WASHINGTON, D.C. - Proponents of IPv6, a controversial upgrade to the Internet's main communications protocol, say they have finally found their killer application: wireless.
Over the past six months, the focus of the IPv6 community has shifted from trying to convince traditional, hard-wired ISPs to roll out IPv6. Instead, IPv6 researchers and product developers are responding to a groundswell of support from European and Japanese wireless suppliers that need the unlimited supply of Internet addresses offered by IPv6.
The shift was evident at an IPv6 conference held here last week. Every speaker at the conference - including high-level executives from Sun, Microsoft and IBM - said they expect the proliferation of Internet-enabled mobile phones and handheld computers to propel IPv6 into the core of the Internet.
What caused the shift in momentum for IPv6 was the European wireless community's decision in May to adopt the new protocol in its next-generation wireless initiative, dubbed 3GPP for 3rd Generation Partnership Project.
"Adoption of IPv6 by 3GPP is the first real business case and the biggest business case for IPv6," says Latif Ladid, president of the IPv6 Forum, a consortium of 60 IT companies and research institutions. "IPv6 is practically what's needed for wireless applications because it provides true end-to-end security and true end-to-end voice over IP.
"3GPP has provided the ice-breaking leadership that will pull the fixed networks to IPv6," Ladid adds.
IPv6 is the Internet engineering community's answer to the problem of a rapidly depleting supply of Internet addresses.
The current version of IP - IPv4 - uses 32-bit addresses to identify computers connected to the Internet. Theoretically, IPv4 can support four billion addresses. But due to a history of inefficient address assignments, half of these addresses already were assigned. And only a fraction of the remaining addresses actually can be used because of shortcomings in the original IPv4 design.
IPv6 uses 128-bit addresses, which means the protocol can support a virtually unlimited number of computer systems and other devices connected to the Internet. In addition to enough addresses, IPv6 offers several advantages for wireless applications, including built-in security and mobility, and simpler configuration.
Yet despite its benefits, IPv6 has been slow to take off. Only a handful of companies offer IPv6 support in shipping products. Migrating to IPv6 will be time-consuming and expensive for ISPs and large corporations. And alternative technologies such as network address translation, which uses private rather than globally unique Internet addresses, are growing in popularity.
However, with 3GPP looming as a real market for IPv6 products, network vendors are stepping up efforts to ship IPv6-compliant products.
"We're in the middle of a complete transition of our product line, and the core of it is Solaris 8, which has IPv6 built in," says Greg Papadopoulos, chief technology officer at Sun. "IPv6 is not optional. Every piece of equipment we ship will come with IPv6 within nine months."
At the conference, Sun announced plans to ship an IPv6-compliant version of Java in fall 2001, with beta software due next spring. Sun also says it will add support for mobile IPv6 and IP Security to Solaris 8 next summer.
"We're trying to make sure that for any service provider who wants to run IPv6 along with IPv4, it all just works," Papadopoulos says.
Meanwhile, IBM executives say they are looking across their product lines and service offerings to see where they can integrate IPv6 into upcoming releases. IBM was the first Unix supplier to offer an IPv6 implementation back in 1997 and recently shipped IPv6 support for OS/390 systems. Now, IBM is planning to add IPv6 to it OS/400, Linux, WebSphere and Tivoli offerings.
"IBM understands the im-portance of IPv6," says Sue Horn, an IBM vice president tasked with leading the company's IPv6 initiatives. "We understand it takes support across our operating systems, middleware and back-end systems. We're putting an end-to-end focus on IPv6."
Horn doesn't anticipate significant customer demand for IPv6 until 2002 or 2003, but she considers the technology a critical part of IBM's e-business strategy.
"Pervasive devices and pervasive users are driving a whole new way of thinking about e-business," Horn says. "The Internet is not just about communicating with established customers and partners, but potentially hundreds and thousands of people all around the world. . . . In order to do this, you have to make fundamental changes in the way you do business. IPv6 is one of those fundamental changes."
Similarly, Hewlett-Packard officials say they plan to be a lot more active in IPv6 development in the future.
"I'm seeing more requirements from my customers for IPv6," says My Phan, technical director of HP's Systems and Networking Solutions Lab.
HP has offered an IPv6 developer's kit for two years and will add IPv6 support into its core Unix operating system in 2001. HP also plans to offer IPv6 support in its handhelds, printers and network management software.
"Mobile networks will drive IPv6," Phan says. "When there is enough critical mass in the Internet infrastructure and services, the enterprises will come on board."
Also at the conference, Microsoft announced an upgrade to its IPv6 tool kit for Windows developers. Available as a free download since March, Microsoft's IPv6 Technology Preview now includes a browser, basic utilities such as telnet and FTP, and support for tunneling IPv6 traffic over an IPv4 backbone.
However, Microsoft will not ship a commercial version of Windows 2000 with built-in IPv6 for another two years, admits Tony Hain, program manager of IPv6 for Microsoft's Windows Networking group. Hain says Microsoft is focused on getting application developers to support IPv6 first, so the technology will be useful to consumers and businesses when it ships.
"We are looking at IPv6 support in [Internet Information Server] and Exchange," Hain says, adding that Microsoft's Windows CE team is also considering adding IPv6.
In other IPv6-related news:
- Ericsson announced its first IPv6-compliant wireless router, the Realtime Router RXI 820, which was specifically designed for 3GPP. The 820 supports IPv4 and IPv6, and will be deployed early next year.
- Compaq now offers full IPv6 support in its Tru64 Unix Version 5.1, which began shipping in September. Compaq will add IPv6 support to its TCP/IP Services for OpenVMS product later this year.
Originally anticipated for October, IPv6 support instead will ship in the first quarter of next year. Cisco officials say the change doesn't reflect a lack of support for IPv6, but rather results from the overall difficulty of getting new features added to software release schedules.
IPv6 proponents downplayed the Cisco news.
"Cisco is still keying delivery of their product to the 2001/2002 time frame for 3GPP," says Brian Haberman, a research engineer with Nortel Networks. "The fact that an early product release slips from October to March isn't that big of an issue from a transition point of view. . . . 3GPP rolls out in 2002, and Cisco will be there."
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