Are You Ready For IPv6?
This article was originally written for ArrowQuick Solutions, a technology consultancy for small businesses.
When the Internet was being created, the engineers in charge had to design the Internet Protocol (IP). The Internet Protocol is responsible for relaying all those packets of data around the Internet. In order for these packets to get to their destination, every computer has an IP address — a numerical address that acts like a mailing address for a computer. For the protocol to work and become standard, these packets must have a defined size. The engineers settled on an address size which allowed for more than 4 billion addresses.
Four billion addresses might seem like plenty (especially in 1981, when it was created), but in recent years the world has been fast approaching this limit. Of course, the Internet and the World Wide Web has exploded in popularity since they were introduced. The last decade has seen many more cellphones, video game consoles, and other devices connected to the Internet, each requiring its own address. And population-heavy countries such as China and India will surpass Western countries in computer use in the near future. At the current rate, the world needs more than 170 million new addresses every year.
Unlike the “millenium bug”, which turned out to be mostly nothing, this problem affects everyone who has a computer or other device connected to the Internet. Because the Internet is the same everywhere, it’s a worldwide issue.
Fortunately, there is a solution. The newest version of IP, version 6 (IPv6), allows for 340 undecillion addresses — that’s “34” followed by 37 zeroes, or more than 5 trillion trillion addresses per person. In addition to giving us plenty of addresses, it also gives everybody more “room” for easier and more efficient network routing.
Even though IPv6 has been around since 1998, network administrators have not felt much pressure to use it. IPv6 is incompatible with the current version of the Internet Protocol (IPv4) without transition mechanisms, so money and time must be budgeted for auditing and implementation. And even though the final 5 blocks of IPv4 addresses were allocated in February of this year, only about 14% of addresses are actively used. Network address translation (NAT) has also been used for over a decade so that multiple computers can share a single address on private networks, but it’s a poor solution. Today, 99% of the Internet is IPv4-only.
World IPv6 Day
Organizations and technology professionals have been feeling the inevitable pressure, so work has slowly been progressing on making software and hardware IPv6 compatible. To raise awareness, Google, Facebook, Yahoo, and other major companies will switch on IPv6 for 24 hours during World IPv6 Day. They hope to motivate others to implement IPv6, and to test it on a large scale. The sites will have IPv4 and IPv6 running side-by-side, so most users won’t see any difference. However, there may be some hiccups for users on misconfigured networks, so this gives everyone an opportunity to shake out any problems with their network setups. It will also give the companies metrics on how far IPv6 has been deployed, since it is typically preferred over IPv4 when both are enabled.
Current State of Technology
Most modern software is IPv6-ready or can be upgraded. As far as operating systems go, OS X Panther (10.3) and Windows Vista/7 have built-in IPv6 support. (Windows 2000 and Windows XP also have some IPv6 support.) Most hardware is also ready or unaffected. However, older software and hardware may not be upgradeable and may have to be replaced.
Is your network and internet service provider (ISP) IPv6-ready? You can use tools such as test-ipv6.com to find out. Within the next few years we will be seeing more and more computers and servers that are IPv6 only. If you are not using IPv6, you won’t be able to connect to them at all.
It’s prudent to schedule an audit and testing of IPv6 in the near future. If an IPv6 connection fails, a device will usually fall back to IPv4. So a problem may go unnoticed until IPv4 is finally disabled somewhere (possibly outside your control) and the network stops working.
The IPv6-related specifications and all its implementations are still being ironed out in real-world use, but an IPv6-ready workplace is certainly possible. Using up the allocated but inactive IPv4 addresses will still take some years. And NAT could still be used to extend the IPv4’s lifetime. But an IPv6 future is inevitable. If your computers and networks are not IPv6-ready, you might end up with broken or slow connections. Invest in an IPv6 infrastructure now, before you end up paying for extra IT support and lost productivity in the future.