What is IPv6 and when can we expect it to take over the world?

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What is IPv6 and when can we expect it to take over the world?

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Added by March 23, 2012

While the title sounds like a quote from Pinky and the Brain, there is no reason to fear. It is not a hostile takeover. Yet human beings seem to be notoriously poor at predicting the future. It’s always much easier to wait until something occurs and then spend your time trying to convince everyone you knew it was going to happen. I once watched a letter carrier walk into a Fortuneteller’s place of business and drop an electric bill on the desk. The first thought that popped into my head was, “Don’t they already know the amount of their electric bill?” This just demonstrates that it is difficult to predict the future.

That being said, let’s predict the future. IPv6 has been moiling on back and front burners for over fifteen years, but full implementation eludes us (at least in the United States). Two main hindrances appear to exist. One is that we were continuing to function quite well using IPv4 addresses due to Network Address Translation (NAT) and Private Addresses (10., 172.16-31, 192.168…, i.e., RFC 1918). The second hindrance appears to be how scary the addresses look. Eight hexadecimal quartets – they just look intimidating.

My brain likens this foot dragging to our resistance to the metric system. We know it’s better, but we kick and scream and drag our feet. If we keep pushing it out past the event horizon, we don’t have to address it. Some computerized chess algorithms play this way – pushing defeat just a few more moves away to try to stave it off – and it doesn’t work.

This mentality will not serve IT professionals either. So let us confront the situation head on instead of surrounding our craniums with silicon (is that like burying our heads in the sand?). Perhaps our hesitancy stems from a lack of familiarity. We can fix that with – you guessed it – familiarity. It was RFC 2460, published in 1998, which first defined the protocol in structured format. A basic difference between the existing IPv4 address space and the IPv6 address space is the sheer number of IPv6 addresses. While IPv4 has just over 4 billion (not all of which are even used), IPv6, with a 128 bit scheme, has 3.4 x 1038  addresses. While everyone has his or her favorite way to accentuate the grand scale of this number, here is mine: Some scientists estimate that there are about 300 sextillion stars in the universe.

Would you think there are enough IPv6 addresses to have one per star? If you shouted a resounding YES!, not only would you be correct, but you would be very correct. It turns out that there are enough addresses that each star could have 1 quadrillion addresses. The goal is to never run out again. There, I said it!

If one reviews projections that have been made in the past, it seems that most of them, especially if they were published before 2006, predicted that IPv6 would be much more entrenched than it actually is now. As of this writing, March 2012, IPv6 is still on the horizon for many. That is not to say it is being ignored, it is just not fully implemented. One main push to give this project some stimulus is that the Department of Defense (DOD) is moving to IPv6. When the people that invented the internet (really!) move to IPv6, the rest will follow.

The answer to the question of when it will happen in your organization is heavily dependent on the needs of your organization. If you are an ISP, you may be already there. If you are the IT shop in a small to mid-size company, you may just be reading about it now. Once you get to the point where you are ready to step out onto the IPv6 ice (or you are mandated to do so by those who sign your check), it pays to research the project from start to finish. One of the considerations is the migration strategy. In deciding how to get from point A (IPv4) to point B (IPv6), one crucial aspect should be to avoid interfering with user functionality. Good planning and execution will enable a company to achieve this by slowly implementing IPv6 hardware in the network without disabling IPv4 usability. If this dance is performed well, there will come a day when the last IPv4 application or hardware is powered down and…nobody will notice! Two popular migration strategies are Dual Stack and Tunneling.

  • Dual Stack essentially means just running both protocols simultaneously.
  • Tunneling encapsulates IPv6 packets inside IPv4 packets.

If you have the option, go with Dual Stack as it allows both protocols to coexist peacefully and supports gradual transition. The other alternative mentioned here, tunneling, increases complexity and administrative overhead, and is mainly geared to service providers wishing to offer IPv6 services and larger companies wanting to connect disparate IPv6 networks.

If you are ready to participate in the short term, have all 128 bits set to go on June 6th, 2012. This is World IPv6 launch day, and it will be supported by some major players, among them Google, Facebook, AT&T, and others. Feel free to join the party. This time (unlike in 2011) once they go live, there will be no going back.

Since there is no ‘drop dead’ date by which this transition must occur for everyone, once again the main motivating force is the needs of your own company. Since Cisco has been developing strategies along this line from the mid-90s, they have a wealth of experience and suggestions to share, and are willing to guide companies along this path.

Tread mightily into the future, but take the right tools!

Mark Jacob
Cisco Instructor – Interface Technical Training
Phoenix, AZ

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