Change of addresses

If there is anything to fear more than fear itself, it may be lack of fear, particularly in technology circles.

Few people seem scared, for example, by the possibility that the amount of available address space on the Internet is shrinking fast, and that we could be facing a debilitating

shortage within about three years. Though Internet protocol version 6 (IPv6), which would open up space by moving from a 32-bit addressing scheme to 128 bits, has been available since 1998, you’d never know it. A handful of IT experts have been harping that few carriers have adopted the standard, and now the European Commission (EC) is joining the crusade.

This week the EC published a document that urges governments and private industry to get moving on IPv6 support, warning that the IPv4-based version of the Internet is not sustainable in the long term. So far only the Asia Pacific region seems to have shown any foresight on the matter. In North America, where address space is less of an issue, the industry has largely avoided IPv6 through work-arounds like network address translation (NAT) and Host Control Protocol (HCP). There is a legitimate threat here — we’re on the last third of available IP address space.

I first wrote about IPv6 when the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) Standards Committee was putting the finishing touches on the protocol. This should have been a straightforward story about where it would be used and why. Instead, I was struck by attitudes you don’t normally encounter in IT — complacency and indifference. “”They don’t care,”” one analyst told me, referring to enterprise customers.

Last summer, when a representative from an international forum that is trying to promote IPv6 came through Canada, he told me many carriers and corporations may regret procrastinating on their upgrades. “”Every year we wait, the cost will be (doubled),”” he said, adding that those responsible for dispensing Internet space have tried to keep the situation in check. “”I think it was good the registries have not been giving out addresses like hot dogs,”” he said.

Microsoft is showing some leadership by building IPv6 support into Windows.Net, which will force telecom companies and IT departments to get their act together. But there are other issues, even beyond address space, that need to be examined before this happens. ITEF engineers created computer-specific identification numbers in each IPv6 address, for example, which is bound to create privacy concerns. If always-on Internet reaches the demand in households some analysts predict, meanwhile, tricks like NAT and HCP alone won’t work.

The inertia over IPv6 can be blamed (as has so much else) on Y2K. Unlike the contestants of the NBC reality television show Fear Factor, who hazard a range of perilous stunts that push their limits, IT people play a potentially more deadly game: Fear Fatigue. When disaster doesn’t strike as predicted, it naturally erodes a sense of urgency among the community. It now takes a massive collaboration between public and private sector — like the build-up over Code Red last July — to make anyone take immediate action.

There is a good chance that the IT industry will reluctantly move over to IPv6 by the time we ring in the year 2005. But in the meantime, does anyone want to endure the endless fear-mongering that Y2K doomsayers perfected? Imagine if one day we woke up to a crisis that could have been avoided if we didn’t put off action until the last moment. Just one more thing to fear.

sschick@plesman.com

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