IPv6 crosses the line

The success of China's IPv6 network for the Beijing Olympics may give other organisations the confidence they need to migrate from IPv4.

Last summer's Beijing Olympics not only showcased the talents of the athletes, it also demonstrated how version 6 of the Internet Protocol (IPv6) can lay the foundation for next generation Internet connectivity that is able to link huge numbers of innovative Web-enabled devices and services. IPv6 also addresses a range of issues impinging on the viability of it predecessors, most prominently perhaps the question of Internet address availability.

As a rapidly-developing country with a population of approximately 1.3 billion people, China is more concerned than most nations about the dwindling pool of IPv4 addresses that is available to its businesses and citizens.

Though it included an element of political breast-beating, the Chinese government's Next Generation Internet Project (CNGI) was deliberately conceived and implemented in time for the Olympic Games.

It built an IPv6 network on fixed and mobile broadband technology to support high-definition online video delivery, and simultaneous coverage of the sporting events held at the 37 different venues - each of which also had lighting, security, and thermostat systems attached to the Web using IPv6 addressing.

Benefits of IPv6

The most obvious IPv6 benefit is that it provides around 3.4 x 1038 static IP addresses - this is more than there are grains of sands on the world's beaches, according to some informed estimates.

But it is the diversity of devices, everything from earthquake and environmental monitoring systems, sensors in car windscreen wipers devised to measure rainfall, and always-attached PDAs able to roam GSM, Wi-Fi, 3G, and Bluetooth networks without dropping the IP address, that also appeal. And, of course, at the same time the number of computers demanding IP addresses is rising exponentially as more people go online.

While nations like China, Japan, and the US are taking the lead, the rest of the world has not been as speedy in migrating to the new 32-bit addressing scheme.

"In some cases there are government mandates to say 'we will move to IPv6, and solve the problem'," says David Holder, chairman of the IPv6 Taskforce in Scotland and managing director of UK IPv6 training and consultancy firm, Erion, "but in other places people are rather reluctant to do that."

Holder sees wait-and-see inertia as one of the main underlying reasons for this reluctance: "In the UK, people have put their head in the sand and so far ignored the requirement," he believes, "but there will be a rapid increase in the price of IPv4 address blocks once the central pool runs out." When will that be? "Maybe next year [2009], but almost certainly by 2010," Holder adds.

Barriers to wider adoption

Experts say the Beijing Olympic Games will help to persuade more companies, Internet Service Providers (ISPs), and telcos to adopt IPv6. Many are waiting to see a critical mass of successful implementations, and higher customer demand for IPv6 addresses, before taking the plunge themselves.

Owen Cole, technical director UK and Ireland for router manufacturer F5, says that he has seen a few IPv6 migration projects and trials in the UK. But these have all been in closed networks like the NHS or academic environments, rather than Internet and Web-facing business systems where downtime is critical.

"The average enterprise wants to see the technology deployed and proven before they do it themselves," Cole says. "It is not necessarily a lack of desire, more because [migrating to IPv6] is such a massive project for them, combined with the cost of training and disruption."

The main concern is the integration of IPv6 and IPv4 together, feels Cole - no organisation wants to migrate wholesale to IPv6, and risk being unable to access systems based on IPv4.

"The problem is that IPv6 and IPv4 are not Network Allocation Table (NAT) interchangeable, so a router on an IPv6 network will not talk to anything on an IPv4 network, and a lot of things are not going to work unless you put in a controller that can actually do the translation between the two," he explains.

Other than the cost of training network staff to understand IPv6, migrating to the new addressing scheme should not incur too much expense, depending on the routers and operating systems in situ.

Most new routers purchased in the last three or four years already support IPv6 and IPv4, while others might require a memory of flash upgrade to add the same functionality. From Windows XP upwards, Microsoft operating systems support IPv6 by default, as do the more recent versions of Open Source equivalents, such as Linux and Unix.

This situation has taken us to the brink of where there could be a major problem, warns Holder, who says there is already a 'black market' in static IPv4 address blocks created by people selling addresses for profit. "The idea was that people would have already transitioned to IPv6 over the last five years, but that has not happened meaning that migration is now more painful."

IP futures

As more organisations move to IPv6, however, they could hand back their IPv4 allocation to ICANN - thereby extending the pool for a few more years, while moves are also afoot to free up reserved or unavailable IPv4 blocks for individual usage. At best though, these strategies are only likely to stem the tide, given the huge number of people and devices set to come online in parallel with the growing economies of developing countries like China, India, and others in Asia and South America.

No global organisation can risk being unable to communicate with its peers, partners or customers, and should plan for IPv6 migration in case the worst predictions about imminent IPv4 address exhaustion turn out to be true.

Existing operating systems should be checked to see if they are compatible with IPv4 and IPv6, and relevant networking specialists instructed in the configuration changes that IPv6 will bring.

Further information
IET Technical and Professional Networks

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