Ready or Not, Here's IPv6

The Feds are prepared for the next-generation Internet Protocol. What about the private sector?

It's almost time to get serious about IPv6, sports fans, whether you like it or not. Are you ready? I'm not, but it's not my fault.

Although numerous ways have been implemented to stretch the limited address space of IPv4-the "classic" dotted decimal that defined the gold rush days of the Internet-recent estimates indicate that the 6 percent of the available address block which is not currently allocated could be exhausted by next summer.

This isn't anything like the first time we've heard this, but this time, I'm inclined to take heed. Given the explosion of Internet use overseas, and the insane proliferation of mobile devices, I'm surprised we've managed to forestall this as long as we have, with the help of tricks such as CIDR (Classless Inter-Domain Routing) and NAT (Network Address Translation). IPv6 was first defined in 1996, and I've been coming across it in the field for several years. Some applications need to be rethought to work with it; others won't notice any difference.

The 2008 Olympics in Beijing were a massive test for IPv6; 12 years after the protocol was defined as an RFC, a major world event ran all its network operations on it, and unless I missed something, that part of the games went rather smoothly. But the Olympic Games are somewhat of a special case, I admit; there wasn't a lot of installed base to cope with, and the real challenge lies in bringing IPv6 to a large bureaucratic organization that has an installed base going back decades, but an incentive to implement modern networking technology. Say, for example, Uncle Sam.

The U.S. government upgraded its network backbones to IPv6 a couple of years ago, and is taking on the challenge of transitioning connected systems to IPv6, according to a directive issued at the end of September by federal CIO Vivek Kundra. His plan calls for the public-facing side of "FedNet" to be using IPv6 as an operational protocol by the end of FY 2012, which is September 2012 to you and me; the government's internal systems have to be using IPv6 by September 2014.

That doesn't mean that the Feds are dropping IPv4 in four years; instead, Kundra's memo implies that IPv4 and IPv6 will be used in parallel for the foreseeable future. Likewise, I expect that the private sector will be using both schemes for years to come.

It's pretty clear to me that the real pain of implementing IPv6 won't be felt by business IT, that is, until they get home. I have no idea what my own ISP's plan for IPv6 is and even less idea whether my router-modem supports it, but I have a strong suspicion that the answer is "no." That's a shame, because most of the stuff that sits behind my router-modem would be perfectly happy on IPv6, as far as I can tell.

Now, my home networking setup is similar to that of many small businesses; I have a small block of IP addresses and a couple of devices that in theory are accessible to world-plus-dog. Whether your business is capable of switching over to IPv6, or even needs to, is probably nowhere near your highest priority. But it probably wouldn't hurt to start asking questions. Even if you don't need to make the switch on your privately networked devices soon (if ever), you'll come off looking good if your public-facing systems are ready for an IPv6 world, no matter what form it takes.