Text size:

  • Small
  • Normal
  • Large
The system that makes high speed fiber optic internet service possible throughout the UAE in the basement at Etisalat headquarters.
Andrew Henderson Staff Photographer
The system that makes high speed fiber optic internet service possible throughout the UAE in the basement at Etisalat headquarters.

Peril of addressing a hole in the net could prompt 'Y2K fallout' today

Expert says 'digital anarchy' could occur when telecommunications regulators, companies and governments around the world test-run an expansion in internet protocol numbers.

DUBAI // Aircraft were going to fall from the sky, prison doors were going to open and Russian nuclear weapons were going to launch or so they said.

But as the clocks struck midnight on January 1 2000, the predicted global cataclysm from the Millennium Bug resolutely failed to happen.

But more than a decade later, many experts believe there are still reasons to be concerned for the fate of the world's IT infrastructure.

Deep in the inner workings of the internet, a fundamental change is afoot that could disrupt the whole network, affecting users, businesses and technicians alike.

And today is crunch day, when the guardians of the internet will find out whether their solution is ready for prime time.

If not, billions of computer users around the globe could find themselves temporarily starved of information.

"Potentially, it could be like the Y2K bug," said Steven Winstanley, the chief operating officer of Ankabut, a networking organisation set up by Khalifa University.

"It's something which is going to affect everyone who connects to the internet via a computer or phone. We are looking into the abyss right now and in terms of the future of networking, it's very scary.

"But if there's a lot of people who understand what's going on, maybe people will do the background work and sort the systems out."

The problem lies with Internet Protocol (IP) addresses - the unique numerical labels given to devices when they connect to a network.

The current system allows for about 4.3 billion possible address combinations that are assigned by a central authority to regional authorities, and from there to individual internet service providers - companies such as Etisalat and du.

The first murmuring of trouble began decades ago, as experts began to realise the pool of unallocated IP addresses was rapidly dwindling, and those 4.3 billion addresses would soon be nowhere near enough.

In January this year, the central authority - the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority - distributed its last batch of addresses.

They are still being assigned by local authorities to users and companies, but when they are gone, that will be it. If you want to hook a new computer to the net, tough. If you want to start a new business or drag your village into the 21st century, too bad.

The answer, fortunately, is already in place. The problem is that hardly anyone uses it.

In a bid to fend off disruption, governments and organisations around the world are hoping to introduce a new type of IP address.

Mr Winstanley compares it with London in the 1990s, when a growing population meant the 01 phone prefix for the city had to be split and expanded not just once, but twice.

The plan is that the new system, IP version 6 (IPv6), will work alongside the current system, IPv4.

But less than 1 per cent of websites are now IPv6 compatible. Anyone trying to use IPv6 for most of the internet will see only an error page.

Today, leading companies such as Google, Facebook and Yahoo will join with governments in a "stress test" of the new system, known as World IPv6 Day and organised by the Internet Society in Virginia.

They will enable IPv6 on their websites, allowing users of the new IP template to connect to their pages. In the UAE, the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (TRA) is taking part. "The TRA is proud to take part in leading such an initiative and to be the first production website hosted in the UAE which is accessible globally via IPv6 address scheme," said Mohamed Nasser al Ghanim, the director general of the TRA.

"With the recent exhaustion of IPv4 address allocations, we are confident that the IPv6 will open a new chapter in the field of communications, which will allow a large amount of people and devices to be connected to the internet."

The US government plans to make all of its official websites accessible to IPv6 by next year.

"There's still a lack of awareness, but we're embracing it and trying to make it happen," said Peter Tseronis, the chairman of the US Chief Information Officers Council's IPv6 task force. "That's the plan under the current administration of the White House.

"It's a heavily involved re-networking of our infrastructure that has never had to undergo anything like that before. Some people wonder how they can even begin architecting something like that."

But Mr Winstanley believes it will be at least three to five years before IPv6 is widely adopted. Until then, he predicts chaos.

"This slow migration has to begin," he said. "But because of the momentum and adoption of IPv4, it's going to take a long time to switch over to IPv6.

"The trouble is, IPv4 will stop a lot shorter than the IPv6 will start. In the time before that happens, it's going to be digital anarchy."

As for today, despite uncertainty about the consequences of suddenly accepting traffic from a whole new system of addresses, Mr Winstanley is optimistic.

"What does it mean to the average user?" he asks. "Probably not a hill of beans, to be honest."

mcroucher@thenational.ae

Back to the top

More articles


Editor's Picks

On our sixth birthday, today’s news told visually

Today in print, we are doing something different: we use only photos, graphics, illustrations and headlines to capture the news in a one-off collector’s edition.

 Rolling out the structure for the set. Mona Al Marzooqi / The National

Star Wars: Episode VII evidence in Abu Dhabi desert

After more than a week of speculation, The National has what are believed to be the first photos of a Star Wars shoot in the Abu Dhabi desert.

 INVERNESS, SCOTLAND - APRIL 16:  A general view of Urquhart Castle, Drumnadrochit on April 16, 2014 in Scotland. A referendum on whether Scotland should be an independent country will take place on September 18, 2014.  (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Map of seperatist movements around the world

The conflict in Ukraine is a classic example of competing aspirations and identities – here’s a look at seperatist movements around the world.

 Hassan Abdullah, who goes by the name Abu Mahmoud, an Emirati fisherman, poses for a portrait at the Al Rughayalat Port. Abu Mahmoud was born and raised in Fujairah city and has been working as a fisherman since 1968. “I’m a shark man”, he says, “I was born in the sea.” Silvia Razgova / The National

In pictures: Fishing communities in the Northern Emirates

Fishermen in Fujairah and Umm Al Qaiwain worry that new regulations to protect fish stocks are harming their trade. We look at both communities through the lens of our photographers.

 The cast of Fast & Furious 7, including Michelle Rodriguez and Vin Diesel, centre, on set at Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

Fast & Furious 7 filming in full swing at Emirates Palace

Filming for Fast & Furious 7 has started and we have the first photos of the cast and crew on set at Emirates Palace hotel this morning. Visitors staying at Emirates Palace say they have been kept away from certain areas in the grounds.

 Omar Al Miskini was honoured as Outstanding Male Driver with Special Needs at last month’s Gulf Traffic Week.

In pictures: Special needs driver an exemplary example in the UAE

Photos of Omar Al Miskini, 40, who was named exemplary male driver with special needs by Abu Dhabi Police during the Gulf Traffic Week

Events

To add your event to The National listings, click here

Get the most from The National