Zero Hour Approaches for IPv6 (Part 1 of 3)

By Carl Weinschenk (Part 1 of 3)

The current Internet addressing scheme is expected to become obsolete in 2012. In the first post of his 3-part series for SHARE President’s Corner, veteran tech writer Carl Weinschenk explores why businesses must transition to Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6).

Why IPv6?

There are a lot of reasons -- 340,282,366,920,938,463,463,374,607,431,768,211,456, to be precise -- for IT specialists and communications professionals to root for the IPv6 Internet addressing scheme to take hold.

The motivation is pretty basic: The Internet is running out of addresses. The intimidating 39-digit figure above represents the total potential addresses, or “address space,” under the new Internet Protocol version 6, or IPv6.

The transition is a long slog, however. The good news for those responsible for keeping mainframes properly connected to the rest of the world is that support among carriers, service providers and websites is strong and growing. There still is danger, however, that the initiative will fall short of complete success. If that happens, the Internet will degenerate into an uneven affair in which the content available to a user depends upon whether or not their ISP did its homework to ready their networks for the new version of the protocol.

The transition from IPv4 to IPv6 will directly or indirectly impact mainframes and the people who run them. For one thing, mainframes that are not upgraded to IPv6 will depend on cumbersome transitional hardware devices and software work-arounds.

“The most important thing [for the mainframe community] to do is to be aware of IPv6’s existence and to make sure to plan and prepare accordingly,” said Owen DeLong, the IPv6 Evangelist for Hurricane Electric, an IPv6-ready backbone provider. “It is going to be a factor in their lives sooner rather than later. The sooner they begin preparing the smoother that process is going to be.”

The Internet – or at least its addressing scheme – is a victim of its success. The Internet started as a military and academic network that was built on a 32-bit addressing scheme called IPv4. That scheme’s paltry 4,294,967,296 addresses were fine for IP networks’ limited original uses. But it is obvious that IPv6 – which uses 128 bits in its addresses – is where Internet addressing needs to be in the age of mobile broadband, machine-to-machine communications and other latency and delay-sensitive services and applications.

That rationale for the move to IPv6 is inarguable. But implementing it is daunting. For one thing, it is difficult to get service providers, carriers and website owners on board, because IPv6 is an enabler, not a revenue-generator. This automatically shuffles it to the bottom of most organizations’ to-do lists, especially during a recession. Powerful workarounds, such as network address translation (NAT), have kept the old system functioning. That’s good, of course. But it is sort of like putting duct tape over a hole in a car’s tailpipe: It works, but not too well. It also leads to a dangerous “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude. Finally, like global warming, IPv4 exhaustion will only cause tangible problems that would energize management when the corrective measures are far more difficult to implement.

This lassitude is not a good thing, as technicians race against the specter of IPv4 exhaustion. Internet protocol (IP) addresses are awarded on a worldwide basis. The US Department of Commerce has awarded a contract to an organization — The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) –to administer allocations. It does so through the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), which distributes addresses to the five regional registries worldwide. The American Registry for Internet Numbers (ARIN) manages IP addresses for Canada, US, and many Caribbean nations. The addresses are given to ARIN in blocks of about 16 million. These are known as “slash 8s” (and written “/8s”).

Important milestones are occurring on a fairly regular basis. The first was truly a sign that the end was nigh: In January, 2011, the last /8s in the “free pool” were awarded to Regional Internet Registries. ARIN CEO John Curran said that a dwindling amount of IPv4 addresses still are available.

Internet service providers (ISPs) will only be able to give new customers IPv6 addresses. That will pose no problem for websites that have upgraded. But websites that are not upgraded to IPv6 will not perform as well as those that are.

The differences can be traced directly to the precise nature of the two addressing schemes. IPv4 addresses were awarded in a linear fashion: Before the advent of time-sensitive applications such as VoIP and video streaming, it didn’t matter if packets were identified according to their need for prioritization. Such identification is important today. IPv6 planners knew how the Internet is being used, and made sure that the address fields in the protocol are broad enough to include this vital data. Time-sensitive video and voice packets can be identified and given preference over email packets.

This deep knowledge and flexibility is a key in radically simplifying the network. An IPv6-based network is “flatter”: A packet’s entire journey can be mapped from the outset. This is a big upgrade from IPv4’s router-by-router approach. A simplified example: Using IPv4 addressing, a packet is sent from router A to router B to router C and, finally, to router D. Marching orders are given in chunks. At router A, a decision is made on the best path to router B, and so on. This is a cumbersome process and is both hardware and software-intensive.

In an IPv6 environment, router A can map the entire path to router D. The mapping is based in part on the specific needs of the packet. IPv6 will find ways to route video and voice packets far more quickly and through fewer routers, while email packets may be given the scenic route.

For a highly interactive entertainment site that streams audio and video in high definition and 3D formats, for instance, all this rocket science will benefit end users: Videos will queue up more quickly and be plagued by less buffering. Rendering of images will be sharper and richer. In general, presentations will be superior. Related but discreet content – for instance, a movie and its associated social networking – can be integrated more easily. All of this will give the site a leg up on competitors using IPv4, and allow them to keep pace with other entertainment sites that have upgraded.

There is nothing that IPv6 can do that IPv4 can’t. The difference is that IPv6 can do it far more simply and efficiently. And the gap will widen as content gets more real time and interactive. According to Laura Knapp, Worldwide Business Consultant for Applied Expert Systems and SHARE’s Project Manager for Communications Technology, leading providers such as Comcast, AT&T and Time-Warner Cable are assessing the types of content they plan to introduce and expand and long ago saw the handwriting on the wall for IPv4. “They have all this content information coming, and at some point in time they say, ‘You know what? We’ve got to do this.’ You see a lot of old cars on the road. They break down and can be fixed – but eventually it will cost a lot less to go with a new car.”

Knapp added that IPv6 also eases the transition to cloud architectures. The same basic advantage of wringing out complexity by flattening the environment and reducing the number of routing steps plays well with cloud architectures in which users are aiming to find specific applications to download that, in the older environment, may only be reached by multiple router steps, she said.v

This future is arriving. On June 8, 2011, the Internet Society held World IPv6 Day. Many high profile sites, including Yahoo! Akamai and Facebook, turned on IPv6 service. It was both a technical test and an awareness-building exercise. According to reports, things went well on both fronts.

Though some of the sites that turned IPv6 on that day kept it going all year, the bulk went back to IPv4-only operation after the event. That leads to the next big day. On June 6, 2012 -- almost one year to the day later and, coincidentally or not, the 68th anniversary of D-Day -- websites, ISPs and consumer electronics manufacturers will celebrate World IPv6 Launch day and turn on the new protocol for good.

As with all deadlines, the question is whether the progress that is being made is sufficient. High profile “days” are great, but the question is whether the grunt work really is being done on a consistent and comprehensive level. Some insiders are concerned. “The reason it is troublesome is that this isn’t something you can throw together overnight,” said Jack Williams, Program Manager for the Communications Infrastructure Program for SHARE. “There’s a lot of planning and designing. This is something that should be thought about well in advanced and thought through.”

In the next installment, Carl Weinschenk continues his conversation with experts in the field, who discuss strategies for transitioning from IPv4 to IPv6.

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