IPv6: where are we now?

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Content Copyright © 2012 Bloor. All Rights Reserved.
Also posted on: Security Blog

According to the US government, “the strength and vitality of our economy, infrastructure, public safety and national security have been built on the foundation of cyberspace.” The McKinsey Global Institute recently published a study that aimed to quantify the impact of the internet on the world economy. It found that the internet has become a significant and essential factor in national economies and in the global economy itself, allowing established industries to be more productive and creating new jobs. Among advanced economies, it found that the internet accounts for around 6% of GDP and is a critical element in economic growth, accounting for 21% of GDP growth in those advanced countries over the past five years.

The internet is also growing rapidly, both in terms of numbers of people connecting to it, including high levels of growth in emerging economies, and in terms of the numbers and types of devices connecting to it. According to Cisco, there were about five billion devices connected to the internet at the end of 2011 and it predicts that number will rise to around 50 billion by 2020. Contributing to that growth is the proliferation of mobile devices, including smartphones and tablets, in-vehicle computers, televisions, cameras, sensors, medical devices and smart machines used for supporting the high growth of machine-to-machine applications in a wide range of industries and consumer environments.

Every one of those devices needs an IP address to connect to the internet, but the current prevalent communications protocol for internet traffic, IPv4, has only 4.3 billion IP addresses available and that stock has been exhausted. As of February 2011, the last IPv4 addresses were handed out to regional internet registries. We have known about this problem for a long time and a successor to IPv4 – IPv6 – has been available for many years, offering an infinitely larger number of addresses. In order for the growth of the internet to continue and the benefits of emerging technologies to be realised, the transition to IPv6 is critical.

People have been fear-mongering about the forthcoming address depletion for some years now, but very little has been done in the way of IPv6 adoption. However, according to Axel Pawlik, managing director of Europe’s internet registry, RIPE NCC, “We are really running out now. By the end of this year, Europe will not have any IPv4 addresses easily available. If you don’t do IPv6 now, you will lose connectivity to the IPv6 network. There are solutions for limited connectivity, but they are hard and costly. It will not be a big global crisis, but growth will slow.” Because IPv6 is not backwards compatible with IPv4, customers with IPv6 devices will not be able to reach IPv4-only services, which could lead to lost sales to customers in high-growth emerging economies in particular.

Things are getting better. Penetration is growing and the future is rosy. But it is still not good enough. According to Pawlik, heads will begin to roll now amongst those who have not even started planning for the IPv6 migration. The situation is better than it was last year, and certainly better than five years ago, but some people will only move when they see the evidence of the address depletion by being unable to secure any further IPv4 addresses.

To encourage adoption, the World IPv6 Day was held in June 2011, which saw major content providers enabling IPv6 for their primary domains for 24 hours. Tom Coffeen, IP evangelist for technology vendor Infoblox, states that the day was a great success, with no major operational issues encountered, and the volume of IPv6 traffic doubled during the event. Coffeen also states that significant progress has been made with IPv6 adoption since then, with the percentage of zones under .com, .net and .org domains offering IPv6 support increasing by 1,900% in the past year and a growing number of enterprises have begun, or are continuing, substantial IPv6 adoption initiatives.

However, after the 2011 IPv6 day, many organisations switched off IPv6 support and growth has not been seen at the levels expected. Because of this, many organisations are continuing their efforts to raise awareness of the need for the switch to IPv6. Among the initiatives was a second IPv6 Day, held in June 2012 – this time entitled the World IPv6 Launch, where organisations were encouraged to enable IPv6 on their networks and to keep IPv6 enabled after the day ended. According to Scott Iekel-Johnson, product manager at Arbor Networks, the amount of native IPv6 traffic grew 20% with the launch of World IPv6 Launch day and this has remained steady since then. According to Iekel-Johnson, “This shows that hopefully many of the newly enabled IPv6 services are here to stay – another important milestone on the road to ubiquitous IPv6 adoption.”

Fear-mongering apart, the time to act really has come. If you are not even planning for IPv6 now, you may lose out to your more nimble competitors and miss the ability to cash in on the benefits of emerging technologies that require high-speed internet connections. According to Pawlik, time is really running out now and there are literally only weeks left in Europe.