news / tech talk

IP v6

by Lee LeClair
As seen in Inside Tucson Business

Over the last five years, any work I have done with federal government organizations has been with the specter of IPv6 looming in the background. For the uninitiated, the Internet mostly runs on IPv4 or Internet Protocol version 4 which was developed in the long ago of nascent networking. It uses a 32 bit address space and can accommodate up to 4 billion individual addresses. While that seems like a lot, the proliferation of computers and other networked devices (e.g., DVRs, telephones, set-top boxes, etc.) around the world has been rapidly chewing up those addresses. Stop gaps have included Network Address Translation (NAT) and private IP address spaces (effectively little bubbles of “hidden” networks behind a translating device to the Internet) but even that only slowed the relentless use of IPv4 addresses. Use of IPv4 addresses is at about 85% as of June 2008.

The solution adopted by the Internet standards body, the IETF, was IPv6. It is a revised protocol that supports 128 bit addresses which provide up to three hundred forty undecillion (nearly 4 billion to the 4th power) addresses. It is a fairly substantial re-working of the IP protocol and while it incorporates a lot of great new features that should make networking more efficient and generally “better”, it is not without costs. For it to work, everything needs to support it and of course that will take some time. Almost all newer operating systems (XP, Vista, Mac OS X 10.3, Linux, etc.) came with support built in but there’s a lot of things hanging off the internet and migrating will take a while.

In fact, there has not been any great rush to migrate to IPv6. As I mentioned initially, the federal government had an executive order mandate to migrate to IPv6 by the end of June 2008 but that has slipped since the expense of replacing so much infrastructure and re-working operations is so vast. Instead it is widely expected that the transition to IPv6 will be like the original spread of IPv4, organically done over time. In the meantime, one can operate one type over the other through encapsulation so the transition can occur without too much pain.

The question for business owners would be “why should I change since I can mostly see costs versus benefits to this whole thing and my IPv4 with NAT seems to be doing fine, thank you”. Well, beyond more IP addresses, IPv6 has some nice features like incorporated multicasting, true individual device to device communication, auto-configuration (kind of a mandated DHCP), IPSec security, DNS security, flexible protocol extensions, and a reduced routing table growth for backbone providers.

I would recommend setting aside some time for your network folks to experiment and familiarize with it on a subnet. That way they can build up experience with it and evaluate how it works and you can more judiciously plan on how and when you might want to expand your use of it. Some large providers have already taken the plunge including Comcast which has switched its core network to IPv6. Another source of a push may be low-latency conscious gamers and peer-to-peer file sharers since IPv6 works better for those applications. Get a book and try it out.

Lee Le Clair is the CTO at Ephibian. His Tech Talk column appears the third week of each month in Inside Tucson Business