Understanding IPv6 and What it Means to Internet Connections in Maine
You may have seen news stories about the depletion of IPv4 address space, the need to transition to IPv6 sooner rather than later, potential purchases of IPv4 space, and buying or selling IPv4 addresses. So, what is IPv6? Does IPv6 apply to you? Does it have any impact to broadband Internet connectivity in Maine?
Let’s begin with an analogy that should help explain how and why IP addresses are consumed using a typical business phone system as a comparison.
Initially when a business opens, it purchases a single phone line with a single number assigned to it. In a similar fashion it would have a single IP address for Internet connectivity. As the business grows, more telephone numbers are purchased for each additional employee. This allows everyone to have a direct line. Similarly, an ISP might assign you more IP addresses as you turn up PC’s in your office, or more devices in your home.
Eventually it isn’t cost effective to give everyone a direct line, so the business buys a PBX and assigns extensions to employees. Putting in a PBX is akin to installing a router and sharing a single IP address via NAT. Network Address Translation (NAT), essentially masks your “internal” network from the outside world. It maintains translation tables so it knows which conversation on the “outside” belongs to your “internal” devices, thus “hiding” them. In this way it acts as a weak firewall, but NAT is really a one-to-many sharing protocol, just like the PBX shares a phone line. It does not restrict or permit access to your systems like a firewall.
Installing this PBX at the business has some benefits: reduced phone bill, fewer numbers assigned to your business, central call management, etc. This conserves resources while you grow and think about your next investment for the business. The same could be said for how NAT extended IPv4’s lifetime, reduced the number of IP’s an ISP would need to assign customers, and allowed IPv6 to mature.
So why the push for IPv6? NAT has been available since the mid-90’s and is commonplace among routers found at your local BestBuy or Staples. It’s done its job well. However, the explosion of devices led by gaming systems, smartphones, and tablet PC’s like the iPad has led to rapid consumption of available space. Whether you are taking a picture, listening to music, watching a movie, or sending an email, chances are you’ve done it via a phone connected to the Internet using a unique IP address. Imagine all those phones already in everyone’s pocket and their exploding growth, and you’ll understand why the world is consuming addresses so quickly.
In the gaming industry, one extremely popular game is World of Warcraft, an online role playing game. It recently gave its users the opportunity to use IPv6, when available. This offers potentially better performance due to quality of service security measures resulting in better game play. These factors make IPv6 very attractive to gamers.
When will all IPv4 space be consumed? The Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) manages IPv4 address allocations globally. It delegates IPv4 allocations to five Regional Internet Registries (RIR). These RIRs allocate IPv4 addresses to ISP’s and other entities. IANA’s primary IPv4 address pool was exhausted February 3, 2011 when the last 5 blocks were allocated to the 5 RIRs. Each block contained approximately 16,777,214 IPv4 addresses (/8). Asia Pacific (APNIC) was the first RIR to exhaust its pool on 15 April 2011. GWI currently has 65,536 IPv4 addresses from the American Registry of Internet Numbers (ARIN), and we do not anticipate any immediate shortage.
By contrast, our IPv6 allocation is 2606:cc00::/32. To figure out the number of IPv6 addresses allocated to us:
- /32 = 65,536 /48 IP networks
- /48 = 65,536 /64 IP networks
- Total of 18,446,744,073,709,551,616 IP Addresses in one /64
- My calculator broke at this point…
Some fun stuff:
- There are 340,282,366,920,938,463,463,374,607,431,768,211,456 IPv6 addresses
- There are 4,294,967,296 IPv4 addresses
- Earth’s approximate population in 2009: 6,775,235,700
- You can get on the IPv6 internet in 10 minutes for free even if your ISP doesn’t offer it. Check out the Hurricane Electric Tunnel Broker and see if your home router supports it.
- There is no secret IPv6 Internet
As of composing this blog, GWI has:
- Turned up IPv6 routing between our two core routers, allowing us to push IPv6 further into our network, connect with IPv6 to our upstream providers, and start deploying IPv6 for critical servers like DNS.
- Established an IPv6 session with Level3 Communications to announce our space to the world.
- Turned up our first IPv6 downstream Internet customer in Maine.
How do you get on IPv6?
For your home or small business, adapting to IPv6 should be fairly painless. Most recent PC’s, laptops, and smartphones arrive built to use either an IPv4 address or an IPv6 address (dual-stack) – so you probably don’t need a new PC, unless it is more than 5 years old or so. Of greater concern is that while it is in development, IPv6 does not currently offer standards based NAT functionality similar to IPv4. With IPv6, every device has a public IP address. If you rely on NAT for security, and are moving to IPv6, make sure you at least have a firewall in place. Since Microsoft Windows XP was released, firewall capabilities have been included in their operating systems. Most Unix based systems and MAC OSX also include this ability, or you can download one online.
Your PC may support IPv6, but does your ISP support IPv6 from its core to your home or business?
Your ISP has a bigger challenge ahead. For starters, migrating to IPv6 will not create any direct revenue, but requires significant investment in network infrastructure. Most service providers do not upgrade hardware as frequently as consumers replace PC’s or smart phones. Typically service provider hardware is over-provisioned when bought, requiring only software or component upgrades to support new features. As a result, it has a useful life of 7 or 8 years. Such hardware may not support IPv6 requiring the purchase of new hardware. This typically means new licensing and support contracts on top of hardware costs, which adds up to hundreds of thousands of dollars for a network the size of GWI’s broadband Internet network in Maine. For larger firms, this cost runs easily into the millions.
All this must be completed before IPv6 is fully implemented. On the other hand, IPv4 will continue functioning alongside IPv6 for some time, so we all stay connected.