To most people, IPv6 is just another meaningless acronym spewed out by the technology industry. But if you have a web presence, it affects you: it’s the key to a bigger, better Internet, and will form the backbone of the world’s next-generation broadband networks.
Right now, the Internet has some 4.3 billion IP (internet protocol) addresses – and that was thought to be more than enough when the current IPv4 addressing scheme was created in 1977. But with the Internet becoming all-pervasive, it’s becoming quite likely that practically everything will be connected to the Internet within the next few years, from our televisions to fridges that send out alerts when the milk is finished. Suddenly, 4.3 billion unique addresses doesn’t seem so big at all.
With the launch of IPv6 – or Internet Protocol version 6, to give it its full name – the number of unique web addresses can now grow to 340 trillion, trillion trillion. And we may just need each and every one of them, as industry data suggests that the current IPv4 addresses are rapidly being exhausted. RIPE, the European Internet registry, is down to its final block (16 million) of IPv4 addresses, and ARIN, the regional Internet registry for the Americas, has only three blocks remaining.
Willie Olivier, the chief technology officer at Johannesburg-based broadband company Bwired, says IPv6 has major implications for practically everyone: government, business, internet service providers and consumers. Without new addresses, billions of people will never be able to use new-generation Internet services – and businesses should start gearing up for IPv6 sooner rather than later, he warns.
“Making the transition to IPv6 compatibility is not something with a direct financial gain right now, but the long-term overall cost in not deploying IPv6 now will be substantial for companies looking to grow,” said Olivier.
“The costs will not just be in workarounds or buying more networking gear. Businesses which do not start moving across to IPv6 now will risk accessibility problems with their websites and services when more customers and network providers start using IPv6.”
As IPv6 deployment progresses, those ISPs who have not invested in adopting IPv6 in their networks may find attracting new customers difficult, and may begin to lose existing customers who wish to proceed with their own IPv6 deployment, believes Olivier.
BWired is currently rolling out one of the first IPv6 networks in South Africa, on the back of a 1000km ring of fibre around greater Johannesburg that will ultimately connect all local government offices and supply wholesale connectivity to local service providers.
A joint venture between Ericsson and the Johannesburg Metro, BWired is already making a splash in the local telecoms industry. Faced with some of the continent’s most seasoned telecoms operators, it grabbed second prize for the most innovative service and third for best backhaul solution category at the recent Africa.com awards in Cape Town. Bwired’s network, one of the most advanced on the continent, will power a “smart city”, and ultimately provide services like high-definition video to local residents.
Major network operators, websites and hardware vendors are starting to ready themselves for the new network, including IPv6 connectivity as part of their default product settings. The costs for local businesses will be minimal, with “normal” infrastructure upgrades more than capable of providing the necessary conversion. For more than 90 percent of websites, no change would be needed.
But there’s no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. At present, the “dual stack” approach, where both IPv4 and IPv6 protocols are run, is the most effective approach. “You can run IPv4 and IPv6 side-by-side during the interim stage of migration, and can then gradually start phasing out IPv4,” says Olivier.