What is IPv6, and why isn’t your network using it yet?
IPv4, the previous and still prevalent generation of the Internet Protocol, was designed to support roughly 4.3 billion devices. While this was plenty of capacity for the connected world of 1980, it’s tiny by 2019 standards.
While it’s not yet true that every one of the planet’s 7 billion people is armed with their own connected devices, it’s increasingly true that adults in much of the developed world are armed with at least one, two, or three connected devices at any given time (if the math doesn’t seem to work out yet, keep reading).
And with the dawn of 5G on the horizon, Industry 4.0 in high swing, and widespread IoT set to infiltrate every corner of our day-to-day lives where even refrigerators will need an IP address, it’s safe to say that the 32-bit addressing scheme used by IPv4 has already run its course.
Fortunately, this isn’t a problem that’s only just snuck up on us. While not everyone anticipated just how quickly connected devices would become essential components of our everyday lives, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) saw the writing on the wall in 1998 and developed a 128-bit addressing scheme called IPv6.
Instead of the four sets of one-to-three digit numbers that characterize IPv4 addresses, IPv6 uses eight groups of four hexadecimal digits separated by colons, allowing for the protocol to encompass roughly 340 trillion devices. According to the IETF, IPv6 can handle packets more efficiently than the previous iteration, resulting in improved performance and security, while enabling ISPs to reduce the size of their routing tables by making them more hierarchical.
So if the protocol has been ready to roll for more than 20 years, why isn’t it everywhere yet?
Perhaps the primary reason IPv6 has been slow to take hold is because of network address translation (NAT), which has the ability to take a collection of private IP addresses and make them public. With NAT, thousands of privately addressed devices can be presented to the public internet by one device -- think a firewall or a router -- using a single public IP address. This process has given IPv4 a longer shelf life than it would’ve if organizations that operate thousands (if not tens of thousands) of computers needed to devour enormous quantities of public IPv4 addresses to reach the public internet.
So while NAT was able to give IPv4 a bit longer shelf life, it’s expiration date is still imminent.
If time is running out on IPv4, who is leading the charge toward IPv6 adoption?
At the moment, IPv6 is only slowly starting to have an impact in the enterprise space, primarily because the cost and complexity of deploying IPv6 has, as yet, been hard to justify while IPv4 is still relatively performant. But already, roughly 25% of the US has adopted IPv6, and it’s anticipated that once adoption hits the 50 percent mark, costs will start to drop and adoption will be increasingly widespread.
Another reason many companies hesitate to adopt IPv6 is that not all of the tools they use to manage and monitor their networks actually support the latest protocol. Even though the alarm has been ringing for two decades -- and most of the world already “ran out” of new IPv4 addresses between 2011 and 2018 -- the resale and reuse of IP addresses has allowed legacy monitoring solutions to continue being “good enough.”
But as more networks make the transition to IPv6, more content sites support the protocol and users upgrade their networking equipment, they’ll need a monitoring solution that’s keeping pace -- not one that’s living in the past.