Is 2012 the year to invest in IPv6?
That's what CIOs want to know as they plan their IT budgets for the next fiscal year. They need to decide if they are going to set aside funds to deploy this emerging Internet standard, and how much it will cost to upgrade their hardware and software.
The short answer to that question is: Yes.
The conventional wisdom in the Internet industry is that CIOs need to invest in IPv6 during 2012 or they will put the growth plans for their online businesses at risk. This is because an increasing number of new mobile and broadband subscribers worldwide will be given IPv6 addresses as standard, a process that will begin in 2012.
"For an enterprise, it's a safe assumption to make that if you start today to do a design assessment and your addressing plan, you can plan for an IPv6 deployment in the first half of 2012,'' said Alain Fiocco, who leads the IPv6 programme at Cisco. "2012 is when you're going to see some measurable percentage of users on IPv6."
Two recent events have demonstrated to CIOs around the world that the need for IPv6 is both real and imminent. The free pool of available IP addresses using the current IPv4 protocol was depleted in February, and most IPv4 addresses in the Asia Pacific region were distributed to carriers in April.
Meanwhile, IPv6 has proven itself ready for deployment. On June 8, more than 400 of the Internet's largest players, including Google, Facebook and Yahoo, participated in a 24-hour trial of IPv6 dubbed World IPv6 Day. No major outages, security breaches or performance degradation were reported during the event.
"There was a lot of concern that things would be broken, but the overwhelming majority of participants [in World IPv6 Day] had a positive experience," says Greg Hankins, Global Solutions Architect for Brocade, which has supported IPv6 on its website, email and customer support infrastructure for more than a year. "I don't think I've seen a single horror story or really negative implementation experience from anyone, which speaks a lot about the maturity of IPv6 and the maturity of IPv6 implementations by various switching, routing and appliance vendors."
An estimated 20% of World IPv6 Day participants had such a positive experience with the new protocol that they left it up and running on their public-facing websites after the experiment was over. For example, Blue Coat left IPv6 enabled on its main website, and Cisco left IPv6 enabled on its scansafe.com website.
"We had a little over 1% of our users and traffic, our unique visitors, coming to the cisco.com website over IPv6. That's pretty consistent with the rest of the industry," Fiocco says. "That represents a couple of tens of thousands of unique visitors in 24 hours. None of them had any big, serious problems... For users in the US, performance in IPv6 was exactly equivalent to IPv4."
The only disappointment for Cisco was that it was expecting 2% of its overall traffic at cisco.com to be IPv6 on World IPv6 Day, instead of 1%. "That's probably something we need to focus on for the next phase: working with the ISPs so that they enable the eyeballs," Fiocco says.
IPv6 solves the problem of IPv4 address depletion by offering a virtually limitless pool of IP addresses that can be used by computers, smartphones, home appliances, gaming devices and all sorts of sensors and actuators that have yet to be invented. IPv4 uses 32-bit addresses and can support 4.3 billion devices connected directly to the Internet. IPv6, on the other hand, uses 128-bit addresses and supports 2 to the 128th power devices.
One problem is that IPv6 is not backwards compatible with IPv4. So network operators and content providers must support both protocols in a side-by-side configuration known as dual stack. Most carriers and enterprises will solve that problem by deploying network address translation (NAT) devices, which convert inbound IPv6 traffic into IPv4 traffic so IPv6-based users can access existing IPv4-based content and services.
Another problem is that few Internet users have IPv6 access today. This was evident on World IPv6 Day, which was a success for participating content providers but failed to draw as much IPv6 traffic as planners had hoped. The percentage of overall Internet traffic supporting IPv6 doubled on World IPv6 Day, but it still failed to reach even a quarter of 1% of Internet traffic, Arbor Networks said.
"There isn't a lot of access ability for customers, for subscribers or individuals, to give them a direct IPv6 globally scoped address to get them to IPv6 content," says Rob Malan, co-founder and CTO of Arbor Networks. "Almost all IPv6 traffic gets converted and then goes to the IPv4 content."
One of the key issues for CIOs to monitor is the rate at which wireless and broadband carriers provide their new subscribers with IPv6 addresses. A major driver for IPv6 is Verizon's new LTE network, which requires that all devices support IPv6. Meanwhile, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cox Communications and other US broadband providers have ongoing IPv6 trials. These carriers will give IPv6 addresses to their new customers, but it will be a long time before they upgrade all of their existing customers to IPv6. So content providers must support both protocols for the foreseeable future.
"The content side is the easy side of the problem. The harder question is: How soon will you have a massive amount of IPv6 clients who need to get to you?" Malan said. "Think about the Linksys modem in your house. There are oodles of crusty old stuff out there that needs to get upgraded. That problem is hard and expensive."
Experts agree that CIOs need to tread carefully where IPv6 is concerned. For now, they only need to worry about IPv6-enabling their public-facing websites and web services. They don't need to worry about upgrading anything behind the firewall on their private corporate networks.