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Transitioning to IPv6

Stop for a moment and try to estimate how many times during the past week you read, heard or spoke the words “video,” “cloud,” “mobility,” “smart grid” and “smart buildings.” These are just some of the information technology-enabled services that are changing the way we live, learn and work. We are living in exciting times empowered by rapid innovation in information technologies, and the foundation of it all is the Internet Protocol (IP). Video, cloud, mobility and smart-grid services depend on IP, making the Internet Protocol-based infrastructures strategically important to any competitive business or organization. Yet just as we started to scratch the surface of what is possible, IP ran out of resources, and ran out of IP addresses.

On Feb. 3, in a news conference organized by the Number Resource Organization (NRO), the official representative of the five Regional Internet Registries (RIRs), we learned that the free pool of IPv4 addresses was exhausted. Raúl Echeberría, chairman of NRO, described Feb. 3 as “a historic day in the history of the Internet, and one we have been anticipating for quite some time. The future of the Internet is in IPv6. All Internet stakeholders must now take definitive action to deploy IPv6.”

IPv6: the next generation of IP

Work on a solution to the IPv4 address exhaustion problem started in 1994. While the new protocol significantly increased the size of the IP address space, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the standardization body, took this opportunity to integrate the lessons learned from running IPv4 over all these years. At first sight, IPv6 is very similar to IPv4 even though the two protocols are not compatible. A closer look, however, will uncover important differences that go from design optimization to new architectural concepts. The implications of these differences must be understood within every aspect of an IT environment, from layer two to applications, from tools to operations.

The key takeaways from drawing a parallel between IPv4 and IPv6 are:

  • Similar but not the sameThere are many similarities between IPv4 and IPv6 so you can leverage your IP experience. However, the two protocols are not compatible. (See Figure 1.)
  • Bigger, better addressesThe 128-bit IPv6 addresses deliver a significantly larger address space than IPv4's 32-bit addresses. At the same time, IPv6 architecture assigns scope to address providing new design, operations and troubleshooting options.
  • Product support for IPv6 is not a givenFeature and performance parity between IPv4 and IPv6 support in products is still a work in progress. Moreover, IPv6 places new requirements on products, from hardware to software design.

Broadcast Engineering has been informing readers about the upcoming transition to IPv6 starting with the December 2008, overview of the protocol, “IPv6 is coming.” In a July 2009 article, “Implementing IPv6,” we covered the deployment aspects of this transition, particularly focusing on the implications to video content distribution services. This article builds on the previous two to help you plan for the transition.

IPv4 exhaustion and IPv6 transition

What does the Feb. 3 announcement mean to us? On Jan. 31, IANA assigned two /8 blocks to APNIC (the Asia Pacific RIR), which triggered a policy requiring IANA to distribute the remaining five /8 blocks to the RIRs. Each RIR has at a minimum a /8 left to assign to requestors.

Will there be a run on the bank? The answer is no. Requesters will have to spend a lot more time and resources in justifying the need. Moreover, by policy, every request for IPv4 address space must also describe the requester's IPv6 adoption plans. In the end, however, depending on demand, the RIRs will exhaust their pools within weeks or a few months.

The transition to IPv6 is about scaling up and simplifying the design of our leading IT and service initiatives, it is about bringing more users and devices into the Internet fold, and last but not least, it is about building next-generation IP infrastructures. In summary, the transition to IPv6 is critical to maintaining the competitive advantage of your organization. In fact, market-leading, innovative companies have already committed to IPv6. The June 8 World IPv6 Day, organized by the Internet Society as a worldwide IPv6 interop, will be enabled by tech giants such as Google, Facebook, Yahoo and Akamai.

World IPv6 Day marks an irreversible trend towards the next phase of the Internet. The question is: When should I start the transition process? To take full advantage of the transition and to implement it with minimal costs and impact to productivity, you should start planning right away. A minimal investment in planning today would help achieve readiness at marginal cost through refresh cycles and inflight projects. Analyze the risks and plan to take full advantage of the opportunity. Be prepared before your competition acts and your partners and customers demand IPv6 connectivity.

Preparing for the IPv6 transition

The sooner you start defining your IPv6 transition plans the better. First and foremost, make sure your staff gets the necessary training on IPv6. The transition is not one size fits all, so the best way to address the specifics of your environment is to have a knowledgeable staff involved in the planning process early on. Second, invest in a dedicated planning effort. An optimal transition requires a comprehensive approach to planning. Domain expertise must be combined with in-depth IPv6 knowledge and experience to define the target architecture, coordinate across organizations and initiatives, and to adjust policies and processes. Last, but not least, initiate a risk assessment effort that will include an analysis of the security threats prior to enabling IPv6. IPv6 is a ubiquitous technology that will touch all aspects of your organization.

IPv6 is not just about the risk of losing competiveness, but also it is about the opportunity to leapfrog competition. IPv6 already changed the competitive landscape and several markets. It is thus imperative to take a strategic perspective on this transition. The next generation of your infrastructure will be running on IPv6, and this is the opportunity to map business priorities to infrastructure requirements and start planning for its implementation. At a minimum, consider the risk to your franchise if your website is not IPv6-reachable on June 8 while your competition's is.

IPv6 is the inflexion point that, along with cloud, mobility and applications, will shape the next generation of market leaders. Where do you stand with respect to IPv6?

Dr. Ciprian Popoviciu is the director of the infrastructure/cloud group at TechnoDyne.