Old computer technology in the trash

Will IPv4 be obsolete sooner than expected?

The U.S. government is leading the transition to IPv6 in the Western Hemisphere, and use of the new generation of Internet Protocols has increased sharply in the last year. And although the volume of IPv6 traffic remains small, one observer predicts that the current IPv4 protocols will become obsolete earlier than expected.

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“We are probably four or five years away from IPv6 being relatively ubiquitous,” said Owen DeLong, director of professional services at Hurricane Electric, which bills itself as the world’s largest IPv6 backbone. “After that, I think IPv4 is going to become unsustainable and the people who are using it are going to be left behind.”

That will be a major shift from the current environment, in which IPv6 packets account for less than 2 percent of all Internet traffic. But going forward, almost all growth in the Internet will be in the new protocols and a tipping point is not far off, DeLong said.

Version 6 of the Internet Protocols was developed to replace IPv4, the version now in wide use, because available IPv4 Internet addresses are rapidly being used up. Unassigned IPv4 addresses are expected to disappear over the next year. Existing IPv4 addresses will remain accessible and networking with the existing protocols will continue as IPv6 comes into play. But at some point networks, service providers and vendors will stop supporting legacy IPv4 sites, equipment and software.

The Office of Management and Budget in September directed agencies to enable public-facing servers and services to operationally use IPv6 by Sept. 30, 2012, the end of the fiscal year. Internal networks must be ready to support the protocols by the end of fiscal 2014. Although many agencies have not met the initial deadline (sampling by the National Institute of Standards and Technology showed just 26 percent of domains fully enabled as of March 11, and 31 percent showing no progress), government progress far outstrips estimates of private-sector adoption.

The Federal CIO Council is supporting the transition, and in July it published Version 2 of its Planning Guide and Roadmap Toward IPv6 Adoption.

There are no measurements of IPv6 traffic to websites in the .gov domains, but available measures show sharp increases in overall IPv6 traffic. Google, one of the most frequently visited sites, reported that just 0.42 percent of its traffic was using the new protocols on Jan. 1, 2012. That grew to 1.06 percent one year later and as of March 9 the volume was up to 1.16 percent.

DeLong said such figures can be misleading because they reflect only the intersection of traffic from IPv6-enabled clients to IPv6-enabled destinations, and multiplying two figures less than a whole number produces a smaller number than either. He said a more significant number is the estimated 10 percent of Internet destinations that have IPv6 enabled now.

As the number of clients and destinations both using the new protocols increases past 50 percent, maintaining legacy IPv4 infrastructure will become increasingly expensive and the Internet will become increasingly fragile and complex, DeLong said. He predicted the economic pressure on enterprises and service providers to discontinue the old protocols “will rapidly become overwhelming.”

Because most operating systems today support IPv6 by default, a wholesale shift should be transparent to end users, as long as resource providers have enabled the new protocols on their end. “The goal now is to get people to add IPv6 to their sites,” DeLong said.

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