The great migration from IPv4 to IPv6 has officially begun, after ICANN added the first addresses to its root servers that conform to the new version of the internet protocol.
On Monday, ICANN, the organisation that maintains the internet's addressing systems, said it had for the first time added IPv6 addresses to the appropriate files and databases on six of the world's 13 root server networks. Before it did this, those who were using IPv6 had no choice but to run it alongside IPv4, because the root server networks were IPv4-only.
"IPv6 will be an essential part [of] our future, and support in the root servers is essential to the growth, stability and reliability of the public internet," said the chair of ICANN's internet service and connectivity provider constituency, Tony Holmes. "The ISP community welcomes this development as part of the continuing evolution of the public internet."
Almost all IP addresses currently use the fourth version of the protocol (IPv4), but the length of those addresses limits their number of permutations to around four billion. As more people become connected to the internet and as more devices are manufactured that can themselves intelligently connect to the internet, that number is rapidly becoming insufficient.
Businesses are now being urged to start migrating to the sixth version of the internet protocol (IPv6). As it uses a longer string of characters, this version makes it possible to have more than 340 trillion, trillion, trillion possible unique addresses. IPv6 has already been in use for a while in large corporations, where many employees need to be hooked up to a semi-private network, but ICANN's latest move marks the start of the wider migration.
David Conrad, ICANN's vice president of research, said the addition of IPv6 addresses for the root servers "enhances the end-to-end connectivity for IPv6 networks, and furthers the growth of the global interoperable internet".
Nominet is the not-for-profit company that runs the .uk registry. Speaking to ZDNet.co.uk on Tuesday, Nominet's director of IT, Jay Daley, said the onus was now on those running large websites to make the transition to IPv6.
"IPv6 and IPv4 don't interact — if you have an IPv6 client, it can't reach an IPv4 server anywhere," said Daley. "If you really want to see take-up of IPv6, we need the people who run high-volume websites to switch over to providing both IPv6 and IPv4 access to them. There are very few sites out there that do that."
Daley explained that all operating systems, as well as most enterprise equipment, now support IPv6 "quite happily", but some low-cost consumer-grade equipment and some applications do not yet support it.
IT managers, said Daley, need to "start planning for how the web services that they provide will be accessible over IPv6".
"They need to consider using IPv6 when they need any new addresses internally," said Daley. "They must also make sure that they do a repetitive audit over the next few years to make sure their equipment and software supports IPv6. People might be sitting there thinking 'Why do I need to do this?', but it may soon be extremely difficult to get hold of any more IPv4 addresses. It is imperative to ensure you don't suddenly find yourself in a crunch and all of a sudden have to make shift to IPv6 without planning."
Daley also warned that, because IPv4 addresses are now "close to running out", such addresses are likely to become significantly more expensive in the near future.