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Out of space? Southampton academic warns the development of the next generation of Internet addresses needs to speed up

02 February 2011 Southampton, University of

As the original Internet address system reaches its end, a University of Southampton academic warns that deployment of the next generation of addresses needs to speed up to maintain Internet services.

With the Internet likely to reach a major milestone this Thursday at 3 pm, when the very last Internet addresses using the original Internet protocol, called IPv4 (Internet Protocol version 4) are allocated to Regional Registries and ISPs, computer scientist Dr Tim Chown says that careful planning by developers and engineers, dating back to the mid-1990s, has provided the capability for the Internet to continue to grow beyond the depletion of the original addressing system.

However, Dr Chown warns that deployment of the new Internet Protocol version 6, IPv6, is still in its infancy and will need to grow faster to sustain the massive demand for new Internet services.

Whether you're browsing the web, watching streamed video or downloading files, IPv4 has 'run' the Internet since its earliest days. It uses a 32-bit numeric address (such as 152.78.189.29, that identifies them uniquely on the network) and provides up to four billion unique addresses for hosts or routers. According to Dr Chown though, "The Internet has become a victim of its own success meaning that the available IPv4 address is almost depleted."

"This doesn't mean the Internet will stop working," he says - "far from it! Existing users won't notice a difference, and Internet life will go on. But it's likely that a market for IPv4 address blocks will form as organisations start trading address space and more use of address sharing and NAT (Network Address Translation), which allows several machines in the home to access the Internet sharing one global IPv4 address, is inevitable."

Having recognised the problems that would be caused by the exhaustion of the IPv4 addresses, Dr Chown and colleagues around the world have been working on the next generation of Internet address protocols, IPv6. Dr Chown has been an active member of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), which has been working on IPv6 since the mid-1990s. With 128 bits of address space, IPv6 will provide enough addresses for Internet growth for the foreseeable future and enable the Internet to grow in new directions.

The first UK native leased line using IPv6 was run as far back as 1997 at the University of Southampton. The data network in Electronics and Computer Science (ECS) at the University runs both IPv4 and IPv6 alongside each other and many of its public-facing services including web, mail and DNS are available via IPv6 as well as IPv4. The deployment in ECS has helped Dr Chown and colleagues to work with vendors and the standards community in validating the IETF protocols and feeding back operational issues to help refine the standards and improve their implementations.

"As researchers begin to look into innovative new uses of Internet Protocols for networking billions of new types of devices, a new and much larger addressing system for those devices will be vital," says Dr Chown. "The challenge over recent years has been for researchers, developers and vendors to standardise IPv6 and produce products that support its use - and most importantly to devise ways for IPv4 and IPv6 to coexist and work together on today's Internet infrastructure, allowing IPv6 to be gradually introduced while IPv4 continues to operate."

Currently only a handful of UK ISPs offer IPv6 to their customers, and the biggest UK production deployment is on JANET, the UK academic network, and some of the universities it serves. IPv6 deployment is growing, but still in its infancy, and will need to grow faster to sustain the massive demand for new Internet services worldwide.

For this reason, The Internet Society (ISOC) is working with major Internet companies including Google, Facebook, Cisco, Akamai and others to test IPv6 on World IPv6 Day, scheduled for 8 June 2011. Organisations will be encouraged to make their services available over IPv6 on this day, to evaluate how ready they, and the Internet, are for widespread IPv6 deployment. While Google and Facebook already offer their content via IPv6 in a limited way, this potentially massive test of the Internet infrastructure will be an important day for IPv6.

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