The Non-techy guide to IPv6

29 February, 2012 (14:22) | Business, ISP's, WAN | By .

Did you know there’s a problem on the horizon? It concerns IP, not Intellectual Property, but Internet Protocol! The current IP addressing system that allows all computers and networked IT kit to communicate with each other is being updated with a bigger and better addressing system. Unfortunately the road from old to bigger and better may be painful for many businesses. The following post sheds some light on how IP addresses work and offer some hints that will help ease the migration from IPv4 to IPv6.

What is an IP Address?

When you browse the internet your computer is not just connecting to ‘The Internet’ it is in fact connecting to a range of other computers and servers. For computers to talk to each other they need some kind of unique identifier, the most obvious way to do this is to assign a address (a number) to every computer, server, mobile phone or device that needs to be connected. These numbers are called Internet Protocol numbers or (IP numbers).

In the 1970s when clever people in white coats started networking computers together a common technology or methodology was required and so IP was born, to this day it is still the de facto way that home user and business networking is done.

IP addresses do have an associated cost. ISP’s (Internet Service Providers) pay a membership fee to any of the four regional internet registries (In Europe we use: RIPE NCC). These registries will then allocate blocks of IP addresses to your ISP. ISP’s can resell IPv4 addresses (although it’s frowned upon). The re-selling of IPv6 addresses is strictly forbidden, which means their value is bundled into the fees from your ISP.

The difference between IPv4 and IPv6

An IPv4 address looks something like this: 172.16.254.1. IPv6 addresses are longer and look like this: 2001:db8:0:1234:0:567:8:1, note the combination of letters and numbers used here.
Just too quickly get technical; IPv4 addresses are 32 bits while IPv6 are 128 bits in length
With every connected device in the world requiring a unique IP we needed a lot. IPv4 gave us a total of 4,294,967,296 numbers but unsurprisingly this number has now run out.
Thankfully the clever people in white coats were able to recognise that one day IPv4 addresses would run dry and they looked for a better way to network the increasing number of devices in the world. The option they chose was not exactly earth shattering; in the end they just add more digits to the IP addresses thus creating a whole lot more for them to assign.
IPv6 addresses are longer, in fact they can have up to 32 digits and this means there are a lot more of them – how many? This many: 340,282,366,920,938,463,463,374,607,431,768,211,456. It’s a big number (It’s pronounced: “340 sextillion” or “340 undecillion” if you live in the US.) With that many IP addresses available the clever people in white coats can rest assured that we will be able to go on networking computers, mobiles and anything else for the foreseeable future.

What happened to IPv5?

IPv5 was first developed in 1979 for transmitting video and audio. It fell out of popularity and was never seen again. IPv5 took the IPv5 name with it to the grave, s we are going from IPv4 and straight on to IPv6.

Problem Solved – Right? Wrong!

So IPv6 is the solution but it’s not the end of the story, now the real hard work begins because just about everybody on the planet is still using IPv4 addresses. If all the IPv4 addresses have been used up then how can we all still be running IPv4 based networks? There are still some IPv4 addresses in the hands of the ISPs, once these have been assigned we are going to need to start taking IPv6 seriously. At some point in the near future everybody will need to switch over to IPv6 or the internet is going to get very buggy. The global switch from IPv4 to IPv6 is going to be a gradual process that will pick up momentum as more of us make the move. Most modern networking equipment can run IPv4 and IPv6 in parallel, but this will still leave a lot of business networks running on IPv4 only equipment and at some point IPv4 networks will start to experience connectivity issues. So it’s not a problem right now but IPv4 networks will start to decline, devices connecting via old IPv4 networks will simply have a harder time connecting with the brave new IPv6 world!

Keep calm and get IPv6 ready!

Okay so you know you need to make your network ready for IPv6. It’s important not to panic and give your FD a heart attack by requesting lots of new IT hardware, the chances are a great deal of your existing kit will make the jump to IPv6.

Let’s do a quick rundown of the common IT kit in an office:

  • Your desktop PC / Laptop or Workstation is probably going to be fine. Most of the modern operating systems (Windows or Mac OS X) support IPv6
  • Mobile devices such as Smartphones and Tablets on Android or iOS operating systems all support IPv6 over WiFi. 3G support is down to your network provider so you can let them worry about IPv6 support.
  • If you are using IP telephony then you need to make sure your handsets and PBX (the box that runs your phone system) can handle IPv6. You don’t want your phone system to suffer due to complacency.
  • Because IPv6 assigns a unique IP number to every device on your network even kit like your old network printer may be affected and require an upgrade.
  • Networking hardware such as firewalls and routers will all need to be checked for IPv6 compliance, in fact it’s worth checking all the boxes and switches in your office comms cabinet as these are usually the key to your local and wide area network.

IPv6 has been around since 1998 so hardware manufacturers have had approx 14 years to build this technology into their kit. Some hardware will auto detect IPv6 addresses and cope with the transition easily. Other hardware may need to have a software (iOS if you are using Cisco Kit) upgrade for IPv6 support to be active, older kit may just need replacing. A word of warning, some manufacturers claim their kit is IPv6 compatible, yet on closer inspection the features available in “IPv6 Mode” are diminished meaning your firewall or router may not do everything it used to do in IPv4 mode.

Give your ISP a call

Most of us with broadband at home use the router that was supplied by our ISP, but this is not so common in a business environment. Your ISP should already be moving or in the planning stages of making the move to IPv6, if not then why not? Your ISP connects your business to the outside world and so it’s important that they can still do this during the move from IPv4 to IPv6.

Want to see if you are on an IPv6 network already? Go to http://test-ipv6.com it should run a test that gives feedback on the IPv6 compatibility of your ISP.

All ISP’s should be preparing their own networks for an eventual changeover to IPv6 as well as upgrading or converting their customer’s equipment (routers).

What’s in it for me?­­­

Making all the effort of moving to IPv6 might leave you asking “What’s in it for me?” Despite the obvious fact that you will need to make the move sooner or later there are some other benefits to going IPv6:

  • Networks will run faster over IPv6 as it is more efficient at transporting data.
  • Security is beefed up in IPv6 with encryption and authentication tools built into the protocol.
  • Connecting new equipment to your network can almost be described as “Plug and Play” because IPv6 has better end-to-end connectivity and administrative support.

What will happen if I ignore IPv6?

At first nothing is going to happen and your business network will not be affected. IPv6 is not a problem with any specific deadline like the Y2K issues that were predicted 12 years ago. Over time you may find that certain web pages will not be available to you (visit http://ipv6.google.com/ to see what it would be like) this will become more frequent rate as IPv4 sites move over to IPv6. Old hardware on your business network will become unavailable and eventually your will be forced to migrate to IPv6 as it will have such a negative impact on your business.

Your first steps to IPv6

IPv4 addresses have run out – so time is effectively running out to prepare for IPv6, better to start planning for the switch.

Here are the first steps in getting IPv6 ready:

  1. Make a plan – List the hardware on your network (make sure you consider every location on your estate). Highlight the critical parts of your business (email or EPOS for example) and think logically about how and when it’s best for your business to move to IPv6.
  2. Contact your connectivity provider (ISP, Telco or third party IT contractor), whoever provides your business with Internet access and network connectivity between sites. Your provider will have assigned you with IPv4 address’s to get you online but they should have a range of IPv6 addresses that they can assign to you now or in the near future.
  3. If your connectivity provider supplies your networking hardware (router) then ask them about IPv6 compliance. Your current hardware may be ready for IPv6 or require a software upgrade. At worst you will need to source a new router, your connectivity provider should be able to give you some recommendations.
  4. Test everything and then test it again. It’s very rare for everything to work first time after any network change, that’s why you need to test for any issues before they impact your business.
  5. Sit back and rest assured that your business network is IPv6 ready, you can now get back to business.

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