The sublime and the enormous

When you connect to an internet site, many things happen. First, your request is sent to a domain name system service, which translate the friendly-looking http://www.sex.com into the much more computer-friendly, which is the address of the server you’re looking for. The server gets your request and sends a bunch of information back. All of this data is broken up into tiny packets which all take different routes through the mystical tubes, and are reassembled at the other end–your end. And, after just a couple of seconds of waiting, you’re looking at porn. Magic, huh? The thing is, though, we are running out of addresses. We can get about four billion addresses out of the current system, known as IPv4. The system intended to replace it, known as IPv6, however, puts paid to all that. It has, give or take, 340,282,366,920,938,463,463,374,607,431,768,211,456 possible addresses. How to visualise a number that large? Well, I gave it a go, using a trick first used in John Gribbin’s In Search Of Schrödinger’s Cat.

Conservative estimates consider the universe to be 13.5 billion years old. Since we know that there are sixty seconds in a minute, sixty minutes in an hour, twenty-four hours in a day and 365.2545 days in a year, then we know that 426,032,848,800,000,000 seconds must have passed since the universe began. Well, that number isn’t big enough. So let’s think bigger. There are about 6.5 billion people alive today. For argument’s sake, let’s say the internet has 120 million sites on it to boot. Well, that’s a whole load of numbers.

Well then, let’s imagine that everyone in the world alive today has been registering an entire internet at a rate of one internet a second since the beginning of time. How much of the address space have we used up? Can you guess? A thousandth. A measly thousandth of the available space has been taken. A god-damned THOUSANDTH. Sometimes, things just boggle my mind. I hope you appreciate how big some numbers can be.

Oh, and here’s the raw data, for those who are interested:

Seconds in a minute: 60
Seconds in an hour: 3600
Seconds in a day: 86400
Seconds in a year: 31557988
Seconds in 13.5 billion years: 426032848800000000
Seconds for 6.5 billion people: 2769213517199999800482725888
An internet for everybody: 332305622063999985274262268997009408
Address spaces for IPv6: 340282366920938463463374607431768211456
Fraction of space used: 1/1024.004243

So it isn’t a thousandth, it’s a thousand and twenty-four…th. Doh.


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July 2009
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