IPv6 is coming

You cannot afford to ignore this technology.
IPv6 is everywhere, including on sensors taken up Mt. Everest by Ciprian Popoviciu.

The Internet Protocol (IP) provides the leading and most rapidly growing infrastructure for today's communications services. Through innovation, its best effort nature was complemented with functionality that enabled IP to evolve from delivering data to delivering voice and video communications as well. This convergence of services opened up the door to further enhancements through the integration of seemingly disjointed services into a common framework that enhances the user experience as well as the user's work efficiency, learning and entertainment experiences.

Spurred by the Internet, the adoption of IP, in its current version IPv4, grew at rates never experienced by any other technology. As expected, yet often times ignored, this growth consumed the most fundamental resource of the protocol, its address space. Despite ingenious and sometimes costly engineering extensions combined with stricter address allocation policies, the consumption of IPv4 addresses continues to accelerate, and we now expect the global address space to be exhausted sometime around 2010. The most worrisome fact is that we only got started with the adoption of IP. The Internet and IPv4 haven't even reached the 22 percent of the world's population.

The emergence of a new category of IP-enabled devices, such as sensors, readers and actuators, will lead to significantly higher demand for IP addresses. So the natural question is: Where do we go from here?

The transition to IPv6

The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) foresaw the challenge of a limited address space more than a decade ago and started working on a replacement for IPv4. The IETF wanted to develop a replacement with plenty of addressing resources so it would last a long time. This protocol is called IPv6. While the adoption of IPv6 was postponed for many years due to engineering workarounds that put IPv4 on life-support, we are now getting close to an inevitable transition.

The only choice left is to decide when we should transition, considering all the risks and costs related to early vs. late adoption. Either way, broadcasters must face the need to start planning, deploying and operating IPv6-based infrastructures.

What is IPv6?

The most important things to remember about IPv6 are:

  • IPv6 is an evolution of IP, not a revolutionIn this sense, if you are familiar with IPv4, you will, for the most part, feel comfortable with IPv6. The IETF simply added more resources to the protocol, dealt with some lessons learned from operating IPv4 and left most everything else in place.
  • IPv6 and IPv4 do not interoperateDo not think for a moment that you will turn on IPv6 in your network and it will simply augment the current infrastructure. The two protocols can talk to each other only through a translation gateway.
  • IPv6 has many more IP addresses than IPv4IETF expanded the IP address from 32 bits in IPv4 to 128 bits in IPv6, which leads to a significantly higher address space. By comparison, it is said that IPv6 has an address for every proton in the universe.

At the time this article is published, the main driver for IPv6 adoption remains its large address space. Many other supporting arguments were conjured in the past; however, none of them demonstrated significant return on investment (ROI). The natural focus on ROI is sometimes detrimental in analyzing the need to work on an IPv6 strategy. IPv6 is a foundational technology that makes it more difficult to build a strong ROI case.

Moreover, it is more appropriate to look at IPv6 in terms of what we stand to lose by not planning and deploying it rather than what we stand to gain. Waiting for too long leads to significantly higher deployment costs. These costs can be avoided through early planning.

How IPv6 affects you

What makes IPv6 a matter of interest to broadcast engineering? With more content distribution services being delivered over IP, it is important to understand the evolution of the IP infrastructures that support them. The need to migrate to IPv6 must be addressed by preparing the networks for the new protocol. In fact, some large service providers leverage IPv6 deployments to deliver audio and video content, including HD video, over IPv6 multicast.

The choice of IPv6 is not based on a dramatic advantage it has over IPv4 but rather because of its addressing resources, which enable a cleaner, easy-to-scale infrastructure. The important thing to note, however, is that broadcast services are being offered over IPv6, and their numbers are likely to increase.

What you can do

There are several things that any infrastructure manager should do even if he doesn't feel an immediate need to deploy IPv6.

First, increase the IPv6 competence of staff. Training is an important step toward getting ready for an IPv6 deployment. Starting early will reduce costs, and it will provide the expertise needed to plan the deployment. Make sure training is targeted.

Second, update equipment purchasing requirements. For all new purchases, both hardware and software, place clear IPv6 requirements. This will help significantly reduce the deployment costs as equipment and applications are readied for IPv6 through the regular refresh process. In fact, add an IPv6 dimension to all the ongoing IT projects as they provide an opportunity to upgrade the infrastructure to support IPv6.

Third, evaluate the IPv6 readiness of the infrastructure, both hardware and software. This will provide a clear picture of some of the potential challenges during an IPv6 deployment.

Finally, plan the IPv6 deployment. Start planning early because it will enable you to make the most of this transition.

The most important thing to remember is that it is not a matter of whether IPv6 is coming or not; it is a matter of when. With the rapid exhaustion of the IPv4 address space, this might be sooner than you expect. Do not let IPv6 be a costly surprise.

Ciprian Popoviciu, PhD, CCIE, is a technical leader within the Networked Solutions Integration Test Engineering group at Cisco Systems. He is also a senior member of the IEEE.

Ciprian Popoviciuis co-author of “Global IPv6 Strategies,” available from Cisco Press. For more information, visitwww.globalipv6strategies.com.