What, me worry? No need to fret about IPv4… yet

Samantha BookmanSo, it's done. On Thursday, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) allocated the last block of IPv4 addresses from its free pool to one of five regional Internet registries, specifically to RIPE NCC.

What does that mean? Will the Internet stop working soon? Should we be running amuck in the streets at this point? For the end customer, hardly. But service providers should certainly be on the alert.

As the representatives of several Internet agencies were quick to point out at a press conference following the /8 distribution ceremony, there's no reason to worry at this point. IPv4 addresses will still be distributed for several months by all of the regional registries, which received fairly equal allocations of the 32-bit addresses. And even when those blocks are completely handed out, the IPv4 Internet will continue to chug along just fine.  

"Next week the Internet will not be different than it was a week ago," said Olaf Kolkman, IAB Chair. To him, running out of IPv4 addresses was like the RMV running out of license plates: "If we ran out of license plates today there would not be any impact on driving," he said. At least, not in the short term.

The panel waxed enthusiastic over the possibilities for innovation that an IPv6-centric Internet could bring, while glossing over less sunny topics like how much transition will cost and whether IPv4 addresses might end up being traded on a black market of sorts. "There are policies in place to have more addresses than (are needed for allocation)," said Raul Echeberria, Chair of the Number Resource Organization (NRO) and Executive Director of LACNIC (Latin America and Caribbean Network Information Center). "Some will be traded outside the system," he added, but he was confident it would be only a small amount.

Cisco IPv6It would be easy to write a breathless, fearmongering article about the doom that awaits us once all IPv4 addresses are allocated, how the Internet will just grind to a halt. (Cisco, in fact, produced a tongue-in-cheek video dedicated to just this idea.) The fact is that we'll never get to that point. Like data capacity, providers will do their utmost to meet demand. However, depending on how smoothly transition to the new protocol goes, we may see a few hiccups by the end of 2011, according to Owen DeLong of Hurricane Electric.

But the elephant in the room throughout the press conference was the cost of transitioning. When asked to estimate the aggregate cost of IPv6 migration, John Curran of ARIN (American Registry for Internet Numbers) fielded the question with the rather sunny reply that "It doesn't cost anything more to turn on IPv6. (Sites like Google) have made it part of their business to turn on IPv6."

Curran was likely only thinking about the enterprise side, or even the content provider niche, of Internet services, where certain forward-facing elements of Internet service like the company website and email server can be made IPv6-ready with little effort. (And Google hasn't made its IPv6-optimized site publicly available yet.) A look at the companies that provide access to the Internet--the carriers, the transport providers, the cable operators, the ISPs--suggests he failed to take into consideration that a great deal of expense could go into IPv6 transition at the service provider level.

Migration expense goes beyond equipment changes. Service providers have to perform some pretty detailed migration planning to make sure the shift goes smoothly. Then they have to implement--first to a dual-coexistence platform that enables both IPv4 and IPv6 and later to an IPv6-only platform--and then they have to train their technical personnel to perform according to IPv6 standards. At the service provider level, it's not as simple as flipping a switch or performing a software upgrade.

Unlike the average Internet end user, service providers right now have to be actively working on the problem of cost-effective migration within just over a year to a dual IPv4/IPv6 architecture. So, while Thursday's ceremony may have been a minor note for enterprises and customers, it's a warning bell for service providers to step up their efforts on migration.--Sam

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