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Next-Gen IP Addresses – Is The Internet Ready?

June 9, 2011

A host of web companies, including Google, Facebook and Yahoo, joined forces Wednesday to test the Internet’s readiness for the future, when billions more people and devices will be connected.

The hundreds of companies involved took part in “World IPv6 Day.” IPv6 stands for Internet Protocol version 6, and was created to replace IPv4, by adding nearly 4 billion times more addresses than the older version.

“IPv6 is fundamentally about allowing the Internet to scale to meet the expectations and demands of a global population of 7 billion, coupled with increased expectations of how many devices are expected to be able to connect to the Internet,” said Matthew Ford, technology program manager of the Internet Society, a non-profit group dedicated to the open development of the Internet, which is organizing World IPv6 Day.

IPv4, used for most Internet traffic today, is nearly exhausted, but adopting IPv6 has been slow despite the fact it has been available for more than a decade. IPv6 will be needed to feed the growing number of Internet hungry citizens, and will be the sole address provider when IPv4 runs dry later this year.

IPv4′s specs were drawn up in 1981, when the population was just a mere 4.5 billion and the personal computer age was in its Neanderthal days. IPv4 allowed for 4.3 billion IP addresses. But today, more than 2 billion people are online, many with multiple computers and smartphones. By 2020, as many as 50 billion devices could be connected to the Internet.

So, for 24 hours on Wednesday, websites with more than a billion combined visits per day joined distribution companies to enable IPv6 on their main services. Microsoft, Limelight Networks and Verisign were among those taking part in the project. It was to be the first global test of IPv6 “in the wild.” Previous tests in Germany and Norway showed positive results.

For the most part, web users will be unaware of the switch to IPv6 since an IP address, which uses a string of numbers, will still appear in the address bar as the actual name of the website. For example: 74.125.71.103 will still appear as Google.com in the address bar.

“The vast majority (99.95 percent) of people will be able to access services without interruption,” Google said prior to the switch for “World IPv6 Day.” It enabled IPv6 on its Google Search, Gmail, YouTube and other services. The test began at midnight on Wednesday and ran for 24 hours.

“Either they’ll connect over IPv6, or their systems will successfully fall back to IPv4,” Google network engineer Lorenzo Colitti said in a blog post. He said that 0.05 percent of systems may fail to fall back to IPv4, which will make websites participating in the project “slow or unresponsive.”

Facebook network engineer Donn Lee estimated that 99.97 percent of Facebook users would not be affected by the IPv6 test.

The change to IPv6 mainly impacts Internet service providers, websites and network operators who have to make sure their systems can handle the new online addresses and properly route traffic.

The collaboration of top global Internet companies would likely prevent any single one being blamed for problems that may include slow connections or attempts timing out.

Currently less than 1 percent of Internet traffic is routed through IPv6, but Internet registries, which manage the registration of domain names, say more computers are trying to connect with the new protocol.

As IPv4 runs out, interest in IPv6 should grow quickly, says Danny McPherson, chief security officer of network infrastructure company Verisign. Asia-Pacific Internet registry APNIC is expected to be the first to exhaust its supply.

McPherson expects momentum to pick up as network equipment providers such as Cisco and Juniper finally see a market opportunity. People need to realize IPv4 is exhausted and “move on,” he said.

The non-profit Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which manages the technical architecture of the Web, distributed the last batches of IPv4 numbers in February. ICANN has been calling for a switch to IPv6 for years but many websites and Internet service providers have been too attached to the old standard.

In 1977, when IPv4 was created, one of the “founding fathers” of the Internet, Former ICANN chairman Vint Cerf, a Google vice president, was among a number of engineers of the protocol that believed there would not be a need for more addresses.

“I thought it was an experiment and I thought that 4.3 billion would be enough to do an experiment,” Cerf told the Sydney Morning Herald in an interview.

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