Do you remember party lines?
Back in the day, several people often had to share one phone line, especially in rural areas where populations were lower and phone service was (literally) few and far between. It wasn’t very private, since fellow party line users could listen in on your conversation at any moment.
Thankfully, service was expanded so every subscriber could get their own unique phone line and phone number. Even so, some areas still do run out of phone numbers and have to introduce new area codes to ensure each user gets an individual phone number.
There’s a similar system for Internet addresses. Each website and connected device needs its own unique Internet Protocol (IP) address (that long sequence of numbers separated by periods) in order to connect to the Web. The trouble is, we’re running out of the original batch of IP address numbers.
What is IPv6?
The very first IP addresses were assigned in a 32-bit format called Internet Protocol Version 4 (IPv4). As more users and devices went online, however, the maximum pool of four billion IPv4 addresses started dwindling.
The Internet Assigned Numbers Authority handed out its last new, unique IPv4 addresses to Regional Internet Registries (RIRs) in Feb 2011. The RIR that manages addresses in Canada and the U.S. allocated its last remaining IPv4 address in 2015.
In anticipation of this shortage, a new 128-bit format called IPv6 was created in 1999. It was kind of like introducing new area codes for phone numbers. Because IPv6 addresses have more digits in them than IPv4 addresses, they can be made into more unique combinations – about 340 trillion trillion trillion IPv6 addresses.
Don’t panic if the websites and devices at your business still use IPv4. Almost all current hardware and software systems work with both IPv4 and IPv6. So why should your company move over to IPv6?
Business benefits of IPv6
Although IPv4 is still functional today, eventually the world may become an IPv6-only landscape. In that scenario, if you're still using IPv4, customers who are IPv6-only wouldn’t be able to reach your websites or use your business apps.
You should also think about what happens if you need to acquire more IPv4 addresses for your business. As time goes on, it will only get more difficult to obtain them as the current supply gets tighter. (Most RIRs have wait lists to reallocate existing IPv4 addresses.)
Another reason to go to IPv6 is quality. Many IPv4 networks use a technique called Network Address Translation (NAT) to squeeze the most connectivity out of a very short supply of IPv4 addresses. To keep things moving, NAT allows many hosts on a private network to share a small number of public IPv4 addresses over the Internet.
Yet NAT has its drawbacks. Since it’s not direct end-to-end (E2E) connectivity, the speed, efficiency and strength of these connections can suffer. Plus, all that dipsy doodling to reroute traffic can put wear and tear on your company’s network over time, leading to extra maintenance and costs.
Consider security, too. IPSec security protocol is mandatory in all IPv6 technology, but optional in IPv4. In addition, NAT’s lack of E2E routing can make it tougher to trace the origin of security threats and diagnose network problems overall.
Then there’s the Internet of Things (IoT). Cisco predicts 50 billion more devices will be connected to the Internet over the next few years, stretching IPv4 capacity even further. Your business will likely need new IP addresses to deploy IoT, and your best bet for obtaining them is the vast pool (remember those trillions and trillions?) of IPv6 numbers.
According to experts at the American Registry for Internet Numbers (ARIN), IPv6’s E2E connectivity will foster better user experience and analytics, both essential for serving your customers competitively.
At a recent ARIN IPv6 conference, the importance of IPv6 integration and adoption was front and centre, with industry leaders from prominent companies like LinkedIn and Amazon addressing common concerns. One of the biggest difficulties faced by the IT community was the potential time and resource expenditure required to update a company's entire network.
However, Alec Peterson, General Manager of Amazon CloudFront at Amazon Web Services offered advice to take IPv6 integration section by section.
“I’d say follow the Henry Ford principle: There are no big problems; there are just collections of small problems. So don’t look at IPv6 as, oh my gosh, I have to convert my entire network and application stack, because you’ll look at it and you’ll just say, I can never get that prioritized. Find a piece of it. Find a meaningful piece. See if you can get a piece of your network going. Just make incremental progress.”
Steps to take
The first thing to do is take inventory. Which of your IT assets use IPv4 and/or IPv6? You’ll have to answer that question by assessing your hardware, software, applications, Internet connection and hosting services. You can detect IPv6 on your websites, network and devices quickly (and we mean in mere seconds) by visiting this site to run an automated connectivity test.
You may have to contact your Internet service provider, domain registrar, hosting provider, hardware vendors and software suppliers to find out if they provide IPv6 solutions and support (or plan to in future). But not everything has to be completely upgraded or replaced; in some cases, workarounds can be used so existing IPv4 systems can run IPv6.
The Internet Society has some great strategic advice on moving to IPv6. It points out that many businesses may not fully reap the operational cost benefits of adopting IPv6 until up to 10 years afterward. With that in mind, it suggests shifting your public and customer facing IT assets to IPv6 first, to make sure your clients can still access your sites and applications as the Internet increasingly embraces IPv6.
Since IPv4 is still working for now, you can probably defer deploying IPv6 in your back-end infrastructure for a while, to save on some costs and logistics in the meantime.
The cost and complexity of adopting IPv6 at your business depend on things like network architecture, legacy assets, outsourced vs. in-house customized apps, and IPv6 proficiency among your IT staff.
Just don’t forget to test your new IPv6 assets, wherever and whenever possible, before they go live.
Up Next: What other emerging technologies can improve your business? Check out Is it time to add artificial intelligence into your SMB?