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What’s With the 32-Bit Numbers That the Internet Keeps Defying?

By now you might have read the news “How ‘Gangnam Style’ Broke YouTube?” What happened is that a YouTube video named ‘Gangnam Style’ by a South Korean singer Park Jae-sang, known by his stage name PSY, has been viewed so many times that it broke YouTube’s view counter. YouTube’s view counter is built on a 32-bit integer, which provides a view-tracking capability of nearly 2.15 billion views. But the popular “Gangnam Style” video has exceeded this number. In a Google+ post, YouTube developers commented that:

We never thought a video would be watched in numbers greater than a 32-bit integer (=2,147,483,647 views), but that was before we met PSY.

Now, YouTube has upgraded its view counter to a 64-bit integer with a view-tracking capability of 9,223,372,036,854,775,808.

This is not the first time the Internet has defied a 32-bit number. It was not so long ago since we heard about the depletion of IPv4 address space. For those unfamiliar with the IP address debate, IP addresses are used to identify the origin of a packet of transmitted data, its destination, as well as to locate any intermediate points. Simply put, an IP address is a number that serves as a globally unique identifier of every device connected to the Internet. IPv4 is the Internet Protocol standard that is mainly in use today, which was developed in the 1980s and creates a fixed address field of 32 bits. This number allows the creation of approximately 4.3 billion IP addresses (YouTube’s 32-bit view counter also ranges from -2,147,483,648 to 2,147,483,647, which in total could be 4.3 billion values except that one cannot register a negative view).

During the early days of the Internet, the 4.3 billion IPv4 addresses seemed to be an enormous figure. However, a variety of factors—mainly the initial allocation policies along with the on-going growth of the Internet—accelerated the depletion of IPv4. On February 2011, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) announced the depletion of IPv4 addresses from its central pool followed by similar announcements from Regional Internet Registries (RIRs) such as the Asia Pacific Network Information Centre (APNIC) and the RIPE Network Coordination Centre (RIPE NCC). To remedy this problem, the Internet Community has developed a replacement protocol named IPv6. IPv6, which was developed in the 1990s, uses a 128-bit address and provides approximately 2128 = 3.403 × 1038 (340 undecillion or 1036) unique addresses.

Well, you might say the Internet keeps defying numbers, the Internet Community comes with a larger numbers and as a matter of fact things work. However, this is a half-truth, at best. Although, YouTube does not have to worry for lack of view counter anymore or at least until the near future, we are not yet there in terms of IPv6. Unlike the YouTube’s view counter which became history as of the subsequent code change, there is no quick fix for the IPv4 depletion problem. More than 20 years have passed since IPv6’s development, yet the Internet is far from making the switch to IPv6. The view counter problem might be trivial for YouTube developers, but the transition to IPv6 is a far more complex and long process, which requires significant efforts and investment from governments, businesses and to some extent individual Internet users.

At last, if there is one thing that is certain about the Internet; it is that it keeps defying numbers, or at least the 32-bits. So will it ever defy the 64- and 128-bits? Well, maybe not, or maybe not in the near future, but as they say never say never!

By Samson Yoseph Esayas, Researcher at the Norwegain Research Center for Computers and Law

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