Risk-averse IT managers need to move to the latest version of the Internet protocol or suffer the consequences, which could mean rationing the amount of Internet-connected devices in their enterprises.
Internet protocol version 6 (IPv6), the new addressing system for the Internet, isn't so new at all -- it's about 20 years old. Yet even though we're running out of addresses under the old IPv4 system (and have been for quite a while), IPv6 adoption has been deadly slow. The latest surveys show something like 3 percent of all Internet-connected devices have made the switch.
For IT managers, the lack of early adopters is cause for concern. What's holding them back? The answers are revealing, I think, and they say something about the nature of the organized anarchy we call the Internet.
First, a little background. When the present system was set up, the format for Internet packets established a fixed length for Internet addresses, which comprise a series of numbers identifying sites. At the time, 4 billion addresses seemed like plenty. It turned out not to be. As the Internet took off, the people concerned with it realized that, sooner or later, IPv4 would run out of addresses. So they developed IPv6 with a greatly expanded address space.
That was fine, except IPv6 and IPv4 are incompatible, in large part because of the additional bytes needed in the header of each packet to support IPv6. Internet equipment and software have to change to support IPv6.
IPv4-to-IPv6 conversions require network changes.
So IPv6 was released to the world, and there it sat. Adoption was minuscule, and almost everyone continued to use IPv4. In the words of Scarlett O'Hara, "I'll think about it tomorrow." Well, tomorrow is finally here. We're running out of Internet addresses, and there's an insatiable demand for millions and millions more of them. The Internet is going to have to go to IPv6, or we'll need extreme measures, such as rationing or selling addresses to keep things going.
Lack of product is no excuse for not adopting IPv6; it's hard to find a router or other Internet gear less than four or five years old that can't handle both IPv4 and IPv6. Similarly, most Internet software today uses dual stacks to handle both versions.
However, that doesn't mean all the problems have been solved. One concern is security. IPv6 applications don't have years of experience to reassure users that the security bugs have been completely worked out. Though it appears that IPv6 applications and protocol stacks are secure, the lack of experience still makes some people nervous.
Perception aside, there are also some real disadvantages to IPv6. One of the big ones is that it just about destroys the utility of blacklists as a way of blocking Websites. Under IPv6, the bad guys can get blocks of tens of thousands of IP addresses and switch addresses several times a day (or minute), which effectively makes it impossible to block sites by IP address.
As a practical matter, the biggest disadvantage is that people who are thoroughly familiar with the new addressing system are thin on the ground and will be for some time. This isn't an inherent problem with IPv6; it's a result of its slow adoption. Still, it makes it harder to set up IPv6 systems that are secure and don't break under odd conditions.
The rate of IPv6 adoption is moving slowly, but it is moving upward; the 3 percent rate today is up from much less than 1 percent two years ago. But the rate will have to increase in order to sustain robust addressing. And more IT managers worldwide are going to be tasked with shifting their networks to IPv6 completely.
Have you made the shift? Share your experiences with us on the message board below.
— Rick Cook is a prolific technology writer and author of the Wizardry series of fantasy novels.