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Perspective: IPv6, the Net's next frontier

Hitachi's Uri Rahamim warns that continued reliance on the 30-year-old IPv4 technology that underpins current Internet infrastructure puts the future of fixed and wireless Net-based services at severe risk.

    The number of Internet addresses available using the current generation of Internet infrastructure built on IPv4 technology will run out by 2005, jeopardizing the continued development of both fixed and wireless Net-based services.

    Considering that IPv4 is 30 years old, is it really surprising to learn the Internet Protocol (IP) address system is cracking under the strain of dramatic surges in demand for access? The situation is only going to get worse as 3G applications and services start to eat into the addressing sector.

    There are 4 billion Internet addresses in the world, of which 70 percent have been allocated to North America, leaving the rest of the connected world with only 30 percent. When Stanford University has more IP addresses than the whole of China, you realize the scale of the imbalance.

    When someone logs into the Internet they use an IP address. When they log off, someone else uses that address. When they log on again they take up another address.

    Third-generation, or 3G, services mean that people will always be connected to the Internet. An IP address will be needed for every person. Soon there will be over 1 billion mobile Internet users. These people will always be connected and are going to need the equivalent number of addresses. There is no way the current system can support that many people.

    When the Stanford University has more IP addresses than the whole of China, you realize the scale of the imbalance.
    The solution is for networks to upgrade the hardware that operators use from the current IPv4 system to the newer IPv6 system. This issue of adopting IPv6 is similar to a Y2K scenario: You cannot run away from it. IPv6 solves the address crunch by increasing the address space from 32 bits to 128 bits, which could accommodate virtually countless addresses.

    All the connected gadgets will need an IP address, and then there's the matter of mobile telephone use. Mobile phones are becoming smarter and Internet connectivity is a driving force. Add the 3G always-on access and the rapidly growing number of mobile users into the mix, and the problem of limited address space is very real.

    Companies linking large numbers of people to the Internet have so far overcome the limitation by using dynamic rather than static IP addressing schemes, as well as Network Address Translation (NAT), which maps multiple private IP addresses to a single public one. But it is time to move on. IPv4 cannot continue to be patched up with the likes of NAT, as it doesn't solve the problem of a lack of global IP addresses. Also, IPv6 provides end-to-end security and quality of service that cannot be provided by IPv4. In addition, it offers addressing mechanisms, such as fixed IP addresses for roaming different mobile networks that NAT does not provide.

    Carriers and service providers need to start developing an upgrade strategy to migrate to IPv6 now, or face being left with useless IPv4 equipment in another 18 months. Upgrading is not a trivial task and people should start to incorporate and test IPv6 with their existing network infrastructure. It is better to start sooner than later.

    Without causing disruptions, a dual-stack router, which can support IPv4 and IPv6 simultaneously, will allow a business to continue to run day-to-day IT operations while slowly migrating people to IPv6. This should be done in phases, and the use of tunneling techniques will make this transition transparent to computer users.

    The deployment strategy will more than likely dictate the costs associated with launching IPv6. But given the availability of dual-stack routers and tunneling mechanisms, the launch should be transparent from the computer user's point of view. People can continue to use their existing router even after the transition to IPv6.

    This issue of adopting IPv6 is similar to a Y2K scenario: You cannot run away from it.
    In the long run, IPv6 reduces network administration with its support for auto-configuration. This simplifies the tedious task of having to configure IP addresses manually during upgrades, moves and network expansion. The increase in the availability of IP addresses alone will enable new applications for consumers.

    What's more, the increases in IPv6 performance can be used to offer multimedia business applications, thereby expanding corporate revenue streams.

    In Europe, the first commercial IPv6 service network, Telia/Skanova, was put in place last year using gigabit routers. These routers can handle IPv4 and IPv6 traffic at full speed. Other carriers have gone through evaluations and initial trials with IPv6 products and technology, and it's estimated that by early to mid-2003 they will be complete and will then be ready for full deployment soon after.

    Even if there are no plans for an immediate launch, operators should acquaint themselves as much as possible with IPv6. Otherwise, they risk being left behind by their competitors.