More machines than man, now…

On February 1, the global internet address authority IANA (the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority) handed out two of the last blocks of freely available IPv4 addresses. The move triggered an automatic distribution of the remaining five blocks to each of the regional registries. There are no more IP addresses to be had from version four. And the Internet of Things is about to come online…

According to RIPE NCC, the regional internet registry for Europe and Middle East, the exhaustion of IPv4 addresses is “the biggest event in the history of the internet”.

Over the next several months, RIPE and other regional internet registries like it will distribute these last IPv4 addresses to network operators and service providers worldwide.

The proliferation of internet-connected e-readers, phones, and other devices is responsible for accelerating the depletion of IPv4 addresses worldwide, forcing an early adoption of the next generation of IP addressing, known as IPv6. In the Europe and Middle East regions, the last IPv4 addresses will be handed out sometime in the second half of this year, yet organisations are still requesting them.

“As if we didn’t have enough people trying to get on the internet, now we have things as well,” says Axel Pawlik, managing director of the RIPE NCC.

“Some heads will roll over this. This is a problem we saw coming in the 1990s when IPv6 was designed, but people have maintained the approach that we still have plenty of IPv4 left so we’ll deal with it later.

We warned them then and we started telling them over the last two years that time is running out so they better start transitioning to IPv6. People are finally moving, we’re seeing an increase in the allocation of IPv6 addresses, but it’s coming too slow and too late.”

IPv6 includes a modern numbering system that provides a much larger address pool than IPv4, as when devices come online en masse— the so called Internet of Things—only IPv6 will be able to provide a sufficient number of addresses. IPv6 with its substantial address space of 128 bits as compared to 32 bits in IPv4 will provide virtually unlimited IP addresses for the future, expanding the number of possible addresses from approximately four billion with IPv4 to roughly 340 trillion trillion trillion with IPv6 .

It’s this late transition that is causing the headache and it’s one shared by all service providers delivering to end users and also one that cannot be fixed overnight. Juniper Networks’ head of carrier Ethernet, David Noguer Bau, highlights the chicken and egg problem that has emerged: “A big problem is that not all content is IPv6-enabled, so for that reason alone we would need to maintain IPv4 for some time.

There’s no need for IPv6 as there’s no content.” According to Noguer Bau, maybe 0.16 per cent of online content available now is IPv6- enabled and although IPv6 applications will grow rapidly, service providers will be required to deploy solutions in order for this to happen.

Pawlik adds that while the carrier community has finally pulled its head out of the sand, the scope of the task ahead is still not fully realised.

“Service providers will lose customers if they don’t adopt IPv6, because those users on IPv4 might not be seen by others on IPv6 networks. Take M2M for example—we just don’t have enough IPv4 addresses available. And while there are workarounds like NAT and port sharing, they don’t always work and engineering solutions become more complex as more devices come online.”

Noguer Bau agrees that carrier grade NAT is one technology being talked about, which would do for entire networks what home routers do for consumers—essentially converting public IP addresses to private IP addresses.

But the problem is that many home routers are still using consumer-grade NAT and IPv4. There’s the option of dual stack, where a device supports two IP addresses—one IPv4 and one IPv6—which solves the problem but complicates the model. What it all boils down to is the replacement of millions of units of consumer premise equipment, which isn’t cheap.

Listen to Axel Pawlik in this telecoms.com podcast
Out of numbers, out of time

In fact, global adoption of IPv6 could see layers of network address translation go away. While some claim it’s a useful security tool because it can be used to hide addresses, Pawlik believes there are now so many addresses that port scanning is not really a viable attack. “NAT is a complication that we don’t need. Firewalls are more important if configured properly,” he says.

The tide is turning. After the IANA announcement at the start of the year, there was a spike in activity and requests for both IPv6 and IPv4 addresses. “We have to upgrade the content and applications and we have to upgrade the infrastructure. It doesn’t matter which we do first as long as we move forward,” says Pawlik.

And now, time is of the essence, with one thing for certain: if the industry had done this five years ago it would have been much cheaper.

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