IPv6 marches forward

The next-generation Internet Protocol could spark a new generation of embedded and mobile network applications

This just in from the strange-but-true-deployments department: Hundreds of cows and taxicabs in Japan have their own unique IP addresses.

Recently, cows in Gifu prefecture were tagged with tiny networked devices to wirelessly track their movements and body temperatures for health and breeding purposes. And in Nagoya City, taxis were fitted with Internet-enabled sensors on their windshield wipers, allowing dispatchers to continuously monitor rainfall via wiper speed and to dispatch more cabs to the wetter neighborhoods.

Overkill? Wasteful? Maybe -- if we were talking about today’s technology. These two projects were designed not merely as gimmicks, but as part of a Japanese government plan to promote adoption of the next-generation Internet Protocol, IPv6.

The current version, known as IPv4, limits the Internet to approximately 4 billion unique addresses. Because American companies control the majority of those addresses, there’s been no hurry to deploy IPv6 in the United States. By contrast, however, Asian companies -- backed by government investments and mandates -- have been aggressively rolling out IPv6.

“Back when the Internet started, Asia didn’t get the lion’s share of addresses, and that’s painful now,” notes Hewlett-Packard Fellow Jim Bound, who also chairs the North American IPv6 Task Force. “I think they feel they got left out on the Internet, and they’re going to rejuvenate that with IPv6.”

IPv6 expands the current IP’s 32-bit numeric address space to a full 128 bits -- more than enough to assign a few thousand unique addresses to every cow and taxicab on Earth.

But more than balancing supply and demand, Asian governments and companies also see IPv6 as a business opportunity, Bound says -- an opportunity to innovate and leapfrog the rest of the world. By making it easier to assign Internet addresses to devices and services, IPv6 could accelerate adoption of new applications such as 3G mobile services, gaming, smart consumer appliances, smart sensors, home automation, and VoIP. That potential for innovation may prove to be the biggest driver for IPv6 adoption in the United States, as Asian IPv6-enabled products make their way westward.

“If Sony starts dumping IPv6-enabled devices on the market, which they’re saying they intend to do next year,” says Internet pioneer and MCI Senior Vice President Vint Cerf, “then we’ll all have to react promptly."

Cutting out the middleman

One of the big benefits of IPv6 -- a by-product of the trillions of unique addresses it creates -- is that it eliminates the need for NAT, a system for creating private address spaces that enable multiple hosts to share a single routable IPv4 address. That will come as a relief to network engineers, many of whom decry NAT for violating basic principles of the Internet’s design.

“When devices have globally routable IPv6 addresses, it will bring back the end-to-end nature that the Internet was created for in the first place,” explains Cody Christman, director of product engineering at Verio. “When you get away from NATs, it solves a lot of problems.”

Eliminating NATs will make it easier to perform end-to-end encryption, for example. IPv6 supports mandated IPSec, meaning that both devices must exchange encryption key information and start encrypting upon the request of either device.

“This will help thwart certain classes of attacks,” MCI’s Cert says. IPv6 also facilitates identification “all the way to the end device,” Cerf explains, “so that the end device is convinced that the source is a legitimate controller. Otherwise, your 15-year-old neighbor could program your house for you, which you don’t want.”

Another benefit will be auto-discovery and -configuration, based on IPv6 devices’ capability of detecting and connecting to neighboring networks and devices without human intervention, Verio’s Christman explains. “When your mom buys that IPv6 refrigerator, she won’t have to call you to find out how to get a console prompt and configure the IP address, the default route, and the net mask,” Christman says. “Auto-config is slick for appliances, and for the enterprise, it will just lower your management costs.”

But by far the biggest advantage of IPv6 global addressing will be its capability of facilitating apps that require fast, plug-and-play connections among peer devices on the edge of the network -- applications such as gaming, IM, VoIP, file sharing, and multimedia.

“The edge will drive it; the killer app for IPv6 is edge devices that are not static,” says Tom Kershaw, vice president of VoIP services at VeriSign.

Today, notes Kershaw, enterprises can provision peer connections and apps within their own closed environments, using internal directories and private address spaces. But IPv6, by allowing mobile devices to maintain persistent global IP addresses, will enable better direct peer connections via the public Internet -- eliminating the need for triangular routing, foreign agents, and other inefficient work-arounds for IPv4.

“IPv6 reduces the friction to develop those types of applications,” agrees Steve Anderson, a director at Microsoft’s Windows Server division. “When devices can issue their own IP addresses and connect to the network anywhere, that opens up a lot of interesting things.”

Adds Cisco’s IOS IPv6 Product Manager Patrick Grossetete: “If service providers can just simplify the model and decrease the cost of support, that means they can push more services to end-point users.”

Applied networking

One big proponent of IPv6 for mobile peer applications is the U.S. Department of Defense. Last year, the Defense Department officially made IPv6 support a requirement for selling to the military.

“They see IPv6 and mobility playing a large role in the future of warfare,” says Alan Bavosa, product manager at Juniper Networks. “I’ve heard folks talking about putting IP addresses on artillery and rifles … and the ability to move from one place to another and build a whole communications kiosk with in an hour or two, which you can’t do with IPv4.”

Currently, most major U.S. network providers -- partly reacting to the Defense Department’s mandate -- are experimenting with IPv6 trials. At least one, NTT’s Verio subsidiary, has launched a commercial service that supports not only native IPv6 (IPv6 packets only) but also dual-stack IPv6 (both IPv6 and IPv4 packets) and tunneling (in which IPv6 packets move through IPv4 environments).

IPv6 is running on the .com and .net top-level DNS servers, and major networking vendors such as Cisco and Juniper support IPv6 in their products. A few Internet exchange points, such as 6TAP in Chicago, already support IPv6 peering between carriers.

In the consumer-electronics realm, examples of IPv6-enabled applications abound. Nokia already supports IPv6 with its triband mobile phones and its new 9500 Communicator. Sony’s PlayStation 2 gaming console is IPv6-enabled. Some manufacturers are even looking at IPv6-enabling smoke detectors so that they can communicate via self-organizing wireless meshes and report to a central monitoring post.

“The most interesting thing about IPv6 is scale,” MCI’s Cerf says. “It gives you the possibility of having unique addresses for a very large number of programmable devices -- and the ability to control those devices remotely.”

Cerf also acknowledges some potential overlap with the world of RFID, where identification tags will soon appear on products in both enterprise and consumer environments. “The RFID world is sort of flirting with IPv6,” Cerf says. “But right now, these [RFID tags] are passive devices. In order to make IPv6 useful, they’d have to be a fairly robust piece of hardware that can run complicated protocols.”

So when do we upgrade?

Despite the forward movement around IPv6 in recent years, for U.S. businesses the perennial question lingers: When can enterprises expect to see IPv6 offerings from the major ISPs? And when should they start upgrading their own environments to IPv6 and investing in applications that leverage IPv6?

Unlike Asia, which has the IPv4 address-space crunch to contend with, there’s no real catalyst for a wholesale migration to IPv6 in the United States. As a result, U.S. telecoms and network providers “don’t have a whole lot of incentive to move to IPv6 yet,” Juniper’s Bavosa says. “Customers aren’t clamoring for it, so they look at it as added cost without added benefit.”

Indeed, the costs involved in making the transition to IPv6 are significant, including network design and planning costs and the cost of upgrading software and processes for operational support systems such as order entry, provisioning, configuration, and alarms. MCI’s Cerf adds that networks running both IPv4 and IPv6 -- the most likely scenario for years to come -- must bear the additional costs of dual routing tables.

“From a network point of view, we have some work to do,” Cerf says, noting that MCI plans to launch a commercial IPv6 offering next year. “It touches everything because IP is such a key support protocol layer.”

Although most hardware and software vendors are either shipping IPv6-compliant versions of their products or have them in the pipeline -- including the major OS vendors -- some big pieces of the puzzle are still missing. The DOCSIS (Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification) cable modem standard, for example, does not yet natively support IPv6, according to Cisco’s Grossetete -- in contrast to Japan, where broadband DSL customers and home network devices are a focal point for IPv6 device innovation.

“A large number of pieces have to come together for IPv6 to become as widely available and useful as IPv4,” Cerf says, acknowledging that enthusiasm in some sectors -- such as government, consumer electronics, and automotive -- is offset by apathy in others.

“There’s still a perception that all this is an address-space protocol,” Verio’s Christman says. As a result, although an application such as VoIP might be enough to give IPv6 a significant boost, widespread adoption is likely to take a long time (see “VoIP and IPv6: A Perfect Pair,” below).

VeriSign’s Kershaw wonders whether there will be a transition or a migration. “Does the entire industry come together, or do we do it piecemeal and then connect the dots?” he asks.

HP’s Bound favors the migration scenario. “It’s not like Y2K, where you get up one morning and flip the switch,” he says. “Most of the products are out there; there’s a bunch of IPv6 technology running on your network [right now]. But we do scratch our heads over the enterprise applications. … How do we get all these apps ported? What do they need to hear to come on board?”

Cisco’s Grossetete believes that global business needs will ultimately drive IPv6 adoption in the United States, noting that many players currently active in IPv6 are multinational, such as Canon, Matsushita, and Sony. “Enterprise customers will have a choice of what to run,” he says. “People may be reluctant to invest right now, but I haven’t seen any alternate proposals. Everyone agrees IPv6 is the convergence layer for appliances and applications.”

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