Sometimes a new technology standard gets stalled even when it holds substantial promise. Thats true for the next version of TCP/IP—or IPv6. Its a big improvement over the current Internet Protocol, but it faces adoption problems, primarily because of security issues.
The current Internet Protocol, IP Version 4 (IPv4) has been the lingua franca of the Internet for nearly 20 years but has many limitations. The biggest is a physical maximum of just over 4 billion IPv4 addresses, because IPv4 uses a 32-bit address space, which can represent only 4,294,967,296 addresses (2 to the power of 32)—and thats not enough to cater to the growing number of machines being added to the Internet. Furthermore, the future will bring new kinds of devices that have their own IP addresses—not just new network appliances, but credit cards, and more.
"The shortage of IPv4 addresses is partly a result of outright IP greed, especially on the part of Americans," says Alex Lightman, conference chairman of the North American Global IPv6 Summit, in an interview with PC Magazine. "Americans grabbed up about 75 percent of the existing IPv4 addresses, with entities like banks snapping up huge numbers of them, and now China goes to get IPv4 addresses for its elementary schools and cant. You run into situations where certain universities have more IPv4 addresses than China does." (The Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, or IANA, hands out TCP/IP addresses.)
The other reason for the IPv4 address shortage is simply that the explosive growth of the Internet wasnt foreseen by anyone at the time IPv4 was created. Lightman emphasizes that, by contrast, the physical limit of IPv6 addresses is well into the trillions, and shortages wont be an issue. Thats true because IPv6 uses 128-bit addressing.
Intel, Microsoft, Qualcomm, and many other companies are backing IPv6 as a standard, even though many organizations are still dragging their feet in adopting it. Internet 2—the next generation of the Internet—is also based on IPv6. "The broad adoption of IPv6 will help accelerate the development of innovative peer-to-peer applications without requiring changes to the existing IPv4 applications and infrastructure," said Jawad Khaki, corporate vice president of Windows Networking and Communication Technologies at Microsoft, in a statement.
In IPv6 there are provisions for sending larger packets on the Internet as well as for smarter network routing, more intelligent roaming applications, and many other kinds of technical improvements over IPv4, but broad application and operating system support for IPv6 are missing. As long as thats true, IPv6 may remain more talked about than used.
So why wont application developers, makers of operating systems, and organizations take the leap? For a number of reasons, but a big one is simply doubt in the quality of overall TCP/IP security. In an increasingly security conscious world, critics of IPv6 point out that, like previous versions of TCP/IP, IPv6 doesnt have airtight, end-to-end security. There is talk of new kinds of standards to replace TCP/IP altogether.
PC Magazines sister site Extreme Tech has done a complete report on IPv6 covering many of the technical aspects of the standard, its approach to security, why there are concerns over security, and other stumbling blocks IPv6 faces. Meanwhile, Alex Lightmans upcoming conference on IPv6 is to be held in late June, and Lightman says "I see this as the tipping point for IPv6."