The Transition to IPv6 is not the End of the World. No, Really.

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Today is my tenth anniversary of joining Microsoft, and in that time I have seen my share of interesting headlines. Today I add another one, from the article in the Wall Street Journal that notes that the “Web is running out of addresses…”  (video link:

Well, we have plenty of web address – or URLs – available and shouldn’t be exhausted any time soon. What they meant was Internet Protocol (or IP) addresses. What is true is that the current schema of numbering and identifying Internet connected devices – or IP addresses – is coming to an inflection point, and we will soon be adding more. The article in Journal accurately notes…

“Internet protocol addresses are numerical labels that direct online traffic to the right location, similar to the way a letter makes its way through the postal system. Such routing is generally invisible to users—when they type in, for instance, they are actually connected to a computer located at the numerical address It is those numbers that are in dwindling supply.”

That’s right, and this is not a new thing. The transition to what’s next on the Internet – in this case, IPv6 – is not a surprise to communications and Internet Service Providers (like AT&T, Sprint, Comcast, Time Warner and others), network infrastructure companies (like Cisco and Juniper), large multinational companies, or companies like Microsoft.

I recall a great headline last year from the good folks at ZDNet: IPv6: The end of the Internet as we know it (and I feel fine). Paraphrasing a classic REM song is fine, but in the views of some, IPv6 is not 2012. (With a nod to the Mayan calendar, which ends or renews — depending on your side of the debate — December 21, 2012, when a new Mayan Calendar count begins.) That seems to be the sentiment in some recent news stories – like this one on CNET, declaring that an IPv6 scramble has begun, and this one from NetworkWorld on declining availability of IPv4 addresses. These make for great headlines. But many companies – including Microsoft – have been working on the transition to IPv6 for several years. Like any change, it’s always good to review where you and your industry is when it comes to migrating to a new technology or system.

First, a little background.

Every device intended to connect to the Internet is enabled by something called Internet Protocol version four (aka IPv4). IPv4 is the address (think unique ID number) that identifies most used of the products connected to the Internet. More and more products are gaining Internet connectivity, not only PCs and phones, but lots of other consumer electronics and home appliances.

A few years ago, one of the major pioneers in the Internet, Vincent Cerf (now a vice-president at Google), reasoned that the more than 4.3 billion addresses provided by this a 32-bit system would be enough. Because there are a limited number of IPv4 addresses – even though the number is quite large (being more than four billion) – it’s been long expected that eventually we will run out of these addresses.

Realizing that eventually these IPv4 addresses would be exhausted, Internet Protocol version six (IPv6) was mapped out in the 1990’s and then published in 1998 as the next step in IP.  IPv6 is 128-bit, which provides support for many more devices. 3.4 to the 128th, to be exact, or 340,282,366,920,938,463,463,374,607,431,768,211,456 IP addresses. That should be enough for a few more years.

IPv6 is designed to solve many of the problems of the current version of IP (known as IPv4) such as address depletion, security, autoconfiguration, and extensibility. Its use will also expand the capabilities of the Internet and enable a variety of valuable and exciting scenarios, including peer-to-peer and mobile applications.

One of the challenges is that IPv6 is not directly compatible with IPv4 as is, and so, some adjustments are required. Today, most of the traffic Internet – something like 99.9% – uses IPv4. But this is changing, and companies around the world now have to (as many have been planning for years already) expedite their efforts to bring on people to handle the transition, upgrade their equipment, and tell everyone what to expect.

So, that’s all well and good. What does this all mean to consumers?

In short, you shouldn’t be planning to stock up on supplies and looking for the nearest fallout shelter. Given that IPv4 has become a standard in the industry, your IPv4 devices will continue to work given the right changes to the Internet infrastructure at your service provider. Again, as noted in the Journal:

“If the changeover to IPv6 goes well, the transition—likely to happen gradually over a number of years—won’t have a big impact on consumers. Some older operating systems and home routers won’t work with the new addresses, but ones bought in the last couple of years should, according to networking experts.”

Think of it – if you’re old enough to recall – when phone numbers didn’t have seven digits (or really ten… no wait, add in the country code…). When the switch was made (pardon the pun) to a longer schema, your existing phone equipment still worked. Well, moving from IPv4 to IPv6 should likely be a similar experience: the service provider (not Ma Bell this time around in the States, but your ISP in one example), major systems providers and web services will handle most of the heavy lifting. Even with area code changes, international dialing and ever growing phone numbers (I recall Japan now has eight digit phone numbers), your old rotary dial phone may still work… or at least your old pre-break up AT&T provided touch tone phone. As a result, you’ll still be able to surf the web, watch movies, play games over Xbox Live and get email with your computer or other Internet connected device.

And although there’s some great content in the articles, and a few concerning points, such as this from the Journal:

“Some older operating systems and home routers won’t work with the new addresses, but ones bought in the last couple of years should, according to networking experts.”

For most personal computers around the world, unless you’re running Windows 98 or ME, you’re probably fine: we support IPv6 in every OS release beginning with Windows XP and Server 2003. (See below for the list of Microsoft Operating Systems that support IPv6.)

For the most part, the transition to IPv6 really matters to ISPs, major companies with significant network infrastructure and systems (like Microsoft and other enterprises) and other communications service providers that route Internet traffic and provide services. It will also have impacts to small and medium sized businesses as they consider upgrades to their network routers that connects their users to the Internet. As Carolyn Duffy Marsan notes in her NetworkWorld article above…

“Network operators “will make do with translation options while they have to, but the smart money is on IPv6,” Baker adds. “Comcast, Google, Facebook and YouTube have each made a statement that CIOs need to heed. The future of their businesses on the Internet depends on native IPv6 deployment.”

That’s true, and the benefit for consumer customers is that generally the Internet will continue to work due to the hard work that these and other companies have done. And many companies will have to update their Web sites to support native IPv6 traffic. You can expect to see ISPs and major companies moving over time to IPv6, coexisting with IPv4 for the foreseeable future. You’ll continue to see news stories just like the one Comcast noted this week on their corporate blog that illustrates how they have successfully activated a group of cable modem customers using IPv6 in a “Native Dual Stack”. This  configuration allows Comcast customers to natively use both IPv4 and IPv6 on the Internet. (For more information about the Comcast IPv6 trials, check out the Comcast IPv6 Information Center.) 

Paul Zawacki, a senior principal network engineer at Oracle, offers his own perspective on how IT Pros should plan for IPv6 migration in their own shops, and the many things to think about in planning. He notes that companies should consider impacts of overlapping private network ranges, locations, services provisioning and even applications. “Each IT organization is different and must design an addressing strategy and policies to meet their unique requirements.”

Importantly, all major organizations should have IPv6 deployment plans in place or hurry up mapping out their next steps. Even though IPv4 addresses will run out, people should generally not see any change in how they use the Internet. At Microsoft, we’ve had IPv6 deployed in some form on our network for the past several years, and enabled our global backbone for IPv6 with no issues. I’ll see how we might share more of our experiences and preparations for IPv6, just as we did during the 2007 changes to daylight saving time (as noted on in the deployment guidance from Microsoft IT.

So what has Microsoft done in this space?

Microsoft maintains the Microsoft IPv6 information site on TechNet to provide more information on this new IP. There you can read more about how we’ve already built IPv6 support into the latest versions of Microsoft Windows, including Windows 7, Windows Server 2008 R2, and even in older versions such as Windows Vista, Windows Server 2003, and even Windows XP and Windows CE .NET. We offer overviews of IPv6, technical information, deployment and developer resources, including an overview of Teredo, the Microsoft platform that provides IPv6 connectivity across the current IPv4 Internet.

So, consumers, sit back and relax, knowing that (likely) your Internet Service Providers and Mobile Operators are hard at work to ensure that you have a seamless transition to IPv6.  I know many IT Professionals and developers already have plans and efforts already to make to move to IPv6 (some are already there). For the ones who haven’t: get a plan in place lickity split and get a move on. Your customers and users are counting on it.

Tags: Windows, Microsoft, IPv6, IPv4

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