With today’s celebration of World IPv6 Launch 2012, the Internet is doing something new: growing. And that growth comes none too soon as the rise of the Internet of Things places unprecedented new demands on worldwide Internet infrastructure.

Google, Yahoo and Facebook are among the leaders in the growing charge to adopt the critically needed Internet addressing system known as IPv6, which is generally reagarded as the only viable solution for the stagnation of the Internet.

World IPv6 Launch 2012 brings together “major Internet service providers (ISPs), home networking equipment manufacturers and Web companies around the world… to permanently enable IPv6 for their products and services,” starting today.

Here’s why, by the numbers:

In 1973, when Vint Cerf and his team put together the networking rules for what would become the Internet, they used an addressing system with 32 bits of addressing space - the well-known 192.X.X.X IPv4 system in use today. This gave the fledgling Internet the capacity for 4.3 billion individual addresses; far more than Cerf and his team could even conceive of needing back then.

Severely Mis-Underestimated

Obviously, Cerf and everyone else severely underestimated the growth of the Internet and all the various ways it would be used. More than just a system to share files and images, the Internet has become a platform for commerce and communication that eventually dwarfed the telephone network, the only comparable network on the planet.

That growth has led us to the problem we have today. According to Cerf - who took part in a Google Hangout on Tuesday afternoon, there are currently 5.5 billion mobile devices in the world. If each one of them were to need an IP address (and that’s likely to be true in the very near future), they alone would require more than the available Internet addresses under IPv4. New devices simply would not be able to connect.

Fortunately Cerf and others saw this bottleneck coming. In 1996, they put together a new addressing protocol, IPv6, with 128 bits of address space. That means IPv6 can accommodate 340 trillion trillion trillion addresses. That should be enough for a while.

But the transition to IPv6 has been slow, as many organizations hesitate to make the needed efforts. Comcast IPv6 architect John Jason Brzozowski estimated that Comcast is seeing about 5% of users able to support IPv6 right now, though that number is steadily rising.

Today’s public moves by major websites including Google, Yahoo and Facebook, along with ISPs such as Comcast and Time Warner Cable, to completely switch to always-on IPv6 operations represents the first big addition of IPv6 connectivity since the protocol was launched in 1996. Joined by networking vendors such as Akamai and Cisco, this year’s efforts will begin to implement IPv6 broadly while keeping IPv4 connectivity on in parallel. Internet users, regardless of their connectivity status, should not notice any changes to the way they venture around the Internet.

Why Bother?

Given that so few are even trying IPv6,  why is it so important to adopt it?

In addition to making it possible for more devices to connect directly to the Net, faster and more granular connectivity could be another major benefit. IPv6 is not inherently faster, but because of the increasing shortage of device addresses, right now many devices have to aim their connectivity to other devices through the cloud, according to Cisco fellow Mark Townsley.

As IPv6 becomes more widely adopted, Townsley explained, individual devices will be more able to directly connect to each other, without having to depend on the cloud as intermediary.

Looking forward a bit further, widely heralded hardware-based networks, often called the “Internet of Things,” depend on IPv6 to make room for new connected devices.

Forget 5.5 billion mobile devices. Imagine the possibility of billions, even trillions of pieces of hardware connected to the Internet, all sending out signals as simple as “this pen is out of ink” or as important as “someone is having a stroke that they don’t feel yet.”

Vendors are already lining up to create devices that leverage this capability. For example, more than 50% of devices at CES were Internet connected. Some hardware vendors, like Cosm (formerly Pachube) live in that space right now - helping device-makers create products that communicate efficiently and reliably on an increasingly crowded Internet. Because of its very mission, of course, Cosm has been IPv6-ready for quite some time.

Traffic Jams Ahead?

The picture is not all roses and sunshine: With the increase of devices will come an accompanying rise in traffic. Looking at the kind of data generated by the Internet of Things, many devices send small packets of data that shouldn’t overwhelm data networks. But as smarter devices handle larger pieces of unstructured data - and video streams - network saturation could become a very real problem.

Fortunately, we won’t have to deal with it all at once. In the Google Hangout, Cerf emphasized that the introduction of IPv6 is not so much a switch, but a transparent adoption of IPv6 connectivity as time goes on. And Google IPv6 engineers Lorenzo Colitti and Erik Kline added that since many networking devices are starting to be sold with built-in IPv6 and IPv4 features, the change to IPv6 is often technically not very challenging.

At Google, Colitti explained, “the problem is very wide, but not very deep.” Meaning that while he and Kline would have to find any software or device within Google that depended on IP addressing, actually flipping the switch once the code or device was identified is relatively simple. Both engineers expect that other organizations will have similar experiences.

The good news is that IPv6 is in place now and will be ready for organizations to use as they move to it. There’s no Y2K deadline of doom hanging over our heads. But companies looking to establish deeper connectivity with customers - and especially those planning to connect large numbers of mobile devices and IP hardware and applications - should consider beginning a gradual transition to the new addressing protocol.

Or you could simply wait until you find your percentage of IPv6 traffic. The nice thing to remember is this: Virtually all networking software and devices will be able to handle both protocols for some time to come.

 

For more information on IPv6, download the free ReadWriteWeb brief: How to Prepare for IPv6 Networking.