Is the Internet Apocalypse Nearly Upon Us?

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By: Nathan Kiel, Senior Network Administrator II

I don’t think I’ll shock anyone by saying that the Internet has been growing exponentially since it began forty

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years ago. With all that growth, many things have changed: text-based browsers are evolving into “augmented reality” browsers,” text-only web pages are now database driven, dynamic and Flash-based interactive portals, mobile devices are quickly becoming the method of choice for participation with the web, and more. One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is the backbone of the Internet: the Internet Protocol. When it was developed as the basis for the World Wide Web, common wisdom was that the address space devised was virtually unlimited (current IPv4 allows for over 4 billion addresses). However, it appears that this turned out to be wishful thinking.

The current estimates for how long it will be until we reach the limit of IPv4 put us at the 0 Hour within 1-2 years. Without a free pool of addresses, the growth we’ve seen (even in the last 2-3 years) will be stunted. Now, exactly how much growth will be limited is up for debate! Many people you ask will agree that the effects are going to be dramatic. Others are less pessimistic, but it does beg the question: “What has the industry done to potentially solve this problem?”

Enter IP Protocol version 6 (IPv6). Most of the characteristics between IPv6 and IPv4 are the same but the main difference is the length of address space. IPv4 consists of four octets separated by periods (e.g., 128.128.128.128), but IPv6 consists of SIXTEEN octets or 8 2-byte sections. It’s so big it doesn’t make sense to use the IPV4 dotted octet format anymore. IPV6 addresses use hex values and colons. They are ugly (e.g., FFFF:FFFF:FFFF:FFFF:0000:0000:0000:0000). As mentioned, IPv4 represents over 4 billion addresses, but the structure of the IPV6 address space is so big it’s hard to fathom ever running out (famous last words).

Our friendly Internet Engineering Task Force defined IPv6 back in ‘98. Yes, this was a decade ago. Since then only small sections of the industry have upgraded their infrastructures to support IPv6. Why? Well, the answer is pretty simple: the demand for IPv6 is low because IPv4 still has space left. Now that we are close to running out, more and more companies are considering an upgrade to support IPv6. However, converting is a complex and fairly difficult procedure. The #1 issue with IPv6 is backwards compatibility with IPv4.

So how do we convert? We could just turn everything off, reconfigure it, and turn it all back on. Such a day would be awesome in the eyes of network engineers like me. It wouldn’t be without problems of course. A single day would probably end up stretching out to a year to solve all the little issues that spring up so this idea is far from reality. We have to keep the existing Internet up and alive and somehow add IPv6 into the mix. Therefore, there must be a method to allow communication between the existing IPv4 infrastructure and the new IPv6 infrastructure.

Ok. Since we can’t just immediately migrate we will have to support both networks simultaneously. This is called dual-stack. Each host participating in both networks will need both an IPv4 AND an IPv6 address and routing capabilities for both stacks. This isn’t that big of a problem per-se but it’s still complex and can be pricey for infrastructures running on old hardware.

Thankfully, most of today’s hardware vendors support IPv6 on at least some of their product offerings, if not all. Most web hosts like us could convert to new equipment or upgrade device firmware to support IPv6 without too much trouble. Newtek could provide an IPv6 service offering for web hosting without much effort and likely within a relatively short time frame.

Another thing to consider is that most modern operating systems now support dual-stack, so this isn’t a major issue either.

The problem is that there is no demand! We simply don’t get customers wanting IPv6 web sites. Why is this? Internet Service Providers are dragging their feet on IPv6! ISPs still haven’t implemented a dual-stack service offering. If getting to the IPv6 network is difficult for an end-user (i.e. manual configuration), there will be no demand for IPv6 web sites. Sure, a user could manually configure a tunnel broker to get on the IPv6 network. Check out Hurricane Electric, they have a free tunnel broker service. These guys are a shining light in the IPv6 Internet.

Tunnel brokers are fine but configuration needs to be transparent to the end user. Unless something extremely popular is made available only through the IPv6 Internet, I don’t see end users (especially casual home users) going through the manual configuration process needed to set up a tunnel broker. They need their ISP to update cable modems, etc., to support dual stack (both IPv4 and IPv6). Their operating systems will then recognize the dual stack architecture and try to use it. It would then be much easier for users to access the IPv6 Internet and demand will grow.

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Bottom line: Internet Service Providers need to wake up. As soon as they make IPv6 easily available for customers we will see an increase in demand and IPv6 will grow. Until then, we will be stuck with some innovations in crazy but complex network address translation (NAT) solutions or other creative, but even more complex, ways to increase the number of hosts on an Internet that is potentially dangerously close to being out of IP addresses.

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4 Responses to “Is the Internet Apocalypse Nearly Upon Us?”

  1. I’m in the business of network support, and software development and I have to admit, due to the fact that IPv6 has largely not effected my life (yet), I’ve ignored it. Obviously, I’m not alone.

    While IPv6 is obviously a virtually unlimited (yeah, right :-) IP addressing scheme, I’m left wondering: “wouldn’t it have been an easier conversion, and an easier interoperability had the IETF simply added a 5th octet to the beginning of the existing IPv4 address scheme? As part of the scheme upgrade, the first octet could be optionally specified, insuring easy interoperability with the existing networks? An extra 254 four billion IP addresses would seem a worthy upgrade.

    But, I suppose, its now a moot point, since we seem destined for IPv6.

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  2. Nice article Nate!!

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  3. Hi Paul. Thanks for the comment! In a way, adding a fifth octet to IPV4 for the purposes of avoiding the dual-stack architecture will have the same complexity as implementing IVP6. It may even have more drawbacks. The problem is that any 5-octet address host won’t be able to communicate with the original IPV4 host without modifications of some kind to the IPV4 host. The IPV4 host just doesn’t talk the same language. You would either have to change the IPV4 host to use the new 5-octet addressing scheme (full conversion?) or you have to go full stack. When an IPV4 host is converted to the new 5-octet addressing scheme it can no longer speak to other legacy hosts. No matter what, either the legacy hosts will have to be modified in some way to support intercommunication between legacy and the 5-octet hosts or the operating system will need some interesting helper programs to transparently translate between IPV4 5-octet and IPV4 legacy. This is now just as difficult as IPV6 and strongly in favor of dual-stack architecture.

    Thanks,
    Nate

    NOTE: I’m emailing you the full reply because this was the much shortened version. : )

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  4. Thanks, Michael!

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