13 May 2009

The Internet Protocol

Did you know that your connection to the internet is dying on its feet? Honestly, it really is! Diagram of part of the internetAnd the consequences are simply horrendous. 'The Internet Protocol' sounds like a film title, but it's the name of an important underlying mechanism that is the foundation of email, web browsing, and much, much more.

Most of the world's computing devices are using version four of this protocol (IPv4). Its replacement, IPv6, was introduced more than a decade ago to provide a huge increase in the number of available addresses and a raft of improved functions including assured service quality, security, and more.

What does it all mean? - You might like to read what Carl Bialik of 'The Wall Street Journal' has to say on the subject. Hint, read the comments as well, some of them are illuminating.

Carl writes...
The increasingly crowded Internet [is] running out of Internet Protocol addresses, used to identify computers and Web sites on the network.

He quotes industry experts as saying...
The chaos that follows is difficult to predict. (Tony Hain - IPv6 Forum)

Individual users may not be able to view websites and communicate with certain Internet destinations - Corporations may not be able to communicate with certain critical government resources, clients, and potential customers - Governments may lose the ability to see and communicate with the 'whole Internet' - Citizens may not be able to access government information online (John Curran - American Registry for Internet Numbers)

And readers comment...
Internet technology was one of the last areas that the U.S. was a leader in, and that has now disappeared. (Lawrence Hughes - InfoWeapons)

There is the potential for big disruptions unless more enterprises and the public sector begin migrating. (Jennifer Geisler - Cisco)

The Wikipedia article on IPv6 explains that it was selected as the successor to IPv4 in 1998, and takeup at the end of 2008 was estimated as follows - Russia 0.76%, France 0.65%, Ukraine 0.64%, Norway 0.49%, United States 0.45%. Asia leads in terms of absolute deployed numbers, but the relative penetration was smaller (e.g., China 0.24%).

IPv4 addresses are expected to finally run out in 2010, or possibly 2011. We have very little time.

There is no excuse for the slow rollout, IPv6 is available on all major operating systems in use in commercial, business, and home consumer environments. IPv6 networking gear has been increasingly available for many years.

How will this affect the end user? - At worst, large chunks of the internet will be unreachable. It will be as if those countries and companies don't exist.

However, it's likely that losses of connectivity will begin slowly and then accelerate. This might increase the sense of urgency as customers begin complaining to their service providers.

Sections of the internet where IPv6 is not yet supported will become islands of poor and incomplete service and will be increasingly isolated and unusable. IPv4 is likely to wither away, but it may take a long time to disappear completely.

With less than 1% of the network already converted and less than two years remaining before we start to see a real impact, anyone who can influence the rate of IPv6 uptake should begin lobbying hard right away.

Further sources of information
  • IPv6.org - the official home page for the new protocol.
  • The IPv6 Portal - lots of useful information
  • The IPv4 Address Report - generated daily with the latest details of IPv4 address availability
  • The Choice - a 2007 document by Jordi Palet examining ways of alleviating the dearth of IPv4 addresses (PDF)

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