Outsourcing IT Q&A: what is IPv6 and why does my business need to know about it?
- Michel Robert
- On April 1, 2011
You have probably seen the stories in the national press recently forewarning of an impending collapse of the internet. These articles claim that the internet is, quite simply, running out of space, due to the fact that the Internet Protocol format we currently use, IPv4, has been exhausted. The good news is that, although it’s true that there is a limited supply of the current IPv4 addresses, the internet isn’t about to self-destruct. However, the IT industry is currently conducting a huge back office operation to introduce a replacement system known as IPv6, and it is important for businesses to get up to speed on what all this means for their IT operations.
Q: What exactly is IPv4, and why do we need IPv6?
A: IPv4 is the original Internet Protocol and is the current foundation for most internet communication methods. When originally introduced in 1981, there were nearly 4.3 billion individual IP addresses at the disposal of the Internet Assigned Number Authority (IANA). These were distributed internationally to countries seeking internet access, and for many years, there have been a sufficient number of IP addresses to go round. However, it would be an understatement to say that no-one anticipated that the internet would develop as rapidly as it has.
As a direct result of this growth, the last block of IPv4 addresses was allocated in February this year. However, in contrast to what the tabloids would have you believe, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) foresaw this issue and developed a new Internet Protocol that increased the amount of available addresses by increasing the bit size from 32 to 128; much like adding an extra letter to the typical postcode format to cope with new housing developments.
Very simply, an IPv4 internet address looks like this: 203.0.113.101, while an IPv6 address looks like this: 2001:0DB8:0000:03DE:2DA0:3F27:0A0E:1026.
Q: What does IPv6 mean for my business?
A: While IPv4 and IPv6 are parallel technologies, they are independent and incompatible. So if you don’t have an IPv6 network connection, and haven’t considered the effect this may have on your business, you may be caught unaware by a number of issues. For example, if you use PCs (with Windows Vista or Windows 7) that default to IPv6 when searching websites that are IPv6 enabled, your PC will automatically try to use this protocol to connect to the website. If the IPv6 connection is not there, it will fall back to IPv4. Yet, while all of this is happening, the user would experience a delay and may complain of a slow internet connection.
If your business runs any internet-facing system (whether that’s a website, an e-commerce application, or a VPN appliance) you need to check if it has any reliance on the IP address of the client systems. Today, for example, some e-commerce systems work out a customer’s location from their IP address to process an order and work out the right shipping rates, amongst other details. Yet with IPv6, this same level of automation won’t be possible. Instead a business will need to find another solution, such as making it necessary for the customer to input their own location.
If you are considering outsourcing your IT requirements, a sensible procurement approach would be to look for a network policy that enables communications with both IPv4 and IPv6 protocols. If you choose a provider only equipped to support IPv4, there is the risk that you might reach the critical IPv6 transition point before your contract with your outsourcing provider reaches the end of its lifecycle. Working with the right managed services provider, equipped with the knowledge and expertise for managing both IPv4 and IPv6 networks and the applications dependent on these, will enable you to resolve any compatibility and management issues.
Q: I outsource my network and/or application management: what does IPv6 mean for me?
A: At some point in the future, users will not be able to use the IPv4 Internet like they do today, if they can use it at all. Your business needs to cater for users of both protocols; not doing so could leave it unreachable (down) to groups of users, or could impact their ability to experience your site at its intended speed, negating any investment made in your infrastructure.
It is therefore important to ask your network provider the following questions:
- Does the provider have an IPv6 strategy? It is important to know whether they are IPv6-enabled alongside offering traditional IPv4 connectivity and devices. By now, you should expect that your provider has a stock of IPv6 addresses for distribution among its customers to support existing IPv4 addresses, so that you can provide ‘dual stack’ access and ensure your network can co-exist with IPv4 and IPv6.
- Is my business’s international audience in geographical locations without abundant IPv4 address resources? Your provider should be able to advise you on this, and if so, an early adoption of IPv6 would be a sensible route to ensuring maintained international accessibility to your web-based content and services.
- What are the costs associated with transferring now, as opposed to being a late adopter? The level of investment and time to migrate to IPv6 will vary from network to network. Businesses need to weigh up the costs of becoming IPv6 enabled now versus remaining on IPv4 only, and your provider should be able to discuss the pros and cons of implementation in line with your business’s priorities.
Q: World IPv6 Day – what’s that?
A: World IPv6 Day takes place on 8th June 2011, and contrary to popular belief, it’s not the day the Internet comes to an end. Instead, web giants such as Facebook, Yahoo, Google and Limelight will provide their content over both IPv4 and IPv6. This will be the first global-scale test drive of IPv6, aiming to increase awareness and motivation among the industry, as well as highlight any issues that may arise or need to be addressed to ensure a successful transition in the future.
For more information or to test your network for IPv6 compatibility, click here to visit the Internet Society’s test page.