At the beginning of this year the IPv6 story burst into prominence and was nearly whipped up by the media into an Y2K-type doomsday scenario. To counter such panic, voices of reason argued that Western nations held a dominant majority of established IPv4 users and so for most US and European businesses it would remain ”business as usual” – until they had some specific need to reach out to Asian or emerging markets and partners.
Such soothing assurances helped to de-froth the hype, but they may also have lulled some of us into unjustified complacency. While it is true that most consumers in the West are still using IPv4 addressing, and the majority will be for a while yet, the argument overlooks other significant changes, both economic and technical.
First, there is a major shift in the world economy to the East since the 2008 crisis. China and the APAC nations have overtaken many European countries in economic significance, and the USA leadership is declining. Many sectors – notably retail and manufacture – will need to address these and other emerging markets in order to maintain profitability.
It is, of course, exactly in these emerging markets that IPv6 is increasingly prevalent – while Western nations still hold a reserve of IPv4 addresses, others have already exhausted their supply.
Second, there is a continuing explosion in mobile and other IP-enabled devices across all nations. The original IPv4 addressing scheme presupposed a fairly static environment and allowed for a unique IPv4 address for a generous two thirds of the entire world population – based on a potential PC on every worker’s desk.
What it did not allow for was each worker also having a PC at home, a laptop, an iPad and a smartphone – all gobbling up numerous IPv4 addresses. Already 110 million iPhones have been sold, and the forecast is for 441 million tablets within 5 years – and don’t forget the added millions of game consoles, IP-enabled alarm systems and so on.
So, even if your business really has no need to look overseas, the proliferation of local devices will soon exhaust the remaining addresses in the West and potential customers or clients will find they cannot access your company website via their new mobile device, and will start looking for alternatives.
Either way the problem is this: if your external presence is only enabled for IPv4 addressing, then the only devices that can communicate with you will be those with IPv4 addresses. To a growing population of pure IPv6 devices you will be invisible.
Vertical markets – some examples
Retail provides a blindingly obvious example. As general spending power takes a dip across Europe and the USA, it continues to rise in Asia and other emerging markets. Western branded luxury goods still confer high status across the world, and it would be madness for them not to build a major presence in areas of growing affluence – and that means being IPv6 ready. To a more or lesser degree, the same applies to many other retail businesses.
At the other end of the spectrum, educational establishments are among the leaders in IPv6 readiness. Although very different from the luxury goods business, Western universities have a comparable cachet in the eyes of the world – with Cambridge in the UK and Harvard in the US being rated this year’s top global establishments for higher education, and many other US and European universities also dominating the list. Forced cutbacks in educational grants mean that overseas students become an increasingly vital source of income, and educational establishments are competing to attract those students from emerging markets.
It is not only a question of being ”seen” by would-be students. Education itself is increasingly going on-line, with distance learning and Internet-based courses and qualifications becoming available across the globe. This trend is underlined by, for example, the European Union mandate to boost e-Government and e-Education. So maintaining a student population, as well as building one, will rely on IPv6 readiness.
Manufacturing is an interesting example, because here the current emphasis is not so much on reaching a potential market as on maintaining operations at peak productivity and efficiency. Manufacturing processes are increasingly outsourced to countries such as China, Korea and India, so that manufacturing itself is going global and requires a global IPv6 presence to build and maintain such partnerships.
There are other reasons in special cases to be IPv6 enabled. One major vehicle manufacturer is now building IP connectivity into all its vehicles for shipment worldwide, so that maintenance and key operating parameters (right down to fuel consumption, oil levels and tire pressure) can be monitored continuously as part of the service agreement. This proliferation of IP addresses will soon enough demand recourse to IPv6 addressing, and the company is already well prepared with the latest IPAM and DNS automation solutions.
IPv6 addressing is not only being forced upon a world over-populated with IP devices, it also opens up a whole new future in which a plethora of household and business devices will have their own IP address – from on-line fire and burglar alarm systems to IPTV set top boxes. As manufacturers gear up for such products they will find themselves following a similar route to the vehicle manufacturer example.
Being prepared for IPv6
To re-iterate: any organization that has no IPv6 external presence will be invisible to a growing population of devices with IPv6 only addresses. These will initially be predominantly in emerging economies of major business significance, but the explosion of IP-enabled devices in all countries means that the problem will soon become universal.
So what should we be doing to get ready for IPv6? The first task is to educate an organization’s IT team, and to take a fresh look at existing structures to identify where the problems lie. We are talking about a long-term investment, so it is worth planning carefully to make sure you do not throw money at something that could take years to deliver a return. Here are some key considerations:
- Prepare to automate your core network services before starting – manual processes like Excel spreadsheets or free tools for IPAM, and legacy DNS systems will become a nightmare when you begin managing the surge in much longer and more complex IPv6 addresses
- Revise your security policies, because IPv6 security issues are not yet as well understood and documented as IPv4
- Check your application compatibility with IPv6 – and available upgrades
- Before upgrading to new IPv6-compatible devices, check the risks – how long have they been deployed, what is their reliability and service track record?
- Check your current management and troubleshooting tools and processes – are they compatible with IPv6?
- As well as testing components, be prepared to test the upgraded system as a working whole. Today’s automated test solutions and professional services are designed to cope with such complexity – check them out first.
Once these considerations have been made, you will have a clear understanding of what will be needed, the level of urgency and where best to begin. Based on this research, the actual migration process will probably be along the following lines:
1. First set up some form of IPv6 test methodology or service, so that nothing will be implemented before you have the means to test it thoroughly. You could equip your own team to do this, or have a third party service lined up
2. Then make sure initially that your external services are IPv6 capable, so that any IPv6-only devices will be able to reach your website, e-mail, applications as readily as existing IPv4 users. That way you won’t risk losing potential new customers.
3. Your core routing infrastructure must next be upgraded to handle IPv6 traffic – dual-stack upgrades to core and edge routers, end point devices and hosts. DNS AAAA and DHCPv6 too? Some systems, like Microsoft Windows, do require DHCPv6.
4. Where IPv6 cannot yet be supported, create temporary IPv4 islands and use NAT (Network Address Translation) to allow your IPv6 devices to access them. With these in place, you have bought time to slowly migrate the applications etc out to the dual stack infrastructure as upgrades become available and practical.
After all the IPv6 hype at the start of 2011, things have gone relatively quiet in the media, but the real issue has not gone away. Business is becoming ever more global, and communications technology more pervasive, and both tendencies are gobbling up the little remaining leeway for IPv4 addressing.
Governments are clearly aware of the potential competitive advantage of being an IPv6 early adopter. A growing number of government initiatives – notably in Holland and Scandinavian countries but also in Turkey and Spain to date – are springing up to promote or even fund national IPv6 adoption.
So we cannot ignore the competitive advantages of IPv6 readiness, but neither need we migrate in one great costly leap. Follow the above recommendations – beginning with the automation of core IP network services, such as IP address management, DNS and DHCP, integrated with with automated change on all network devices such as switches, routers and firewalls. Then ensure an appropriate migration strategy – focusing first on being visible to the outside world and then working inwards in stages.
Do that, and IPv6 migration will not only be relatively painless, but will also prove to be a valuable long term investment.