Power shift

As IPv4 addresses disappear, the switch to IPv6, looms as a priority.

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Power shift Sakhnini: IPv6 will represent a big change for IT managers used to IPv4.
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By  Aaron Greenwood Published  October 12, 2011

As IPv4 addresses disappear, the switch to IPv6, looms as a priority.

While IPv4 is widely recognised as the most successful network protocol in history, its fate has been sealed as a result of its inability to accommodate the demand for new IP addresses driven by the proliferation of connected devices now in use worldwide.

The development of its successor, IPv6, has largely been borne from this necessity. While IPv4, which uses a 32-bit IP address, can theoretically support four billion IP addresses, IPv6 utilises 128-bit technology, underpinning an almost infinite number of addresses – 340 trillion trillion trillion to be exact.

Still, the shift to IPv6 has been resisted in some markets on account of the respective technical challenges and costs associated with transitioning to the new platform.

“During the IPv6 transition period, web-enabled businesses will face significant challenges providing IPv6 users with the same quality experience as existing IPv4 users,” argues Bruno Haubertin, director of business development, EMEA for Akamai Technologies.

“In addition, they will be understandably hesitant to invest in infrastructure resources to support a very small portion of their current user base. These issues have hindered IPv6 adoption to date.”

The lack of interest in IPv6 has, not surprisingly, been strikingly evident in territories that have enjoyed the lion’s share of IPv4 addresses, such as the US. By comparison, Asia and Europe have established themselves as leading proponents of IPv6.

Given the Middle East’s relative lack of internet penetration by comparison, the region stands at the crossroads in regards to IPv6 implementation. Good news for those regional organisations with a limited online presence; not so great for those that have dipped their toes in the water by investing in IPv4-based technologies that are not future-proofed for IPv6.

The greatest fundamental challenge facing these organisations is the fact that IPv4 and IPv6 protocols are incompatible, which makes any existing IPv4-based technologies redundant in the long-term.

Evren Aker, pre-sales manager, Turkey & Middle East, Interactive Intelligence, compares the current predicament facing organisations reliant on IPv4 to a telecoms provider “introducing a telephony service based on 40-digit phone numbers”.

“Customers would need to replace their phones, phonebooks and personal address books,” he says. “They’d also need some extra equipment and they’d have to alter their infrastructure to translate the new phone signals into the old phone signals since the existing public phone infrastructure wouldn’t always support the new phone signals. That may slow performance down but it’s probably a small price to pay for such a massive pool of phones, or is it?

“This 40 digit telephone system is the perfect analogy for IPv6 and the nightmarish transition some governments are facing. An IPv6 migration will involve upgrading all applications, hosts, routers, and DNS infrastructure.

“Organisations moving to IPv6 will also have to maintain a complete IPv4 infrastructure parallel to the new IPv6 infrastructure along with all the transitional technologies that make network address translation (NAT) issues look like a walk in the park.

“They will also have to bear the burden of backward compatibility; the notion that those who move to IPv6 first will leave everyone else behind is nonsense.”

Yarob Sakhnini, systems engineering manager, CEMA, Brocade Communications, agrees with these sentiments, arguing that a further disadvantage facing organisations tied to IPv4 is the lack of knowledge about its successor among technical staff.

“Given that IPv4 has been around for years now, network managers and administrators are well acquainted with the technology,” he says. “The majority of these professionals will have to adapt their knowledge and skills to accommodate the new technologies and protocols that IPv6 will introduce.”

Still, Akamai product line director Bruno Hourdel argues that the inherent benefits presented by IPv6 over IPv4 are worth the short-term pain for forward-thinking organisations.

“IPv6 offers a number of advantages over IPv4 such as integrated multicast capabilities, IPsec security and provision for future technologies. It also provides some simplifications in the protocol compared to IPv4, which will speed up the routing of packet/traffic on the internet.

“Given the ability to allocate large IPv6 address blocks, it also brings greater flexibility in distributing addresses and a much better aggregation of routes in the internet routing tables.

“Another key benefit is that the NAT protocol is no longer needed – local networks can utilise their own unique address space, which simplifies configuration and routing.”

Sakhnini cites IPv6’s stateless auto-configuration capability as arguably one of its biggest advantages. “This feature enables a host on a local link to automatically configure its interfaces with new and globally unique IPv6 addresses associated with its location. The automatic configuration of a host interface is performed without the use of a server, such as a Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) server, or manual configuration. Obviously this eases the configuration headache while eliminating the potential for human error.”

“IPv6 enables greater efficiency for many applications by eliminating the need for the rendezvous servers,” adds Tarek Houbballah, systems engineer, Cisco UAE. “Rendezvous servers have become a big part of many IPv4-based applications because they solve the problem with inbound connectivity, but at a great price to scalability, security and reliability.”

So what can Middle East-based organisations do to prepare themselves for the inevitable switch to IPv6? Frits Neyndorff, managing director of NEC Unified Solutions, Middle East & Africa, believes the most basic necessity is ensuring their chosen ISP is well-prepared for the transition.

“If you are connected to an ISP that does not offer IPv6 connectivity, you cannot be reached by new customers and that could hinder the growth of your organisation,” he says. “[Middle East] ISPs should guarantee connectivity to the IPv4 internet even after the IPv4 addresses are exhausted, and even if IPv6 is not fully deployed through the networks.

“While the internet and infrastructure is still being implemented, Middle East [organisations] would need to work quickly to stay ahead of the game.” Organisational IT strategies supporting the transition to IPv6 remain somewhat more challenging, however.

Aker believes that during the initial phases, IT departments will likely move to an environment to accommodate native IPv6 and encapsulated IPv6, in a largely IPv4 network, “leading to a ubiquitous dual-stack environment”.

“As applications transition and the use of IPv4 diminishes, IT departments will operate in an environment largely based on IPv6 networks,” he predicts. “Hardware and software interoperability will be essential as organisations move forward with their IPv6 plans and interconnect their networks across dual environments. Since maintaining interoperability and security for these types of evolving environments is the highest priority, the transition period should be as brief as possible.

“There are many possible combinations of technical IPv6 transition strategies. There are also a number of transition mechanisms such as dual-stacking, tunnelling and translation, which IT departments can now choose from, with more emerging from the technical community.

“The introduction of IPv6 on an enterprise scale will introduce a number of challenges including scalability, integration, and security. In the near-term, there is concern about creating vulnerabilities in existing IPv4 networks by deploying IPv6 and its transition mechanisms. This risk can be mitigated by adopting a phased approach to IPv6 network transition that addresses end-to-end interoperability, performance, and security issues.”

Haubertin advises that there should be little or no impact from the transition ‘inside the firewall’.

“When it comes to public sites, IT managers should test them by adding a DNS entry with the AAAA attribute and by implementing their IPv6 stack (dual stack, for example),” he adds. “Some finetuning may be required as some minor issues may appear related to MTU size or connection timeouts.”

Haubertin concludes that while 2011 will prove a watershed period in terms of speeding the transition to IPv6, a number of significant challenges will arise as a result.

“This year, several carriers will begin to adopt IPv6 addresses for their end users,” he explains. “Internet access providers will have no choice but to use carrier grade network address translation (NAT) for IPv4 sites during the transition period.

“For content providers, Carrier Grade NAT raises several challenges, including potentially diminished network performance, while geo-location is made redundant and abuse mitigation techniques often become less effective.”

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