Skip to main content

The Great Internet Population Boom: Looking for the next trillion connections

It is really fascinating to follow the evolution of the Internet. At the same time as it is growing in reach, the devices we use to go online are shrinking.

While it used to be that an Internet-enabled device was a desktop-based terminal, we’re seeing an explosion in everything from smartphones and tablets, to watches, TVs and even fridges. This steady march of progress and innovation means an ever-increasing number of technologies are becoming Internet enabled.

But this sudden and remarkable proliferation of devices is not without its problems. Each Internet-connected device requires its own unique IP address that enables it to exchange information with other devices online. Currently most of the web is running on IPv4, which allows for around 4 billion addresses – and it’s quickly running out. There are methods of ‘making do with less’, such as ISPs using one public IP address for a number of users – but these stop-gap measures are problematic for a number of reasons and affect the stability of the Internet.

Luckily, we have IPv6, the successor to IPv4, which has some 340 trillion, trillion, trillion addresses – which should last us for some time yet! The only issue is that it’s not backwards-compatible with IPv4 – so people need to ‘dual-stack’ IPv4 and IPv6 until enough of the Internet is IPv6 enabled and they can make the switch to running on IPv6 alone.

The fact that Google only recently announced that the number of users accessing its site using IPv6 has passed the one percent milestone should indicate that we still have some way to go.

This Christmas the population of the Internet will continue to rise, as Internet-connected devices are becoming increasingly popular gifts. In 2008, the number of devices exceeded the number of people on Earth. By 2020 experts predict this number will increase to a colossal 50 billion devices worldwide.

There’s no denying that 2012 has been a big year in the UK and worldwide. But aside from sport and royalty, it’s been a milestone for the Internet too. According to a report from the International Data Corporation (IDC), the number of Internet-connected devices in 2012 grew by 27.1 percent in the third quarter of the year, and IDC expects that number to rise to an additional 19.2 percent in the final quarter of this year.

This growth has been an underlying trend of the last few years, and has contributed to the landmark Internet moment we reached in the RIPE NCC service region this year. September 2012 saw the RIPE NCC begin to allocate IPv4 addresses from the last /8 (opens in new tab) – in turn, this means that the deployment of IPv6 enabled devices will be very important for the continued growth of the Internet. 2013 will see the Internet continue to bound forward, but these big leaps may well come from the tiniest of devices.

Axel Pawlik is the Managing Director of the RIPE Network Coordination Centre (RIPE NCC). Axel graduated from the University of Dortmund, Germany, with a Masters Degree in Computer Science. He was later employed at the University of Dortmund from 1985 to 1992, where he contributed to the establishment of UNIX networking as a publicly available service in Germany.