The U.S. Government has mandated that all Federal agency network backbones support Internet Protocol version 6 by June 30, 2008. In turn, Federal agencies are requiring suppliers to support IPv6. If you sell hardware, software or services to the U.S. government, it's time to start paying attention.
Today, the Internet operates with Internet Protocol version 4. IPv4 consists of a set of rules controlling the format and transmission of data across the Internet. The Internet Engineering Task Force governs the protocol.
You may be surprised to learn that IPv4 does not guarantee information delivery. Have you ever wondered why a web page failed to load completely, forcing you to try again? IPv4 makes a best effort and sometimes portions of the data are lost in transit.
IPv4 allows for the identification of about four billion network devices. Every device directly connected to the Internet requires a unique 32-bit, identifier. These identifiers are represented by a series of four octets separated by periods such as 184.108.40.206. This cryptic number is an address that routes Internet traffic to the right place.
Four billion addresses sounds like a lot but many are reserved for special purposes and the need for addresses keeps growing. Computers, mobile phones, routers, cable boxes, VOIP phones, and even MP3 players use IP addresses. IPv4 cannot keep up with the demand.
The life of IPv4 has been extended by techniques such as proxy servers and network address translation. These techniques allow some IP addresses to be used more than once but as demand for addresses continues to grow, more needs to be done.
IPv6 addresses are 128-bits long allowing for an almost unlimited number of devices (about 340 trillion trillion trillion). These addresses are represented as eight groups of up to four hexadecimal digits separated by colons, for example, 2201:dc9:65b3:7e4:1329:af:370:7334.
These incomprehensible strings of letters and numbers are rarely used because they are usually referenced by a domain name such as www.indusbusinessjournal.com. Something called a Domain Name Server looks up the domain name and finds the IP address.
Why do we need trillions and trillions of IP addresses?
The day is fast approaching when vehicles, home appliances, industrial equipment, sensors, livestock and pets connect to the Internet. IPv6 can handle all the new addresses needed.
For example, your automobile's electronic systems will soon be network enabled. Your mobile phone, navigation system, satellite radio, MP3 player, engine control systems, tire pressure sensors, etc. will be networked and able to send and receive data.
In your home, appliances, electronics, phones, audio and video will be Internet-ready and able to upload and download information as needed. A GPS unit can even track your dog.
What are the business drivers behind the transition from IPv4 to IPv6?
Increased address space is clearly the big draw. IPv6 offers other advantages such as better security but they are technical in nature and not apparent to the user community.
Because the United States owns a massive block of IPv4 addresses, there is a shortage in other parts of the world. Countries like China, Japan and South Korea are leading the adoption of IPv6 to alleviate the shortages in their countries. Companies that sell technology products in these countries need to be IPv6 aware.
Someday, IPv6 will completely replace IPv4 but not anytime soon. The two protocols must coexist using several transition mechanisms.
Devices connect to the Internet through a software set called a network stack. This is the set of protocol layers that work together to control communication over the Internet. All devices that operate over IPv6 support the use of dual stacks, that is, they can operate over both IPv4 and IPv6.
IPv6 network traffic routed through an IPv4 network uses a technique called tunneling. This is simply a way to encapsulate IPv6 information such that it appears to be IPv4. Be aware that tunneling presents security risks unless network security devices are capable of examining the encapsulated data.
Adding support for IPv6 to existing products comes with a few challenges. You must use Windows XP/2003 or later. For Linux environments, the kernel should be 2.4.x or later. Older operating systems don't support the IPv6 stack.
Development teams will need to upgrade to newer tools and libraries for building their software.
Because IPv6 addresses can be up to 39 characters long (versus 15 for IPv4), user menus, database fields, messages, report items and log file entries may have to be expanded. Anywhere IP addresses are entered or reported may need updating.
You'll need an IPv6 network for testing and you may find that your existing routers and switches need to be upgraded or replaced. It's easy enough to create an IPv6 subnet without upgrading the entire network.
Connecting your IPv6 subnet to the Internet presents a few security challenges. Existing firewalls and intrusion detection or prevention devices will need upgrades and reconfiguration. Access control lists, security rules and other parameters will have to change.
In an IPv4 environment, devices are assigned IP addresses either manually or using a DHCP server. IPv6-enabled devices offer a mode whereby they can generate their own IP addresses without intervention. This decentralized approach is convenient but makes it difficult to track the use of network devices.
IPv6 was defined in the mid 90's. It's been slow in achieving market penetration due to the complexity but now that major world governments are adopting it, it's time to start paying attention.
Vin D'Amico is Founder and President of DAMICON, your ADJUNCT CIO. He helps companies avoid the subtle mistakes that cause missed deadlines, lost opportunities and fragile results. He shows them agile approaches that slash risk and cut development time so they get to market 25-50% faster. He helps them carry that momentum into the sales cycle using white papers and case studies that accelerate the selling process.
This article appeared in Vin's monthly Virtual Business column for the IndUS Business Journal in October 2007.
To learn more about how DAMICON can help your business, please take a look at our service programs.
This column appears monthly in the IndUS Business Journal.