The world is running out of IPv4, but don't rush to grab the little that's left – you're better off turning to IPv6.
It may sound like Greek to many readers but it will have big implications for internet communications over the next few years. The two internet protocols are not interoperable, and there's going to be a challenge in ensuring that company networks talk to each other as more go over to the new version.
The big difference between IPv4 and IPv6 is that the former allocates 32-bit IP addresses to devices, while the latter has 128 bits available. While IPv4 still carries the vast majority of internet traffic, not many of its 4.3 billion addresses are left; and IPv6 provides a number that is simply mind boggling
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Axel Pawlik is one of the evangelists for IPv6. As Managing Director of RIPE NCC, the regional internet registry for Europe, the Middle East and parts of Asia, which is in charge of allocating IP addresses under the new protocol, he says small companies are in danger of hitting unforeseen problems if they don't begin to respond to the change.
"There are 340 trillion trillion trillion IPv6 addresses, so everyone in the world will be able to have one," he says. "Businesses don't need to worry about not getting one, but they do need to be concerned if they're investing money in hardware that will need to be updated in just a few years.
"They also need to be aware if they are IPv4 only, they are effectively invisible to anyone using IPv6."
While the future is in IPv6, Pawlik says he isn't sure when people can begin to forget about IPv4 – it's probably more than 10 years away – and that it may not be a smooth transition.
"There is an interoperability problem in that IPV4 and IPV6 don't speak to each other," he says. "There are clever people around who have devised solutions, but it always adds complexity to your network, especially if you use solutions that try to stave off IPV6 by getting as much life out of IPV4 as possible by assigning ports instead of addresses to different customers.
"It does work to a degree, but can't reliably sustain it to the level we expect over the next few years. For a time it will be awkward interworking between four and six. Hopefully it can be arranged so that the end user doesn't see that."
There are ways that a company can work with the two protocols. It's possible to use 'dual stack' devices – routers programmed to work with both protocols – and use 'translation' in which the device the accepts requests from a host on IPv6, converts it to an IPv4 datagram (a self-contained packet of data) and sends it to an IPv4 destination, or vice versa.
But Pawlik says these will be relatively short term solutions; a company sticking with IPv4 will struggle at the point that potential customers are only on IPv6, and only the latter will be able to sustain the long term growth of the internet. Understandably, he urges anyone to begin looking at a transition to the new protocol now.
The problem is not so much with internet devices, as equipment manufacturers have been including addresses based on IPv6 for some time, but in ensuring that the connections through internet service providers (ISPs) are compatible. Pawlik says that ISPs could be doing more to push the deployment of IPv6, but "ultimately everyone is responsible, from government level down to consumers".
His advice for small businesses is encapsulated in RIPE NCC's IPv6 Act Now website, which provides a series of tips for dealing with the change. First comes a series of basic questions, such as whether your internet service provider is ready to provide IPv6 connectivity, whether your network equipment is compatible and if you have considered it all as part of a technology upgrade.
It's important to talk to your ISP, with questions such as when it plans to deploy IPv6, whether it is going to provide compatible modems and if your website will be available over the protocol. Then come steps that include appointing a project manager, identifying the network components that need to be changed or upgraded, looking at training needs and drafting a project plan.
Ensuring the compatibility of the software used by the company is also important. If it isn't see if there's an upgrade available; a lot of software on the market is already IPv6-compatible.
Pawlik's strongest message is that, while the ISPs are going to be the key link in providing IPv6 to most companies, don't take it for granted and make sure that they hold up their end.
"The main message is that everybody should go to their upstream ISP and say they want real IPv6 connectivity," he says. "You have to say 'Don't sell me weird stuff that doesn't have proper addresses; I want IPV6 addresses'."
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