Next generation Internet lands

After years in development, the next version of Internet Protocol (IP) is finally seeing its first live implementations.

After years in development, the next version of Internet Protocol (IP) is finally seeing its first live implementations.

This is good news for anyone who cares about mobile data services, secure corporate computing or the future growth of the Internet. Implementations are still in the early stages, and participants are grappling with technology problems such as security issues.

Researchers, users, vendors and analysts agree the migration to IPv6 will be long and difficult - one that many enterprises may not attempt for another decade or more.

IPv6 transforms IP, the underlying set of rules for the Internet, by allowing for a virtually unlimited number of unique addresses. IPv4 uses a 32-bit address space that allows for only 4.3 billion addresses. However, enough large blocks of addresses have been doled out that most network administrators are not too concerned about running out.

Despite the lack of IPv6-based services today, companies that cannot use IPv6 will be left behind when those services start to become available, probably from 2003 onward. Large companies will have to use IPv6 in order to allocate enough addresses for their users. By 2005, services for mobile devices that take advantage of IPv6 will start to become available, he said.

A major stumbling block today is the fact that many applications lack support for IPv6. Most vendors of network equipment, firewalls and software operating systems are just beginning to address the requirements. Vendors attribute the shortfalls to the fact that both products and implementations are just starting out, and express confidence they will be addressed later.

When it comes to networking equipment, Cisco has yet to offer IPv6 support in all its hardware. The company currently only offers IPv6 capability in its router software and expects to introduce hardware IPv6 support some time this year.

Bringing operating systems and applications up to speed with IPv6 will also be difficult. Unlike some network migrations, this one requires changes far beyond the backbone. Except in enterprises that are using IPv6 only on the WAN, every server and client system that takes advantage of IPv6 needs its own IPv6 software stack, said Mary Petrosky, an independent networking analyst.

Microsoft could play a major role in determining how quickly IPv6 is adopted. "We see this as a very important area," said Tom Laemmel, a Windows product manager. "The current Windows is well poised now for the growth of IPv6."

Windows XP now includes a dual IPv4 and IPv6 stack. Although it is usable, it is intended for use by developers. Windows 2000 Server includes a software development kit for building IPv6 applications and devices.

By the end of this year, Microsoft has promised to introduce an IPv6 stack in an upgrade to Windows XP, as well as in its next server OS, Windows .net Server, that users will be able to deploy in a live network.

Sun Microsystems' Solaris OS, has included IPv6 capability since the 2000 release of Solaris 8. If a Solaris 8 server is plugged into an IPv6 network, it can automatically begin exchanging IPv6 packets.

The new protocol is not included in the Linux kernel but is offered as part of at least one distribution of the open-source operating system, Red Hat Inc's Red Hat Linux 7.2. However, Red Hat currently does not provide support for the IPv6 component, according to Red Hat spokeswoman Melissa London.

Beyond server and client operating systems, IPv6 compatibility will also have to be built into applications themselves. Some basic applications, including certain file transfer, email, and Domain Name System applications, have been made to work with the new protocol.

Making a cleanly written, standards-based application work with IPv6 may not be difficult. However, many proprietary and complex applications have evolved unusual and even undocumented ways of using IPv4 and changing these over to IPv6 may be a steep challenge.

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