Some consider it the best thing since sliced bread. Others dismiss it as a passing fad. The controversy over Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6) is nowhere near being resolved.

The specification was completed in 1997 by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) as a fix to IPv4 shortcomings,

mainly the fact that it’s limited to about a billion user addresses.

With the slashing of enterprise technology budgets and continuing distress in the telecom sector, many are understandably asking: “”does one really need IPv6?””

Vendors say there is a need. Firms such as HP, Cisco, Nortel, Ericsson, Juniper, NEC, Nokia and Microsoft have collectively spent millions testing and integrating the new protocol into their products and services.

According to Ronald Gruia, program leader for enterprise communication at Frost & Sullivan Canada in Toronto, the interest in IPv6, backed by hard dollar investments, is being driven by many factors.

“”It’s not just about increasing the address space from 32 bits to 128 bits,”” Gruia said, adding address depletion has become much less of an issue with the implementation of Network Address Translation (NAT) technology, an IETF standard designed to conserve IP addresses, in cable, digital subscriber line (DSL) and Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) routers.

Gruia argues NAT was never meant to be a long-term solution, but rather a workaround to delay a crisis. As such, he said, NAT cannot provide benefits actually solving the crisis would bring. It does not support applications requiring end-to-end addressing and presents problems for applications that incorporate the host’s IP address in the application-layer data.

If address depletion is not the only — or not even the chief — rationale for adopting IPv6, what is?

According to some the answer lies in three S’s: savings, security and support for mobile computing.

IPv6 enables host machines to automatically discover information (such as the address of a local router) needed to connect to the Internet or corporate IP backbone. Forrester Research says this feature alone will eliminate so much manual configuration, it will pay back the cost of converting to IPv6-based technology within a year.

Another benefit is security. By determining whether a packet originated from the host indicated in its source address, Gruia said, IPv6 helps prevent malicious users from configuring an IP host to impersonate another and access secure resources. With IPv4, he said, it is typically impossible for a server to determine where the packets actually came from.

Mobile computing applications will also benefit from IPv6. The problems posed by IPv4 in this area, Gruia said, are solved naturally by using IPv6 features, especially address auto-configuration, which enables quick acquisition and transfer of addresses by mobile devices as they move among networks.

Some experts say before Wi-Fi can be deployed as a carrier access technology, its manageability, security and mobility limitations need to be addressed. This can be accomplished “”by enhancing Wi-Fi technology with IPv6 network intelligence,”” said Jim Bound, a Network Technical Director for Palo Alto Calif.-based Hewlett-Packard Co.

Bound says for Wi-Fi to meet its full potential as a low-cost carrier access solution, it needs to develop a mechanism to provision thousands of access points without the hassle of manual configuration, a security model that extends the over-the-air benefits of 802.11i to a network level and a mobility scheme that allows users to roam without having to re-start their application at every hot spot.

“”In short what Wi-Fi needs is IPv6,”” Bound added.

Although Bound said IPv6 will allow service providers to deploy new services, Gruia warns large-scale enterprise adoption of IPv6 is not likely to happen anytime soon.

“”It’s difficult to forecast when IPv4 addresses will be completely depleted, but that won’t happen before 2007,”” said Gruia.

When weighing the benefits of adopting IPv6, he said, enterprises should distinguish hype (“”there’s a lot of it””) and reality. 3G networks are expensive to build, and some are concerned about the difficulty and expense of porting existing applications to an IPv6 environment.

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