They say that all good things come to those who wait - and have we been kept waiting for Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6)! The next generation IP, which will push the commercial potential of the Internet beyond its present capabilities, has been in the making for a decade. During this time so many workable patches have been grafted onto the current infrastructure, IPv4, that the urgency to upgrade had almost begun to recede - until now, that is.
IPv6 is a fundamental building block of future IP networks and will dramatically reducethe complexity of the Internet. It is designed to fix the shortcomings of IPv4 by expanding the number of IP addresses available and improving data security.
The next generation protocol will provide vast Internet address space, making it possible to allocate an Internet address to practically every electronic device on earth. Furthermore, IPv6 technology brings the necessary security and quality of service that the Internet lacks.
Overall, IPv6 has huge potential to expand the scope and reach of Internet applications and opens up exciting opportunities for new types of service, including innovative network applications that exploit the greater scope for communication between machines and their users.
The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) began work on IPv6 in 1991, following predictions of a 32-bit IP address crisis, but it was not until 1998 that basic standards were agreed and implemented. Although global transition to the more capacious 128-bit IPv6 protocol is still in the experimental stage, hardware, software and network suppliers are starting to put pressure on users to re-evaluate their systems in preparation for IPv6.
With the huge growth of the Internet continuing unabated and the increasing demand for mobile Internet services, it is clear that the day of reckoning is approaching when suppliers and users must moveto IPv6.
There are forecastto be 601 million Internetusers worldwide by 2002, including more than 300 for every 1,000 people in the UK, according to an online report by the Internet Industry Almanac.
Telecoms operators with expensive third generation (3G) licences from the Government are gearing up to support future mobile Internet devices. Consumers will expect secure access to Internet services for mobile e-shopping, e-banking and general e-business.
With IPv4 sinking under the weight of use and proliferation of mobile applications that need more advanced networking features, IPv6 is poised to take centre stage. Analysts recommend that users switch to the new protocol now to gain early-mover advantage.
IPv6 implementation will require significant investment and will undoubtedly disrupt business. Changing the environment on which working Internet applications currently sit - while they are still running - will mean running IPv4 and IPv6 in tandem.
In preparing for the demand, many computer suppliers have IPv6 prototype products you can download from the Internet to test, and some even have products ready to buy. Cisco and Microsoft's Web sites offer IPv6 testing, while Nokia released switching products that support IPv6 across 3G mobile networks last year.
There are also prototype IPv6 implementations available for more than 30 different operating systems, including Linux, Sun, Solaris and variants of the BSD Unix operating system including FreeBSD, NetBSD and OpenBSD.
BT has an experimental project called Ultima which has been created to explore how IPv4 and IPv6 can work together. The company was one of the first wave of European organisations to beawardedcommercial address block allocations for IPv6.
Peter Hovell, head of the IPv6 group at BT, thinks that 3G mobile networks will breathe life into the new protocol from 2003.
"More and more mobile terminals are becoming available and,with IPv6in the 3G networks,this couldmean that voice over IP, carried over the new signaling protocol, will be the first mass use of these things," says Hovell.
Meanwhile, there has been some innovative work done to IPv4 that has extended the life of the protocol in recent years. For example, the security bolt-on, Ipsec, has improved IPv4's security features and network address translation has extended the number of IP addresses supported by hangingmultiplefake addresses off one central company address.
However, there are drawbacks. For example, network address translation limitsend-to-end application performancebecause it creates an additional barrierto seamless network connectivity.This makes it hard to support increasingly popular multimediaapplications adequately, including real-time chat and videoconferencing, because you get hiccups in transmission.
In contrast, IPv6 solves the address space issue by allocating every IP device its own unique address, so it accommodates many billions more of them. It also provides instant auto-configuration to a local network wherever the user's PC is in the world. IPv6 also offers enhanced network security.
"With IPv4 it is very time-consuming and difficult to trackdenialofservice attacks, but with IPv6 we will be able to follow the trail of breadcrumbs backfrom wherethe attackoriginated,"says NeilLevine, network manager at EuropeanInternet serviceprovider (ISP)Claranet. "These attacks will increase. IfCNNor Yahoofalls overthen userswill demand some response. From an ISP's perspective that is a very bigincentive for everyone to convert to IPv6 as soon as possible."
Overall,IPv6 can provide easier and richer mobileaccess moresecurely andsmoothly than IPv4 ever can. But most users remain unaware of IPv6's impending maturity, particularly smalland medium enterprises (SMEs) whichdo not necessarily suffer from a shortageof address space.
Simon Eade is IT manager of the privately owned, £12m turnover Caterham Cars, the Rolls-Royce of the kit-car world. It employs 70 people across two sites. Between them they share six IP addresses but only two are in use.
"The industry has found many workarounds to the shortcomings of IPv4. Most SMEs do not need that many exterior addresses - even the e-commerce side of things is usually hosted by other companies. Where I can see us having to act is in reconfiguring our machines, which will be a hassle and probably take two to three days. I do not see a competitive advantage in us swapping to IPv6 early on," explains Eade.
He likens the reconfiguration hassle to that caused by the need to accommodate the last changes in STD codes.
"Like the STD codes,withIPv6 thereare long-term benefits for every business in the countryto swap to the new protocol, but it is a short-term pain so we will not do it until we need to," says Eades.
However, larger users have more of a vested interest in moving to IPv6 in the near term. One user currently thinking about how to exploit IPv6 ahead of its rivals is www.nme.com, the online presence of the hugely popular newspaper for the music industry.
Last November the site evolved into a massive global music portal offering rolling round-the-clock news as well as many new interactive features to its 1.3 million monthly visitors.
The site's developers are modelling its look on the BBC's big content reference site at www.bbc.com. They have long-term plans to introduce more audio and interactive video, providing DVD-style features. Evolving the brand in this way will demandmuchmore address space than the site has at present.
"It is early days but we know that we need IPv6 to be able to develop thebrandand becauseweare fast running out of IP addresses," says Matthew Miller, technical project manager at nme.com.
"If you think about our brand and how we want to push our content out to other channels, we want IPv6 because it will enable us to populate all the nomadic Internet devices coming along using 3G networks, so we can offer personalised information and news updates in real time. Personalisation of content is key because it will give us a competitive advantage.
"There is a whole raft of new technology that will come in on the back of this. We already have a television programme - nme.tv on Bravo. With televisions and video recorders having their own IP addresses a customer could go on the Web and program their video to tape our programme," explains Miller.
With IPv6 and 3G networks, each device will have its own IP address and be capable of being permanently connected to the Internet.
"This is good for us from a security point of view because we will know who is connecting to us and what device they are connecting from. If anyone tries to hack into the site we will be able to trace them much more easily," says Miller.
But although he can see the many benefits of IPv6, nme.com has not turned up the pressure on its ISP to transfer to the new protocol as yet.
"We have not started to rattle any cages, but if we secure the funding for the new channels for our brand which we want then we will be speaking to them soon," Miller says.
Clearly, those users with an eye to offering mobile services to their customers in the future would be well advised to follow suit. IPv6 offers another opportunity to steal competitive edge.
Boning up on IPv6
Research into IPv6 has involved companies in 45 countries all subscribing to a global IPv6 Internet backbone called the 6Bone, an infrastructure used to test the protocol.
The 6Bone started as a virtual network using tunnelling and encapsulation to mimic IPv6 over an IPv4 network, but has now migrated to an all-IPv6 network. The focus today is on testing the transition process from IPv4, and operational procedures.
The lead country behind the 6Bone has been Japan. The shortage of IPv4 address space is particularly acute in Africa and the Asia-Pacific region as the US grabbed addresses early on having anticipated a potential shortfall.
Japan's IPv6 project, called Kame, is a collaborative venture backed by networking technologists from seven major electronics companies including Fujitsu, Hitachi, NEC and Toshiba. These companies have already converted their major IPv4 networking protocols to IPv6, including SMTP, Pop, FTP and Telnet, all implemented on BSD Unix. Current projects include an IPv4-to-IPv6 header translator.
Meanwhile, the wider world has stepped up preparations for IPv6 by forming the IPv6 Forum in July 2000. The forum is chaired by Vint Cerf, one of the original developers of the Internet, and works closely with the Internet Engineering Task Force.
The forum is particularly looking at products and services for mobile use. Already there are many European offerings based on General Packet Radio Service, universal mobile telecommunications system and third generation networks.
Founding members of the IPv6 Forum include BT, Case Technology, Deutsche Telekom, Ericsson, Nokia, Siemens and Thomson-CSF. US representatives include 3Com, AT&T, Cisco, Compaq, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, MCI WorldCom, Microsoft, Motorola, Qwest, Sprint and Sun Microsystems. Asian members include Hitachi and NTT.