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Proponents take IPv6 off its pedestal

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OTTAWA - Proponents of IPv6, a controversial upgrade to the Internet's main communications protocol, are backpedaling on claims that the long-anticipated technology can solve the 'Net's security, quality-of-service and routing problems. Instead, they are touting one advantage of IPv6: that it can fix an anticipated shortage of addresses with the current IPv4.

The about-face was evident last week at the Global IPv6 Summit.


Forum: IPv4 vs. IPv6
Stick with tried and true or migrate? Jump into the discussion.

"My concern is about overhyping IPv6 in areas where it doesn't provide the level of solution that people are expecting,'' says John Klensin, chairman of the Internet Architecture Board and vice president for Internet architecture at AT&T. "Customers are being misled. But they're not frightened enough about what IPv6 does solve, which is address exhaustion.''

IPv6 uses 128-bit addresses that can support a virtually unlimited number of computers and devices connected to the Internet. IPv4, on the other hand, uses 32-bit addresses and can support approximately four billion connections.

Most IPv4 addresses already have been assigned, primarily to ISPs, corporations and government agencies in the U.S. IPv6 promises to level the playing field and provide much-needed address space to service providers and corporations in Europe and Asia. Interest in IPv6 is strongest among wireless equipment and service providers, which predict demand for billions of new Internet addresses in the next few years.

Despite its promise, IPv6 has been slow to catch on, because it requires a costly and time-consuming upgrade to the Internet's backbone and edge systems. The Internet Engineering Task Force finalized IPv6 in 1998, but only a handful of IPv6-enabled products are shipping today from Nortel Networks, Sun, IBM and others.

IPv6 plans

For years, IPv6 developers have tried to encourage vendors, ISPs and corporations to upgrade to the technology by promising many ancillary features, including enhanced security, autoconfiguration of devices and elimination of network address translators.

Now even the staunchest IPv6 supporters admit that IPv4 has improved enough to eliminate the incentive to upgrade to IPv6 for these features. Instead, they say the bottom line for IPv6 deployment is going to be the worldwide demand for Internet addresses.

"We may never run out of [IPv4] address space,'' Klensin says, adding that the regional registries will increase their IPv4 address conservation efforts to prevent that from happening.

However, Klensin still recommends that ISPs and corporations upgrade to IPv6 in order to prevent an IPv4 address shortage caused by the rapid adoption of any new application that requires many addresses.

"If the wireless folks come to decide that IPv6 is not going to happen, that would be catastrophic for IPv4,'' Klensin says, pointing out that the world's wireless users could rapidly deplete the current IPv4 address supply.

The wireless industry is interested only in the addressing features of IPv6, not in its security, mobility, quality-of-service or other enhancements.

"The demand we see for IPv6 is primarily in Europe and Japan, and it's primarily related to address space,'' says Al Javed, CTO for wireless Internet at Nortel. The other features of IPv6 "are all nice things to have, but the value doesn't justify the cost of making the change.''

Javed says wireless carriers are installing IPv4-based systems in Europe today and won't quickly upgrade to IPv6 without an economic incentive. "I've been around networking long enough to know that what's nice to have doesn't happen,'' he adds.

For example, the next-generation European wireless initiative known as the Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) was the first group to mandate IPv6, in May 2000. However, it now appears that 3GPP will deploy IPv6 on just a small portion of its systems and only for addressing.

"3GPP has selected IPv6; most people know that,'' says Thomas Narten, a co-director of the IETF's Internet area and an engineer with IBM. "But we're not clear that we've come to agreement on which of the IPv6 protocols 3GPP is going to use.''

3GPP will use IPv6 only for multimedia applications, retaining circuit-switched networks for voice traffic and IPv4-based radio networks for data traffic. End users of 3GPP systems will get IPv6 addresses, but their applications will traverse an IPv4 backbone. 3GPP will not use IP Security, the security model built into IPv6, nor will it use Mobile IPv6 for roaming.

Most significantly, 3GPP will not adopt IPv6's much-touted end-to-end architecture, which was designed to simplify the Internet's backbone for improved scalability. Instead, 3GPP will use gateways and other intermediary devices that are similar to the IPv4 network address translators that IPv6 aimed to eliminate.

"It's a little depressing,'' admits Jim Bound, chairman of the IPv6 Forum's technical directorate and an IPv6 developer at Compaq. Bound says that despite all the marketing hype, 3GPP is taking "baby steps'' toward IPv6.

There's so much confusion about exactly which aspects of IPv6 the 3GPP project will use that the IETF is hosting a special meeting in Seattle later this month to try to clarify the situation.

"The IETF is trying to work more closely with 3GPP to understand what they need,'' Narten says.

The 3GPP project is "still in the definition stage,'' says Latif Ladid, IPv6 Forum president and chairman of the European Commission's task force on IPv6. Ladid says 3GPP will finish defining its technical architecture by year-end, with trials planned for 2002 and deployment anticipated in 2003.

Limited support of IPv6 within the 3GPP initiative is prompting vendors to ship IPv6-compliant products. Cisco will ship IPv6 support in its IOS software this month, and Nortel plans to provide IPv6-enabled hardware in its next-generation routers. But vendors such as Nortel will support only the features of IPv6 that 3GPP requires.

"We are fully committed to delivering IPv6 for 3GPP, but we will be doing the mandatory features of IPv6 first,'' Javed says.

"What we would like to see are better standards for coexistence between IPv4 and IPv6," he adds.

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Contact Senior Editor Carolyn Duffy Marsan

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