Migration from the overcrowded IPv4 to the new protocol may be slow, but is inevitable

The World Wide Web is running out of space. But in the virtual world, there's a quick fix for this: an upgrade that shifts the Web, or its addressing system, to a brand new protocol.

While this silent upgrade doesn't change the way you navigate the Web, or how you type in your Web addresses in your browser, at the back-end, it means that the Internet is now truly a near-infinite resource. The new Internet addressing system or standard, which has been waiting in the wings for over a decade, now uses a new addressing system (128-bit instead of the 32-bit), thus expanding the number of available unique IP addresses from around 4.3 billion to over 300 undecillion (three times the exponential of trillion).

This week, major stakeholders in the Internet market (service providers, operators and networking firms) across the globe participated in the World IPv6 launch, where they made public IPv6 support for their customers. Hardware-wise, many of the networking majors have been providing out-of-the-box support for IPv6 for some time now. However, it is estimated that barely 1 per cent of the total Internet runs on IPv6 today. In India, this figure is almost nil, because even those with IPv6 addresses complain that it is almost impossible to navigate the Web as very few service providers have made the shift.

IPv4, the standard that precedes this brand new one that everyone's talking about, has been around for over three decades now. These standards are important for they are the reason that computing devices — irrespective of type, geographic location or mode — are able to interact with each other.

IPv4 allowed for a certain number of unique IP addresses, but since the early eighties, the population has expanded and many more have logged on or seek to log on to the World Wide Web.

IP addresses, we all know by now, are important because they are what identify your device, and allow for packets of information to move to or from your device.

Numbers

While IPv4 is a simple no-frills protocol, this new version has learnt from the experience of the Internet and has geared itself to address various challenges.

So besides being roomier, other benefits of IPv6 include inbuilt security protocols (called IPSec) in its network layers, more efficient routing and, therefore, better speed, and that it is adaptable and expandable. Security is a big plus here, because this protocol encrypts data packets and constantly monitors the traffic, providing high levels of protection to regular Internet traffic.

Migration needs

What is the new hardware that this new protocol requires? Like any new protocol, this mandates that devices be made IPv6 complaint. Operating systems, routers and modems and even websites, need to step up to make adoption possible. A simple proposed technological solution for this migration is to go for dual stack IP addresses (where both systems can coexist) or tunnelling IPv6 over IPv4; though the former solution is said to be more preferred.

The technical challenge with IPv6 deployment has to do with the fact that this protocol is not backward compatible (that is, devices that can read and recognise IPv4 addresses cannot read those written in the new protocol). This is part of the reason why Internet service providers have gone slow on IPv6 adoption. However, given that we're running out of addresses for our devices, the migration is inevitable.

This doesn't require an entire overhaul, a simple deployment of translating devices — a process that is indeed expensive — will do.

India scenario IPv6 adoption is critical in the country, as it is in the developing world where the Internet growth story is still unfolding. According to official statistics, India has 35 million IPv4 addresses against a user base of around 360 million.

Indeed, the Internet penetration levels are an estimate 10 to 12 per cent, which means that as technology becomes more accessible, millions will seek to log on to the Internet.

This isn't just restricted to traditional computing devices that come to mind such as desktops or tablets but also devices such as televisions or electric equipment that will log on to ‘smart' homes, perhaps in the next decade. Each of these need an IP address to talk to the network, and these addresses will have no choice but to follow the new available address system.

On World IPv6 launch day, the Indian government also announced its plan to migrate all websites to IPv6 by December 2012 (currently 27 websites have effectively completed the migration to a dual-stack platform). It described this transition as “complex, mammoth and a long-term exercise”.

However, a rewarding one that opens up possibilities of applications across sectors including data centres, smart grids, IPTV and rural healthcare management. For at least a year now, the Department of Telecommunication has held workshops for state agencies, public sector units and State governments on IPv6 migration.

The government had also released a road map for stakeholders to complete the migration and task forces have been set up to monitor the shift.

Cost issues

The only way to facilitate this migration, technology-wise, is to dual-stack the current networks to allow for existing IPv4 addresses to continue, while making room for more addresses. This involves hardware costs and manpower expenditure by ISPs.

Tarun Dua, Chief Technology Officer at E2E Networks Private Ltd., says that to ensure quick migration, the government will have to tweak policies to include a sophisticated market-friendly approach or even provide an initial government impetus to players by using the universal service obligation fund. He suggests that offering a commercial incentive for ISPs and non-ISP players in the market to make the transition by allowing or opening up trading of IPv4 addresses may be another creative solution.