2012 is poised to go down in Internet history as one of the most significant 12-month periods from both a technical and policy perspective since the late 1990s, when this network-of-networks stopped being a research project and became an engine of economic growth.
This year the Internet will face several milestones as it undergoes its biggest-ever technical upgrade, from Internet Protocol version 4 to version 6. In addition, key contracts that the U.S. federal government controls for Internet infrastructure and operations are being re-bid. Taken together, these events could result in monumental changes in both who operates the Internet infrastructure as well as how these operations are handled:
1. The root servers may have a new operator.
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has overseen the operation of the Internet root servers since the non-profit was founded in 1998. However, ICANN's contract is due to expire in March, and a new U.S.-based organization could end up in charge of this critical technical function.
The Internet's 13 root server farms are at the top of the DNS hierarchy, which matches domain names with their corresponding IP addresses for looking up Web sites. The operation of the root server farms is overseen by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), which reports to ICANN.
Instead of renewing ICANN's contract for the IANA function, the U.S. government has opened up the bid to other U.S.-based organizations. On Nov. 10, 2011, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) issued an open bid for the IANA function. Bids were due Dec. 12 and a contract is expected to be awarded in the first quarter of this year. The new contract for the IANA function will last from April 1, 2012 until March 31, 2015.
2. A new company could operate the .com registry.
Verisign has operated the .com domain since 1999. The .com domain is the Internet's most popular top-level domain, with about 100 million .com names registered as of last month. To put this figure in perspective, the Internet has a total of 220 million domain names registered in 280 top-level domains. The number of .com names dwarfs every other domain: It's more than five times greater than those registered in the second most popular extension, which is Germany's .de.
Verisign signed an agreement with ICANN on March 1, 2006 to operate .com, and that contract expires on Nov. 30, 2012.
One positive indicator for Verisign: Last June, ICANN renewed the company's contract to operate the .net registry, which has about 12 million registered names. Verisign will run the .net registry until 2017.
3. Up to 1,000 new top-level domains will start being introduced.
ICANN plans to launch a new program Jan. 12 to add hundreds of generic top-level domains (gTLDs) such as .hotel and .paris to the Internet. This controversial plan has been under discussion for six years, and it is finally scheduled to begin. ICANN's new gTLD program represents the biggest change to the Internet's naming system since 1998, when ICANN was formed.
ICANN has run two previous efforts to expand the Internet domain name space: once in 2000, when it added seven extensions including .biz and .info; and again in 2004, when it added eight more extensions such as .asia and .jobs. None of these new domain name extensions has been particularly successful.
However, if ICANN's latest attempt to expand the domain name space succeeds, it could fundamentally change the way domain names are used. Among the new categories of names that are expected to be approved include: internationalized domain names in non-English language scripts; geographically oriented domains for cities and regions; domain names tied to specific interests as well as domain names tied to individual companies and brands.
4. An additional 10,000 Web sites will support IPv6.
Sept. 30, 2012 is the deadline for all U.S. federal government agencies to support IPv6 on their public-facing Web sites and Web services. An estimated 10,000 Web sites fall under this mandate, which could help drive IPv6 deployment in the United States during the next 12 months.
Established by the Obama Administration two years ago, the federal IPv6 mandate also requires agencies to upgrade internal client applications that communicate with public Internet servers to use native IPv6. But agencies have another two years - until September 2014 - to meet this second deadline. Federal agencies are required to designate an IPv6 transition manager and to purchase network hardware and software that complies with the federal government's IPv6 testing process.
IPv6 features an expanded addressing scheme that can support billions of devices connected directly to the Internet. But IPv6 is not backwards compatible with IPv4, which is running out of addresses. Network operators can either support both protocols in what's called dual-stack mode or translate between IPv4 and IPv6, which could add latency and overhead cost.
5. Europe will run out of IPv4 addresses.
The European regional Internet registry - RIPE - is expected to run out of IPv4 addresses in 2012. Geoff Huston, adjunct research fellow at the Centre for Advanced Internet Architectures at Swinburne University of Technology, estimates that RIPE will run out of its remaining IPv4 address space on July 22, 2012.
In April 2011, Asia depleted all of its IPv4 address space except a small fraction held in reserve for start-up network operators. The North American registry is expected to deplete its IPv4 address space in 2013.
The depletion of IPv4 addresses in various regions of the world will put more pressure on U.S. carriers and enterprises to begin transitioning their networks to IPv6. For example, Comcast has said it will offer production-quality IPv6 services across its nationwide network in 2012.