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The impact of IPv6

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Michael Bellears
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The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), an international group concerned with developing technical standards, first published the basic IPv6 protocol in 1998. It has since seen a number of enhancements, such as the addition of mobile specifications (in 2004).

The key difference between the versions of the protocol is that IPv6 has significantly more address space. Users should not notice any difference other then the look of the addresses but they will notice it will not be as easy to remember as their old IPv4 address. A typical IPv6 address has 8 groups of four letters and numbers separated by colons, so it will look like this: 2001:db8:1f70:999:de8:7648:6e8. The expanded addressing capacity of the new version will enable the trillions of new Internet addresses needed to support connectivity for a huge range of smart devices such as phones, household appliances and vehicles. IPv6 also brings enhanced quality of service that is required for several new applications such as IP telephony, video/audio, interactive games or ecommerce.

What is IPv6?

IPv6 is the new version of the Internet address protocol that has been developed to supplement (and eventually replace) a quarter of a century old IPv4, the version that underpins the internet today.

The main advantage of IPv6 is that it provides much more address space than IPv4. IPv4 allows 32 bits for an IP address which means there are just over 4 billion possible addresses while IPv6 allows 128 bits for an IP address which makes an almost unthinkable amount of available addresses: about 340 trillion, trillion, trillion. Being a more recent protocol, IPv6 does have a few design improvements over IPv4, particularly in the areas of autoconfiguration, mobility, and extensibility. However, increased address space is the main benefit of the new version.

It has been said that IPv6 supports improved security because the specifications mandate the inclusion of the IP Security (IPsec) suite of protocols in products. In IPv4, including IPsec is optional, but it is commonly available. Because the IPsec protocol suite is designed to be indifferent to IP versions, the technology works generally the same way in both IPv4 and IPv6. In this way, the benefits of using IPsec are similar in either environment. The increased address space provided by IPv6 does eliminate the need to use NAT devices, which are pervasive in many IPv4 networks. Broadly speaking, security is harder to deploy and troubleshoot when NATs are present in a network as they disrupt IP layer traceability and therefore security audit trails. In addition, the address rewriting that NAT performs is considered by some security protocols to be a security violation. Thus, with the increased address space eliminating the need to use NATs, IPv6 potentially facilitates the deployment of end-to-end security.

Potential issues with IPv6

Many of the IPv6 security issues reported today have to do with vulnerabilities in individual products, not the protocol. IPv4 is widely deployed and individual IPv4 products have gone through the recurring cycle of discovering and fixing security vulnerabilities and other bugs. Because IPv6 products are comparatively new, they have not benefited from similar experience. Consequently, security vulnerabilities in IPv6 products will need to be discovered and repaired, just like with others. Also, the operational practices built up over many years for IPv4 networks will have to be adapted for IPv6. New practices will need to be developed for the dual stack IPv4 and IPv6 environment.

Overall, maintaining network security will continue to be a challenging undertaking in both IPv4 and IPv6 contexts. Neither protocol provides a simple solution to the complexities associated with securing networks.

What about the deployment?

There are three basic aspects involved in the deployment of IPv6: the protocol, the products, and the operational practices.

The IPv6 Protocol – The new version of IP has benefited from over 10 years of development within the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). The core standards have been stable for many years and deployed in both research and operational contexts. In addition to the core specifications, IPv6 includes a large number of individual standards that have a more limited applicability and are only needed in specialised environments. Additional development work will continue in these areas as new issues are discovered in response to deployment-specific scenarios.

IPv6 Products – The core IPv6 specifications are becoming increasingly available as a standard part of products and service offerings. However, not all products are fully IPv6-capable at this time and some significant upgrade gaps remain, especially in low-end consumer equipment. Similarly, while many software applications and operating systems (especially in open source code) have already been updated for IPv6, not all products (including some from major vendors) are fully ready. It is best to check with specific vendors on the readiness of their individual products and services.

IPv6 Operational Practices – Operational practices built up over many years for IPv4 networks will have to be adapted for IPv6. There is growing experience in the deployment of the new version in research networks and R&D projects, while some production networks (primarily in Japan and Korea) have been running it for a number of years. IPv6 traffic today, however, remains small in comparison to IPv4. As more network operators deploy IPv6 and continue to exchange information about experience and best practices through established operators groups, the IETF, and other forums, the community knowledge level will grow. In short, IPv6 is ready for deployment, but additional effort is needed to make its use pervasive. The IETF, equipment vendors, application developers, network operators and end users all have roles to play in ensuring successful widespread deployment.

In conclusion

Since network needs and businesses differ, IPv6 transition strategies and related costs will also vary between organisations. Hardware and software vendors are increasingly integrating IPv6 as a standard feature in products, allowing organisations to deploy it as part of routine upgrade cycles. For many organisations, operational costs, including staff training, and one-time administrative costs to add IPv6 to management databases and documentation, are likely to constitute the majority of the cost of upgrading to IPv6. Organisations that run in-house customised software will experience additional costs to upgrade these programs to IPv6, and enterprises that have test/release processes will see a marginal additional cost for the configuration tests. When it comes to GCOMM, staggered implementation of dual stack is to commence in approximately 6 months across PoPs. The cost is yet to be determined but GCOMM does not foresee increased costs compared to current IPv4 allocations. For end-users, operating systems such as Mac OS X, Windows, and Linux now incorporate IPv6 within their latest releases and will automatically use IPv6 if it is available. Applications are expected to follow as the global demand for IPv6 increases. Find out more about IPv6 world launch on June 6 here – www.worldipv6launch.org

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About Michael Bellears

Michael Bellears
Michael has been working with GCOMM since 1999. He has always enjoyed using computers and was accepted into a Computer Science degree at Deakin University. At GCOMM he is now responsible for the management and operation of GCOMM’s WAN network. He has travelled extensively throughout Europe and Egypt. He is married and has two young children, his “greatest accomplishment”.