Cisco embraces IPv6

Cisco Systems this week affirmed for the first time that its software and hardware products will support IPv6, an enhanced version of the communications protocol that underpins the Net.

Cisco says it will support IPv6 in version 12.1(5)T of its IOS software, scheduled to ship in October. Later versions of IOS will provide advanced IPv6-related features and improved performance, and future hardware platforms will support IPv6, according to Cisco chief technology officer Judy Estrin.

"Cisco is committed to IPv6, but we're committed to integration, not transition," said Estrin, who made her remarks at the IPv6 Global Summit here. The summit is sponsored by the IPv6 Forum, a group of 80 companies and research institutions promoting the IPv6 standard.

In a frank talk to about 150 Summit attendees, Estrin urged the IPv6 community to come up with tools and management techniques that allow network managers to integrate IPv6 with IPv4, the Internet's current communications protocol .

"We must bring in IPv6 side-by-side with IPv4," Estrin said, using the analogy of two streams merging together to create a more powerful river. Still, she pointed out that it will be a "long path" for the Internet industry to migrate to IPv6.

Developed by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), IPv6 offers several benefits to corporate network managers over IPv4. IPv6, which uses a 128-bit addressing scheme, supports a virtually limitless number of uniquely identified systems on the Net, while IPv4 supports only a few billion systems because it uses a 32-bit addressing scheme. IPv6 also offers easier administration and tighter security.

However, migrating to IPv6 is an expensive and time-consuming proposition. Few IPv6-compliant products are shipping, and ISPs have been slow to support the standard.

Estrin said Cisco has seen a growing interest in IPv6, and that is why the company is committed to making its products IPv6-ready. "In the last six months, we have started taking a different approach on this," Estrin said, pointing out that Cisco is broadening from IPv6 research to IPv6 product deployment.

Estrin cited the following trends as driving the need for IPv6:

-- The growing mobility of Internet users. Users want to be able to access the same Internet services from work, the car and the home, creating a need for more than one IP address per person.

-- Home networking. With high-bandwidth Internet access coming to the home and offering always-on service, consumers will want to hook up security, utility and other appliances to the Net.

-- The convergence of voice, video and data over an IP-based infrastructure. This mandates the move to the simpler, more scalable and more reliable architecture that IPv6 offers.

"The current IPv4 infrastructure is stretched," Estrin said. "The larger address space (in IPv6) offers advantages and efficiencies. But we must have implementation methods that ensure smooth integration of IPv4 and IPv6."

Estrin said the challenges to IPv6 deployment are not technical, but rather the education of end users and the development of a business case for the technology. "We must not harbor the illusion of a killer application," she said.

In an interview after her speech, Estrin said only a handful of Cisco's enterprise customers have asked about IPv6. "Users don't know that they need it," she explained. "I don't think the industry has done a very good job of explaining the cost/benefit analysis of going to IPv6."

Despite the views of some in the Internet engineering community that IPv6 will never happen, Estrin said that Cisco believes the technology "will get deployed. It will start with new applications such as wireless, but over time we will see it move into the enterprise."

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