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Will Smart Grid power IPv6?

Billions invested in "smart" meters, sensors could spark demand for next-gen Internet, experts say

By , Network World
October 29, 2009 02:43 PM ET

Network World - Could Smart Grid, the Obama Administration's effort to modernize the nation's electric grid, be the killer app for IPv6?

Q&A: Why IP is the right choice for Smart Grid

That's what Internet engineers are asking as they see billions of dollars in stimulus funds pumped into smart electric meters, automated utility substations and new sensors networks – all of which could take advantage of the abundant address space and built-in security offered by IPv6, the long-anticipated upgrade to the Internet's main communications protocol.

The White House announced on Tuesday that it had awarded $3.4 billion in stimulus grants to electric utilities to support 100 modernization projects. The government's Smart Grid grants are being matched with private sector funds for a total investment of more than $8 billion over the next three years.

Federal officials say Smart Grid will support Internet standards.

At issue, is whether Smart Grid will support the current Internet architecture, which is built upon IPv4, or whether it could help drive adoption of the next-generation Internet standard known as IPv6 in corporate and home networks. Available for more than a decade, IPv6 has been slow to catch on because there has been no concrete business driver that compelled companies to spend money upgrading their routers, servers and applications to support it.

IPv4, the Internet's main communications protocol, uses 32-bit addresses and can support 4.3 billion publicly addressable devices on the Internet. IPv6 uses a 128-bit addressing scheme and can support an inconceivably huge amount of devices: 2 to the 128th power. IPv6 also features built-in security and enhanced network management features when compared with IPv4, which is expected to run out of address space by 2012.

With IPv4 address space exhaustion looming, Internet experts say it's critical for Smart Grid projects to embrace IPv6.

"If Smart Grid is going to be successful, it will support tens of millions of devices or potentially hundreds of millions of devices. We don't have that much IPv4 address space left for that project," says John Curran, president and CEO of the American Registry for Internet Numbers, which doles out IPv4 and IPv6 address space to ISPs.

Curran says utilities could use private IPv4 addresses hidden behind network address translation (NAT) boxes for Smart Grid projects, but that this approach is more complicated and has a greater risk of error than if utilities use IPv6, with its plentiful publicly visible address space.

Because IPv4 addresses are scarce, companies often use NAT devices to share a single public IPv4 address among dozens or hundreds of systems that use private, often duplicated IPv4 addresses. These private IPv4 addresses cause problems if inadvertently leaked across the public Internet by private IP-based networks.

"If Smart Grid has to do an addressing plan that handles issues of conflicts, NATs and running out of address space, that makes their project a lot harder," Curran says. "It's certainly more straight-forward with IPv6. I wouldn't want to be the person who writes the plan for how Smart Grid is going to run for decades to come with IPv4."

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