For the time being, Internet Protocol Version 6 (IPv6) appears to be more apparition than apparent reality.
Whether IPv6 stands a ghost of a chance to penetrate commercial enterprises depends in large measure on the actions of major market makers who pioneer its adoption, according to experts. The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) designed IPv6, the latest level of IP, as a set of improved specifications to the current protocol, known as IPv4. Vendors of major computer operating systems have begun including IPv6 as part of their IP support.
To date, however, IPv6 has been used mostly in test beds and proof-of-concept networks, usually by large research organizations. "In reality, there is almost no interest on the part of Internet service providers in moving to IPv6. There's no business justification for it right now since there is almost no demand from their customers," said Dave Passmore, research director of Burton Group in Sterling, Va.
IPv6 features auto-configuration mechanisms aimed at simplifying network management. Other highly touted features include extended IP addresses and highly secure peer-to-peer communication between end nodes. IT experts say quality of service is greatly enhanced, and the architecture provides well-structured packet headers, mechanisms for preserving bandwidth and flexible extension headers.
Despite those features, two things appear to be holding version 6 back from widespread installation. First, vendors of IPv6 routers and other hardware continue to provide support for IPv4 devices. That's not much of an incentive for companies to migrate their networks from IPv4.
"The enterprise and corporate boxes are coming equipped with dual support. If companies are deploying any low-end technologies in a satellite office, they'll want to make sure they're v4- and v6-capable," said John Lawitzke, a Michigan-based senior field application engineer for Interpeak, Stockholm, Sweden.
Second, the much-ballyhooed reason for IPv6's emergence -- namely, an impending shortage of Internet addresses -- is overblown, said Passmore. IPv6 lengthens IP addresses to 128 bits, up from 32 bits in version 4, in anticipation of the rapid growth of the Internet. But there probably are enough U.S. IP addresses sufficient for another 10 to 20 years. "That's well beyond the planning horizon" for most companies, he said.
In the meantime, companies can continue to use a number of workaround solutions that incorporate Network Address Translation (NAT), which consists of mapping tables used to conserve the number of global IP addresses that a company may need. For example, a company can hide a bunch of IP devices behind a NAT router to protect them from being attacked via the public Internet.
Nevertheless, IPv6 significantly enhances network security by eliminating the need to break down IP addresses using NAT, said Cody Christman, director of product engineering at Verio Inc., Englewood, Colo. "IPsec is no longer an add-on, it is part of the protocol. You still have to exchange certificates (with another user), but every IPv6-enabled device has to provide native support for IPsec," he added.
Verio, part of Japan-based NTT Communications, recorded one of the two major IPv6 events of 2003. The Internet services company rolled out the first commercially available IPv6 service in the U.S.
Verio's decision was triggered by the other significant IPv6 development. The Department of Defense, with a $30 billion budget, is switching all its networks to IPv6 by 2008, part of its move to network-centric warfare. Cisco Systems Inc., Juniper Networks Inc. and other vendors announced IPv6 product rollouts within weeks of the defense department's mandate.
Companies should use the luxury of time to investigate IPv6 and begin planning its deployment, according to experts. Investing small amounts of money in an IPv6 test network is a good place to start. Training costs are minimal -- a good IPv6 textbook and perhaps a seminar or two is all your IT staff should need -- so enterprises ought to take advantage of the fact they don't have to rush.
"But if people wind up putting it off, they may find in two years that they're in a time crunch and they have to rush it," said Lawitzke.