Global effort to push new Net protocol

A worldwide effort to promote the adoption of a new version of the Internet protocol, called IPv6 (Internet Protocol version 6), will be launched early next week, according to an individual with the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) who is familiar with the effort.

More than 20 of the largest telecommunications providers and IT vendors from Europe, Asia and North America will announce the formation of the IPv6 Forum, which will be dedicated to raising awareness and speeding introduction of the new protocol, said the IETF source, who asked not to be identified. The IETF is an Internet standards body.

The date for the IPv6 Forum launch has been tentatively set for July 5. Its final roster of members was still being finalised last week, but is likely to include British Telecom, L.M. Ericsson Telephone, Nokia, Telecom Italia, 3Com, Cisco Systems, Microsoft, Hitachi and Nippon Telegraph & Telephone, according to a preliminary statement from the forum.

Vint Cerf, chairman of the Internet Societal Task Force and a pioneer of the Internet's development, will be the group's honorary chairman, the statement said.

"This is not a standards body," said the source. "It's an attempt to drive adoption and raise awareness" of IPv6.

IPv6 has been on the radar of most large companies for some time, but a global push to raise awareness of the new protocol signals a new level of urgency among members of the Internet technical community to update one of the Internet's most fundamental technologies.

IPv6 is intended to solve a number of problems inherent in the current Internet protocol, called IPv4. Chief among them is the need to create more IP addresses to meet the growing numbers of consumers and businesses jumping on the Internet, said Stan Schatt, a research director with Giga Information Group.

An IP address is a unique identifier assigned to each client connected to the Internet. It allows different clients to locate and communicate with each other. IPv4 uses a 32-bit address system, which in theory allows more than four billion unique IP addresses. Inefficiencies in the system of allocating those addresses means the actual number available is smaller. IPv6, in contrast, uses 128-bit addresses which in theory will cater to trillions and trillions of Internet clients.

IPv6 has other benefits, including the ability to offer greater security for data travelling over the Internet, as well as better support for quality-of-service applications, real-time communications, and better router performance, said Fred Baker, chairman of the IETF.

Baker wouldn't confirm that an IPv6 Forum is in the works, but said launching an effort now to raise awareness of IPv6 among businesses and consumers would make sense. Though the protocol has been around for years, its adoption by service providers has been slow.

Until customers become aware of the benefits of IPv6, they won't call on IT vendors and service providers to support the new protocol in their products, Baker said. At the same time, the industry won't embark on the task of implementing the new protocol until customers start asking for it, he said.

"It's a major undertaking, and it doesn't do you any good unless both parties in an exchange are using it," observed Schatt of the Giga Group.

The plan is that IPv6 will be introduced gradually over the next four to five years, while maintaining backward-compatibility in the network with software and networking equipment that still uses the IPv4 standard, Baker said.

No one knows exactly when the supply of IP addresses will run out, although Baker, Schatt and others say there is no cause for alarm. Many businesses have found a workaround to the IP address shortage by assigning their own, non-unique IP addresses within their own networks, Baker and others said. The companies then use a program called a "network address translator" to translate those proprietary IP addresses into ones recognisable on the public Internet.

But the network address translator acts as an additional obstacle to data as it travels over a network, and in some cases impedes certain types of applications from working at all, Baker said.

The problems with IPv4 stem largely from the fact that it was developed 20 years ago, at a time when the Internet was a much smaller medium primarily serving academic and government needs, rather than those of business and consumers.

A single standard hasn't been settled on for the new protocol, but work has come far enough along that some vendors have already committed to development and testing projects. All of the major router vendors have made plans to support IPv6 in their products, according to a paper written by a working group within the IETF and posted on the group's Web site.

In addition, vendors including Apple Computer, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Microsoft, Novell and Sun Microsystems have begun preparations to support IPv6 on desktop machines and servers, the working group said.

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