London, July 17: To the lay observer it seems like an infinite network of computers, servers and cables stretching around the globe.
But the worldwide web is filling up. So quickly, it turns out, that programmers have had to devise a new one.
Of the Internet addresses available, more than three quarters are already in use, and the rest are expected to be assigned by 2009. So, what will happen as more people in developing countries come online'
The answer is IPv6, a new Internet protocol which has more spaces than the old one: 340,282,366,920,938,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000 spaces.
“Currently there’s four billion addresses available and there are six billion humans on Earth, so there’s obviously an issue there,” said David Kessens, chairman of the IPv6 working group at RIPE, one of five regional Internet registries in charge of rolling it out.
Every device that is connected to the Internet ' websites, computers and mobile phones ' needs an “Internet address” to locate it.
When the Internet was developed in the 1980s, programmers had no idea how big it would become.
They gave each address a “16-bit” number, which meant that the total number of available addresses worked out at about four billion (2 to the power of 32).
But as use grew, it became clear that the old protocol, IPv4, wasn’t big enough, so a new one was written based on “32-bit numbers”.
That increased the number of available addresses to 340 undecillion, 282 decillion, 366 nonillion, 920 octillion, 938 septillion ' enough for the foreseeable future, he said.
IPv6 does not involve any new cables being laid, nor will there be any burden on customers, for whom the change will appear seamless.
It will, however, greatly improve the quality of certain Internet services, in particular phone calls, which are not suited to IPv4.
“The big change is going to be in peer-to-peer services like gaming and file-sharing, which are going to become much easier to use,” Kessens said.
Several service providers, including AOL and Yahoo!, have applied for space on the new network, and IPv6 is in use in some countries that include the Netherlands.
But the big “driver” is likely to be the release next year of the new version of Microsoft Windows, Vista, which is understood to contain some IPv6-only applications.
The American government has told departments to make their systems “IPv6-ready” by 2008.
The US department of trade and industry said it was aware of the changeover, but that it was up to large providers to take the lead when it occurred.
Both protocols can work on the same network and IPv4 will not be decommissioned.