IPv4 & IPv6

Internet has run out of Internet addresses… sort of. Perhaps you’ve heard the news: the last blocks of IPv4 Internet addresses have been allocated.

The fundamental underlying technology that has powered Internet Protocol addresses (number like 99.48.227.227 is an IP address) since the Internet’s existence will soon be exhausted.

A new technology will take its place, though. IPv4′s successor is IPv6, a system that will not only offer far more numerical addresses, but will simplify address assignments and additional network security features.

The transition from IPv4 to IPv6 is likely to be rough.

IPv4

IPv4 stands for Internet Protocol version 4. It is the underlying technology that makes it possible for us to connect our devices to the web. Whenever a device access the Internet (whether it’s a PC, Mac, smartphone or other device), it is assigned a unique, numerical IP address such as 99.48.227.227. To send data from one computer to another through the web, a data packet must be transferred across the network containing the IP addresses of both devices.

Without IP addresses, computers would not be able to communicate and send data to each other.

IPv6

IPv6 is the sixth revision to the Internet Protocol and the successor to IPv4. It functions similarly to IPv4 in that it provides the unique, numerical IP addresses necessary for Internet-enabled devices to communicate. However, it does sport one major difference: it utilizes 128-bit addresses.

Running out of IPv4 addresses

IPv4 uses 32 bits for its Internet addresses. That means it can support 2^32 IP addresses in total — around 4.29 billion. That may seem like a lot, but all 4.29 billion IP addresses have now been assigned to various institutions, leading to the crisis we face today.

We are still left with IP addresses, many of them are unused and in the hands of institutions like MIT and companies like Ford and IBM. More IPv4 addresses are available to be assigned and more will be traded or sold (since IPv4 addresses are now a scarce resource), but they will become a scarcer commodity over the next two years until it creates problem for the web.

IPv6 comes to the rescue

IPv6 utilizes 128-bit Internet addresses. Therefore, it can support 2^128 Internet addresses — 340,282,366,920,938,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 of them to be exact. That’s a lot of addresses, so many that it requires a hexadecimal system to display the addresses. There are more than enough IPv6 addresses to keep the Internet operational for a very, very long time.

The transition

IPv4 and IPv6 essentially run as parallel networks — exchanging data between these protocols requires special gateways.

To make the switch, software and routers will have to be changed to support the more advanced network. This will take time and money. The first real test of the IPv6 network will come on June 8, 2011, World IPv6 Day. Google, Facebook and other prominent web companies will test drive the IPv6 network to see what it can handle and what still needs to be done to get the world switched over to the new network.


Affect on us

Initially, it won’t have a major impact on your life. Most operating systems actually support IPv6, including Mac OS X 10.2 and Windows XP SP 1. However, many routers and servers don’t support it, making a connection between a device with an IPv6 address to a router or server that only supports IPv4 impossible. IPv6 is also still in its infancy; it has a lot of bugs and security issues that still need to be fixed, which could result in one giant mess.

Nobody’s sure how much the transition will cost or how long it will take, but it has to be done in order for the web to function as it does today.

– Komal Arora
Manager – Technologies
Compare Infobase Limited

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