By Dr Paul Twomey
President and CEO
Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN)
Few people spend time worrying about the underlying technology of the devices and systems they use every day. When it comes to the Internet, most people just type in a web address and head to the Web site and information they seek. But when the OECD Ministerial Meeting on The Future of the Internet Economy takes place in Seoul, Korea, discussions about those underlying technologies and systems will be front and center.
Underpinning the simple interface most people experience online is the world of Internet Protocol addresses. An Internet Protocol address is the numerical address by which a computer's identity and location in the Internet network is defined. When someone uses their computer to get onto the Internet, their computer is using IP addresses to connect to another computer, for instance the one hosting the website they want to view.
Every device on the Internet has to have at least one IP address. Making it all work is the Domain Name System that converts between the difficult-to-remember series of numbers of an IP address and more easily remembered names like "example.com" or "icann.org".
There is a challenge ahead though ― one that will be discussed at the OECD meeting ― the traditional approaches for obtaining and assigning addresses will soon be no longer available.
The Internet Protocol version 4 was defined back in 1977 and was designed to allow for over four billion separate addresses. At the time, it was imagined this would be more than enough addresses for the lifetime of the protocol.
But the incredible popularity and growth of the Internet since then has meant fewer and fewer IPv4 addresses remain unassigned. Think about it this way ― every computer, every mobile, every printer, every Internet-enabled household device needs at least one address. Over the next five years it's expected that the "free pool" of IPv4 addresses ― those that have not yet been used or assigned ― will all have been allocated. When that happens, the Internet will still work, but it will become increasingly difficult to attach new devices, effectively constraining growth.
What Is IPv6?
There is a solution ― IPv6 or Internet Protocol version 6. This new numbering system was created more than a decade ago to get around the very problem of IPv4 depletion. IPv6 has more than 340 trillion trillion trillion separate addresses as compared to the 4 billion plus defined by IPv4. To get an idea of scale, if all four billion IPv4 addresses were contained inside a mobile phone, IPv6 would fill a container the size of the earth. That should provide sufficient IP addresses for a long time to come.
While the technical solution exists, the challenge lies in the adoption of IPv6 and the global upgrades to equipment and software that will be required.
The majority of Internet users should never need to concern themselves with IP addresses because the Domain Name System links the addresses with names such as "example.com", so people need only recall a name to get to a particular part of the Internet. But without those numeric addresses in the first place, the Internet simply wouldn't work.
Many of the electronic devices people carry around today such as mobile/cell phones, PDAs, pagers, and so on, use the Internet. At the moment, most of those devices access the Internet through a "gateway" that has a single, unique IP address on the Internet but produces a number of private addresses behind it. These private addresses are then assigned to individual devices. As applications evolve, however, the advantages to each device having its own unique address are going to increase. In the future it is expected that not only will the number of people connecting to the network increase but also that they will each possess more devices that also need to be connected to the Internet.
What kind of devices could need an Internet connection? It could be a home server that monitors the temperature of the fridge to ensure the food stays fresh. IPv6 devices could play a role in reducing greenhouse gases by allowing the remote monitoring and adjustment of lights, electrical equipment, or parts of a power generation systems.
The possibilities are limited only by limits to human imagination. It opens the door to a new generation of devices, applications, and management techniques because of larger address space.
The role of ICANN ― the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers - is limited to acting as a coordinator of the Internet's unique identifiers, including IP addresses. The people and organizations such as the Regional Internet Registries that work with us in the associated tasks cover a broad spectrum from governments to individual Internet users. Some of these partners will have a more significant role to play in helping make IPv6 a reality.
However, with that said, ICANN does play a part. Earlier this year IPv6 addresses were added to the appropriate files and databases for six of the world's 13 root DNS servers (A, F, H, J, K, M) that form the backbone of the Internet. This allows for fuller IPv6 use. Prior to this move, those using IPv6 needed to take special steps so the older IPv4 addressing system would be used in order to be able to use domain names. ICANN is also leading by example by completing our deployment of IPv6 across our own infrastructure.
Further, we keep presenting the issue to the broad Internet community. When ICANN holds its next International Public Meeting in Paris, France 22-26 June 2008, one of the key topics will be IPv6 and the need for businesses to plan for transition.
It is important to remember there will be no great switchover to IPv6. Instead, IPv6 will rollout alongside the older IP system, and the two will operate side-by-side for years to come. The move to IPv6 will be one of increasing availability of sites and services that are reachable by both IPv6 and IPv4 instead of only IPv4.
There are various predictions for when that widespread shift to IPv6 will occur. Some say that it will accelerate once the cost of running on IPv4 starts rising due to scarcity of available IPv4 addresses. Others are getting a head start. Some governments are using incentives, funding, and contractual obligations to encourage the transition. The Chinese, Japanese and Korean governments have put in place incentives to help ensure those countries are leading the IPv6 rollout; while the US government has mandated that contractors be IPv6-ready by mid-2008. And the European Union recently announced a target of getting 25% of EU industry, public authorities and households to use IPv6 by 2010.
The Regional Internet Registries ― the five non-profit organizations responsible for distributing IP addresses on a regional level to Internet service providers and other companies ? are also supporting the adoption of IPv6. Four of them have made public statements on the matter. RIPE (Reseaux IP Europeens), stated "Growth and innovation on the Internet depends on the continued availability of IP address space. The remaining pool of unallocated IPv4 address space is likely to be fully allocated within two to four years. IPv6 provides the necessary address space for future growth. We therefore need to facilitate the wider deployment of IPv6 addresses." And the Latin American and Caribbean Network Information Center (LACNIC) has launched a campaign to have all the region's networks running IPv6 before 2011.
IPv6 is already available in the most recent releases of desktop and server operating systems. However, the vast majority of Internet content and services are only provided over IPv4, which can be a problem since IPv4 and IPv6 are not interoperable. That means a desktop computer that only has an IPv6 address cannot access a website that only has IPv4 connectivity without passing through a special protocol translation device or application gateway.
One of the biggest challenges in IPv6 deployment is that the vast majority of networks were built for IPv4. Enabling IPv6 on those networks is more than just a hardware matter ? it means making sure that provisioning, management, monitoring, auditing, billing and firewalls all work with IPv6.
What will be needed for widespread deployment is for consumer devices to be able to work with IPv6 and for the content people want to be made available via IPv6. Work remains to be done to make a very large number of devices fully compliant and implement IPv6 for the most popular web sites and other Internet content sources.
IPv6 Will Arrive
No single organization, government, or individual is responsible for making IPv6 happen ― it's a co-operative effort between the many partners and players who already make the Internet function as a single, globally interoperable entity.
As the work continues, the real success will be measured by IPv6 becoming a reality ― and the great majority of people being able to use this important technology without even knowing they are doing so.