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America's supply of IP addresses is about to run out

Back in 1981, when volunteer engineers designed the internet, they created 4.3 billion Internet Protocol (IP) addresses, assuming the gigantic number would more than suffice. About 20 years later, Europe and Asia exhausted their supply, and America's remaining allotment — about 3.4 million — will likely dry up this summer.

An IP address is like a telephone number for the internet, The Wall Street Journal explains. "They are used behind the scenes anytime data moves over the net — when a laptop requests a web page [or] a smartphone posts an Instagram photo."

The shortage means businesses looking to expand their virtual property will face headaches, high costs, and a potential inability to serve new customers.

Some companies, like Salesforce.com and Microsoft, have poured millions into acquiring more addresses. Facebook, however, took a different route by moving most of its network from the old IPv4 system to the new IPv6 system, which offers 340 undecillion addresses. That's 340 followed by 36 zeroes, "enough to assign an IP address to every atom on Earth," WSJ says.

While everyone on the internet will have to make the move to IPv6 eventually, for now, that doesn't come cheap — one research firm estimates the migration costs seven percent of a company's annual IT budget.