IP Addresses on Endangered List

Tuesday Jan 2nd 2007 by Cynthia Harvey
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We’re rapidly running out of IP addresses, so businesses will need to transition to a new protocol sooner rather than later.

Since 1994, the Internet Engineering Task Force has been warning of a shortage of IP addresses. Fortunately, the Task Force came up with a solution, known as Internet Protocol Version 6, or IPv6. Unfortunately, U.S. organizations have been very slow to transition to the new technology.

However, Microsoft’s new Windows Vista operating system may help change that.

Vista (and the upcoming Longhorn Server) are not the first Windows operating systems to support IPv6. However, they are the first to have IPv6 support installed and enabled by default. By making it so much easier to use IPv6, Vista will definitely smooth the transition to the new protocol and may even encourage some organizations to switch more quickly than anticipated.

IPv6 101

Currently, the Internet runs on IPv4, which was developed in 1974 by Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn. Under this system, internet addresses each have 32 bits and look something like this:

131.107.20.60

IPv4 allows for approximately 4.3 billion addresses. While that may seem like a lot, we’re about to run out. According to Dale Geesey, VP of Consulting for v6 Transition, “Reports based on information from the Number Resource Organization (NRO) indicate that IPv4 address space available from the Regional Internet Registries (RIRs) could be depleted within 2 years.” (Read the report here.)

IPv6 solves this problem the same way the post office and the telephone companies solved their problems when they ran out of zip codes and telephone numbers—they added more digits. IPv6 addresses have 128 bits and look something like this:

3ffe:2900:d005:4:104a:2a61:0:0

Switching to 128-bit addresses theoretically allows for approximately 665,570,793,348,866,943,898,599 Internet addresses per square meter of the Earth’s surface.

Researcher Christian Huitema estimates that realistically we could probably use only 3,911,873,538,269,506,102 addresses per square meter and maintain our current levels of efficiency. In any event, IPv6 addresses are practically infinite; you could literally have a unique Internet address for every hair on your head. More practically, each computer, cell phone, PDA, iPod, RFID tag, appliance, car, and devices we haven’t even imagined could each have its own address. Latif Ladid, President of the IPv6 Forum, believes that once IPv6 takes off, “Anything that costs more than $20 will be networked.”

But IPv6 doesn’t just add addresses. It improves security, and according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, it could reduce network management costs by a third. It also requires less bandwidth and makes Internet routing more efficient. And in a 2005 report completed by RTI International for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the writers conclude that the benefits of IPv6 will exceed $10 billion per year.

Plus, IPv6 will enable new applications that will benefit from true point-to-point networking. For example, Ladid explains how IPv6 would make it easier to respond to disasters like a tsunami or Katrina. Previously, it took months or even years to restore all the voice and data networks. With IPv6, first responders could send in an “Internet ambulance.” Anyone with a laptop, cell phone, or PDA would be able to connect to an ad hoc network instantly, without any need for an ISP. It would minimize business disaster recovery costs, and it would make it easier to find survivors smart enough to hold on to their electronic devices.

Next page: Why Wait?

Why Wait?

To date, the only major U.S. organization that has enthusiastically embraced IPv6 is the Department of Defense. Since accurate information is so vital to their mission, it’s no surprise that the military has jumped at the chance to link every piece of equipment they own in a vast, always-connected network.

But why haven’t more organizations jumped on the IPv6 bandwagon?

“Frankly,” says researcher Dan Kaminsky, “It’s something of a pain to deploy.”

It’s “simple human nature,” adds IPv6 Forum Fellow Tony Hain. “Ignore the problem until it becomes a crisis—then react to resolve it.”

By all accounts, the U.S. has more than its fair share of Internet addresses—approximately 30 percent of the total. China, by comparison, has approximately 2 percent to serve a much larger population. As a result, America has not been under the same pressure as other parts of the world. In fact, Asian countries, particularly China, Japan, and Korea, are well ahead of the United States in the IPv6 transition, causing some understandable hand-wringing among U.S. politicians.

Unfortunately, hand-wringing hasn’t been enough to convince U.S. organizations to upgrade their networks. Instead, they’ve developed patchwork solutions, such as Network Address Translation (NAT) devices, which allow more than one user to connect through the same address. And while NAT has proven a fairly effective stop-gap measure, it’s also introduced further layers of complexity and made the Internet more fragile.

The fundamental issue may come down to money. The NIST report estimates that the IPv6 transition will cost $25 billion, spread out over 25 years. Those costs come from three main areas: equipment replacement, application rewrites, and staff retraining.

Companies can minimize those costs by purchasing IPv6-compatible equipment during their regular hardware refresh cycle. In fact, because networking equipment manufacturers have been making dual-compatible devices for several years, most companies probably already have some IPv6-ready hardware, whether or not they realize it. And if they upgrade to Windows Vista, they’ll also have an IPv6-ready OS, whether they realize it or not.

Enter Vista

Buried among all the hoopla about the Windows Vista interface and flashy new features is Vista’s IPv6 support. Microsoft built Vista with what they call the “Next Generation TCP/IP Stack” that utilizes both IPv4 and IPv6.

“Windows will be both IPv4- and IPv6-capable out of the box. This means that every computer running Windows Vista will be able to communicate across IPv4 and IPv6 networks at the same time,” writes Geesey. “This dual-IP layer approach will allow organizations to save money and resources by transitioning their organization's infrastructure to IPv6 over time without worrying about interoperability issues with their workstations.”

While some have worried that Vista will overwhelm the DNS system by transmitting both IPv4 and IPv6 information, most experts seem to believe that Vista will help ease the IPv6 transition rather than causing more glitches.

Windows Vista will “smooth out the upheaval by inserting the IPv6 technology into the majority of end systems without explicit effort by the system administrator,” says Hain.

Kaminsky adds, “In Vista, quite a bit of IPv6 ‘just works.’ That's rather cool. [Problems caused by IPv4] are not going away. If Vista (and Longhorn Server) can clean that mess up, that's nothing but good.”

Next page: What’s Next?

What’s Next?

So, will Vista spur greater interest in switching to IPv6? The consensus seems to be that it may help, but it probably won’t bring IPv6 top-of-mind.

“The transition will not be easy,” Microsoft concedes on its IPv6 site. “The conversion from IPv4 to IPv6 will be a larger task for the industry than the preparation for Year 2000. It will affect nearly all networked applications, end-systems, infrastructure systems, and network architectures.”

Several experts believe that the next two years will see a dramatic increase in IPv6 utilization.

“With several carriers and Internet Service Providers implementing IPv6 in their networks, and companies such as Microsoft including operating system and application support for IPv6, the IPv6 adoption rate will greatly accelerate in the U.S. over the next 24 months,” says Geesey.

“IPv6 will be deployed faster than most people expect it to,” adds Hain. “Windows Vista will serve to smooth out the challenges of that process for the system administrator. At the same time Vista and the follow-on applications will provide shorter term motivation for the network manager to be proactive in turning on native IPv6 routing.”

Other experts believe it will take a “killer app” to get companies to switch.

According to David Powner, director of information technology management issues for the Government Accountability Office, “Operating systems that can take advantage of key IPv6 features will help to promote the transition to IPv6, but the pace by which private and government entities transition will ultimately be driven by applications that utilize the new features.”

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