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Weekly Column

The $200 Billion Lunch: We're switching to IPv6, dontcha know, and it might be worth it.

Status: [CLOSED] comments (127)
By Robert X. Cringely
bob@cringely.com

Remember Y2K? If you worked in Information Technology in the waning days of the last millennium, you probably remember Y2K as a combination of Christmas and the hardest workday of your life. We'd programmed ourselves into a potential disaster with the way computers handled dates, and fixing the problem took several years and a reported $100 billion. Well if you liked Y2K, you'll LOVE IPv6.

IPv6 (Internet Protocol version 6) is, of course, the next-generation Internet address scheme that has been around for a decade but generally not implemented. Instead, we came up with Network Address Translation (NAT), a kludge that allowed us to stretch the available pool of Internet addresses that would otherwise have run out years ago. NAT works well enough that we could rely on it for years to come, but then those feisty Chinese went ahead and decided to switch their whole country to IPv6, so now we have to do it, too.

To a certain extent, it is Sputnik all over again. Some people see this as a place where there will be a commercial disadvantage unless the U.S. keeps up. It is comparable to NTSC vs. PAL television standards (hint: PAL is better but we don't have it).

To be fair, IPv6 is a far better solution to the problem of diminishing Internet address space than NAT could ever have been. IPv6 just expands the total size of the address pool by making the addresses substantially longer, with the benefit that the pool will be big enough for every device to have its own unique static IP address.

As things stand right now, something over 30 percent of Internet packet traffic is illicit, either spam email or attacks of various sorts. As such, a passive unprotected Windows system on the net can be infected with some kind of pathological code in a median time of minutes. Converting to IPv6 addressing would be a chance to at least get a finger into that leak.

There is also a very large market for being able to encrypt net traffic. IPv6 puts that where it belongs, down in the lower layers of the protocol stack. Right now we really have to put encryption in the top of the stack at the application layer.

The downside of all this upgrading is cost. Implementing IPv6 will incur an infrastructure cost of around $200 billion, and that's just for the U.S. Figure another $200+ billion for the rest of the world. In short, this means an IP feeding trough of unprecedented size.

The good parts about IPv6 include no more NAT, greater resistance to hacking (though that's only until the new IPv6 crime codes are introduced, believe me), and much easier tracking of data on the net. Figuring out your new IP address is easy, too, just add a string of zeroes at the front of your current IP.

The bad parts of IPv6 include having to replace most routers, as well as any performance hit that may come a jump in packet size -– today’s packets average 63 bytes, while IPv6 packets will weigh in at 87 bytes. But the real hit will come from inadvertently broken parts of the network, like anything based on Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) technology. ATM uses fixed 53-byte packets with eight bytes of address. Switching from eight-byte to 32-byte addressing will decrease the packet data payload from 40 bytes to 16 bytes, which is not good. IF ATM survives it will require either a NAT-like kludge, new ATM equipment that runs 2.5 times as fast, or a simple acceptance that the new Internet is slower than the old one it replaced.

My Mama wouldn't like that.

But the U.S. military sure would. Future Combat Systems (FCS), the $125 billion (or $300 billion, depending whether oil changes are included) U.S. Army of the near future will absolutely rely on IPv6. FCS wants to make addressable over the Internet anything with an electrical system -- every flashlight, walkie-talkie, and Humvee. The FCS mantra is that everything that has electricity is a sensor, a node, an effector, or all of the above. That's a LOT of IP addresses. The same force is moving the civilian market, too, with RFID tags on everything.

All this government money is about to be spent on IPv6 upgrades because otherwise it won't happen. Nobody is going to do it voluntarily, so there is a federal mandate, and such mandates often come with federal money. This one sure does. People won't voluntarily upgrade because their systems are working just fine now, and will continue to work after the IPs run out -- they just won't be compatible with the later IPs. Until that SERIOUSLY affects their day, they won't spend the money to change.

Here's where I get on my soapbox.

Most readers of this column have known about IPv6 for years, but I doubt that many readers know a mandated upgrade is coming. It isn't my job to announce this stuff, yet it seems like that's what I often do. And I'll do so with a prediction that it won't be a smooth upgrade because we're too distracted with other issues and we'll turn this transition into an excuse to spend far more money than we really need to.

Instead, we should look for inspiration to the source of our most recent motivation to move to IPv6 -- China. In the current addressing scheme, China received a very small number of IP addresses, and this was causing them a lot of difficulty. If they stayed with the existing system it would have resulted in a nasty network kludge. So they made a national decision to implement IPv6 and put in a good network design. With IPv6 China has the address space they need and it is working well for them. Of course, the rest of the world is still on the old system and to communicate with China an address translation is needed. This is becoming a pain. Countries who want to do lots of business with China or who want to do lots of business through the Internet (India) are now seriously looking at their own IPv6 plans.

Look at it as leadership through good example. China has done something very impressive and now others are taking notice. We (the U.S.) think we control the Internet, but China is proving otherwise.

And what is happening in the USA? Well we have Net Neutrality. We have a telco rebuilding a national monopoly. We have Cisco and Microsoft working together on Network Admission Control (NAC). I can see a time in the near future when they'll try to charge me for every PC in my house. While China is building a national resource, our government is letting companies turn the public Internet into an expensive private toll road.

But we'll move to IPv6, that's for sure, if only to make sure Halliburton has plenty of business.

Comments from the Tribe

Status: [CLOSED] read all comments (127)

Wondering about the impact on oversaturated frame clouds, and also whether or not every connected thing is gonna be taxed to pay for Haliburton's lunch?

thinman | Nov 09, 2006 | 5:27PM

Eerst Europa Doelstellingen: De Ci2i Verzekering (Ci2i) zal het nummer een gebrandmerkte pan Europese commoditized online verzekeringsmakelaar door 2010 zijn.

Alice Mike | Nov 16, 2006 | 1:11AM

First Europa Mission Aussage: Ci2i Versicherung (Ci2i) ist der Nr. eine commoditized on-line-Versicherungsmakler bis zum 2010 das eingebrannte pan-europäische.

Alice Mike | Nov 16, 2006 | 4:16AM