IPv6 enters into permanent operation today and we’ll finally have all the addresses we need. Unfortunately the old system with its baked in scarcity — operating like a tireless gravitational force — has already had a few decades to deform the architecture of the Internet in important and perhaps irreversible ways.
I got a notice from Apple reminding me that my MobileMe hosting is going away on June 30. I’m lazy when it comes to certain things and at one point or another iWeb and MobileMe seemed like a simple way to get a personal web page out there. I just wanted a bit of publicly searchable state to clarify who I am (as differentiated from that other Jim Stogdill on the web) that wasn’t mediated, moderated, monetized, and walled off by Facebook or some other Austro-Hungarian Central Power of the web. A little place I could call my own.
Really, this is a stupid problem to have. In the last month those pages have had fewer than 100 visits and I could have served them all from a low wattage pluggable computer stashed in a closet without it breaking a sweat. But the Internet doesn’t work that way, or not as easily as it should. And at least one of the reasons is its history of address scarcity.
I attended the “Internet Everywhere” panel at the World Science Festival over the weekend. Maybe the most interesting bit was when Neil Gershenfeld forcefully reminded us that the Internet was never intended to be just a bitnet. He was thanking Vint Cerf for making state-full edges a core design principle of the original web. Distributed state meant that adding nodes also added capability and that ownership and power stayed distributed as the Net grew. Maybe it’s a sign of where we are now that the man he was thanking works for the web’s other Central Power these days.
Unfortunately that chronic shortage of addresses contracted the web, shifting the definition of “edge” from the device you are looking at to the ISP it’s connected to. That redefinition from Internet host to mere remote client means that I have to go through the minor hassle of re-hosting my four little pages of HTML instead of happily forgetting that it’s in my closet.
I’ve long been vexed by the asymmetry inherent in DHCP-enabled second class citizenship and I remember the first time I tried to build a permanently addressable home on the web. It was a bunch of years ago and I had my eye on a used Cobalt Qube on eBay. I figured I’d use it as a web server and blog host etc. But like I said before, sometimes I’m lazy, and a fixed IP address was too expensive and (at least at the time) Dynamic DNS was enough of a hurdle for me to say “to hell with it.”
Any geek will tell you that it can be done, that I’m making a mountain of a mole hill, and it’s not even that hard. “Pay extra for a fixed and registered IP address or use Dynamic DNS.” But IP address scarcity made it just hard and expensive enough to make sure that edge hosting didn’t become the norm. I’m not commenting on whether it’s possible (it is), but whether it’s the low-energy state for the broad population of netizens.
Address scarcity contributes to a strange attractor that deformed the logic of the Internet at scale and helped guarantee the cloud would become the primary architecture. When Vint and his colleagues chose that 32-bit address space they thought they were just making a simple engineering tradeoff based on a seemingly predictable future. But it turns out they were adding a bit of dark matter to our Internet cosmos, perhaps just enough to shift the whole thing from open and expanding to closed and collapsing. Address scarcity added to the gravitational force of centralization and control.
On the other hand, if we had IPv6 from the very beginning maybe a whole lot more of us would be hosting our blogs, photos, videos, and pretty much everything else right there in a DMZ hosted on their home router. In that world services like YouTube might need be no more than curation overlays and CDNs for popular content. Sort of a commercially provided BitTorrent index for the stuff we hosted from our closets.
What else might we have built with such an infrastructure? The cloud gives us a sandbox to build applications in, but it also sandboxes our sense of what is even possible. How many startups don’t start from the unexamined assumption of cloud hosting today? Why HealthVault? Why not a device that I keep in my house that is completely under my control for that kind of personal information? I could even put it in my safe deposit box if I didn’t have any doctor’s appointments.
Maybe security concerns and natural economies of scale would have made centralization and “the cloud” inevitable outcomes without any help from address scarcity. But as our universe continues to collapse into a few very highly capitalized Central Powers I find myself hoping that IPv6 will take away at least some of the gravitational force that is pulling it in on itself.