Product Review: Net protocol requires preparation, understanding

Question: I keep hearing about IPv6 [Internet Protocol version 6]. It's time to figure out what it means to our organisation, and how I need to prepare. Unlike many IT shops that focus on reactive measures, we like to plan and be as proactive as possible. Can you tell me what I should know at this point and what sorts of things I should keep on my radar? I want to be ready when IPv6 goes mainstream.

Veronica Walker

Laura Wonnacott: Unless you're working for a high-tech organisation that develops new products or technologies that will rely on the IPv6 architecture, it's probably OK that you have not yet done any hands-on work with IPv6. Of course, there's no time like the present.

Basically, you have two areas of concern: staff and infrastructure. It would be very beneficial to have someone onboard who knows IPv6, the next generation of IP. You can start training your staff now. Network engineers will most likely be the top candidates for IPv6 education. Depending on the number of in-house or custom applications you produce, application developers will also need to know a thing or two about IPv6. I highly recommend that you get started by using the developmental network called the 6bone; it is an international and experimental IPv6 network that runs via the Internet. For more information on the 6bone, check out www.6bone.net. There are plenty of OSes, including both Microsoft Windows NT and Linux, that already provide developmental drivers for IPv6. In addition, there are popular applications such as FTP and Telnet that support IPv6.

In addition to staffing concerns, you will eventually need to address infrastructure issues such as whether your existing setup will support IPv6 and how you will go about implementing the required changes to this infrastructure. You simply won't move from IPv4 to IPv6 with the flip of a switch. There will be a long period in which both versions will coexist.

The older your equipment, the less likely its vendor will support it with the new protocol. Still, your vendor will have the best information about whether its old products will support IPv6 and what is involved in getting this support. The best case will be a quick and easy firmware upgrade. Once vendors ship products that support IPv6, then we'll need to be ready to change our IT infrastructures.

IPv4's most serious shortcoming is the now-limited number of addresses that it can support. IP addressing uses a fixed format that is not extensible, and given the massive explosion of IP in recent years, this is cause for alarm. The situation is analogous to running out of Social Security numbers. We have to come up with a new format that supports more addresses than our current 10-digit scheme.

In addition to a limited number of addresses, IPv4 has routing inefficiencies and limitations. For example, addresses are assigned without regard to geography. The big backbone routers on the Internet do more than double duty in order to maintain tables that detail where to send information for any given address; thus performance suffers. Other limitations of IPv4 affect security and encryption, automatic configuration, and quality-of-service measures. IPv6 addresses these.

The change to the addressing scheme is by far the hottest. IPv4 uses 32-bit addresses that are broken into 4-byte segments. IPv6 uses addresses that are four times longer, or 128 bits. IPv6 addresses follow the form n:n:n:n: n:n:n:n, where each n is a 4-digit hexadecimal integer. I've read that the theoretical maximum of addresses is an outrageous number, far beyond our current demands and future expectations. Of course, as more and more devices such as coffeepots and toasters become Internet-enabled, we may yet make a small dent in that stockpile of addresses.

For more information about IPv6, check out our Tech Spotlight at archive.infoworld.com/cgi-bin/displayArchive.pl?/98/34/ipv6a.dat.htm. Brooks Talley, test manager of the InfoWorld Test Center, wrote an excellent piece on getting started with IPv6. The article includes a list of resources for even more information on IPv6. And if you enjoy reading Requests for Comments, be sure to check out Nos. 1287, 1454, 2373, 2374, and 2460.

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