Moving to IPv6 – A Calm and Gradual Affair

By Melvyn Wray, Senior VP of Product Marketing EMEA at Allied Telesis.

If you believe the hype around the decline of IPv4 available website addresses, you may well fear that time is running out and that soon the internet will implode under the pressure. Similar to the frenzy around the supposed Y2K bug, I’m afraid this just isn’t going to happen. The truth is that nothing will really change on the surface; IPv6 will gradually be introduced and for the next few years both IPv4 and IPv6 will coexist. The IT industry has known about the move from IPv4 to IPv6 for a long time now and manufacturers have been producing IPv6-ready hardware and software for many years. It has only been since this year’s announcement of the IPv6 Day and the news from the IANA that IPv4 addresses really are about to run out, that people have started to debate what this really means for consumers and businesses and what needs to be done to prepare the network sooner rather than later.

Drivers behind IPv6 adoption

The main group to feel the brunt of the switchover will be the ISPs. They’re the ones that are ultimately responsible for driving the switchover as they will be assigned the new IPv6 addresses from the IANA and tasked with handing them to customers. There is no doubt the ISPs have a lot of work to do as they need to be testing how IPv6 will integrate with IPv4 now and giving guidance to their customers on what to expect from them and how to plan towards the transition. I expect in the run-up to World IPv6 Day in June, individual ISPs will try to differentiate themselves by helping to educate the public about the transition and offering a service to test websites live on the day. Hopefully this event will be a catalyst for the widespread availability of IPv6 addresses in the UK and around the world.

What is interesting about the different viewpoints on IPv6 is the fact that a lot of attention is being given to countries that are “leading the charge” such as those in Asia. The real reason that many Asian countries are much further ahead in IPv6 adoption is because they began using the internet later than developed countries. This meant that they were supplied with fewer IPv4 internet addresses in the first place and as internet usage grew they quickly ran out of addresses and were forced down the IPv6 route.  For example, the whole 2008 Beijing Olympics network was on IPv6 and all broadcasters and partners had to convert to IPv6 for that period.

With the emergence of virtualisation and cloud computing, IT managers have to look after an ever more complex hybrid computing environment and this is even more reason to properly prepare the network for IPv6. Along with other technology vendors, we’ve been making our networking products IPv6-compliant for years and I would expect all IT purchases from now on to require the same and for IT managers to be testing how the network will develop with both IPv4 and IPv6 addresses. For example they can look at purchasing routers that will support “tunnelling” to link websites in both IPv4 and IPv6 and monitoring how this works at peak time.

Benefits of IPv6

Another topical aspect about the move to IPv6 is finding out who outside of Asia is already thinking ahead of the game and testing IPv6 to find the key benefits it will bring. One main benefit is the enhanced security that IPv6 addresses offer, such as the fact that IPSec (security standard of IPv4) is already built in so that any new devices added to the network are protected behind a firewall and do not need to be translated. The security benefits are a key factor for industries that need high levels of security for users accessing different tiers of confidential data, such as the military, university and hospital networks. This is why the Department of Defence in the US already implements IPv6 across its network and the Ministry of Defence in the UK is trialling it at the moment. Oxford University is also testing how it will work to take advantage of the security features and the university JANET network is already on IPv6.

There are also endless possibilities for remote management of devices with IPv6, so I predict an explosion of innovations this year and next as the transition to IPv6 internet addresses begins.  As IPv6 allows every device to potentially have an IPv6 address and be securely connected the internet, we will start to see for example, more home management systems allowing people to control their thermostat and light switches and watch their security cameras from their mobile or laptop whilst on holiday.

What now?

For now, the key is having a plan. IT managers need to start preparing for the transition by analysing their network and testing how IPv6 will be integrated but keeping in mind that it will happen on a gradual basis. They also need to speak to their ISPs about what to do as IPv6 addresses start becoming available in the UK. There is no doubt that the switchover will be challenging and will cause a few headaches along the way, however in the long term it will mean that the internet will become simpler and more stable, bringing a host of new benefits to our growing digital world.

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