IP version 6: the next generation of the Internet
Lori: I need to start off this week's column by congratulating my partner on his promotion. Kevin is now acting director of the InfoWorld Test Center. Way to go, Kevin!
Now for our topic: Many readers have inquired about the new version of the IP referred to as IPv6 (Internet Protocol Version 6) or IPng (Internet Protocol Next Generation) and want to know more about it.
The current version of IP (IPv4) has been around for a long time (it was adopted in 1981) and is showing its age. With the widespread growth of the Internet, IPv4 has reached its limits. Chief among these is IPv4's use of 32-bit address space, which means we are running out of IP addresses as more and more devices (not only PCs) join the Internet.
IPv6 was designed by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and is intended to replace IPv4. The new version promises to bring improvements for addressing, management, and security as well as more support for mobile devices. One of the improvements with the next-generation Internet is the expansion of the address space to 128 bits; thus millions more global addresses can join the fun.
Today you can use NAT (network address translation) to conserve IP addresses (see last week's column) and combat the IP shortage. But NAT is a short-term solution. We need IPv6 to keep growing.
IPv6 will also improve management with its auto-configuration capabilities. These are similar to using DHCP (dynamic host configuration protocol), through which one or several IP addresses can be automatically assigned and shared by a much larger number of clients, each of which appears to have a unique address. Thus NAT and DHCP won't necessarily be needed in the future; however, they won't disappear quickly, as both IPv4 and IPv6 will co-exist for some time to come.
The IPv6 future is here today: Many vendors, such as Compaq, Nokia, Cisco, H-P, and Nortel have already shipped products. There is a slew of information available at many of their Web sites, and on many other sites (See table listing related sites.)
Let's see what Kevin has to say about the next step in the future of the Internet.
Kevin: As Lori pointed out, the IPv6 standard promises a great deal for Internet infrastructure as well as for the services and devices that are available. However, there remain many roadblocks to widespread adoption.
For the true power and possibilities of IPv6 to be realized, it needs to gain widespread acceptance and deployment, and not just from first-tier Internet backbone providers. Every ISP, corporation, and network provider needs to fully support IPv6 before we can enjoy all the benefits. Of course, most all of the network infrastructure products (routers, switches, firewalls, etc.) that are being shipped today support IPv6. But in most implementations, IPv4 is still being used without IPv6 support even being enabled.
There are workarounds to this that allow companies to deploy a full-featured IPv6 corporate network while maintaining IPv4 connectivity to the outside world. In this scenario, a NAT-like router handles the conversion between protocol standards so that end users inside the network have full transparent access to the Internet while using IPv6 exclusively in-house. Today deployments of this type are still in the vast minority.
One industry that stands to benefit greatly from the move to IPv6 is the wireless handheld and Internet-enabled phone providers. Fortunately, using the abovee-mentioned translation techniques, these companies can roll out IPv6 enabled handhelds and phones with all of the benefits associated with them, while still maintaining full compatibility with the existing Internet. With the explosion of wireless Internet access options, I hope this trend will help to push along the IPv6 standard.
But don't hold your breath. The expense of moving to IPv6 is still great, and most IT directors and CTOs are hard-pressed to justify the expenditure for true IPv6 deployments at this stage in the game. Eventually, the array of services that don't work well through NAT, such as video conferencing and real-time collaboration, will help to push bleeding-edge companies into the IPv6 space. As always happens with standards such as this, once a wide enough base of implementations exists, the movement will start to snowball; and we'll finally see widespread IPv6 adoption.