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What if IPv6 simply fails to catch on?

Experts ponder what the Internet will look like in 5 years without an enhanced addressing scheme

By , Network World
May 23, 2011 06:03 AM ET

Network World - During the past six months, the Internet engineering community has undertaken an unprecedented effort to promote IPv6 as an urgent and necessary upgrade for network and website operators to allow for the continued, rapid growth of the Internet.

The symbol of that effort is World IPv6 Day, a 24-hour trial of IPv6 that is sponsored by the Internet Society and scheduled for June 8. So far, 200-plus website operators -- including Google, Yahoo and Facebook -- have agreed to participate in the event by serving up their content via IPv6, an upgrade to the Internet's main communications protocol called IPv4.

BACKGROUND: Facebook, Google, Yahoo commit to 'World IPv6 Day' trial

Amid the buzz around World IPv6 Day, it's hard not to wonder: What if IPv6 fails to catch on after this event? What if the Internet is still 99% based on IPv4 five years from now as it is today?

Proponents of IPv6 make dire predictions about the fate of the Internet if usage of IPv6 doesn't rise dramatically in the next few years. They say the complexity of the Internet infrastructure will increase, network operations costs will rise, and innovation will be hampered. This is due to the multiple layers of network address translation (NAT) devices that will be required to share limited IPv4 addresses among a rapidly growing base of users and devices.

"If IPv6 fails to catch on, then the Internet will include nesting of NAT upon NAT," says Russ Housley, chairman of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the Internet standards body that created IPv6. "I hope this is not our future because it would be a very fragile Internet, making innovation more difficult. On the other hand, IPv6 will greatly reduce the need for NAT, restoring the opportunities for innovation that were envisioned by the original Internet architecture."

Dorian Kim, vice president of IP engineering, Global IP Network at NTT America, a leading provider of IPv6 services in the United States, says that without IPv6 the Internet "will be even more heavily NATed than it currently is, but life will mostly go on. Unfortunately, such an Internet likely will have a negative effect on potential development of application or service innovation due to inherent issues with NATs. Additionally, should service providers become more and more reliant on NATs, this will probably change the cost and scaling trajectories of Internet services over time due to high cost and limited scalability of large-scale NAT solutions.''

The upcoming World IPv6 Day is the biggest event in the history of IPv6, a 13-year-old standard of which the primary advantage over IPv4 is an expanded addressing scheme. While IPv4 uses 32-bit addresses and can support 4.3 billion devices connected directly to the Internet, IPv6 uses 128-bit addresses and can connect up a virtually unlimited number of devices: 2 to the 128th power.

The Internet needs IPv6 because it is running out of IPv4 address space. The free pool of unassigned IPv4 addresses expired in February, and in April the Asia Pacific region ran out of all but a few IPv4 addresses being held in reserve for startups. The American Registry for Internet Numbers (ARIN), which doles out IP addresses to network operators in North America, says it will deplete its supply of IPv4 addresses this fall.

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