Keeping IPv6 on the radar is critical in 2012

Samantha Bookman, FierceTelecom

Where does IPv6 stand in the last month of 2011? Adoption of the addressing protocol is now a necessity thanks to the depletion of new IPv4 (Internet Protocol version 4) addresses in April of this year, but it has not been entirely clear how many Internet service providers (ISPs) and website owners are migrating to the standard.

Experts have fretted for some time that the slowness of migration meant that, once v4 addresses depleted, the Web surfing experience would become quite degraded for many users. "Assuming that they're able to coast for six to nine months, you'll start seeing the first residential customers that can't get IPv4 addresses probably somewhere around the end of 2011," said Owen DeLong, Hurricane Electric's IPv6 Evangelist, in January of this year.

But thanks to a big push by DeLong and other IPv6 missionaries to get the word out through 2010 and 2011, the migration message seems to be taking hold. Most large companies know that their forward-facing websites, at the very least, need to have a dual coexistence capability (dual-stack, for example) so that users can reach them on either the IPv4 or IPv6 protocol without a degraded experience. Infonetics reported in July that 83 percent of the service providers they interviewed planned to deploy IPv6 in 2011 or by 2012.

And that knowledge is taking IPv6 migration stats in a somewhat different direction than perhaps many experts had predicted. Last week, InfoBlox released results of its sixth annual study on DNS (domain name servers) that showed, surprisingly, that the percentage of DNS zones that support IPv6 had jumped dramatically from 1.27 percent in October 2010 to 25.4 percent in October 2011.

"We calculated (it) to be a 1900 percent increase in the percentage of zones that are resolvable using IPv6 only," said Cricket Liu, general manager of InfoBlox's IPv6 Center for Excellence. When InfoBlox asked The Measurement Factory, which had conducted the study, what contributed to the increase in DNS zones, "they found that it's really attributable to the adoption of IPv6 by a few registrars, most notable among those GoDaddy, which is probably the best known U.S. based registrar--probably the best known registrar in the world. That moved the needle substantially."

Of course, IPv6 does not live by DNS alone, but the jump in IPv6-only zones is one of the first big indicators that companies are taking the message seriously and at least transitioning their forward-facing Web presence to become directly accessible across the v6 protocol.

"This to me was really dramatic because this was a solid double digit result," Liu said. "Compare this to the percentage that you see of IPv6 traffic over a backbone or something like that, and those are very small numbers. So to me this really stood out, because this is a solid quarter of the zones in a very large random sample that we look at that support IPv6."

The result also could ease concerns about the possibility of an IPv4 black market becoming more prevalent. "I think if people didn't see IPv6 as a viable technology they might be more prone to look at acquiring IPv4 address space from somebody else. But with IPv6 taking off within infrastructure as it appears to be, I think it's pretty clear that IPv6 is a viable way forward," Liu said.

It's definitely encouraging, but the actual impact on overall Web traffic remains to be seen. Increased use of IPv6 DNS zones means v6-to-v6 traffic will grow, but how quickly depends on a number of other factors swirling around transitioning infrastructure throughout an organization to support IPv6, as well as on keeping IPv4-only users in the loop. Chief among those factors is demand: It may have been easier for organizations to ask hypercompetitive registrars, like GoDaddy, to make IPv6-only DNS available, than it will be for those organizations to transition other servers within their own infrastructure to dual-coexistence, if demand from customers isn't there.

Still, the increase in DNS zones will make next year's second annual World IPv6 Day even more interesting in terms of traffic than the first. Liu noted that participants have pledged to leave their forward-facing websites IPv6-enabled after the event is over, something only a few participants did in 2011.

IPv6 proponents will continue getting the message out. Meantime, many service providers are continuing to offer solutions to companies that haven't begun their IPv6 transition: Akamai, for example, is helping customers transition content between the two protocols. "We've got a lot of our infrastructure ready for IPv6, and we're in a position to help a lot our customers with that transition; we can deliver traffic to IPv6 end users today and on the back end fetch the content from our customers over v4," said Bobby Blumofe, senior vice president of Akamai's Network Division, in a recent interview.

Other providers, particularly ISPs, have a longer migration waiting for them. AT&T (NYSE: T) plans to migrate all of its networks and its customers to an IPv6-only environment, something that will take a number of years; meantime, it's planning to run a dual-stack environment, something Tom Siracusa, executive director of AT&T Labs, feels will be more costly to operate.

At any rate, the transition from IPv4 to IPv6 is tracing an interesting path. It's not likely that IPv6 proponents can get the level of interest in migrating to peak at the same height it reached in April 2011, but keeping IPv6 on the radar and top of mind in 2012 is still critical.--Sam