IPv4 doomsday won't hit in 2012, experts say

As the bank of Internet addresses runs dry, most enterprises can spend the year preparing for the new protocol

This year will see one more regional Internet registry run out of IPv4 addresses, but 2012 will be more of a year to prepare for the inevitable shift to IPv6 than an Internet doomsday, according to networking experts.

By midyear, Europe's RIPE NCC (Réseaux IP Européens Network Coordination Centre) is expected to allocate the last of its addresses under the version of Internet Protocol used by most consumers and enterprises now. That event will follow the depletion in April of addresses controlled by APNIC (Asia-Pacific Network Information Centre), the first of the five regional registries to run out of addresses for enterprises and service providers.

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When it comes to Internet addressing, the year now winding to a close may prove to have been the most significant for decades. On Feb. 3, the Internet Assigned Names and Numbers Authority (IANA) got out of the business of assigning blocks of IPv4 addresses, 30 years after that protocol debuted. As planned, IANA handed out one of its remaining five blocks of addresses -- each about 16 million addresses -- to each of the five regional registries, which serve Asia-Pacific, Europe, North America, Latin America, and Africa.

Though the clock is ticking on the remaining availability of new IPv4 addresses, people working on this transition assure users that they aren't likely to be cut off from either websites or Web viewers for quite some time. Transitional techniques to make the two systems coexist won't seriously degrade Internet performance for a while, some said. What this gives enterprises is time to prepare.

Europe is next to run out of IPv4 addresses

The next nail in the coffin of IPv4 is expected to be hammered in on July 22, according to a forecasting site operated by Geoff Huston, who is an adjunct research fellow at the Centre for Advanced Internet Architectures at Swinburne University of Technology in Australia. That's when RIPE is likely to allocate the last of its remaining addresses to an enterprise or Internet service provider, based on the current rate at which it's handing them out.

"That doesn't mean that Europeans are suddenly going to be stripped of their exising IPv4 address space," said Cricket Liu, vice president of architecture at Infoblox, a vendor of automated network control appliances. However, "it's going to be much harder to get IPv4 address space," he said.

That date could move closer if European service providers react as those in the Asia-Pacific region did this year, Liu said. "Once their stock started to dwindle, a lot of carriers went, 'Wow, we'd better get what address space we can, quickly,'" Liu said. The Asian registry depleted its last block in mid-April. Such a run on addresses in Europe is "a real possibility" in 2012, he said. RIPE and other registries have already tightened the rules for IPv4 address allocation to prevent hoarding and panic from draining the pool too quickly, but RIPE might yet do more, he said.

In 2013, it will be North America's turn to watch its Internet registry run out of IPv4 addresses, according to Huston's forecast. Africa and Latin America will face the same in 2014.

IPv6 adoption is still sparse

But despite the impending depletion of addresses, most enterprises didn't begin upgrading to IPv6 last year. As of October, fewer than 1 percent of all subdomains under the .com, .net, and .org top-level domains had IPv6-enabled Web servers on them, according to an automated sampling commissioned by Infoblox. Notably, that survey excluded .gov and individual country domains, where use could be higher.

Most enterprises outside Asia are not acting aggressively to upgrade, and most won't next year either, according to IDC analyst Nav Chander. "Most of them understand that they can live without having to make any major investments immediately." And most carriers, though they have upgraded their own infrastructures to handle IPv6 and are offering consulting services, aren't strongly pushing customers to move to the new protocol, Chander said.

The lack of IPv4 addresses probably won't force many enterprises or carriers into IPv6 in the next few years, observers said. Most organizations that adopt IPv6 will do so with dual-stack configurations that support both protocols, and NAT (network address translation) can bridge the gap to make IPv4 resources available to IPv6-only systems and vice versa, Liu of Infoblox said.

Eventually, using NAT for every connection between new and old systems could slow down the Internet experience, but the traffic going through those systems won't be heavy enough to cause problems in 2012, Liu predicted.

BYOD isn't a threat yet

Letting employees use their own mobile phones and tablets at work (known as bring-your-own-device, or BYOD) won't force companies to use IPv6, either, Liu said. As long as the IT department has done a good job of laying out its private, internal address space, which can continue using IPv4 addresses indefinitely, there should be enough for the consumer devices, he said.

However, other trends that are expected to grow next year could help to drive adoption of IPv6. "The wild card ... is that there are particular applications or services in the pipeline that leverage IPv6," said Tom Coffeen, Infoblox's chief IPv6 evangelist.

More enterprises are now developing proprietary mobile applications, and IPv6 might allow those applications to operate in a more seamless way because of peer-to-peer capabilities built into the protocol, IDC's Chander said. For example, one large courier company is developing its own internal social networking software, he said. Companies creating those kinds of applications may put pressure on service providers to make IPv6 available, Chander said.

Meanwhile, carriers are rapidly getting more involved in the delivery of multimedia content, including building their own content delivery networks or integrating similar functions in routers, Chander said. With IPv6, packets can traverse a network directly from servers to clients, with fewer hops in between. "Content delivery over their own networks is going to be faster and more efficient with IPv6," Chander said.

It's time to get ready for IPv6

Given that most enterprises won't actually need IPv6 to reach their employees or customers in 2012, this year can be a time to prepare without a looming deadline, observers said.

"2012 is a great time to learn and to plan," Liu said. "Capitalize on the lead time that you have available to you." He recommended steps such as educating IT staff, getting them to experiment with IPv6 in a lab setting, and putting together a plan for deploying the new protocol on Internet-facing devices on the periphery of the network. "Figure out how to incorporate IPv6 into your upgrade cycles and your process update cycles" to get prepared for a smooth deployment, Infoblox's Coffeen suggested.

Security is also something to think about soon, because it can't wait until after adopting IPv6, said Qing Li, chief scientist at BlueCoat Systems, a Web security and wide-area network optimization company. He estimated that most enterprises will take five to 10 years from the start of IPv6 adoption until they have eliminated IPv4. Using the new protocol, or a combination of the two, presents different kinds of threats, he said. "Five to ten years is a long time. You'd better know how to secure your network in this mixed-mode environment," Li said.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for the IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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