Electronics and Computer Science (ECS), University of Southampton

Electronics and Computer Science (ECS)

Transition from IPv4 to IPv6 needs to speed up to maintain services

As the Internet address system reaches its end, an ECS researcher warns that deployment of the new generation of addresses needs to speed up to maintain Internet services.

With the Internet likely to reach a major milestone at 2.30 this Thursday 3 February, when the very last of the unused IPv4 address space is allocated to Regional Registries, and so on to ISPs, a University of Southampton researcher says that careful planning by developers and engineers, dating back to the mid-1990s, has provided the capability for the Internet to continue to grow beyond the depletion of the original addressing system.

However, Dr Tim Chown of the University’s School of Electronics and Computer Science, warns that deployment of the new Internet Protocol, IPv6, is still in its infancy, and will need to grow faster to sustain the massive demand for new Internet services.

The IPv4 Internet Protocol has ‘run’ the Internet since its earliest days, using a 32-bit numeric address and providing up to 4 billion unique addresses for hosts or routers. But according to Dr Chown, ‘The Internet has become a victim of its own success meaning that the available IPv4 address is almost depleted.’

‘This doesn’t mean the Internet will stop working,’ he says – ‘far from it! Existing users won't notice a difference, and Internet life will go on. But it’s likely that a market for IPv4 address blocks will form as organizations start trading address space, and more use of address sharing and NAT is inevitable.’

Having recognized the problems that would be caused by the exhaustion of the IPv4 addresses, Dr Chown and colleagues around the world have been working on the next generation of Internet address protocols, IPv6. Dr Chown has been an active member of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), which has been working on IPv6 since the mid-1990s. With 128 bits of address space, IPv6 will provide enough addresses for Internet growth for the foreseeable future and enable the Internet to grow in new directions.

“As researchers begin to look into innovative new uses of Internet Protocols for networking billions of new types of devices, in the 'Internet of Things', a new, much larger addressing system for those devices will be vital,” says Dr Chown. “The challenge over recent years has been for researchers, developers and vendors to standardise IPv6 and produce products that support its use - and most importantly to devise ways for IPv4 and IPv6 to coexist and work together on today's Internet infrastructure, allowing IPv6 to be gradually introduced while IPv4 continues to operate.”

The first UK native leased line using IPv6 was run as far back as 1997 at the University of Southampton’s School of Electronics and Computer Science (ECS). The work carried out by Dr Chown and his colleagues in ECS has ensured that IPv6 has been standardized and that operational experience has been fed into the development process. Today IPv6 support is available in almost all modern router and operating system platforms, including Windows 7, MacOS X and Linux. The data network in ECS runs both IPv4 and IPv6 alongside each other, a method known as dual-stack, and many of the School’s public-facing services including web, mail and DNS are available via IPv6 as well as IPv4. The deployment in ECS has helped validate the IETF protocols and their implementations by showing that IPv6 can be run successfully alongside IPv4 in production networks.

“Today's students will graduate into a world where new IPv4 address space will be very hard to acquire and where IPv6 will be the future. So it's great that we can give them the insight and experience of IPv6 while studying here,” says Dr Chown.

Currently only a handful of UK ISPs offer IPv6 to their customers, and the biggest UK production deployment is on JANET, the UK academic network, and some of the universities it serves. IPv6 deployment is growing, but still in its infancy, and will need to grow faster to sustain the massive demand for new Internet services worldwide.

For this reason the Internet Society is working with major Internet companies including Google, Facebook, Cisco, Akamai and others to test IPv6 on World IPv6 Day, scheduled for 8 June 2011. Organizations will be encouraged to make their services available over IPv6 on this day, to evaluate how ready they, and the Internet, are for widespread IPv6 deployment. While Google and Facebook already offer their content via IPv6 in a limited way, this potentially massive test of the Internet infrastructure will be an important day for IPv6.


Posted by Joyce Lewis on 02 Feb 2011.