Where the current protocol IPv4 has less than 231.5 million addresses left, the new IPv6 protocol would open up a virtually unlimited number of the unique identifiers for computers, mobile phones and other web-connected devices. Unlike domain names typed in a browser, an IP address is a sequence of numbers assigned to each device for the machine-to-machine communication necessary to operate on the Internet.
IPv6 has been around for several years, but the industry as a whole has been slow in moving to the new protocol, partly because it will require that web-connected devices be reconfigured or upgraded. In addition, Internet service providers and websites would also have to make changes.
Given the expense, it is understandable many organizations are reluctant to make the move. However, pressure is mounting that governments and business move faster in making the transition. For example, an IPv4 Exhaustion Counter on the IPv6 Forum website estimates that IPv4 addresses will run out in about 341 days on July 2, 2011.
Vint Cerf, often called the "father of the Internet" for his contributions to Internet technology, is one expert who believes the industry is moving too slowly to IPv6.
"Plainly, we are at a cusp I think in the IP address space of the Internet," Cerf said this month in the opening of Google's IPv6 Implementers' Conference. Cerf holds the title of chief Internet evangelist at Google.
Cerf and other experts believe the transition to IPv6 can be evolutionary, in that the new protocol can coexist with IPv4 for many years through the use of available commercial routing systems. However, manufacturers will have to start offering devices that support both protocols, and people will have to be willing to eventually replace their IPv4-only home routers and other devices.
Lawrence Orans, analyst for Gartner, said running out of IPv4 addresses is a "very real issue," but believes the Internet will continue operating with IPv4 and IPv6 traffic running simultaneously for the next 10 to 15 years.
"It's not as if the world is going to end and the Internet is going to break down," Orans told InformationWeek Monday.
However, the faster the industry moves, the smoother the transition, experts say.