IPv6 switchover – what should CIOs do (should they even care)?

It’s not often that something as mundane as a communications protocol hits the news but last week’s exhaustion of Internet Protocol (IP) addresses has been widely covered by the UK and Irish media. Some are likening the “IPocalypse” to the Year 2000 bug. Others say it’s a non-issue. So what do CIOs need to consider in order to avoid being presented with an unexpected bill for urgent network upgrades?

Focus have produced an infographic which explains the need for an IPv6 migration but, to summarise the main points:

  • The existing Internet address scheme is based on 4 billion internet protocol (IPv4) addresses, allocated in blocks to Regional Internet Registries (RIR) and eventually to individual Internet Service Providers (ISP).
  • A new, and largely incompatible version of the Internet Protocol (IPv6) allows for massive growth in the number of connected devices, with 340 undecillion (2^128) addresses.
  • All of the IPv4 addresses have now been allocated to the RIRs and at some point in the coming months, the availability of IPv4 addresses will dry up.
  • Even though there are huge numbers of unused addresses, they have been already been allocated to companies and academic institutions. Some have returned excess addresses voluntarily; others have not.

The important thing to remember is that the non-availability of IPv4 addresses doesn’t mean that the Internet will suddenly stop working. Essentially, new infrastructure will be built on IPv6 and we’re just entering an extended period of transition. Indeed, in Asia (especially Japan and China), IPv6 adoption is much more mature than in Europe and America.

It’s also worth noting that there are a range of technologies that mitigate the requirement for a full migration to IPv6 including Network Address Translation (NAT) and tunnels that allow hybrid networks to be created over the same physical infrastructure. Indeed, modern operating systems enable IPv6 by default so many organisations are already running IPv6 on their networks – but, whilst there are a number of security, performance and scalability improvements in IPv6, there can be negative impacts on security too if implemented badly.

Network providers are actively deploying IPv6 (as are some large organisations) but it’s likely to be another couple of years before many UK and Ireland’s enterprises consider wide-spread deployment. Ironically, the network side is relatively straightforward and the challenge is with the hardware appliances and applications. The implications for a 100% replacement are massive, however a hybrid approach is workable and will be the way IPv6 is deployed in the enterprise for many years to come.

So, should CIOs worry about IPv6? Well, once the last IPv4 addresses are allocated, any newly formed organisation, or those that require additional address space, will only be accessible over the new protocol. Even so, it will be a gradual transition and the key to success is planning, even if implementation is deferred for a while:

“The move to IPv6 will take a long time – ten years plus, with hybrid networks being the reality in the interim. We are already seeing large scale adoption across the globe, particularly across Asia. Telecommunication providers have deployed backbones and this adoption is growing, enterprise customers will follow. Enterprises need to carefully consider migrations: not all devices in the network can support IPv6 today; it is not uncommon for developers to have ‘hard-coded’ IPv4 addresses and fields in applications; and there are also security implications with how hybrid network are deployed, with the potential to bypass security and firewall policies if not deployed correctly.” [John Keegan, Chief Technology Officer, Fujitsu UK and Ireland Network Solutions Division]

As for whether IPv6 is the new Y2K? I guess it is in the sense that it’s something that’s generating a lot of noise and is likely to result in a lot of work for IT departments but, ultimately it’s unlikely to result in a total infrastructure collapse.

[This post originally appeared on the Fujitsu UK and Ireland CTO Blog and was written with assistance from John Keegan.]

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