Big businesses need to start planning now to handle changes that will take place when a new version of the internet's fundamental routing protocol becomes ubiquitous, or risk losing online customers, according to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.
Most internet communications currently use internet protocol version 4 (IPv4). However, IPv6 is increasingly being used, and IPv4 addresses, which are co-ordinated by ICANN, will run out by 2011. Large businesses will not be directly affected, as most use private IP addresses. However, ICANN said businesses should still implement IPv6-compatible hardware and systems or face being left behind.
The president and chief executive of ICANN, Paul Twomey, told ZDNet.co.uk on Wednesday that "fat and happy" businesses using IPv4 private addresses need to "wake up" and start to demand interoperability with IPv6 systems or risk losing business.
"The people who have got IPv4 are fat and happy, while the people using new network applications are using IPv6," said Twomey. "There will come a time when the people who are fat and happy will need to interact. The users using the network will want to interact with other users. There are still implementation issues that people need to work through. Wake up and plan now."
"The Chinese core network is IPv6, as are many [Asian] IPTV [internet protocol television] deployments. This is a classic problem of internet thinking: what drives networks is not just one company; it's one billion people interacting. Saying you use one thing and the other [person] is using something else — how else are you going to talk to them? It really gets me that people think: 'Provided I've got address space I'm fine.' That's not thinking where the network is going and how it's all going to work," he said.
IPv6 was developed in the early 1990s, when it was feared that IPv4 addresses would run out in 1994. But measures such as private internet addresses have extended the life of IPv4 and made the transition to IPv6 less urgent, while tunnelling protocols let IPv4 traffic traverse IPv6 backbones without adopting full compatibility.
Twomey added that businesses needed to put pressure on their internet service providers (ISPs) to make sure their systems interoperate.
"This is not a Y2K problem, but enterprises using IPv4 need to think that the network will become IPv6," said Twomey. "How are you going to interoperate IPv4 and IPv6 networks? And guess what? They're not asking questions and businesses don't want ISPs not making plans. This is a classic case; ISPs won't change unless customers ask them for it."
However, the Internet Services Providers' Association (ISPA) said that some ISPs had already put IPv6-compatible systems in place.
"We are aware of ISPs who have already deployed IPv6; it's not strictly true that nothing is happening," said an ISPA spokesperson.
James Blessing, chief operations officer for ISP Entanet International, said that many ISPs had already deployed IPv6-compatible platforms but customers themselves could not receive IPv6 packets, due to hardware and firewall incompatibilities.
"We are fully IPv6-enabled and have been for five years," said Blessing. "We don't turn IPv6 on by default because most hardware doesn't cope with it. All major pieces of hardware — DSL routers and modems — can't cope. It's only high-end routers where there's not a problem. Firewalls struggle with IPv6."
Blessing claimed there was no demand for IPv6 because there was no demand for IPv6 content. To become IPv6 compatible, businesses need to buy higher-end routers with licences, to cope with the traffic.
"You can berate ISPs all you like but we could provide IPv6 tomorrow," said Blessing. "Spend a bit of money on licences and software and we could have an IPv6 world in a matter of minutes."
Last year, IPv6 experts admitted to ZDNet.co.uk that, although the IPv4 address squeeze was tightening, there were still serious issues of costs, complexity and practicability with business adoption of the newer standard.