Supersize me: Coca-Cola's network binge

Coca-Cola's 16 million MAC addresses raise interesting possibilities, along with questions about the conservation of network addresses

I have to admit: I was comically perplexed when I read about Coca-Cola's recent assignment of 16 million MAC addresses. As I looked further into it, I saw all kinds of speculation that the company would build out a huge network of Internet-connected vending machines or go after an Internet-of-things play. All that might be true, but none of it requires Coca-Cola to be assigned its own MAC addresses.

Briefly, if you don't already know, MAC addresses are unique identifiers assigned to every network card or networked device that will connect via Ethernet. Wired, wireless, physical, virtual, router, switch, laptop, or phone, all connected devices need a unique MAC address.

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However, MAC addresses are generally useless to anyone aside from network device manufacturers. Thus, a company producing its own networking hardware for sale would need a large number of MAC addresses, but a company building a PC with commodity parts would not. Instead, the company will use a network card built by another manufacturer, and the MAC assigned to that card will be pulled from the card manufacturer's cache. This is how it is and how it always has been.

Unless Coca-Cola has its sights set on manufacturing and selling its own network hardware, this is a very perplexing turn of events. The company could build and distribute any kind of networked machine it likes without needing its own MAC range. It could place wireless devices in random cases of soda for some sort of contest without needing its own MAC range. It could Wi-Fi-enable every vending machine out there without needing its own MAC assignment -- yet the IEEE has assigned the company the smallest block available, 16 million addresses.

Perhaps this is a prophylactic move made to ensure that in the event the world suddenly runs out of MAC addresses, Coca-Cola will have some socked away, like a stockpile of aspartame or polar bears.

(Warning: Pure speculation ahead.) But what if Coca-Cola in fact is getting into the networking business? What if it has decided to produce Coca-Cola-brand coolers with integrated network connectivity that will tell you when you're low on cola? Or a refrigerator monitor for the same? Free Wi-Fi from a vending machine for 10 minutes with a purchase of a can of soda? Or maybe the concept of a contest isn't so far-fetched and there will suddenly be network-connected cases of Coke floating around the United States? Essentially, that would mean those 16 million addresses will be taken up quickly, forever unusable after the promotion.

Considering MAC addresses are 48 bits, this means we have roughly 281.5 trillion MAC addresses available. We're nowhere close to that number right now, but if the proliferation of MAC address assignments continues, and we go from assigning MAC addresses to phones, laptops, and Bluetooth devices to assigning them to individual cans of soda ... well, 281.5 trillion looks a lot smaller all of a sudden.

If we're moving to a place where MAC assignments to individual cans of soda is actually possible, we may need to start rethinking networking in general. Sadly, we haven't been all that successful in conserving finite resources over the years. The IPv4 address assignments made back in the day look pretty ridiculous now, with organizations like the U.K. Work and Pension Department receiving its own Class A (that's another 16,777,216 public IP addresses for those playing at home). Heck, even Halliburton and Prudential Insurance have their own Class A. I just hope that we're being a little more conservative with finite network resources based on prior experience.

Whatever the outcome, the IEEE has granted Coca-Cola's request, and at some point in the future we may see the multinational sugar-water behemoth producing its own network gear. Hey, stranger things have happened.

So keep on the lookout for MAC addresses with a FC:D4:F2 prefix. If one of those shows up in your ARP table, you just might be looking at a connected can of Coke III.

This story, "Supersize me: Coca-Cola's network binge," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Paul Venezia's The Deep End blog at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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