IPv6 creeps out of network core and toward the end user

The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) in 1995 defined IPv6, the next generation of Internet Protocols that promises to extend the life and expand the functionality of the Internet. IETF envisioned a dual-stack transition in which the new protocols would quickly take over and IPv4 could be shut off.

“There was a problem with that strategy, in that there was no economical incentive for deployment of IPv6,” said IETF chairman Russ Housley. Hardware and software support it and networks have begun to enable it, but IPv6 has languished.

But IPv6 finally is beginning to make its way to the consumer.

“We have accepted IPv6, that it’s real and that we need to go there,” said Lorenzo Colitti, network engineer for Google, which announced in January public availability of IPv6 services. “It’s not rocket science. If you have a production-ready IPv6 network, talk to us and we can provide all the Google services over IPv6.”

Housley and Colitti participated in a panel discussion on the deployment of IPv6 hosted this week by the Internet Society at the IETF conference in San Francisco.

“The key thing we are trying to convey is that IPv6 really does represent opportunities, even in an economic situation that is pretty grim,” said Leslie Daigle, chief Internet technology officer for the Internet Society, in an interview with Government Computer News. “In IPv4 there is less opportunity. We’re at a fork in the road,” where networks must choose whether to continue supporting IPv4 with patches such as Network Address Translation (NAT), or move to the new paradigm.

Work began on IPv6 because it was becoming obvious, even in the 1980s, that the IPv4 address space would become exhausted in the foreseeable future. But changes in how the Internet is being used have extended the life and IPv4 and complicated the transition to IPv6.

“The migration path is very different than it might have been thought about first in 1994,” said Kurtis Lindqvist, chief executive officer of Netnod Internet Exchange in Stockholm. “Most of the networks out there today are capable of IPv6 being deployed, but without getting the packets out to the end users, it doesn’t help us much.”

Google, Daigle says, “is front and center” in bringing IPv6 packets to the user.

Google saw a business case for moving to IPv6 in the multitude of new non-PC devices that could use the Internet, but will not be able to get IPv4 addresses Colitti said. Enterprises have addressed this problem with NAT, but that is not practical at the consumer level.

“NAT is a small nightmare,” he said. “It’s very hard to maintain NATs. Deploying IPv6 is much simpler than just deploying layers and layers of NAT.”

Google obtained IPv6 address space in 2005 and began working on engineering and network architecture in July 2007.

The company is “engineer-driven,” Colitti said, “with a culture that allows us to start projects by spending just some of our time on them.” With a handful of people spending 20 percent of their time on it, an inexpensive pilot network was built. “Once the network was up, we saw that applications followed,” and within 18 months the company was offering Google services via IPv6.

The task of deploying IPv6 can be simplified because capabilities do not have to match those of IPv4 immediately, because traffic levels will not match those of IPv4 immediately. But once the services were announced, traffic spiked overnight, he said.

“When you do large deployments, it will just appear out of nowhere,” he said. “There is not organic growth. Last week we turned on Google maps and we saw a threefold increase overnight. So be aware of that. Do not point to the lack of traffic as the lack of an incentive for v6, because when all the pieces are in place, traffic just appears, from nowhere.”

One network provider offered some words of caution. Even when the pool of new IPv4 addresses is exhausted, IPv4 services will not dry up. “Everything that is deployed still works,” said Alain Durand, director of IP architecture for Comcast. “Don’t panic.”

New consumer gadgets eventually might offer a market for IPv6, but it has not happened yet, he said. He cited new digital cameras with built in Wi-Fi to upload photos. “It’s a really nice service, except that it’s all IPv4,” he said. Same thing with new 60-inch TVs with built-in cable modems for Web surfing. Industry must embrace IPv6, he said, but cannot abandon IPv4.

Daigle said it will not be a killer app that drives consumers to IPv6, but network performance with existing applications.

“I think what we are going to see increasingly, as more NAT and other mechanisms are deployed to keep IPv4 going, accessing existing services over IPv4 will be less compelling than accessing them with IPv6,” she said.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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