(this article originally published on 6/27/12)
The internet has just evolved in a really important way that’s going to affect your business. People are even going so far as to call IPv6 “The New Internet” because it’s completely revolutionizing the way the world transmits and receives information online – and yet, most of your everyday users will never hear about it or notice that anything’s different. And if you’re a tween who only uses the internet to play World of Warcraft, or a sorority girl who thinks of her Macbook as a “Facebook machine” – that’s probably fine. However, if your business or professional life relies on the internet, you’re going to want to pay attention.
IPv6 stands for “Internet Protocol Version 6.” Most of the online world is running on Internet Protocol Version 4, which, believe it or not, has been running since the late 1970’s, unlike your beloved El Camino. (Don’t ask what happened to Version 5; the answer’s really boring.) As you might guess by the use of the word “protocol,” IPs are basically the rules that dictate how anything with an internet connection gets and sends out information. Of course, they used to just apply to computers, but now we have smartphones, Androids, tablets, gaming consoles, netbooks, e-readers – heck, I bet you could find cookware with an internet connection, if you looked hard enough. I love to use metaphors, so, if we think of the internet as a series of roads and highways, it now has more “cars” – internet-using appliances – on it than ever before. Internet usage has absolutely exploded in the past decade or so, to the point where, apparently, even the entire royal family of Nigeria has gotten email accounts. With increased “cars” (and therefore increased “traffic”) has come a number of problems that didn’t exist when the internet was just boring old DARPAnet back in the day.
The biggest problem with IPv4, in essence, is that there simply aren’t enough “license plates” to go around. Anything that communicates on the internet has to have what’s called an IP address, which, like the license plate on your Camry, is a series of numbers that allows the vehicle to be identified. An IP address is a way of identifying who’s doing what on the internet, which is a vital element for technological security these days. But, whatever it is you’re doing on the internet, your device has to have one or it won’t work. So they’re pretty important, and, unfortunately, they’re running out. In fact, if you go to IPv6Forum.com, you’ll see something on the left-hand side labeled “IPv4 Exhaustion Counter,” which is simply a doomsday-like countdown until all the IP addresses in a given geographic region are going to be used up, and there will not be room for even one more smartphone to get on the internet. Anyone who buys a smartphone after that line has been crossed will be destined to accidentally eat at poorly-Yelp-reviewed restaurants for the rest of their days, and there’s nothing they can do about it. Unless they want to move to Antarctica. (Good luck finding any restaurants there.)
But not so fast, says IPv6, cape billowing in the breeze, for I have enough IP addresses for all! (3.4×1038 of them, in fact, which means that every single person of the world’s 2011 population [7 billion] – individually – could have 4.8×1028 of them. Holy exponential numbers, Batman!) Preventing IPv4 address exhaustion is the main reason why IPv6 had to be invented, but it does a lot more than just provide more “licenses” for the growing number of “cars.” It’s created a whole new set of data transmission capabilities that never existed before, and it’s made some of IPv4’s preexisting capabilities much faster and more efficient. If you’re interested in the technical jargon, you can show off to your friends and say it allows for things like new routing capabilities (including route aggregation), makes renumbering an existing network for a new connectivity provider MUCH easier, and it has improved multicasting abilities with new bells and whistles. (And even if you don’t know what those things are, they do sound impressive, don’t they?)
What you probably don’t know is: IPv6 is already here. June 6, 2012, was the World Launch Day, which means that there are a chunk of the world’s internet devices out there that have already been transitioned from v4 to v6. The world’s largest internet service providers, hardware manufacturers, and web content providers have already begun transitioning the world’s main data centers and routes of data transmission to v6.>
Here’s the part where you come in, so pay attention! The world, at a point in the not-too-distant future, is going to be using IPv6 on the vast majority (if not the entirety) of their internet devices. But you will need to manually convert your servers, DNS servers, routers, and etc. to IPv6 if you want to be able to communicate with the rest of the world. You may have heard it said that routers and computer devices “talk” to one another, in a manner of speaking, and you’re going to need your devices to be able to “speak” and “understand” both IPv4 and IPv6 systems (what we would call backwards compatibility). For instance, if your router hasn’t been converted from IPv4 to IPv6 compatibility, it isn’t going to be able to communicate with any device bearing an IPv6 address (which will be most of them, pretty soon, because, as we mentioned earlier, there aren’t many more IPv4 addresses to be had).
Now, manually converting your devices sounds like work, and it is (sorry), but it’s not really optional if you’re making any attempt at network security. The transition has already begun, and if your devices aren’t actively transitioned with it, they’re going to be security risks for your networks, devices, and data. Routers and infrastructures that have been designed around IPv4 technology have new vulnerabilities, because they’re now less advanced than the systems they’ll be runni8ng. Because the very format of IP addresses has changed with IPv6, this also means that legal tools for tracking IP addresses (and safeguards within your routers and servers) will need to be redesigned as well.