Will the internet ever run out of space?
When you access a webpage on your browser, it seems to just materialise out of nowhere. But there’s no magic at work – all websites are stored on server computers somewhere in the world.
The only constraint on the size of the internet is the number and capacity of the billions of servers supporting it – this number is constantly growing and so there is no real limit on the size of the internet.
The web has however outgrown some of its baby clothes.
World Wide Address book
Behind every web address lurks an IP (Internet Protocol) address. A bit like a phone number, an IP address allows your computer to contact the server hosting a particular site.
If for example you want to visit Google, you type www.google.co.uk into your browser. Your computer then contacts a Domain Name Server (DNS), which looks up the corresponding IP address, a bit like a telephone enquiries service. In this case the IP address is 126.96.36.199. Your computer uses this to send a request to the Google server, request the page and display it on your screen.
IP addresses currently (as of 2011) follow a system called IPv4, which dates back to the internet’s infancy. The problem? It only allows for 4.3 billion web addresses. This may have seemed like a lot back when IPv4 was invented 1977, but the web’s address book is now bursting at the seams.
The solution is a new system called IPv6, which by using a more complex series of digits and numbers allows for 300 billion billion billion billion addresses (3 x 10^38) - hopefully enough to last us a while.
Head in the clouds
The web is currently undergoing another revolution: cloud computing.
At the moment, most big organisations with a presence on the web have rooms full of server computers whirring away 24/7 to deal with incoming requests. Wikipedia for example has over 400 servers devoted to granting you access to the facts you need to settle that pub argument.
With cloud computing, server space is provided by an external agency, a bit like a gas or water supplier. Cloud computing providers will look after thousands of servers, and will rent out server space to organisations and individuals, making the whole process much more efficient.
As a result, organisations will be able to outsource their web storage, cutting the associated costs like IT maintenance staff or electricity bills and paying for just the amount of space they need.
For individuals, this will mean you can save your files on ‘the cloud’ and access them from anywhere with an internet connection. So you could listen to your own music at home, work or on your phone, or back up your data online instead of relying on an external hard drive.
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