The Internet is about to run out of IPv4 addresses, and some say once supplies run out, websites could start to "go dark". Experts, however, say that with preparation, there is no real cause for alarm.
Small businesses worry as Web neighbourhood shrinks
The internet as we know it is almost at full capacity, with growing concerns that soon there will simply not be enough Web addresses to go around.
Small businesses around the world, including in the UAE, are becoming increasingly worried that their corporate websites could be rendered inaccessible to customers while the internet switches over to a new software protocol.
Wael K Saab, the chief executive of Maz Media, the Abu Dhabi-based publicity and advertising firm, is just one businessman in the Emirates who is anxious that his company makes the switch in time to avoid unduly restricting its online reach.
"The demand for new websites and, therefore, Web servers, is growing tremendously in the region," Mr Saab says.
"Many of our customers want dedicated servers to host their websites. Each of these servers may have multiple websites and many customers want a dedicated IP address, so running out of IP addresses is a concern to us."
The IT industry is warning businesses that the current Internet Protocol Version 4 (IPv4) is reaching full capacity. IPv4, the platform on which most of the internet now runs, is capable of providing 4.4 billion addresses. But even this huge capacity is no longer sufficient.
The internet has grown far faster over the past 20 years than anyone could have predicted when the original protocols were developed. A network that seemed to offer an almost infinite capacity for old-style mainframe computers is now having to serve a world where teenagers' mobile phones often house more powerful computers than the supercomputers of the 1970s. By contrast, the new IPv6 protocol offers space for trillions of new Web addresses.
The final tranche of 300 million Web addresses was allocated by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) to the Regional Internet Registries (RIRs) at the start of this year. According to Scientific American magazine, it will take about three years for the world's RIRs to distribute the last batch of new addresses to the Middle East and other regions.
But there are rapidly growing concerns that, during the switch over to IPv6, some companies' addresses may "go dark", rendering them invisible to many customers. This could have potentially disastrous consequences for small- to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) - the backbone of the UAE - that are only just emerging from the global financial crisis, with many seeing the internet as an increasingly vital tool to expand their reach.
The search giant Google has been supporting IPv6 on its own computers since 2008. On World IPv6 Day - June 8 - Google is taking what it calls its "next big step". Together with other major Web companies such as Facebook and Yahoo!, the search engine giant plans to enable IPv6 on its main websites for 24 hours.
"This is a crucial phase in the transition, because, while IPv6 is widely deployed in many networks, it's never been used at such a large scale before," says Lorenzo Colliti, a spokesman for Google. "We hope that by working together with a common focus, we can help the industry prepare for the new protocol, find and resolve any unexpected issues and pave the way for global deployment.
"Changing the language spoken by every device on the internet is a large task, but it's essential to ensure the future of an open and robust internet for decades to come."
The publicity surrounding the build-up to World IPv6 Day will further fuel concerns that companies that find themselves unprepared for the switch could face ruin and disaster.
But this would not be the first time the industry has cried wolf over a supposed IT threat.
At the end of the 20th century, various IT industry experts warned the world that, unless companies spent billions of dollars on rewriting their software, planes would literally start falling from the sky.
Businesses across the globe were convinced that the software upon which their systems were founded would crash because it was not programmed to take account of the year change in 2000.
Many IT companies still insist that the reason that mission-critical IT systems did not all start crashing after midnight on December 31, 2009, was because enough companies heeded the warnings and updated their software.
However, others say that by overplaying the risk, the IT industry was able to generate billions of dollars of additional revenue from rewriting companies' software to take account of the "Y2K" problem.
There is now a growing industry suspicion that the IPv4 issue will once again scare businesses into throwing resources at a problem that may not be as urgent as recent reports suggest.
According to Roy Illsley, an analyst at the research company Ovum, the process of switching the internet over to IPv6 from IPv4 will take about 10 years and will be gradual rather than dramatic.
"People are slowly moving towards IPv6. But small businesses should not be overly anxious about a move to IPv6," Mr Illsley says.
Companies will be guided by service providers such as telecoms operators as to when and how they will need to implement any necessary changes.
"If small companies cannot install the new protocol in time, they could face the possibility that some company websites could go dark," Mr Illsley says.
"However, this prospect is many years in the future, as many different techniques have been developed to enable IPv6 and IPv4 to co-exist."
Even Google is forced to confess that, despite much of the adverse publicity surrounding IPv6, the threat to online businesses is relatively small.
"Internet users don't need to do anything special to prepare for World IPv6 Day. Our current measurements suggest that the vast majority [99.95 per cent] of users will be unaffected," says Mr Colliti.
"In rare cases, users may experience connectivity problems, often due to misconfigured or misbehaving home network devices. Over the coming months, we will be working with application developers, operating system vendors and network device manufacturers to further minimise the impact and provide testing tools and advice for users."
But there is nothing new about businesses being forced to upgrade their IT every few years. Any company that neglected to upgrade its software from one decade to the next would always have problems. The IT industry has traditionally liked it that way and encouraged businesses and home users to keep pace with each new change foisted on them by software and hardware developers.
Now companies such as Google are starting to re-educate users to rely more on large-scale suppliers, such as themselves, who offer "cloud" computing as a new way of outsourcing IT. Instead of maintaining increasingly complex systems, companies such as Microsoft and Google want users to connect via the internet to their huge computer banks and buy IT services as easily as if they were any other utility.
However, what the negative reports about IPv6 leave out is the massive opportunities the new IPv6 protocol will hold for SMEs in developing countries.
"One of the really big things IPv6 will enable is the manufacture of monitoring and sensing devices for all kinds of uses," Mr Illsley says. "Domestic products such as the cooker or fridge can all have their own IP addresses, making them simple to control from a remote device such as a smartphone, while also enabling devices to communicate with one another and back to the utility companies."
There is now evidence that companies across the Middle East are already beginning to plan their move to IPv6, not simply to avoid the remote possibility that their website will "go dark", but to close the gap with western companies.
Like many executives of growing organisations in the region, Mr Saab, the chief executive of Maz Media, is planning to use IPv6 to extend his company's online reach.
"As a media company, we are pleased that IPv6 is being implemented now, as it allows a much wider range of IP addresses. Those who will embrace the change will simply have access to an endless supply of internet addresses."
Tan Rasab, the chief executive of Sensehere, a Dubai-based computer chip design firm, is one of a new generation of entrepreneurs who is fully familiar with the business opportunities offered by IPv6. Mr Rasab has built his business around an internet offering an almost infinite capacity for wireless communications between all kinds of devices.
"The internet of things, also known as the internet of objects, is the networked interconnection of everyday objects," Mr Rasab says. "There are about 1.5 billion computers and one billion smartphones connected to the internet. With the internet of things, over 100 billion to one trillion objects will be connected to the internet. This next generation of internet applications will be using IPv6."
Based in Dubai's Silicon Oasis technology park, which hopes to become the Silicon Valley of the Middle East, Sensehere is designing chips for a truly networked world.
"Our business and others have to have IPv6 to survive," Mr Rasab says. "Without IPv6, using device-to-device communications in areas such as health monitoring, atmospheric monitoring, agrarian growth monitoring and domestic smart metres would be impossible. We are building protocols into our chipsets with IPv6 in mind."