Updated: How the online community is preparing for the next stage of the internet's development...
I love a car with a nice V6 under the bonnet...
Good for you, but IPv6 has nothing to do with cars. It actually stands for Internet Protocol version 6, the name for the next-generation IP addressing system that will eventually replace the IPv4 standard.
What's that all about then?
Well, the internet works by moving small packets of data around the network as defined by an international communications protocol - the internet protocol.
Each device connected to the internet has an IP address. The packets of data contain the IP addresses of the devices they are being sent from and to, which is how they end up in the right place.
So why do we need IPv6?
The first commercial internet protocol, IPv4, was introduced in 1981 and is the foundation of the vast majority of internet communications. However, IPv4 was designed before it became clear how much the internet would grow in the following years.
With a huge increase in the number of devices connected to the internet, the number of possible IPv4 IP addresses - 4.3 billion - will soon become inadequate to serve them all.
How does IPv6 help?
The way the new-generation IPv6 IP addresses work means there is a huge increase in the number of combinations of addresses possible compared with IPv4.
Developed by the Internet Engineering Task Force and first defined in the RFC 2460 internet standard document in 1998, IPv6 uses addresses with 128 characters compared with IPv4's 32-bit addressing system.
This extra character length allows IPv6 to produce 340 undecillion - that's 34,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 - IP addresses. Or, to put it another way, several billion addresses for each person on earth.
The huge number of IPv6 addresses will be virtually inexhaustible in the near future, so the huge growth in internet-connected devices can be sustained and catered for.
So are we going to run out of IP addresses next week?
Not exactly, although a critical stage was recently reached when the final batch of IPv4 addresses were allocated by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann) to...
...the five Regional Internet Registries (RIRs) that assign them to organisations such as ISPs, universities, governments, telecommunications companies and other businesses.
Icann compared the allocation of these IPv4 addresses to despatching the last crates of a product leaving for manufacturing.
Icann president and CEO Rod Beckstrom said the allocation of the final IPv4 addresses was a "major turning point in the ongoing development of the internet" and the adoption of IPv6 is now "of paramount importance" for the internet's continued growth.
In reality, although all the IPv4 addresses have now been allocated to the RIRs, it will be some time before the millions of addresses have all been assigned to devices.
However, the allocation of the final batch of IPv4 addresses increases the pressure to adopt the next generation of IP addresses to support the future growth of the internet.
Is IPv6 just about creating more IP addresses?
Not entirely. It's also about simplifying the process of moving data around the internet and making it more secure.
Network security has been designed into the standard, which also supports the IPsec protocol suite securing IP communications through the authentication and encryption of IP packets.
IPv6 also simplifies address assignment and network renumbering when changing internet connectivity providers. It avoids the need for network address translation, where addresses attached to data are modified in transit to alleviate the IPv4 address exhaustion problem.
How well prepared is the internet industry for this change?
Pretty well prepared, actually. Although IPv4 addresses aren't about to run out, the shift to IPv6 is a significant change for which the internet industry needs to be prepared.
The four non-profit organisations that co-ordinate the world's internet addressing system and technical standards - Icann, the Number Resources Organisation (NRO), the Internet Architecture Board (IAB) and the Internet Society - have all been raising awareness about IPv6 for years, working with technology companies and governments to get the message out there.
Among the organisations to start using IPv6 is the European Network and Information Security Agency, which...
...was the first EU agency to offer website content using the new protocol following an internal network upgrade at the end of 2009.
"It's only a matter of time before the RIRs and ISPs must start denying requests for IPv4 address space," NRO chairman Raúl Echeberría, said when the final IPv4 addresses were allocated.
"Deploying IPv6 is now a requirement, not an option," he added.
If it's such a big change, how is it going to affect me or by business?
It depends really. The technical community surrounding the internet has been planning for IPv6 for some time, so a lot of newer hardware and software is set up to deal with the change.
IPv6 has been integrated into all the major modern operating systems used by commercial businesses and consumers. And although IPv4 and its newer sibling aren't directly interoperable, traffic can be exchanged between the two protocols using translator gateways. Most modern operating systems are able to provide access between the two using tunnelling.
Issues will emerge if your business has a significant amount of legacy technology infrastructure that needs to be upgraded or replaced.
For example, applications with network capabilities may not be set up correctly. However, these can generally be upgraded with software updates, while some applications, such as those built using the Java 1.4 standard or above, already support IPv6.
Some network devices that obtain IP addresses or perform routing based on IP addresses might be affected but can also be upgraded using firmware or software updates, as long as they have sufficient storage and memory to deal with IPv6.
Older equipment might need to be replaced if updates aren't possible - for example, if manufacturers refuse to offer upgrades due to their interest in selling newer IPv6-capable technology. Devices that might fall into this category include certain VoIP devices and printers.
Essentially, businesses need to check all their technology that could be affected by the move to IPv6 and work out what needs to be upgraded and what will need to be replaced.
Clearly, several years remain before this issue becomes a critical factor but the sooner organisations look into it, the better prepared they'll be when the shift to IPv6 becomes more widespread.
Talking of which, how's the adoption of IPv6 going?
IPv6 is still in its infancy in terms of deployment, with a Google study in 2008 suggesting the protocol was being used by less than one per cent of internet-enabled hosts in any country. And analyst house Ovum recently said less than three per cent of web traffic is over IPv6.
However, Ovum has found that many businesses are resisting the move to IPv6, despite pressure from telecoms and ISPs, as they don't appreciate the importance of doing so since there are still IPv4 addresses that haven't been allocated.
Othe reasons for the lack of urgency, according to Ovum, are that organisations have more pressing IT priorities and feel that moving to IPv6 won't represent an immediate return on investment.
Another problem thrown up by the research is that some organisations think they're already running IPv6 even though they're not.
But there will be triggers for businesses to move to IPv6. For example, consumer devices such as smartphones will be assigned with IPv6 addresses while new apps will be built to take advantage of that.
And with the Asia Pacific region leading the way in IPv6 adoption, organisations doing business with that part of the world will need to follow their lead to ensure they're able to communicate effectively.
So IPv6 is still a long way from being the main IP addressing system but the pace of the shift will increase over the next few years.
Is anything else being done to boost uptake?
The Internet Society - which works towards the development of internet-related standards, education and policy - ran World IPv6 Day in June this year to show how the industry is progressing towards the transition to the new system.
The main feature of the day was when almost 400 organisations around the world, including Facebook, Google and Yahoo, enabled their services to run on IPv6 for 24 hours.
The idea was to show the preparedness of the biggest websites for the shift to IPv6 and to encourage other organisations to start preparing their services for the move.
The day was also aimed at exposing any potential issues with the global use of IPv6 in the real world. Although users could access the services, some had issues accessing the participating website, showing there is still some work to do before IPv6 can become the norm.
Well, it sounds like there are a few challenges ahead but at least the internet won't be getting full for a while...
Yes, 340 undecillion IP addresses should do the trick.