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Rocky road ahead for IPv6

Almost two years ago, ZDNet ran an article entitled: “IPv6: It’s about time.” It seemed like IPv6 was ready for network prime time and would replace IPv4 as the dominant network protocol on TCP/IP networks–read: the Internet and most LANs. It was not to be.

At WinHEC in 2002, Microsoft almost begged its partners to embrace IPv6. And Microsoft has reason to be beating the bushes for IPv6 support. Microsoft needs IPv6 for its future peer-to-peer plans, and network companies and LAN administrators are simply not adopting it.

For example, Danny Councell, president of business IM vendor NetLert Communications, says, “As it stands now, our company has no plans for IPV6, it’s just a non-issue at this time.”

CTO Dave Juitt, of Bluesocket, a wireless LAN management company, comments, “it won’t happen in my lifetime.” It’s no different in the front trenches of networking. Rene’ Beltran, vice president of sales for DTR Business Systems, a Unix and Windows distributor specialising in supporting value added resellers (VAR) and network integrators, observes that his customers just don’t care about IPv6.

Promising trillions of new IP addresses and built-in IPSec security, IPv6 looked like it would be a natural. What happened?

For one thing, Ralph Droms, a Cisco Systems Technical Leader and chair of the IETF dynamic host configuration working group and member of the IPv6 group, explains that while “the base specifications for IPV6 has been around for a long time (August 1998), some parts aren’t done yet. For example, I’m the author of dynamic host configuration protocol (DHCP) for IPV6, and I’m only finishing that now.”

Jake Khuon, former network architect for Global Crossing’s IPv6 network design and deployment and a consultant today, says, “The stumbling blocks currently are (1) lack of wide-scale network infrastructure deployment and (2) lack of ‘kill apps’ that is applications that require IPv6 to function. Currently, there are only comparable applications that function within the IPv6 world much like they do in IPv4 and don’t offer any clear advantages. [Does that mean people have tried some old apps with IPv6 and they work? ]Most of this stuff is more along the lines of either research or “gee look it works in v6 too” and not particularly exciting to your average user.”

Besides, Droms points out, “new technologies like Classless Inter-Domain Routing (CIDR) and Network Address Translation (NAT) have been added to extend IPv4’s potential addresses, and thus, it’s useful lifetime.” Despite slow network performance and management problems, CIDR and NAT do give network administrators and ISPs enough addresses to keep users happy.

Another problem, Khuon observes, is that “key vendors developing IPv6 implementation still were not offering as rich a feature set as they had with IPv4. An example of this is Cisco’s IOS, which, when released as “IPv6 enabled” in the production images (12.2T) did not at first contain a sophisticated IPv6 Interior Gateway Protocol (IGP).” Since then, Cisco has addressed some of these issues, but IPv6 on IOS remains a work in progress.

Some vendors, however, still don’t support IPv6 at all. For example, no commercial version of MacOS supports it, and IPv6 is supported on Linux but still somewhat experimental. Even on Windows XP, IPv6 is a “preview” technology more suited for developers than users.

Still, some people think that IPv6 may be on its way to prime time. Besides Microsoft’s call for support, research house The Yankee Group predicts that by the fourth quarter of 2002, Japan will become the first country to deploy IPv6 in production environments. The reason? The Asia-Pacific region is suffering from a lack of available IPv4 addresses and Japan will take a leadership role in the implementation of this technology into production environments.

That’s in part because Japan has embraced 3G wireless phones, which require IPv6 for networking. Droms thinks that will happen here, too. “Wireless is going to push IPv4’s address availability,” he says. “We’re just at a point where it’s not possible to expand the address range with NAT and retain functionality for wireless devices.”

Khuon agrees. “I believe the mobile market will be the greatest pusher of IPv6,” he says. “IPv6 was designed with IP mobility in mind. You can do IP mobility today with IPv4, but it’s extremely convoluted. IPv6 makes it easier.”

And, eventually–but not as soon as many predicted–the rest of the current IPv4 network infrastructure.

A version of this story was first published in ZDNet.

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