IETF mulls IPv6 for home networking

The proposed IETF Homenet group would select protocols for use in tomorrow's home networks

The Internet Engineering Task Force is considering establishing a working group to smooth some of the impending issues around setting up and maintaining IPv6-based Internet connections into homes.

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"A collection of protocols needs to be agreed upon, so vendors of equipment used in home networks will have an interoperable suite of protocols available," said Ralph Droms, a distinguished engineer for Cisco and among those who want to form the IETF working group.

Such a group, should it be approved by the IETF, would specify how IPv6 could be deployed in the home in an easy and consistent manner, using protocols developed by the IETF.

Commercial network providers and large organizations are beginning to look at how to use IPv6, which is the successor to today's chief communications protocol for the Internet, Internet Protocol version 4. Not much work has been done to address the issue of getting homes to use IPv6, however.

Home networking is a fairly new area for the IETF. Many of its standards were designed for large-scale organizational networks, rather than home use.

"Home networking grew on-demand, by accident," Droms said. The first home consumer Internet connections often relied on a single dynamically allocated IP address assigned to the connecting computer whenever a user would dial by modem into a service provider.

As people added more computers and devices to Internet connections, they -- or their devices -- relied on NAT (Network Address Translation) as a way to set up their informal internal networks. NAT can be problematic in that it doesn't permit direct Internet access, necessitating device makers and software providers such as Skype to rig up complicated and trouble-prone work-arounds.

IPv6 will require a fundamentally different approach for setting up end nodes than is typically used today, Droms explained. Most notably, end devices will be able to access the Internet, and be accessed from the Internet, directly, rather than traversing NAT. The home Internet-facing router or cable modem will get an IPv6 prefix and each device in that home will get an Internet IPv6 address based on that prefix.

"All the devices in the home will have globally route-able addresses. I don't have to do anything to make those devices accessible to the rest of the Internet," Droms explained.

"End-to-end communication is both an opportunity and a concern as it enables new applications but also exposes nodes in the internal networks to receipt of unwanted traffic from the Internet," read the proposal to the IESG (Internet Engineering Steering Group), which oversees the IETF.

IPv6 will bring other issues and opportunities as well, which the group would address. Most home networks typically have only a single subnet. But the ability to easily set up multiple subnets may be handy in that it would allow users to allow their guests a dedicated conduit for Internet access while keeping sensitive material on another, private, subnet.

Also, most network connections today are done through Ethernet at the data link layer of the seven-layer OSI (Open Systems Interconnection) stack. But as more low-powered sensor devices are commercialized, home networking equipment will have to work with non-Ethernet communication protocols these devices will use.

Ultimately, if the group is approved it plans to specify a set of existing protocols that vendors will use to ensure their equipment works together seamlessly in a home environment. The working group plans to establish common procedures for using IPv6, such as prefix configuration for routers, executing domain name resolutions, managing routing, service discovery and enabling network security.

Existing protocols should be sufficient to handle these cases, though they need some minor enhancements, such as additional options or default settings, Droms said.

One particular challenge to this work is the fact that the user base will not want to do a lot of manual configuration, so much of the interactions among routers and between the routers and end devices must take place automatically.

"All of this has to operate with as little administrative input as possible," Droms said. "It has to run itself."

The IESG will accept comments on the proposed working group through July 12.

Joab Jackson covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Joab on Twitter at @Joab_Jackson. Joab's e-mail address is Joab_Jackson@idg.com

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