today’s Internet as we know it, has 4,294,967,296 IP addresses. This is called IPv4. This is not enough to populate everyone’s PDA telephone, computers in the home and office, every website and every network device with a unique and unchanging permanent address. Imagine, if you will, that your mobile phone number changed every few hours, and you could not receive a call without making one first.

As early as 1993, the engineers who are responsible for all the “magic arrows” under the hood of the Internet began discussing and constructing a plan to save ourselves from running out of internet addresses. They wanted to get this in place, of course, before we started putting IPs on everything such as our televisions, DVRs, refrigerators, toasters, cars, phones, etc. As of January 21st, SoftLayer made an important announcement. We are now delivering our customers the result over more than a decade of engineering work. Welcome to the “New Internet”, IPv6.

Why is IPv6 so much better? At the risk of sounding like I’m making a gross overstatement, we will never have to worry about IP address space again. Recall I told you that the Internet as we know it today has “only” 4,294,967,296 unique addresses. IPv6 has 340,282,366,920,938,463,463,374,607,431,768,211,456 (2^128) unique addresses. If you want to sound smart and confuse your colleagues, you can tell them that there are more than 340 undecillion IP addresses in IPv6. That’s a just a tiny bit more than 4 billion.

It’s been said there are enough bits in IPv6 that we could assign a unique IP address to every atom covering the surface of the earth, and still have enough left over to address every surface atom of 100+ more earths.

The default IP allocation for IPv6 users is a “/64” subnet. There are 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 IPs in a subnet this size. Yes, it’s a larger number… but it’s more complex than that. That number is equivalent to as many IPv4 networks as there are unique IPs in the IPv4 specification. That’s right. 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 / 4,294,967,296 = 4,294,967,296. Your default allocation is equivalent to 4 billion times the entire IP space of today’s IPv4 Internet.

Some readers may think, “That’s fine, but there have been IPv6 addresses in use for years, what makes SoftLayer’s offering so remarkable?” Well I’m glad you asked. Unlike traditional IPv6 allocations, which tunnel the IPv6 protocol over IPv4 to a location that can actually use IPv6, SoftLayer provides native IPv6 support to the Internet. There is no middle man. Your IPv6 traffic passes to the end user over the same superior network as any IPv4 packet in our datacenters.

Looks like a challenge to me. Who can be first to host 18 quintillion websites on their server?