Internet “Judgment Day” is looming. Are you ready?

We have 17 more months until what John Curran, CEO and president at ARIN (American Registry for Internet Numbers), calls, “Judgement Day.” That’s when we’re expected to run out of Internet Protocol version 4 (IPv4) addresses.

What this means for vendors and partners in the IT community is that they’ll need to ensure that end-user customers can interact and communicate with the entire Internet, which will be built around the new Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6) standard because we’re rapidly running out of IP addresses, the unique numeric identifiers that computers use to talk to each other and connect to the Internet.

Nowadays, since most people have more than one device with Internet connectivity, IPv4, which has been around since the 1980s, is close to reaching its address limit of just over four billion. IPv6 has a much bigger address space with trillions of available addresses and has been in existence for years, however the majority of businesses and customers around the world are still using IPv4.

Leo Vegoda, manager of number resources for IANA (Internet Assigned Numbers Authority) at ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), a non-profit international corporation that’s responsible for maintaining the operational stability of the Internet, said that “while there’s no immediate shortage of IPv4 address space, in the next 17 months, the top-level pool and regional pools (of IPv4 addresses) will empty, which will also affect Internet service providers. This will become a situation where there’s a gradual increase in the number problems associated with obtaining blocks of addresses.”

As a part of ICANN, Vegoda says IANA manages a pool of IP addresses, which are in turn, distributed amongst the five Regional Internet Registries (RIRs), which are organized by region, and will then distribute the addresses within their respective regions. From there, those ISPs and enterprise networks will distribute their stock of IP addresses to their customers.

While the process of obtaining a new IP address will essentially remain the same, what could become a widespread problem is that customers who are currently using IPv4 will not be able to communicate with those using IPv6. This is because IPv6 is not backwards-compatible with IPv4, Vegoda explains, which means trying to communicate through applications where two points connect, such as VoIP (voice-over IP), will become impossible.

”If you have IPv4 addresses today, those will continue to work,” Vegoda said. “What they can’t do is talk to an IPv6 address. That’s why it’s important for even the organizations and customers that have IPv4 to also implement IPv6.”

As IPv4 addresses get depleted, there will be a need to have both protocols running in parallel in order for people to communicate with each other, Vegoda explains. To help with the transition period, Vegoda says there will have to be some sort of translation device to help both protocols understand each other.

“At the point that IPv4 is fully allocated (and) the IPv6 is not universally implemented, there will be a period where IPv4 and IPv6 need to interoperate … and you’ll need to run a translation service of some kind,” he said.

Just like IPv6, which has been around for some time, Vegoda says most of today’s devices, such as laptops and other systems, already have the ability to support the new protocol and have done so for “quite some years.”

So this then becomes a question of, well, why aren’t we using IPv6 now then?

“Because IPv4 works really well and as long as it continues to do this, there’s not a strong incentive to deploy an additional protocol and incur an additional expense,” Vegoda said. “That’s why (IPv6) hasn’t been widely deployed yet.”

Some of the costs include network support and training for employees.

“Costs are probably going to come from the design of supporting (IPv6) in your network and also in training for network engineers, operational staff and helpdesk staff,” he added. “Certain equipment will have to be upgraded too such as routers, software, switches and severs. If these technologies are more than eight years old, there’s a good chance it won’t support IPv6.”

This presents an opportunity for channel partners to have conversations with their customers about IPv6 and making sure their technologies and products are all up to date.

As far as the impact on end-users, Vegoda says customers probably won’t be as affected as ISPs and enterprise network operators are. ISPs will need to make changes such as getting blocks of addresses so they can configure their networks and support IPv6 to therefore service their customers.

“I suspect that customers don’t really buy IPv4 as a service because they buy Internet access and they expect it to work,” Vegoda explained. “As a user of IPv6, you’d just plug in your computer and most of the time you just don’t really notice that it’s there, in the same way that you don’t really notice that IPv4 is there.”

Paul Andersen, president of Toronto-based egateNetworks, an Internet connectivity and hosting provider that specializes in servicing the SMB market, says from an ISP standpoint, anytime you make a switch from one system to another, lots of work needs to be done in terms of educating staff, going through processes and testing.

“One of the big challenges we face is getting people to transition (to IPv6),” Andersen said. “Even though it’ll still be one Internet, we’ll essentially have two separate networks. We’re trying to encourage organizations to adopt IPv6 by getting the (message) out that we’re running out of IPv4 addresses.”

Even if customers aren’t currently using IPv6, Vegoda advises organizations to make sure any new equipment they purchase supports IPv6. In the long-run, this will help to minimize the cost of the transition when the company decides to migrate over to the new protocol.

In terms of preparing for the transition and adoption period, Andersen says it isn’t just ISPs and customers that need to work differently. Vendors also need to make sure they’re introducing IPv6-capable software and hardware products into their product portfolios if they haven’t done so already.

Juniper Networks is one vendor that’s been keeping its eye on the IPv6 space said its director of systems engineering, Tim LeMaster.

“We started supporting IPv6 in Junos in 2001 and have continued to add features and functionality along the way,” LeMaster said. “Juniper routers were the first routers to be IPv6 certified by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) Joint Interoperability Test Command for use on Defense networks in May 2007. Juniper is actively testing our products as part of those new certifications to ensure we meet the standards and we’re IPv6-ready as defined by the DoD.”

The businesses that start purchasing IPv6-ready devices today will be better prepared to overcome the inevitable “Internet crunch,” that’s expected to happen once we run out of IPv4 addresses, Andersen says. He adds that it’s in the customer’s best interest to start preparing for the transition and migration path sooner rather than later, so if they happen to run into any problems, they’re not stuck in a bind.

“There’s work for all types of partners, customers and vendors,” Andersen said. “In order to fully transition, we need to make sure every single device will be configured and updated to support the new protocol.”

Follow Maxine Cheung on Twitter: @MaxineCheungCDN.

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