Expert Series

The Move Toward IPv6: Issues and Actions

Experts believe that because of the address limitations of the current Internet Protocol Version 4 (IPv4), the Internet is running out of address space and we may be headed for an IP catastrophe. The increasing density of advanced servers, reliance on virtual computing, and use of mobile client devices are just a few things accelerating the problem, to the point we may run out of IP address options by next year.

The solution, the experts say, is to deploy IPv6, a next-generation protocol more than three decades in the making that uses an address bit size four times that of its predecessor and therefore provides a wider range of IP address possibilities.

Critics counter by claiming techniques like network address translation (NAT) can change public addresses into larger sets of private addresses and any potential problems created by the inherent limitaitons of the current IPv4 protocol

In this WAN Nation series, we look at the push to deploy IPv6, as well as the reasons why it may not be a good idea to wait too long or assume short-term fixes will provide a long-term solution.


In this series:

   IP address concerns strengthen push for IPv6
   IPv6 timeline: The road to a new protocol
   The move toward IPv6: Video


  IP address concerns strengthen push for IPv6  Back to top ↑

More than 60 years ago, a group of scientists at the University of Chicago developed a symbolic clock face that could be used to graphically show just how close the human race was to midnight and catastrophic destruction and extinction.

The closest the hands of the Doomsday Clock ever came to midnight was in 1953, when the clock was manually set to two minutes before the final hour when the U.S. and the Soviet Union both tested nuclear devices within nine months of each other. The ominous symbol has since been reset nearly 20 times to reflect the ebb and flow of potential global calamity.

While Internet addressing is certainly not in the same crisis league as thermonuclear disaster, a number of experts believe that because of the address limitations of the current Internet Protocol Version 4 (IPv4), the Internet is running out of space and we are headed for catastrophe. The solution is to deploy IPv6, a next-generation protocol more than three decades in the making that uses an address bit size four times that of its predecessor and therefore provides a wider range of IP address possibilities.

The reality is that as servers get denser with blade and virtual computing, you have far more IP addresses per server, and you need to number them.

John Curran, founder and president/CEO, The American Registry for Internet Numbers (ARIN)

At a networking conference held in Boston this year, for example, more than one speaker said the problem is reaching critical mass and we will run out of IPv4 addresses much sooner than expected. One expert claimed we are at DEFCON level, which is how the U.S. military classifies serious threats. Others maintained that developments like virtualization and cloud computing will exacerbate the problem as additional addresses crowd the Internet.

"The reality is that as servers get denser with blade and virtual computing, you have far more IP addresses per server, and you need to number them. You need to identify every server with a number, and as a result the usage is increasing," said John Curran, the founder and current president and CEO of the American Registry for Internet Numbers (ARIN) in Washington, D.C.

While the reliance on IPv4 and a shortage of Internet addressing won't have a direct impact on a data center or corporate WAN, it will affect access to a company's servers and Web facilities.

"There are going to be people connected to the Internet shortly with IPv6, and when they connect they won't be able to get to you," Curran noted. "Or they'll get to you and your Web server or email server through a gateway that has to convert their packets and millions of other people's packets and then won't be able to transfer email or use all the features of your website."

NAT goes to bat for IP addressing

Despite these predictions, many people are unconvinced that a reluctance to make the switch to IPv6 will create significant problems. In fact, some analyst firms claim IPv6 adoption percentage rates in the commercial sector are in the low single digits.

"I'm not seeing a massive shift toward IPv6," said Tom Yohe, a member of the WAN Optimization Professionals group on LinkedIN. "Because most enterprises use network address translation (NAT) to change a small set of public IP addresses into a large set of private addresses, the urgency of moving from IPv4 is just not there."

Because IPv4 addresses are made up of 32-bit numbers, there are also more than four billion possible combinations, which would seem more than enough to support even the most robust growth of the Internet. Not so, say the experts, who predict exhaustion in less than two years at the current rate of consumption. One group has even constructed its own Doomsday Clock of sorts in the form of a downloadable IPv4 Exhaustion Counter widget that rapidly ticks off the estimated number of used addresses and days remaining until IP Armageddon.

"The piece that connects your company to every other company is IPv4 today and needs to become v4 and v6," ARIN's Curran said. "You need to get IPv6 on the public-facing side of your network."

Bringing IPv6 to task

This may not be as simple a task as it sounds. While IPv6 is basically an extension of IPv4, the newer addressing protocol defines a new packet format (128-bit vs. 32-bit) that is significantly different from that of IPv4, so the two protocols are reportedly not interoperable. Deploying IPv6 will also require some programming and engineering resources as well as a budget – things that are at a premium within most organizations because of the slow economy.

Until very recently, the people who sit on the decision-making side of businesses and oversee IT budgets also saw no motivating reason for approving the switch to IPv6. This attitude is changing, Curran noted, especially as threats of limited Internet access and services emerge as realities and corporate executives realize the possible impact on a company's competitive stance in the global market.

Ultimately, corporate "peer pressure" may be the tipping point for most companies to take the plunge into IPv6 waters. The federal government mandated that its agencies move their networks to IPv6 by June 2008 and issued the same stipulation to its suppliers.

In May, Orange Business Services flipped the switch on IPv6 in its IP VPN backbone, which provides managed communications and Internet services to 35 countries, reportedly becoming the first global service provider to do so.

Despite this progress and all the push-me pull-you arguments surrounding IPv6, most will agree that the move to a better addressing structure may just be a necessary first step on the long road to helping the Internet keep pace with technology developments and user demands.

"While v6 solves running out of numbers," Curran said, "it doesn't necessarily solve all of the Internet's architectural issues that we're going to see over the next 50 years."


  IPv6 timeline: The road to a new protocol  Back to top ↑

The IPv6 protocol has been in the works for more than 15 years, since it was first realized that the current IPv4 implementation -- more than 25 years old -- couldn't keep up with the anticipated demand for Internet addressing. Interest in IPv6 has picked up considerably in the last few years as experts warn that we are less than two years away from exhausting IPv4's addressing capabilities and that businesses may be at risk in the global marketplace. The following is a timeline of major milestones in the history of IPv6 development.

1981 Internet Protocol version 4 (IPv4) is first published as a system of addresses used to identify devices on a network, although work on the protocol began in the 1970s. It is the most widely used Internet layer protocol today and a key element in connecting to the Internet.

1990 Approximately one-eighth of total IPv4 address spaces are utilized, as Internet use increases and more companies rely on it as an information transport.

1992 Reacting to the rapidly dwindling number of IPv4 address spaces, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) calls for proposals on the development of a next-generation IP addressing protocol.

1995 Approximately one-third of total IPv4 address space utilized; IPv6 is born, presented by the IETF as IPv6 RFC 1883.

1997 IBM reacts to the growing need for IPv6 support and adds it to its AIX 4.3 Unix operating environment, the first commercial platform to support IPv6. This is followed by IPv6 early adopter kits for Tru64 and OpenVMS Digital Equipment Corp.'s operating systems.

1998 Microsoft Research prepares for the impending increased demand for IPv6 by releasing its first experimental IPv6 stack. Seeking further comment on the development of the basic IPv6 protocol, RFC 2460 is published. Production-quality Berkeley Software Distribution (BSD) support for IPv6 is made available over the KAME project via FreeBSD, OpenBSD and NetBSD. (The KAME project was a joint effort of six companies in Japan to provide a free stack of IPv6, IPsec, and Mobile IPv6 for BSD variations.)

1999 The IPv6 Forum is created, with an initial membership of 45, as a worldwide consortium dedicated to creating a quality and secure next-generation Internet. IPv6 ranges are first determined and allocated by the Regional Internet Registries.

2000 Approximately half of total IPv4 address space has been utilized. Microsoft continues to show support for IPv6 and releases a technology preview of IPv6 for Windows 2000.

2001 Microsoft releases limited IPv6 support for research and testing on the Microsoft Windows NT 4.0 and Windows 2000 SP1, and the release of Windows XP SP1 and Windows Server 2003 with an IPv6 stack. Meanwhile, Cisco Systems appears on the IPv6 scene, introducing Cisco IOS routers and L3 switches with IPv6 support.

2002 Approximately two-thirds of total IPv4 address space has been utilized. IBM gets behind IPv6 adoption and adds support to its z/OS, starting with version 1.4.

2003 The IETF continues to work on IPv6 development, publishing RFC 2553, Basic socket API and RFC 3315, DHCPv6. Apple releases its latest iteration of Mac OS X version 10.3, Panther, with IPv6 support. U.S. Department of Defense initiates IPv6 migration strategy; target completion date in 2008.

2007 Growth for IPv6 support continues as The American Registry for Internet Numbers (ARIN) begins an IPv6 addresses policy for large contiguous blocks and discontinues IPv4 allocations for this purpose. Microsoft releases Windows Vista with IPv6 support set as the default.

2008 The U.S. achieves IPv6 capability on all government systems, as required by the U.S. Office on Management and Budget (OMB) Mandate, and the European Commission announces an initiative for 25% of users to adopt IPv6 by 2010. Google gets into the game and offers an IPv6 Web interface for its search engine, and the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Beijing are the first major world events to be broadcast with IPv6.

2009 Google builds an extension of its IPv6 initiative, offering IPv6 support for Google services to compatible networks. As 85% of IPv4 address space is exhausted and IPv6 summits are held in Ireland, China and Korea, 2009 is unofficially called "The Year of IPv6."


   The migration to IPv6: Video  Back to top ↑

The migration from IPv4 to the next generation IPv6 protocol is discussed in this video interview with ARIN president and CEO John Curran by Site Editor Tim Scannell. Curran also gives advice to enterprises on how to move to IPv6 in this article. 

This was first published in September 2009

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