It is said that the one thing you can be sure of in life is change—and this certainly holds true in the technology sector. Whilst it is commonly known that desktops, laptops and smart phones need to be changed every couple of years to stay up-to-date, what is less well known is that one of the biggest changes to affect the way we use the internet is approaching.
The situation is that the Internet currently runs on Internet Protocol version four, (IPv4), this is the unique string of numbers which acts as an address for your computer to where data can be sent. Due to the proliferation of devices that can connect to the internet, the number of unique addresses available to be allocated is running out.
This is a particular problem in Asia where there are countries with huge populations but with a disproportionately small allocation of IP addresses due to the way that blocks of IPaddresses were gradually allocated to countries as the internet grew. To put this in perspective, it has resulted in India having fewer IP addresses than the UK.
This dilemma is causing performance and security issues within the internet—which means that a change is needed. Fortunately the solution, known as Internet Protocol version six (IPv6), already exists.
Recently, James Lyne, Director of Technology Strategy at Sophos shares his advice for government on how to manage this change and ignore the hype.
The change from IPv4 to IPv6 will require concerted planning, preparation and effort from all organisations that rely on ICT and the internet to operate, says Lyne. “Over the next couple of years we need to make this change, otherwise we are going to hit this situation with addresses exhausting. But there is not really anyone who owns the Internet. We have separate national bodies and policies but together as an international community we need to drive this forward.”
IPv4 and IPv6 can be run parallel to one another by ISPs, routers, devices and websites and this is how the transition needs to happen. The more people that can operate on both versions, the easier it will be to adopt IPv6. Fortunately, many new devices are fully compatible with IPv6, and even as far back as Windows XP, with just three or four commands, IPv6 can be enabled.
According to Lyne the knowledge and training required to ensure that an organisation is ready to use IPv6 is not the biggest concern, but rather the greater internal and external forces affecting the decision to make the change. His advice to government organisations is to be mindful of the need to make this change and allocate the time and effort to do so for the greater good of the internet.
Lyne has distilled his view on what needs to be done down to 4 key elements that need to happen in response to the IPv4/6 dilemma.
Firstly, regulations need to be introduced to encourage telcos and other infrastructure providers to run IPv4 and IPv6 simultaneously. James points out that where there may not be a commercial interest for the telcos to do this, regulations are needed to drive the transition.
Secondly, at the organisational level, executives and IT directors need to be proactive in embracing the forthcoming changes. Whilst there is no technical impetus to act immediately, since available addresses will still be available for the short term, the technology is already out there and hardware already in use within an organisation may be IPv6 compatible. This presents a risk since hacking tools exist that can exploit unprotected IPv6 channels to create a backdoor into systems. For this reason, Lyne proclaims that, “we must run a project to either block IPv6 and choose when we are going to adopt it, or to put our arms around it and use it consciously.”
Thirdly, government needs to prepare for this change by ensuring that its staff have the right technical skills in IPv6. Over the coming years, an organisation might gradually upgrade its hardware, and by understanding the importance of becoming IPv6 compatible, this should be factored into its plans and procurement gradually, in a cost effective way.
Lastly, at the consumer level, a way needs to be found for the individual to be able to access IPv4 and IPv6 services with as few technological barriers as possible.
Singapore’s Infocomm Development Authority has organised a series of events in 2012—in particular, it organised an IPv6 conference—to raise awareness and engage with the key stakeholders. Singapore is taking the issue very seriously, promoting the issue to government and private companies, and has initiated an IPv6 Transition Programme.
In January 2011, it released a report that mapped and surveyed the readiness for and potential impact on all the parties within Singapore’s ICT ecosystem. Other activities include an IPv6 network technology pilot, developing reference specifications and releasing transition and adoption guides, establishing an IPv6 Marketplace for IPv6, and setting up IPv6 industry exemplars—promoting local high-traffic websites to adopt IPv6 first.
The US government, in 2005, planned for migration for all government agencies to IPv6 by 2008, and this was done ahead of schedule.
The China Next Generation Internet (CNGI) is a five-year plan that incorporates IPv6 adoption, which the country sees as an essential tool for gaining prominence in the virtual domain. As part of its efforts to construct the country’s next-generation internet backbones, China identified the need to address IPv4 address exhaustion very early—in 2001—and has been making steady changes since then. It showcased the CNGI and its IPv6 architecture at the 2008 Olympic Games: all of its physical- and information-security–related data were networked by IPv6.
Although the answer to the impending transition requires action by both public and private sectors, to ensure the continued good working service of the internet, our way of life and doing business, action needs to be taken sooner rather than later by several other governments—that may not be fully appreciative of the situation—by following the lead of Singapore, the US and China.
By Richard Pain