strips of light

The Internet has transformed the world. Period. I think it's important then to help everyone understand what it is exactly. I'm not talking degree-level understanding of computer networking, but a feel for the kind of thing going on 'under the hood'.

This post explains the new numbering system for the Internet – fundamental for the continued health and prosperity of the Internet this century – and does so without the reader needing any prior technical understanding. There's an executive summary if you only have two minutes. And then more detail if you fancy. It describes what your organization needs to be doing and why.

Most of the post is based on a document I wrote under the auspices of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).

So let's get stuck in. Firstly, allow me to differentiate between two terms too often and erroneously used interchangeably.

The Internet and the World Wide Web are different things

The Internet emerged in the concluding months of the 1960s. The World Wide Web on the other hand, like many other protocols, 'runs' on top of the Internet, and first twinkled in the eye of Sir Tim Berners-Lee in 1989.

Your smartphone connects to the Internet via 3G or 4G or Wi-Fi. When your apps need to exchange data with the world (to get a weather forecast or report your location for example), they do so over the Internet without need for the Web. When you open your smartphone's browser (Firefox, Chrome, or Safari for example), you are now browsing the Web – reading and interacting with websites.

Confusingly, the default browser on Samsung smartphones is accessed by clicking an app icon labelled "Internet". C'est la vie.

(Another quick point – most apps today are what we call native apps. A new breed, pioneered by the most excellent team at FT Labs, are called Web apps. They look and behave like 'normal' native apps, but are in fact built with Web technology for all the good reasons that make the Web awesome in the first place.)

The executive summary

What's the problem?

The world needs to transition to a new Internet Protocol because the current one is running out of steam.

The Internet equivalent of a telephone number is known as an Internet Protocol address, or IP address for short. Just as you need someone’s telephone number to call him or her, network technology needs an address when instructed to dispatch a packet of data from one computer to another.

Today, the Internet mostly uses IP version 4 (IPv4) but this has now reached the limits of its capacity. The Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) issued the last IPv4 address to the Regional Internet Registries (RIR) in February 2011, and they too have now effectively exhausted their supply.

What's the answer?

Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6) is the next generation protocol that provides vastly expanded address space, allowing the Internet to grow to many billions of times its current size.

Every organisation must consider the need to transition to IPv6 and decide what action it needs to take. Fortunately, having been defined towards the end of the 1990s, IPv6 is a well understood and low risk protocol.

What should you do?

If you have a senior, non-technical position in your organisation, you should raise this matter with your management team, and at your next operations meeting with your technical team or provider. If you have a technical role, then you should be running or planning to run both IPv4 and IPv6 concurrently until IPv4 is retired.

Advantages of making your organisation visible over IPv6 include:

•    Make yourself accessible to those customers and other stakeholders using IPv6
•    Integrate your adoption of IPv6 into your existing investment and renewal programme to minimise long-term costs
•    Guarantee your ability to grow in the future; and
•    Demonstrate that you are a forward-looking organisation, planning for the future.

Outside of work, as individual Internet users, we don't need to do anything. Your broadband provider and mobile operator will be looking after this for you.

That's the executive summary done. I throw some more light on the topic now, and you'll even learn how many atoms there are in the human body!

Happy Birthday, 45 this year!

The Internet community celebrates the network’s 45th birthday October 2014. Time for a mid-life crisis you might ask? Not here. Usage statistics (PDF) estimate nearly 3 billion people will have Internet access at the end of this year. We’re growing the Internet infrastructure continuously to meet demand and we're doing more and more with it. In business. In government. In life.

The massive explosion of devices we’re connecting to the Internet is at the crux of this issue here. The age of the smartphone really dawned in 2007 with the launch of the iPhone, and mobile Internet connectivity is now growing faster than broadband. And the Internet of Things entails the connection of tens of billions of 'things' by the close of this decade, as this entertaining video from Cisco portrays.

How can I reach you?

The Internet isn’t the first network to grow beyond expectations. Remember the “Big Number” marketing campaign in the UK in 2000? It communicated the change of telephone numbers in several major cities, driven by the need to provide more numbers.

You need someone’s number to call him or her. You need a physical address to tell the cab driver where to take you. Similarly, when instructed to dispatch a packet of data from one computer (or “thing”) to another, the communications technology that routes the network traffic needs an address.

The Internet equivalent of a telephone number is known as an Internet Protocol address, or IP address for short, and the most widely deployed version of the Internet Protocol accommodates 4.3 billion addresses. This version is known as version 4, or IPv4 for short, and has been applied since the early 1980s.

So you can see where this is going. We’ve run out of addresses.

As the legendary ZX Spectrum hit UK shops in 1982, the Internet Systems Consortium notes that there were just 235 Internet hosts. Before the World Wide Web, before computers arrived in the workplace let alone homes, and a long time before mobile phones, Google, Skype, Facebook or anything involving “things”, 4.3 billion sounded quite a lot. But it doesn’t any more. And in fact demand has exceeded supply.

ZX Spectrum 48k

That is why a new protocol, IPv6, was developed. Just like IPv4, IPv6 is free. But there is a snag; IPv6 and IPv4 are not immediately interoperable.

How does IPv6 compare to IPv4?

In terms of the number of addresses, rather than prefixing a digit or two to the IPv4 addresses as we’ve done for telephone numbers in the past, IPv6 actually has addresses four times the length of IPv4. That means IPv6 has approximately 3.4 x 1038 addresses, or to be precise:


Whereas there are more people alive today than there are IPv4 addresses, IPv6 has more than enough to address every single atom in every single human of a global population of ten billion four times! ((7 x 1027) x 1010 x 4) = 2.8 x 1038.

What does all this mean for you?

The Internet does not stop working when we exhaust unallocated IPv4 addresses. Your own network carries on working, and the networks of your customers, suppliers and partners keep humming. Indeed, the Millennium Bug, so-called Y2K, was far more exciting from a doomsday perspective!

But your organisation and your technical team cannot ignore IPv6. It may be hard to see why given the paragraph above and the other priorities competing for your time and resources, but despite the absence of an equivalent to British Telecom deciding when to switch off the old numbers, there are some serious issues at play here. There are motivations to adopt IPv6 based on avoiding disadvantage, and motivations based on IPv6’s technical advantages.

Avoid disadvantage

The critical questions you and your colleagues need to answer are:

Would we like external systems running IPv6 to see us, to be able to address us just as they can today over IPv4? Would we like our partners, suppliers and customers to be able to work with us over IPv6? To email us over IPv6? To view our website over IPv6? To access our Web services (as appropriate) over IPv6?

Assuming that some of our employees will want to interact with our systems from their own devices, would we like to facilitate these over IPv6? Or more simply, would we like to avoid any disadvantage of effectively shutting the door on anyone looking for us, looking to work with us, over IPv6?

Some people might assert that there’s no need to bother with IPv6 whilst everyone continues to have IPv4 capability. But that’s a little like saying why bother with IPv4 when people can telephone or write to us? IPv6 is here, now. It is unavoidable and there are no excuses (see “What’s NAT?” below). IPv6 will replace IPv4 in the long-term. Do you really want your organisation to respond blankly in the interim, to have no response at all, to anyone looking for you over IPv6?

Your technical team and service providers will place devices at your gateways to do the translation, and they will make sure your website is hosted in a manner that allows it to be served over IPv4 and IPv6. IPv6 addresses are free, and you only need translation servers at your gateways, so this is a low cost project.

The IT technical community describes the facility to work over both IPv4 and IPv6 as "dual stacked". You will now appear dual stacked to the rest of the world even though your internal networks remain IPv4.

Competitive advantage

To repeat the point, making yourself visible over IPv6 avoids the disadvantage that some of your customers might not be able to see you in the future. But given that the transition is inevitable in the longer term, perhaps you should consider grasping a competitive advantage by running your internal networks with IPv6 sooner rather than later? What are those advantages?

Obviously, if you are in the technical services industry yourself, then dual stacking all your systems sooner than later means you’ll be able to differentiate from your also-ran competitors. You will be perceived as more capable and diligent. You will be able to respond more quickly to future invitations to tender that demand IPv6 capability; no last minute rush to qualify, consuming time and effort that should instead be focused on converting the business. Moreover, imagine the confidence you can project to potential clients when you can draw on case studies to show what you can do.

But what about those outside the technical services industry? Moving your internal network to IPv6 does have a number of operational advantages. Here are two.

Firstly, let’s assume that you and your colleagues are quite typical in your increasing adoption of high definition video during the course of your work, such as video services, self-teaching and distance learning modules, event streaming, webcasting for internal communications, video calling and conferencing. Perhaps you use telepresence, or you might be considering it. Maybe you're already thinking about getting people together with Oculus Rift in future.

You won’t be surprised to hear that this trend is placing an increasingly heavy burden on your network. IPv6 can come to your rescue here as it operates with higher network efficiency and can deliver superior quality of service by effectively prioritising network traffic associated with real-time multimedia. In technical terms, IPv6 makes it possible to achieve enhanced frame and transmission rates and bandwidth usage. This is just one reason for example that China opted to run some audio-visual aspects of the 2008 Olympics network with IPv6.

Secondly, you may like to know that IPv6 has a more unified security framework. So if the most robust security is top of your list of concerns, you should investigate this benefit of IPv6 too.

At the very least, and to minimise or indeed eliminate any cost overhead of adopting IPv6, you should make sure your organisation’s future procurement of hardware, operating systems and applications mandates IPv6 capability. For example, it is not generally advised to attempt the transition with Microsoft Windows XP, but Microsoft Windows 7 is ready out of the box, as are Apple’s Mac OS X and some Linux distributions. Your organisation will then, through the natural replenishment cycle, become IPv6 ready.

Next steps to IPv6

IPv6 Act Now
Above all, you must ensure that your organisation is aware of this issue and has undertaken a planning assessment of the steps you will need to take to make your organisation visible over IPv6, and the corresponding time scale.

To keep you up to date on IPv6 news, the RIPE NCC (disclosure: a client of mine in times past) maintains a news page at its IPv6 Act Now website.

I'll finish here by addressing (no pun intended) two related matters. Domain names and network address translation.

So where do domain names come in?

IP addresses aren’t immediately memorable, particularly the much lengthier IPv6 ones. So whilst computers love numbers, humans prefer names. For example, which of these would you rather work with personally?  (the domain name)

Or (the IPv4 address)

Or http://2001:610:240:11::c100:1319 (the IPv6 address)

This is somewhat akin to storing friends’ telephone numbers under their name in your mobile phone, but there is a difference. Whereas you have to update a friend’s record in your contacts list manually should they change their number, owners of domain names manage the association of the domain names with IP addresses themselves.

When you use a domain name, for example in your browser or in an email address, the name is looked up in the domain name system to find the IP address required to route your query to the right place, and this is all invisible to the typical Internet user.

What’s NAT?

NAT stands for Network Address Translation, and the sole purpose for raising it here is that it is the main excuse people use for not doing anything about IPv6. The easiest way to explain NAT is by metaphor to the way your organisation manages physical post.

You and all your colleagues in your physical office building share the same address as far as the outside world is concerned and the sender cannot instruct a postal service to deliver directly into your hands. Yet each of you has an unique address as far as your organisation is concerned, be that a desk or a so-called pigeonhole, at which your mail arrives courtesy of another system, your internal post system.

Many organisations’ IT networks operate similarly. Each device (eg, server, PC, IP telephone) is given an unique address, known only to your internal network, and your communication with the outside world is routed via a gateway, the equivalent of the post room. It’s the gateway’s address that you can publish to the world.

So it is easy to picture a situation where an organisation employing thousands of people needs only have a handful of IPv4 addresses in much the same way they may only have a handful of buildings.

But unfortunately this approach means that direct end-to-end communication is impossible, requiring as it does an interim translation. This is problematic for some applications and services, although NAT’s interim step is often regarded as helpful in securing an IPv4 network. This does not mean non-NAT IPv6 is less secure however, as IPv6 provides for end-to-end addressability without requiring end-to-end connectivity.

As future IP addresses will be used to address the billions of devices and other things outside corporate walls, and there are technical advantages to the associated service providers in avoiding the intermediary step of NAT in such instances, IPv6 is coming regardless of your organisation’s perspective on the matter. Whether you have NAT or no NAT.