Monday, February 28, 2011

About to move to Internet Protocol v. 6

Hiawatha Bray, writing in the Boston Globe Business section today, explains that the "Online Universe is About to Grow." He is talking about Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6). Basically, we are about to run out of Internet addresses in the current format, known as Internet Protocol version 4 (IPv4). Back when the Internet we know was being designed, nobody imagined the commerce and public uses that would explode after graphical interfaces developed. The Internet was a pokey place that was a bit difficult to use and was originally strictly limited to the developers: the military and a handful of research universities. Then, the rules were relaxed and more academics gained access, but it still was difficult to use, without point and click and no graphics. So, you mostly had researchers and librarians. There was not a lot of demand for the IP addresses. But after the development of graphical user interfaces, the web developed into a marketplace, where there were lots of ads and sellers, games, movies, music and lots of social interaction. There was suddenly a lot of demand for Internet addresses. And countries around the world began to be connected to the Internet, too, so there was a lot more demand that way, as well.

So, here we are today. According to the Wikipedia article on IPv6,

As of February 3, 2011, the last batch of 5 address blocks were allocated to the Regional Internet Registries. Each of the address blocks represents approximately 16.7 million possible addresses, or over 80 million combined potential addresses. These addresses could well be fully consumed within three to six months at current rates of allocation.
There are, of course, unused addresses. Many of the original institutions involved in the development of the Internet were given millions of the old, IPv4 addresses. For instance, Bray reports that MIT owns 16.7 million IPv4 addresses.
Michail Bletsas, director of computing at the MIT Media Lab, estimates that the school uses only about 10 percent of them. “If it comes down to a point that the Internet stops working,’’ said Bletsas with a laugh, “we should give back those addresses.’’
I am told that a few of the IPv4 block recipients have already turned in large chunks, including Stanford.

June 8, 2011 is World IPv6 Day, when some leading Internet companies such as Google, Yahoo, and Facebook will activate IPv6 versions of their sites. It will function as a test to see if their networks are IPv6-ready. But basically, the plan is for corporations and government websites to be ready to move to the new version by January, 2012, according to John Curran of the American Registry for Internet Numbers (ARIN), in an article at NetworkWorld dated January 21, 2010, "Websites Must Support IPv6 by 2012 Warns Expert." ARIN has a down-loadable slide show about the depletion of IPv4 addresses and preparing for IPv6 adoption. They welcome people to download this and use it to help their organizations to prepare for the switchover.

The trick is that IPv4 and IPv6 are not compatible. They will have to run the two systems simultaneously for quite some time. And they will have to ensure that both systems are accessible to everybody. We need to be sure that our hardware, software and access providers are all compliant with both IPv4 and IPv6. In order to access both, you need to have a server that provides "tunnelling" carrying IPv6 messages encapsulated inside an IPv4 packet. We need to educate ourselves and be sure the appropriate staff at our institutions are also educated about IPv6. Unless we are the IT managers, librarians won't have to do much, except cheer on the sidelines.

IPv6 enables some very nice upgrades, eventually. There is so much more space, both in the packet address space, and for lots more addresses, that they can do lots of cool things. The Wikipedia article discusses how well IPv6 is able to integrate security into its design and work on portable devices, because these things were designed into it. Hiawatha Bray interviews Neil Gershenfeld, director of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms
Gershenfeld foresees homes and office buildings where every light switch, thermostat, and electrical outlet has a unique IPv6 address and a link to the Internet. Building heating and cooling systems consume three-quarters of the energy used in America, he said, and a third of that power is wasted. With connected power devices, building owners or utility companies could save money by optimizing a building’s energy consumption.

“To do that, IPv6 is essential,’’ Gershenfeld said, “because otherwise we don’t have the address space.’’

The same embedded network technology could lead to cars that silently track each other to avoid collisions, or medicine bottles that e-mail their owners to remind them to take their pills. It will be years before such gadgets become commonplace, but thanks to IPv6, the Internet will finally have enough room.

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