SEATTLE--Microsoft is lobbying the computing industry to start moving the Internet to the next-generation underpinnings that will lay the groundwork for much richer networking.
At its WinHEC conference here, Microsoft executives urged hardware and software engineers to support IPv6, a replacement of the IPv4 version of Internet Protocol that underlies all communications across the Internet. IPv6's chief benefit is enabling a vastly larger number of computing devices to connect to the network by essentially boosting IPv4's limited number of addresses.
"We need your help. Work with network administrators to get IPv6 deployed in your enterprise. And build native support for IPv6 in every application or piece of hardware you build," Mike Shappell, a product unit manager in Microsoft's Windows networking group, said in a speech Wednesday. "It will take time for the world to move to IPv6. Now's the time to start."
Among the reasons Microsoft would prefer to see IPv6 become widely used is that it enables the company's vision for peer-to-peer networking, the connection of computing devices without need for centralized servers. Shappell also unveiled Microsoft peer-to-peer plumbing called Peer Name Resolution Protocol (PNR) that lets devices find each other on the network.
Another reason for the IPv6 push is that it helps Microsoft to fulfill its vision of the PC being an all-purpose communication device that lets a person chat using text, sound and video.
Microsoft's grand hopes for networking are tempered by concerns about major problems, many of which IPv6 won't alleviate on its own.
The spread of broadband networking--high-speed Internet connections to the home--is "stalled," said Jawad Khaki, vice president of Windows networking and communications, blaming a lack of applications that truly need fast connections.
People are reluctant to use cell phones to tap into the Internet because they have to pay for each bit of information transferred while lacking any cost gauge that could alleviate the fear they'll have to pay $50 just to synchronize their phone and PC.
Security, too, is a problem, with roaming laptops undermining the effectiveness of firewall software to protect corporate computer networks.
But the worst headache for consumers is the age-old computer challenge: complexity. Microsoft called for simplification of wireless networking and said some of that simplicity will come with "Longhorn," the successor to Windows XP. It touted the benefits of a unified wireless architecture, in which a person's computer can automatically switch from one wireless system such as 802.11 to another such as high-speed cell phone service.
Then there are the IPv4 problems. IPv4 has a limited number of IP addresses, which Microsoft expects to be used up sometime in 2002 or 2003. Moreover, network address translators (NATs) that let a large number of computers share a single IP address have major drawbacks when trying to set up direct communications between devices or letting devices roam among different access points. Moreover, IPv4 address ownership is concentrated disproportionately in the United States, leaving out Europe and Japan.
IPv6, although a well-established standard, is still remote. Microsoft will include its first supported version in a service pack for Windows XP coming midway through 2002, but it will be years before higher-level applications support IPv6 and more years before most of the Internet converts over, Microsoft predicts.
The use of IPv6 is being sparked by the arrival of third-generation cell phones, which can communicate faster than existing models. But supporting IPv6 requires massive changes to software and hardware. For example, high-speed switches from companies such as Cisco Systems that route traffic from across the Internet currently have highly specialized chips that process Internet addresses. Those chips must be redesigned to grapple with the longer IPv6 addresses.
In the meantime, Microsoft is advocating use of intermediate steps, such as local IPv6 networks and technology that lets data with IPv6 addresses "tunnel" within IPv4 networks.
IPv6 is a key step for Microsoft's vision of peer-to-peer communications, a technology well adapted to the software maker's PC-centric view of the universe. Peer-to-peer communications today are severely hampered by the use of network address translators, which generally block communications such as the unsolicited requests for information that are a staple of Microsoft's peer-to-peer plan.
"NATs are evil," Khaki said.
Shappell explained that Microsoft has created an algorithm that lets peers assemble into networks, finding each other without requiring central server that keeps track of every peer's address.
The heart of the technology is the Peer Name Resolution Protocol, a system that mirrors the purpose of the Domain Name System that's used to find servers on the Internet. The main difference: DNS uses a central server to keep track of the address list, but PNRP spreads this information across the array of peers supplemented by optional central servers.
PNRP lets peers publish information to the Internet at large as well as to more limited, private groups. And the system works on a network with millions of nodes, Shappell said. However, the system requires awkward intermediaries to function on IPv4 networks.
With its peer-to-peer plans, Microsoft is dueling with longtime rival Sun Microsystems, which is trying to light a fire under the development of peer-to-peer work around its Jxta technology, which is released as open source.
Another networking technology on the horizon is "Soft Wi-Fi," which lets a PC with a wireless network card act like the hub of a wireless network. Wi-Fi (a resurrection of the older audio term high-fidelity, or "hi-fi," retrofitted with the more modern "wireless" word) refers to 802.11b and related networking standards, which currently require a base transmitter to relay information from the Internet to the wireless network.
These 802.11 base stations, called access points, are getting cheaper but still cost money. With Soft Wi-Fi, a PC with an 802.11 card will be able to serve in the access point's stead, Microsoft said.
Soft Wi-Fi will be able to augment existing wireless networks that are hampered by problems such as physical barriers that block radio signals.
Microsoft is building the technology into a future version of Windows.