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Wednesday
Jun082011

Movin' Up to IPv6

World IPv6 Day Highlights Future Transition to New IP Format

Happy World IPv6 Day! Today, Internet giants such as Google, Facebook, and Yahoo! moved their platforms to the new Internet Protocol, to test functionality and prepare for the eventual shift to IPv6 from IPv4. Participants also hope that the much-hyped trial will motivate other organizations across the industry to prepare for IPv6 and ensure a smooth transition before IPv4 address space runs out.

For those not following the IPv4-to-IPv6 transition, the problem is a simple one: IPv4 (Internet Protocol version 4) uses a 32-bit address format, allowing for 4.3b addresses. But with dramatic Internet growth, there simply aren't many addresses left, leading to what experts call “IPv4 address exhaustion.” As we know, Internet Protocol addresses are a prerequisite for all Internet communication—both the sender and the receiver need one. As a result, additional addresses are necessary whenever new users are connected to the Internet. Running out of addresses is simply not a workable option, so enter IPv6.

The new IPv6 is a protocol that uses 128-bit address configuration, opening a nearly unfathomable number of addresses (billions of times more than IPv4) to supply ever-growing demand. Right now, over 95% of the Internet uses IPv4, but for many years service providers, hardware makers, operating systems vendors and web companies have prepared for the eminent transition. Experts say that adopting the IPv6 protocol will also provide a better QoS and more reliable service, especially for mobile devices and PDAs.

All of this may sound like tech-speak or dry details, but the transition to IPv6 may prove an important “stress test” for small ISPs. According to analyst Carol Wilson, approximately 50% of ISPs now are IPv6 enabled, but those tend to be the providers that are “well connected... connected to eight or more other service providers.” Wilson says that networks in less populated areas are less likely to have IPv6 networking available. That could spell connection trouble in the future, as customers could experience service disruptions when the eventual IPv6 shift is completed. Wilson states that while “smaller ISPs are the ones less likely to have IPv6 access available... they may have equipment that can handle the newer Internet addressing scheme.” In other cases, businesses that need IPv6 connections may be required to connect to another network, such as tunneled traffic or networks provided by Hurricane Electric, an IPv6-native Internet backbone and colocation provider.

Most analysts, network providers and industry insiders predict that the transition to IPv6 will happen over a span of time—something that can make it more difficult to motivate companies to make the switch (remember the lead up to Y2K?). Cisco predicts that there will be “several years of coexistence between IPv4 and IPv6 while the array of devices and applications evolves. Therefore management of IPv6 will be offered in phases over time.” But still, everyone agrees the change will come.

For most ISPs, the biggest concern is the cost associated with an upgrade. A recent report by the National Telecommunications and Information Association (NTIA) acknowledges that “the potential costs associated with deploying IPv6 consist of a mixture of hardware, software, labor, and miscellaneous costs. The transition to IPv6 is not analogous to turning on a light switch.” The report goes on to explain that costs will vary for each type of company or service provider, depending on the company's existing infrastructure and IPv6-related needs. Ultimately the NTIA says cost will be relatively low for hardware and software vendors, both of whom are already providing some IPv6 capabilities. But the cost increases for service providers, with very few offering IPv6 service now; additionally, the NTIA says these service providers face “a very high cost currently to upgrade major capabilities.” NTIA's report concludes that, “By and large, ISPs offering service to large groups of customers will likely incur the largest transition costs per organization, while independent users will bear little, if any, costs.”

Participants in today's World Ipv6 Day include the big guys you'd expect, such as AT&T (NYSE:T), Verizon (NYSE:VZ), Comcast (Nasdaq:CMCSA), Time Warner (NYSE:TWC), and Cisco (Nasdaq:CSCO), as well as XO Communications (OTCBB:XOHO.OB), Charter Communications (Nasdaq:CHTR), CenturyLink (NYSE:CTL), and tw telecom (Nasdaq:TWTC). Naturally, each company has issued press releases heralding the coming of IPv6 and expressing the need for other companies to follow suit. But in Colorado, tw telecom has actually taken an extra step forward by providing its customers IPv6 services since 2008, and the CLEC has worked to offer both IPv4 and IPv6 addressing across a single port—a design that mitigates costly infrastructure upgrades and is much easier to manage.

So far, it appears that the World IPv6 Day trial hasn't encountered any problems, and as of noon Eastern Standard Time, all systems were “checking in green.” This means that participating websites are working correctly both for people using the traditional IPv4 Internet and users working with IPv6. For designers and participants, this means that the trial run was a success, and, for us, this means we'll be hearing even more about the necessary and now-proven possible use of IPv6 services.

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