Waking up to IPv6

As internet heavyweights flick the switch on IPv6 - the next internet protocol platform –the onus is on businesses to make the transition as quickly as possible before the internet runs out of room.

The new internet protocol IPv6 is finally here for good and with it comes the promise of a whole new world of IP addresses and internet possibilities. After a show of force at last year’s IPv6 day, when internet heavyweights switched from IPv4 to IPv6 for 24 hours, major ISPs, web companies and network equipment manufacturers are making the switch permanently.

All of this is great news for the standards and advocacy group Internet Society which will see the platform mature from a lab experiment to a worthy successor to the current internet protocol IPv4. The impetus for this drive is growth because as it turns out the internet is running out of room.

The IPv4 protocol opens the pathways that allow devices, of all shapes and sizes, to talk with one another and exchange data. With IPv4, each public internet host is assigned a 32-bit IP address. There are approximately four billion IP addresses (the sequence of numbers assigned to each internet-connected device) but given the explosion of devices, consumers and services the IPv4 address space is getting crowded. In fact, some put up the no vacancy sign some time ago.

The Number Resource Organisation (NRO), the coordinating mechanism for the five regional internet registries, said in February last year that the free pool of available IPv4 addresses had been fully depleted. While the use of Network Address Translation (NAT) and recycle unused IPv4 addresses has allowed us to eke out some room the pipeline is drying up and for new entrants. This industry wide initiative to move to IPv6 aims to resolve this by providing trillions of addresses, which should be enough to sustain the internet's indefinite growth.

It’s important to keep in mind that IPv6 this isn’t a bolt of the blue and the inadequacies of IPv4 when it comes to servicing the needs of billions of users have never been a secret. Consequently, IPv6 networks have been around since1999 and most operating systems have supported IPv6 addresses for some time now.

For mobile devices, the Android and Apple iOS operating systems enable IPv6 by default, so when IPv6 is enabled by carriers the devices will automatically connect to the internet using IPv6. What’s been missing from the equation so far has been the equipment, the capacity and the will to jump on board the platform.

According to Ovum analyst David Crozier, ISPs, carriers and enterprises are finally waking up to the potential of IPv6 and a need for them invest in deployment.

“IPv6 was standardized within the IETF way back in December 1998, but for years, while IPv4 addresses seemed plentiful, it was hard to convince ISPs, carriers, and enterprises of the need to invest in IPv6 deployment,” Crozier says in his blog post.

“Without a critical mass of IPv6-enabled users, website owners saw no need to make the conversion either. Ovum believes that as IPv6 services become prevalent, the cost of not migrating will eventually outweigh the cost of converting.”

While industry players have always been prepared for the jump it’s the willingness of ISPs, carriers  and most importantly the customers that are finally about to make IPv6 mainstream.

Post launch somebody with an IPv6 connection will be able to get data from an IPv6 internet site. The traffic will take time to grow but should ramp up as new devices and apps will force businesses to migrate to IPv6. In an age where customer engagement is paramount a business simply can’t run the risk of not offering its applications and services over IPv6.

The deployment of IPv6 essentially creates a parallel network and Crozier says that communication between IPv4 and IPv6 networks requires a transition mechanism, such as dual-protocol stacks in network elements or the use of a variety of tunnelling options (6to4, 6in4, 6rd, Teredo, ISATAP).

Many ISPs, such as Verizon, AT&T and our very own Internode,  are already beginning to turn up commercial IPv6 connectivity services to users. While, Verizon currently supports enterprise and government customers with native and tunnelled IPv6 services,  Internode supports IPv6 services with a dual-stack network. Crozier also points out that cable services like Comcast and Time Warner has turned up IPv6 services to residential subscribers.

Internode, which started its IPv6 journey in 2008, has been a major proponent of the IPv6 deployment in the local ISP space and is a key participant in the World IPv6 Launch day along with Google, Facebook, YouTube and Yahoo!. The ISP launched a 20-month public trial in 2009 and last year launched IPv6 access as a fully supported opt-in choice for all Internode customers. In January this year, Internode deployed IPv6 by default for all new customers.

Internode managing director Simon Hackett reckons IPv6 is now “ready for prime time” but for most businesses the transition won’t happen in a hurry, if anything, IPv4 and IPv6 will probably co-exist for most of this decade. What will be interesting to see is how quickly the transition is made before the IPv4 well runs bone dry and as Crozier points out the industry needs to get moving now towards IPv6 before a shortage of available IPv4 addresses makes the cost of procrastination overwhelming.