A Voice of Reason on IPv6 Day


5 Aug 2011
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Longtime technology professionals may be excused from exclaiming, "Aw man, now this again!" when it comes to the ongoing debate about IPv6. That's because it really does look a lot like what many went through throughout the late 1990s in the lead-up to Y2K.
Go back to the months and years before January 1, 2000, and it seemed two equally strong, equally dogmatic and dramatically opposed viewpoints were trumpeted everywhere as loyalists vied for the time, attention and dollars of IT managers.

In one camp, the entire world was going to plunge into darkness at the stroke of midnight because programmers years ago decided to save only two digits in the date field. Technology as we knew it would stop, planes would fall from the sky, and the very infrastructure of our world would fall apart. In short: Everybody panic!

In the other camp, loyalists calmly looked at the situation and said, "Nah, it's cool." According to them, nothing would ever come of it: Go about business as usual and don't bother with it.

The same kind of shouting match is now going on in the IPv4 vs. IPv6 debate. Essentially, the argument is over whether or not the Internet as it's been designed using IPv4 is running out of IP addresses to assign. Clearly, if so, it's a bad thing, as the number of network-connected devices is expected to keep expanding wildly for the foreseeable future--unless, of course, they can't even get on the network because the fundamental underpinning of the technology, the IP address, has run its course.

The first camp argues that the Internet is already out of IP addresses, and if we don't move everything to the new IPv6, which supports a nearly infinite number of IP addresses, the Internet-connected world will grind to a halt.

On the other hand, you've got a camp that argues that thanks to Network Address Translation (NAT), there's still a tremendous number of IP addresses available, so everything will be fine, potentially forever.

That brings us to today, World IPv6 Day, where many major Internet companies will flip the switch on their network to run on IPv6 for 24 hours, just to see what happens.

Regardless of how the tests work out today, there's still a lot of conflicting information out there for IT managers. What's a technology professional to think when it comes to whether their Internet-reliant systems are at risk if they, their suppliers and everyone up the chain to the backbone of the Internet isn't ready for the IPv4 address crunch?

Just like Y2K and most other things in life the truth lies somewhere between the two extremes. Are there millions of addresses left, or are we already out?

"Both statements are true, but they're not particularly helpful," Keith Stewart, a product manager at networking vendor Brocade recently said. "We believe that exhaustion is real, but there's still time to plan. There's a pragmatic view for the transition to IPv6."

Such a pragmatic view is of benefit to Brocade, which makes a network device that acts as a gateway between IPv4 and IPv6 users. But such self-interest doesn't mean the advice is incorrect.

Leading up to Y2K, it wasn't the extremists screaming the end is nigh from the top of the hill who saved the day. It was the moderates, who knew there was the potential for problems and got to work testing, identifying, solving, poking, prodding and torture-testing to bring things up to date .

So, too, with the IPv6 debate: The moderates recognize that there is a challenge, and are testing to find out its parameters for the Internet in general--but especially within the needs of their businesses. They will steer successfully through the process without having to rip and replace every bit of networking gear their company has ever purchased.

Illustration: Jack Gallagher
In short, don't worry about IPv4 address exhaustion too much. There are still options out there. But you should be cognizant of the change. Particularly if you're relying on some of the massive cloud-based services that are today testing IPv6, you should follow events closely. If you're using the Internet for commerce, it's a good time to know what your Internet-based suppliers and partners are doing around IPv6, to make sure as some organizations move more fully to IPv4, you're not going to be inaccessible for them.

"The reality is a two-protocol world will be around for the next decade," Brocade's Stewart argues.

Planes aren't going to fall out of the sky. But it is time for you to start thinking about what IPv6 is going to mean for your business, and building your plans with future-proofing in mind.
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