According to John Brzozowski, chief architect of IPv6 and Distinguished Engineer with Comcast,
“You should already be on your way or at least thinking about your IPv6 deployment…You will have to do something to make your business operate on the Internet.” Brzozowski’s statement appeared in a December 2012 Network World article that also proclaimed: “This  was the year that IPv6 garnered major headlines, but 2012 is expected to be the year when the next-generation Internet protocol gets widely deployed by U.S. carriers and enterprises.”
Nine years have passed and recent headlines like this one from IDG Connect still ask, “IPv4 vs. IPv6: when will the internet’s latest protocol finally take over?” While it would be naïve to say that 2021 is the year that IPv6 will rise, there have been several developments that at least signal an increase in momentum. Before looking ahead, let’s take a brief look at the timeline leading to the present day.
The Road to IPv6
IPv6 was created in 1998 by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) in response to the exhaustion of IP addresses available under IPv4. IPv4 was introduced in 1982 and employs a 32-bit address system to produce 4.29 billion unique IP addresses in the familiar 192.168.17.15 format. When the standard was deployed, it was inconceivable that demand would exceed supply but a prescient IETF recognized that a problem would emerge decades in the future. The solution was IPv6, a 128-bit system capable of creating approximately 340 undecillion IP addresses in the format 1010:0ab2:12b5:0000:0000:9f3j:0591:8116.
Beyond the seemingly inexhaustible volume of IP addresses that will enable countless connected devices, IPv6 also brings other benefits that are particularly important in an enterprise networking context. Among these are efficiency gains, security, and simplified configuration.
- Efficiency gains result from a number of sources including: (1) the elimination of complex NAT tables that consume processing resources and, (2) the absence of an IP-level checksum that streamlines packet processing by eliminating the need to recalculate at each hop. Further, IPv6 supports multicasting so packets can be sent in a one-to-many style rather than broadcasting one-to-one. This is extremely important for edge networking since multicasting’s inherent efficiency significantly conserves battery life in IoT devices.
- Security: IPsec (internet Protocol security) is an integral feature of IPv6 and while it is often used in IPv4 networks for VPNs, the elimination of NAT tables in IPv6 make end-to-end use of IPsec possible. Further, the sheer number of addresses in IPv6 effectively render network scanning useless.
- Configuration is simplified since IP addresses and device numbers can be automatically assigned. DHCP is unnecessary in an IPv6 environment.
Considering the benefits and the fact that the rapid expansion of traditional, mobile, and IoT devices being added to networks has IPv4 on the brink, network admins are rushing to migrate to IPv6, right?
As of this writing, only 34% of internet traffic accessing Google originated from IPv6 networks. According to Google’s IPv6 monitor, the 45.21% adoption rate in the U.S. is greater than all other countries except India (58.13%), Germany (51.61%), Malaysia (50.34%), and Greece (49.01%). Of the roughly 900,000 sites indexed by Alexa, only 28.3% are IPv6, though nearly 40% of the top 1,000 sites have deployed v6. Sites like Amazon, Twitter, Reddit and eBay use IPv6 nameservers but still rely on IPv4 for IP addresses.
IPv6’s Slow Rollout
Economics and compatibility issues are the primary reasons behind the pace of adoptions. With no clear path to ROI in the short- and mid-term, migration to IPv6 is difficult to justify. While all major operating systems are IPv6 compatible, the associated operational and maintenance costs to deploy IPv6 are high, especially when custom software must be updated.
Of even greater concern in the enterprise network world is compatibility. IPv6 may eventually replace IPv4 but in reality, enterprises typically adopt a dual-stack approach. This means that both IPv4 and IPv6 networks run in parallel and both must be fully maintained. With that comes more strain on human resources, more equipment, more configuration issues, more support and more complexity.
Finally, running NAT on an IPv4-enabled network is an effective workaround that most, if not all, enterprise networks rely on to extend the lifespan of the network and defer the time and resource costs associated with migrating.
Government Pressure to Progress
The current situation is strikingly similar to what has happened with the global approach to climate change. There are strong voices in support of sweeping environmental changes but a large percentage of companies and individuals remain skeptical or hesitant to make any material moves. IPv6 deployment looks the same; some companies have made the move to advance what is, in effect, an undeniably necessary effort that will ultimately benefit the common good. Like the response to climate change, it will require ongoing large-scale public- and private-sector efforts to move the needle.
To that point, the U.S. Government issued a memo through the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in November 2020 that establishes a 5-year roadmap for all federal agencies to phase out IPv4 in favor of IPv6. The memo requires agencies to:
- Establish teams to manage the migration within 45 days.
- Release plans to the public 180 days thereafter.
- Complete a minimum of one IPv6-only (non-dual-stack) pilot by the end of 2021.
- Certify that all new systems are IPv6 enabled by 2023.
- Ensure that 20% of all government agency systems are operating on IPv6 by 2023 followed by 50% and 80% of systems in 2024 and 2025, respectively.
This is not the first such action by the OMB. Agencies did not adhere to the timelines established in memos from 2005 and 2010, though the status of IPv6 and level of IP address depletion under IPv4 was significantly different then. Coupled with the dose of reality in RIPE’s (the European Internet Registry) late November 2020 announcement that the E.U. is officially out of IP addresses, the current OMB memo may finally spark the momentum needed to accelerate IPv6 deployment.
Sprint to the Finish
As with governance related to climate change, bold federal initiatives lead to widespread changes in the private sector either through public pressure, economic incentives, punitive measures or some combination of all three. Time will tell if the OMB memo proves to be the catalyst that forces enterprises to manage through IPv6 deployment roadblocks. Clearly, this is a marathon, but perhaps the increase in IPv6 implementation globally, the exhaustion of IPv4 addresses in the E.U., and the OMB memo signal that we are entering the final miles before the sprint to the finish.