Countdown to IPv6

15 July 2011 |

While IPv6 World Day helped highlight the industry’s collective effort to encourage the global transition to IPv6, mass adoption remains on the horizon.

On June 8 2011, more than 400 participants representing some of the largest internet backbone and content distribution networks, search engines and social networking websites in the world came together to conduct the first 24-hour global trial of IPv6.

The event was labelled a success by its organisers, the Internet Society, which stated that only in rare cases did “users experience impaired access to participating websites during the trial”. In short, the trial did not break the internet, but with Google recording that IPv6 traffic reached a high of just 0.3% on its servers throughout the day, it’s safe to say the scale of the trial also had its limitations.

With approximately 80 million of the 4.3 billion IPv4 addresses remaining unallocated, IPv6 World Day is a clear sign that the industry is collectively ramping up its efforts to encourage the transition to the new IP architecture ahead of the inevitable IPv4 depletion date. Although such a depletion date varies according to region, the overall message remains: now is the time for action.

The reality, however, is the speed of transition to IPv6 has so far been patchy at best. While some carriers and network operators took the leap to IPv6 years ago, a high proportion remain lagging behind – confronted by the complexity and cost surrounding the deployment of new IP architecture. Here we examine those issues and ultimately ask when mass adoption of IPv6 will occur.

The early adopters

PCCW Global’s CEO Marc Halbfinger has described his company’s policy towards IPv6 as “early to bed, early to rise”, and to a growing proportion of today’s carriers that saying strikes a strong chord. Similar to PCCW Global, a number of carriers have already made the full transition to IPv6 and their experiences and concerns are an enlightening reference point for the rest of the industry.

Cable&Wireless Worldwide, for instance, was indirectly involved with IPv6 World Day by providing connectivity for cloud optimisation service provider Akamai and Filipino carrier Globe Telecom. In 2001, the company became one of the first network providers to roll out IPv6 across its global internet network, and as a result believes it has already met the early demand for IPv6 networking from carrier and content distribution network customers.

Mark Bennett, product manager at Cable&Wireless Worldwide, says that since 2001, the company has continued to upgrade its other platforms to be IPv6 ready. “Our focus is to make sure that as our enterprise and public sector customers begin the transition to IPv6, there are platforms ready to support that transition,” he says.

Cable&Wireless Worldwide has also been helping its wholesale IP customers prepare for their journey to IPv6 by providing consultancy services. However, interest from customers, says Bennett, has inevitably varied from region to region.

“I think the driver [towards IPv6] for wholesale is about preparing for their enterprise customers. What I would say is there are some differences around the speed of adoption and requirement for IPv6. In Asia, for example, we are seeing early demand emerging,” says Bennett. “The governments within these geographies are keen advocates of IPv6, which is perhaps driving our wholesale customers there to come to us for support with IPv6 on their platforms. The proliferation of smart devices that need access to the internet – mobile data, 3G and in the future 4G – is also fuelling the need for address space and inevitably IPv6 is going to be the answer.”

France Telecom Orange group’s chair of IPv6 programme, Christian Jacquenet, agrees, pointing to his group’s wider global IPv6 activities: “In the Asia-Pacific region and also in Africa, there is indeed quite a tremendous push being conducted by local providers towards IPv6 as soon as possible. The group’s IPv6 strategy is being enforced across 19 countries which include 10 in Africa,” he says. “There is almost an ‘IPv6 tsunami’ occurring in Asia and Africa.”

France Telecom Orange deployed IPv6 protocol across its MPLS IP VPN backbone in May 2009, a move which has marked the group as one of the first to propose IPv6 on the managed IP VPN global market. It has also helped pioneer the deployment of IPv6 across France, which was ranked second in terms of countries involved during IPv6 World Day. “During IPv6 World Day, we mostly focussed on the IPv6 readiness of parts of our network infrastructure and the ability to natively support IPv6 traffic. We also made sure that some of our own content was IPv6 rich, which had been set up by our colleagues in Orange Business Services to demonstrate the group’s IPv6 offering,” says Jacquenet.

“Most of the people involved in the trial, including the end users who tried to access the reachable IPv6 content that was available, succeeded. The little issues that did occur were quite easy to fix, but on the other hand this presumably requires more communication and education on the way IPv6 works and how to access the internet from an IPv6 terminal.”

Technical know how

One thing is clear from speaking to carriers that have already taken the leap to IPv6; the technology is by and large readily available to support the transition. Carriers today have a plethora of technological paths available to them when making the transition to IPv6, a point very much emphasised by Alcatel-Lucent’s VP of IP division, EMEA marketing, Phil Tilley: “We have supported IPv6 for a couple of years now and the challenging and interesting thing about the transition to the new IP architecture is that there are many ways and options of deploying and supporting IPv6 in a network,” he says.

Implementing dual stack solutions has proved a popular long-term strategy with service providers and is evident in the global IP networks of PCCW Global and NTT Communications. Dual stack solutions support both IPv4 and IPv6 from the network layer to the applications, allowing applications to choose either IPv4 or IPv6 based on the type of IP traffic and requirements of the communication. Such an option, however, is labelled as “processor intensive” and carriers often look to also explore quick-fix solutions such as translation. Translation involves the outward-facing interface using a public interface, while the private network IP addresses are not routed on the internet. This path however has obvious performance and scalability issues.

Tunnelling mechanisms can also be used to tunnel IPv6 island traffic over IPv4 networks and vice versa. “All the options have pros and cons. Some have more subscriber disruption, others can be more costly,” says Tilley. “Some operators may even have two or three different strategies.”

Tara Van Unen, director of market development for Ixia, agrees there can be no uniform strategy for an operator or even a particular network: “Service providers need to plan and understand how many of these devices they need to put into the network. Can they just upgrade or do they have to replace?” she says. “Service providers need to take their network section by section and decide where to implement IPv4 and IPv6. Some parts of the network can make the transition to dual stack – but, by and large, they can’t do a broad sweep all at once.”

Ixia provides one of the industry’s most comprehensive converged IP services testing solutions, capable of testing everything from broadband access and the wireless edge to the internet core. As a result, Van Unen has closely monitored the transition to IPv6 for over a decade, keeping a close eye on all the subsequent standards testing that accompanies the technologies involved. “There is a massive amount of conformance testing required by governments and any device connecting to a network has to meet all these specifications,” says Van Unen.“The other milestone is performance benchmarking, where we identify how many subscribers the technology can handle. Ixia has been doing conformance, performance and scalability testing for 13 years, so we have added new protocols as and when they arrive and now support upwards of 100 different protocols. Networks have become increasingly complex – video and voice all over one infrastructure – and when you start to converge like this, everything has to be tested together as a system.”

From a security perspective, however, IPv6 remains something of an unknown quantity. David Ulevitch, CEO of OpenDNS, has identified a number of areas concerning the interaction of IPv6 with domain name systems (DNS). During IPv6 World Day, the DNS provider created an IPv6 version of its DNS server, which highlighted a number of interoperability issues. “When you add a new dimension like IPv6 that the industry and end users don’t generally have a lot of experience or education with, then not everyone is going to be fully conscious of the security concerns,” says Ulevitch. “One of the things that people don’t understand about IPv6 is that even if an IPv6 IPv4 dual stack connection is in place, unless your DNS server is able to speak IPv6, the end user will not be able to access IPv6 content. Also, when you begin offering content over IPv6, many firewalls are actually only set up for IPv4. So what we saw a little bit during IPv6 day was that when websites were opened up to IPv6 traffic, none of those IPv6 addresses were firewalled. There is tremendous amount of education that still needs to be done.”

Gaining momentum?

While cost may have once been a deterrent for carriers to begin the transition to IPv6 in the past, this no longer remains the case, because as Van Unen puts it: “The cost of doing it at this point is less dangerous than the cost of not doing it.”

With the impending IPv4 address depletion ‘doomsday’ looming ever closer, mass adoption should be rife across the industry, yet only approximately 50% of leading service providers have begun the transition towards IPv6. Why is the other half of the industry still lagging behind?

“I think over the next six to 18 months we will see mass adoption. Operators right now are doing more and more testing and planning their migration scenarios. From a technology perspective, we have no fears or concerns,” says Tilley.

For France Telecom Orange, further operational experience could lead to progress: “As far as I’m concerned, every day should be an IPv6 World Day from now. We [the industry] definitely need to acquire operational experience and that only happens if there is an opportunity for us and content providers to do so,” says Jacquenet.

But others feel a “forcing function” is required. “Until there is compelling content using IPv6, ISPs don’t really need to get end users switching to IPv6,” says Ulevitch. “I guess the ultimate goal is to start making content available over IPv6 because no one will want to move to IPv6 when all the content still remains on IPv4.”