What the US is missing by ignoring IPv6

Foreign firms and the feds are seeing better performance and security -- plus a range of mobile and collaboration apps beginning to emerge

There are just 100 days left for federal agencies to change over from IPv4 -- the version 4 of the Internet Protocol that everyone uses -- to the IPv6 version. In the fast-approaching future where everything from PCs to cars, from alarms to toasters, from phones to cereal packages has an IP address and is connected to the Web, IPv6 promises to make many more IP addresses available -- enough addresses for every conceivable use. Oh, and IPv6 will make Internet communications more secure through better identity verification.

Despite being given nearly three years to make the change, many government agencies won't be ready on June 30 as mandated. And private businesses in the US have barely given IPv6 any thought at all. That may all change soon, as the IPv6-experienced government agencies show others the way -- and as American businesses realize they may pay a price for falling behind the rest of the world on the road to IPv6.

"Having the government push this initiative will put a lot of expertise around IPv6 in the marketplace and help businesses understand how they can take advantage of it, and drive the development of many types of new applications," said Tere Bracco, manager of network systems at Cisco Systems. "This government work will result in strong drivers for the private sector as people better understand what you can do with IPv6, and encourage developers to experiment with it even further."

Why the U.S. has been complacent on IPv6

In other parts of the world, the biggest driver behind IPv6 adoption is not innovation, but rather the scarcity of available IP addresses that can be put into use in locating servers, mobile devices, and many different types of sensors on the Internet. IPv4 supports about 4 billion addresses -- a lot when the Internet was created but not so many today. By contrast, IPv6 supports trillions of addresses.

As the creator and first broad user of the Internet (an outgrowth of a military network meant to survive a nuclear war), the US was allotted roughly 70 per cent of all available IP addresses during the Internet's formative years. And it has not come close to using its allocation.

But the rest of the world has already begun to run short on IP addresses from its small pool, and governments and companies overseas have moved much more quickly to go to IPv6 and get the extra addresses it provides, said Kazu Gomi, CTO of NTT America, a subsidiary of Japan's largest telco. Asia-Pacific countries have been particularly fast in adopting IPv6, due to their fast growth (especially in the mobile device arena) and because they had less legacy use of IPv4 to convert, he noted.

The fast growth also exposed how much of a burden the workaround is that's typically used to squeeze more devices onto the limited number of IPv4 addresses available: NAT (network address translation), which reuses IPv4 addresses across multiple devices within a local network, using smart routers to juggle which traffic goes where.

In the US, the relatively high number of IPv4 addresses still available and the widespread use of NAT has made IPv6 a "why bother?" project for most companies, Gomi said, even though most computers, operating systems, and network hardware built in the last four years support IPv6.

Despite that complacency, Gomi said, a range of emerging applications around security, mobility and collaboration will help push more US companies to update their infrastructure and delve further into IPv6. As a provider of IPv6-enabled WAN circuits, NTT America hopes to cash in on that expected uptake. Its parent company NTT began migrating to IPv6 in 2001, and now supports both protocols worldwide.

US companies risk losing the competitive edge that IPv6-based applications could provide their foreign competitors, said Yurie Rich, vice president at IPv6 Integration Services and Command Integration, which specializes in transition services and application development. For example, if Toyota Motor were to develop a system that communicated information about needed services or product recalls directly to its vehicles, and General Motors did not, the US-based company could lose out on subsequent sales.

"IPv6 isn't super sexy, it's plumbing or railroad tracks -- but you need it if you want to build a bullet train," Rich said.

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