For over two decades commentators from within the Internet community have been predicting, and planning for, the eventual depletion of IPv4 addresses. The Internet’s remarkable growth very quickly made the 4.3 billion available IPv4 addresses seem drastically too few to accommodate the vast numbers of people, and the multiple devices they’re using, connecting to the Internet. Despite many in the Internet community grasping this early on, the transition to its successor protocol, IPv6, has taken far longer than expected.
Today, we’re at an interesting crossroad in the journey towards complete IPv6 adoption. Recent research from Gartner suggests that 20 billion IoT devices will be connected to the Internet by 2020. The explosive growth of the Internet has already seen IPv4 addresses reach critically low levels in recent years, and yet despite this, the market adoption of IPv6 is still much slower than anticipated.
In 2012, the Internet community held World IPv6 Launch Day in a bid to encourage companies to transition over to IPv6. Six years later, we are certainly beginning to see encouraging signs. At the time of the launch, only 0.62 per cent of Google users accessed services via IPv6 networks. Today this number has risen to just over 20 per cent, so whilst progress is slow, it is definitely heading in the right direction. In fact, the official IPv6 Launch website predicts that global IPv6 traffic has now grown more than 5000 per cent in the last few years.
All of the big content providers including names like Google, Facebook and Netflix are now IPv6-capable, and around 28 per cent of Alexa Top 1000 web servers support IPv6. Apple made a significant move in 2016 by requiring all apps on its app store to be IPv6 compatible. Such action by larger companies has signalled to other, smaller ones that IPv6 is something that should be on their radar.
‘Why should we fix something that isn’t broken?’
Despite the growth of traffic over IPv6, companies today continue to maintain that there is no real need to transition away from IPv4, and that at the very least there is certainly no rush. In their eyes, IPv4 operates just as well as its successor and has the added benefit of already having been set up and integrated into existing infrastructure. Many companies have therefore erroneously de-prioritised planning for IPv6 deployment.
Although IPv4 might appear to be the more convenient option given its predominance across networks, this is not actually the case. Most operators face significant expenses in running an IPv4-only network – first with the rising cost of obtaining additional IPv4 addresses in the open market, and secondly the cost of installing and operating Carrier Grade NAT equipment, which allows multiple users to share a single IP address. This sharing of a single IP address is an additional headache, for both Internet service providers and law-enforcement authorities when it comes to tracing criminal activities.
The time is now right to switch
A lot of businesses may still be under the impression that by enabling IPv6, they will no longer be able to reach IPv4-only networks or systems. But this is not actually the case, because transitional technologies such as NAT64 and 464Xlat, have been developed to translate IPv6 into IPv4. These are very viable technologies as proven by their successful deployment in large networks such as T-Mobile in the USA and Reliance Jio in India. Of course, such mitigation techniques introduce similar limitations as Carrier Grade NAT, but as a temporary solution, they can help unlock the potential of IPv6 right away, such as reducing the load on Network Address Translators and cutting the costs of operating them.
The IPv6 capability of content giants such as Netflix, Google and Facebook, who are responsible for most of the overall traffic on the Internet today, means that a network that deploys IPv6 will see the majority of its traffic moving over IPv6 from the get go. For those businesses attempting to cope with scarce IPv4 levels by using CGNAT, this will save costs as traffic will move over to IPv6. As more networks follow suit, the benefits of these savings will only increase further.
Today, Google reports that 49 countries deliver at least 5 per cent of network traffic over IPv6, and in half of these countries that figure stands at 15 per cent. In Europe, Belgium is leading the way after it became the first country in the world to deliver over 50 per cent of its Internet traffic via IPv6, whilst in the UK around 25 per cent of traffic is carried over IPv6. On a global scale, India now has hundreds of millions of individuals using IPv6 networks, and accounts for nearly half of IPv6 users globally.
Mobile technology has also been a key driver for IPv6. This is because unlike regular ISPs, mobile does not have to contend with such a huge variety of legacy hardware and use cases not supported by IPv6. Today, Deutsche Telekom, one of the largest mobile networks in Europe, runs 55 per cent of its services over IPv6, and over in America, T-Mobile maintains 91 per cent IPv6 deployment.
The future of IPv6
For the foreseeable future, the use of IPv4 is unlikely to be discontinued despite the rapidly depleting pool of addresses. Too many businesses continue to see IPv6 as an alternative to IPv4, rather than its inevitable successor. Whilst technologies like CGNAT and dual stack systems have successfully bridged the gap between IPv4 and IPv6, these have to eventually be viewed as temporary solutions for the transition to an IPv6 only Internet.
Connected devices are poised to play a bigger role in our lives. With mobile users continuing to increase, alongside the rise of the Internet of Things, researchers predict that billions more devices will be connected to the Internet over the next few years – which will continue to stretch the reach of available IPv4 addresses to their limits. So, while IPv6 deployment has been slow, more and more organisations are realising that the decision to transition to IPv6 is no longer an option, but a necessary reality.
Marco Hogewoning, Senior External Relations Officer, with inputs from Dr. Stephen Strowes, Senior Research Engineer, RIPE NCC
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