Networking professionals need to acquire IPv6 skills now, before the protocol starts creeping into the edges of their networks.
Jeff Young, senior analyst with the Burton Group, said networking professionals have done little to prepare themselves for IPv6, even though use of the new version of the Internet Protocol will explode in just a few years.
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"There really hasn't been a call for it," Young said. "People are ignoring it because it's not affecting them in their daily lives. They've got plenty else to do without picking up a new protocol."
Since the vast majority of enterprise networks and most of the Internet still run happily on the previous version of the Internet Protocol, IPv4, there has been little call for networking professionals to get familiar with IPv6. Until recently, experts had estimated that the American Registry for Internet Numbers (ARIN), the organisation that hands out IP addresses in the United States, wouldn't run out of IPv4 addresses until after 2020. Late last year, however, ARIN warned that IPv4 will probably run out by 2012. After that, all new IP addresses will be IPv6.
"The issue that network personnel and also guys working on systems face is that while IPv6 is certainly on any of the equipment they've bought over the last few years, they have no reason to turn it on," said John Curran, chairman and president of ARIN. "It's crucial that they realise that this is a job skill that is going to be important for them to invest in to maintain their currency as the Internet switches over in the next four to five years."
Young said network professionals should get IPv6 skills now for two reasons. First, IPv6 is becoming a reality external to the enterprise. As IPv6 addresses begin to proliferate on the Internet, users who go online with an IPv6 address won't be able to interact with Web and email servers that are not IPv6-enabled. Enterprises that don't set up their servers with this in mind will find themselves cut off from a growing population of customers, partners and suppliers.
"There are also a few things that v6 does better than [IPv4]," Young said. "And they may provide some advantage for their company."
Once an IPv6 network is in place, enterprises will find that establishing secure network connections for devices is much easier, he said. For instance, a company with an IPv6-enabled network would deploy radio-frequency scanners in a far-flung warehouse much more easily. The device would be able to establish a secure connection with the company's home office or inventory control system more easily than it could on an IPv4 network.
"You could do that without a lot of networking expertise," Young said. "You can take these things out of the box and drop them into a location. It's easy to do. It's harder and more expensive to send networking professionals to the far reaches of the globe to do these things."
In fact, IPv6 is easier to use than older protocols, Curran said. It's just a matter of taking the time to understand the differences and building up those skills.
Young and Curran said networking professionals don't necessarily need to sign up for formal training. They just need to realise that IPv6 is coming soon and they need to learn how it works.
"The way I did it, I curled up with a good book," Young said. "I'm old enough to have come from a multiprotocol environment, so I'm used to that, picking up a book that explains them. If you're a system administrator, you should pick up a book that explains how different systems treat IPv6. The next step is to experiment. Turn it on and see where it goes."
Young said he isn't a huge IPv6 proponent, but he said networking professionals should at least know enough about it to be able to turn it off. Theoretically, a commercial IPv6-enabled device that finds its way into the corporate network could poke a hole in a firewall if the company doesn't take the proper precautions, Young said.
Curran said IT teams should take a laboratory approach and turn IPv6 on in isolated parts of their network, since most devices purchased in the last few years are IPv6-enabled. They should do this with proper authorisation, of course. Experimentation in that environment should be enough for network and systems professionals to get the hang of it.
Curran said companies that don't prepare for IPv6 will be left behind.
"Companies that only have IPv4 and don't bother to set up [email and Web servers] with IPv6 will be like companies from years ago that had fax machines and didn't bother to set up a network connection," Curran said. "Would you do business today with a company that [could] only be reached by telegram?"