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Two Problems – One Easy, One Hard

October 30, 2009 - 0 Comments

In my never-ending quest to keep up with the latest technology news, I have been reading about the Cisco SmartGrid effort.  SmartGrid is really – well – smart, because it attacks the problem of the world’s rapidly declining supply of fossil fuels from two different directions. It looks not only at the consumption of energy (that’s you and me, folks), but at the efficiencies that can be found in the production and transmission of energy as well.

Now, there is a hidden technical problem in the SmartGrid. Luckily, it is one that is easily solved. Have you spotted it?

It is the competition for another resource that is in rapidly declining supply: IPv4 addresses. There are a lot of factors that play into our overuse of IPv4 addresses, including:

  • Inefficient allocation of addresses: When the Internet first started, there were 4.3 billion addresses to allocate. Who would have imagined that we could run out?
  • Always-on broadband: Undeniably a good thing, but broadband penetration continues to increase – exceeding 50% of all households in some markets.
  • Mobile devices: There will be a projected 5.8 billion mobile subscribers by 2013, with 29% of those using smartphones – requiring an IP address.
  • The rise of India and China as technological societies: One third of the world’s population needing broadband, mobile phones and other devices. The math is staggering.

Estimates vary, but it is usually projected that the entire IPv4 address pool with be exhausted in the next decade, and perhaps as soon as 2011.

Now, let’s add SmartGrid into the mix. The ultimate goal of SmartGrid is to have an IP-enabled smart meter in every home, every school, and every business – in short, everywhere that energy is consumed. Each one of these devices will require an IP address. Will SmartGrid be the technology that provides the tipping-point for wide-scale adoption and migration to IPv6?

IPv6 broadens the internet address space to 128 bits, or 2128 total addresses. That is more than 5 octillion addresses for every person on the planet. Poof – problem solved!

OK, I am being facetious. The migration to IPv6 will be slow and sometimes painful, but absolutely necessary. That brings me back full-circle to our other depleting resource – energy. The same sorts of developments that caused IPv4 address depletion – short-sightedness, population growth, industrial and technological adoption – have also played a role in fossil fuel shortages.

Perhaps we can learn from our experience with IPv4 addresses. It was technology and innovation that caused the problem; perhaps technology and innovation can solve it. In the case of fossil fuels, we can’t just magically invent new sources like we did with IP addresses, though. Nor would we want to.

It will take innovation in conservation and renewable sources of energy to ween us from our dependence on fossil fuels. And – like the migration to IPv6, it will be slow and painful and absolutely necessary.

IP addresses are a renewable resource; fossil fuels aren’t.


For more on the business relevance of IPv6, please check out Kathy Hill’s (Cisco SVP) comments at:



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