Why IPv6 is a Big Thing

It’s the nature of the universe that all things come to an end. It’s also human nature to dread this universal fact. We tend to look at this “end” as a loss of the permanent variety and we simply hate to lose things when that loss is permanent. This feeling causes us to be resistant to and willfully ignorant to “the end”. We go on enjoying the existence of things and soon become oblivious to the fact that at some point the things we’re enjoying will cease to be. And so it has come with the Internet as we know it.

The Internet that we’ve become accustomed to will soon cease to exist. It’s fast-approaching that point where it can no longer exist as it does today. This is due to the fact that we’re running out of addresses under the current Internet Layer protocol, Internet Protocol version 4 (IPv4). IPv4 is responsible for relaying data across the Internet from source host to destination host based solely on their addresses. IPv4 uses 32-bit (2 to the 32nd power) addresses and can support 4.3 billion devices connected directly to the Internet.

Normally, 4.3 billion would seem like a massive number but with the proliferation of Internet-hungry devices, that number has become almost entirely consumed. As it stands now, less than 5% of IPv4 addresses are left unallocated to the regional Internet registries, who in turn issue them out to network operators. These network operators are then responsible for issuing them to their service subscribers. Think about that for a second, 5% of 4.3 billion. That leaves only 215 million addresses left to issue before IPv4 reaches its end. Experts expect the free pool of IPv4 addresses to be depleted in a matter of weeks. So, it seems that we’ve pushed IPv4 as far as it can possibly go and we did so in only 30 years. Without diminishing the incredible nature of that thought, what will happen once that eventual day finally comes? Will we no longer be able to surf the Net, check email, buy movie or plane tickets? Hopefully not. That’s what IPv6 was created to prevent.

IPv6 defines a new addressing method that’s infinitely more robust than its predecessor. It uses 128-bit addresses which supports a virtually unlimited number of devices (2 to 128th power). In other words, it will take a LOT longer than 30 years to exhaust those many addresses. We’ll have enough addresses to issue our future extraterrestrial networks on the Moon and Mars.

To get planet Earth ready for the mandatory switch to IPv6, the Internet Society is sponsoring World IPv6 Day on June 8, 2011. This global trial requires participants to support native IPv6 traffic on their main Web sites on that day. Google, Yahoo and Facebook, along with leading content delivery networks like Akamai and Limelight have all committed to the IPv6 trial. In order to participate in the trial, these companies must commit to running a dual-stack deployment which will allow IPv6 traffic to run alongside IPv4 traffic without utilizing shortcuts like DNS whitelisting. Until now, content providers like Facebook and Google have been supporting IPv6 via dedicated addresses separate from their main traffic-heavy sites.

These companies aren’t the only ones that believe change is eminent. Recently, the US Military started nudging its IT vendors to begin supporting IPv6 on their public facing sites. And, in September of 2010, the Office of Management and Budget mandated federal agencies to support IPv6 in dual-stack mode on their public facing sites by the fall of 2012.

The ball is definitely in motion to transition the world to the next version of the IP protocol. Hopefully this trial will prompt content providers, ISPs and manufacturers to start their transitions to IPv6 as soon as possible. As someone that’s ultimately responsible for technology and IT at my company, I am definitely excited to smoothly transition our internal and external operations over to IPv6.

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