2015 will go down in history as the year the Internet ran out of addresses. Again. Maybe. A little history is in order.
Long, long ago on a planet far, far away, which for our purposes means October, 1969, a message was sent from UCLA’s Network Measurement Center to the Stanford Research Institute. With this single connection between two hosts, the ARPANET was born. The rest, as they say, is history.
But all is not well in Internet land. On September 24, 2015, the American Registry for Internet Numbers announced it had no more assignable blocks of IPv4 addresses to hand out. It was the fourth of the five regional Internet registries to reach that state; Latin America and the Caribbean did so in June, 2014, Europe and the Middle East in September, 2012, and Asia-Pacific in April, 2011. Only the African Network Information Center still has numbers to assign.
It is not like this problem was a surprise. The IPv4 addressing scheme, that’s the one that has now run out of numbers, dates to 1981 and can accommodate about 4 billion addresses. As long ago as 1992 the Internet Engineering Task Force worried that 4 billion addresses would not be enough and began working on a successor, IPv6. It was approved as RFC 2460 in 1998.
IPv6 can handle about 340 trillion, trillion, trillion addresses. You’ve got that right, 340 followed by 12 zeros. Where IPv4 uses 32 bits to represent an address, IPv6 uses 128 bits. But the much, much larger address space is only one of the benefits of IPv6:
- Larger address space
- No need for Network Address Translation (NAT)
- Auto-configuration, easier administration (no need for DHCP)
- No more private address collisions
- Better multicast routing; simplified, more efficient routing
- Simpler header format, reduced overhead
- Better quality of service (QoS, “Flow Label” field in header)
- Built-in authentication, security and privacy support (IPSec mandatory)
- Flexible options and extensions
With all of these advantages you would think the keepers of Internet infrastructure would have moved to IPv6 years ago. Think again. There is no denying the force of inertia. IPv6 is not backward compatible with IPv4.
For example, an IPv4 address looks like this: 184.108.40.206. An IPv6 address looks like this: FE80:0000:0000:0000:0202:B3FF:FE1E:8329. Faced with the challenge of the transition, few Internet engineers took the plunge.
The fast growth of the Internet of Things (IoT) is rapidly changing the cost-benefit analysis. Put simply, if we are entering an era where many of the objects we use in our everyday lives are connected to the Internet, we are going to need a lot more addresses. And we’re going to need them soon.
In 2012, the Internet Society staged a World IPv6 Launch event. Most of the big names in Internet infrastructure were sponsors. IPv6 availability, less than 1% as measured by Google that year, is over 10% as of this writing. You can get the latest Google measurement here.
The good news is that there is not much for a consumer to do to become IPv6 ready. The makers of consumer desktop operating systems, Microsoft (Windows) and Apple (OS X and iOS) support IPv6. The Google’s Android is said to support most but not all of IPv6, the missing element being Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol version 6 (DHCPv6), a method for configuration hosts. IPv6 also supports the ability for hosts to generate IP addresses internally, using stateless auto-configuration.
That leaves the hardware makers and the people who maintain network infrastructure with the challenge of being IPv6 ready. Paul Lightfoot, managed services director at secure hosting specialist The Bunker likens the process to meeting the Y2K challenge. With IPv6, he says: “You still have to test your applications, especially legacy applications, which may be hard-coded for IPv4.” In Lightfoot’s experience, equipment built in three to five years should be fit to support IPv6 traffic. “A six-year-old server will probably need new network cards.”
If you maintain network infrastructure you need to check your network switches and routers. Those that cannot be updated to IPv6 will need to be replaced. Research firm Gartner says a companywide migration costs about 7% of the company’s annual IT budget. Companies spent $2.2 trillion on IT in 2014, according to the researchers at Forrester.
The mobile network providers, who are preparing for the flood of IoT devices coming to market, are a major driver of the move to IPv6. As long ago as 2009, Verizon posted specifications for devices using Long Term Evolution (LTE) technology on its network:
"The device shall support IPv6. The device may support IPv4. IPv6 and IPv4 support shall be per the 3GPP Release 8 Specifications (March 2009)". (section 220.127.116.11)
"The device shall be assigned an IPv6 address whenever it attaches to the LTE network." (section 18.104.22.168)
There are techniques for “tunneling” one protocol’s traffic over the other, but eventually everybody on the Internet will have to make the switch. For the time being, those that aren’t ready for the upgrade must find addresses wherever they can. There is reportedly a hot market for buying and selling IPv4 addresses, involving some of the biggest names in the Internet space. But no major company contacted for this article was willing to talk about their activity in the secondary address market.
There are brokers who specialize in the IP address transfer market. V4Escrow CEO Elvis Daniel Velea notes that more than 4 million addresses were transferred in 2014 in the American Registry region alone and predicted an increase in 2015. As the numbers run out, the importance of the brokers is certain to increase.
But the bottom line is that we can be sure that one of the certainties of life is that the Internet will grow. The time to make the switch to IPv6 is now, if not yesterday.