How can small enterprises remain competitive in a dual stacked world?

We all know that the Internet has been running out of space for the best part of ten years now, or at least address space that is. In real terms, the 4,294,967,296 addresses provided by IPv4 have now been exhausted and IPv6 compatibility is now a priority many, if not all IT directors’ wish lists.

Nobody likes a bit of scaremongering more than IT vendors, specialists and resellers – after all, it pays them to convince hapless IT directors that without this or that new piece of kit their companies will grind to a halt, and makes the specialists feel full of their own self importance! With this in mind, just how does a small business decide the best way to go about reducing network operational costs while increasing new revenue streams and dealing with the inevitable IPv6 transition (also known as dual stacking)?

The key to IT provisions for small businesses is that the equipment must be pragmatic and offer a broad range of functions. There are various bits of kit floating around at the moment but for a small-medium (SME), sized company with limited IT budgets, I think (bearing in mind, I’m also the MD of a SME myself), that the Brocade NetIron CER 2000 is the best option available – it can scale up to 1.5 million IPv4 routes plus 256 thousand IPv6 routes in hardware and achieves IPv6 out of the box, with only additional licensing needed for Multi-Protocol Label Switching MPLS/ VPLS and other advanced features.

It’s ideal for small to medium-sized service providers that want to push IP and MPLS features to the edge of their networks and is available in both 24 and 48 port 1 Gigabit Ethernet (GbE) copperwith additional hybrid fibre versions with two optional 10 GbE uplink ports on the back. As a result, it can be deployed as a compact and scalable Provider Edge (PE), router capable of converging Layer 2 and Layer 3 business services onto a single platform.

Issues with multi protocol switching and Layer2/3 convergence need not necessarily prove exorbitantly expensive or difficult to bridge from an IT perspective if you just do a bit of research and define your requirements and objectives as to what you’re really after. The best thing about SMEs is that we are pragmatic and versatile; the fact that the Brocade CER 2000 is just that in technological terms, would be why it’s my choice for the SME.

Smoke & mirrors, myths about IPv6

IP addresses have run out, but what does this really mean?

IPv4 addresses are allocated by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), which hands blocks of addresses out to Regional Internet Registries (RIR), which in turn provides them to service providers and end user organisations – service providers then give them to their customers.

Recently, the IANA has given out its last block of IPv4 addresses (keep in mind that there are still millions of IPv4 addresses available in the pools at the western RIR (Regional Internet Registries) , so this is not an immediate threat), however, we have passed a significant milestone on the path away from IPv4 and it needs to be made clear that eventually everyone will need to shift away from IPv4 to IPv6 – the issue is; how fast that transition will be and how painful will it be.

How does this affect small to medium sized businesses?

The reality is that it should have almost no immediate impact in 2011. Most businesses use a router that provides Network Address Translation (NAT), capabilities that take a single or limited number of external addresses and creates as many internal addresses as the company needs. Since these companies can create as many internal IPv4 addresses as they need, they can continue to expand their infrastructure as needed.

Looking towards the future, these businesses will need to be able to accommodate external IPv6 addresses. However, during this transition, these businesses can continue to operate internally on IPv4 as they manage their infrastructure to shift to IPv6 – but we wouldn’t recommend it!

Who will the winners and losers be in this migration?

In the short term, service providers will feel the most pain as they need to procure more IPv4 addresses and convert their installed base of modems and networking gear to IPv6 capable gear – It is certainly true that the lack of IPv6 ready or compatible equipment mirrors the lack of understanding with end users over the issues involved.

Even with all of the IPv4 addresses being assigned, only a small fraction are actually in use. It is reported that only 14 percent of issued IPv4 addresses are in use, which leads to the possibility of a market being set up for those who have excess addresses to sell to service providers that need more time to transition to IPv6. Will this create a black market situation? Probably not, as this should only prove to be a stopgap measure to buy time.

The winners in this transition will be those companies that take a forward leaning strategy toward IPv6 implementation, purchasing gear that is both IPv4 and IPv6 capable. Dual-stack products will simplify the transition when the time comes; more importantly, they will enable those companies to select the right time for them to make the change.

What are the opportunities in this transition? The transition from IPv4 to IPv6 does share some similarities to the Y2K bug – companies will need to put in the effort and spend the money to bring their systems up to specification. However, the two differ more than they are similar. The transition to IPv6 is not a potential issue, but a guaranteed reality. We will eventually completely run out of IPv4 addresses – more importantly though, the IPv6 transition is not the ticking time bomb with a hard deadline.

Companies need to start planning and preparing for IPv6, within their CAPEX budgets. They should not focus only on the cost of supporting new Web addresses – instead, they should look at how being IPv6-ready can give them a competitive advantage. The real winners of this change will be those who take advantage of the latest generation of networking gear to improve their efficiency and operational capabilities, giving them an advantage over their slower competitors.

Microsoft invests heavily in IPv4 address space

Microsoft has offered to pay bankrupt telecoms firm Nortel £4.7m for older versions of net addresses:

It was predicted that a market in IPv4 would appear amongst companies facing a costly migration to the newer IPv6 and following this, 666,624 IP version 4 (IPv4), net addresses were put up for auction as part of the sell-off of Nortel’s assets at the end of March.

If this sale goes through (as is expected), Microsoft will get hold of some 470,016 IP addresses instantly, with the remaining 196,608 being released to former customers of Nortel as they move to other telecoms firms. The question remains however, what is Microsoft planning to do with the IP addresses?

With the last big blocks of IPv4 addresses handed out in February and these expected to be used up by late 2011, it has become apparent that blocks of IPv4 are becoming more and more valuable as the pool of this generation of address comes closer to running dry. Will Microsoft use the IP addresses internally or will they look to sell them on at a profit as they become an even rarer commodity? For now it is difficult to say, but the speculation and interest in Microsoft’s purchase will only increase.

IP addresses are used to identify individual computing devices on the Internet and private networks, and IPv4 allows for a maximum of 4.3 billion devices – this number seemed enough in the early 1980s when the standard was first proposed, however the rapid growth in personal computers, smartphones, tablets and other internet connected devices over the last five years means that addresses have been rapidly running out.

Net firms are, and have been in the process of moving to version 6 of the IP addressing scheme for sometime now. IPv6 offers more than 3 undecillion individual numbers (3 with 38 noughts), of addresses, however, the migration is happening rather haphazardly and slowly at present – in the interim however, it is expected that IPv4 addresses will become increasingly valuable; could this herald the start of an IPv4 black market? Far fetched some might say, but equally, it’s not out of the question…

As mentioned, it is not completely clear why Microsoft wants to buy Nortel’s supply of IPv4 addresses, however, with many companies keen to avoid the immediate cost of changing their networking systems over to IPv6 compatible equipment during these economically fragile times, cost could certainly be one of the key reasons.

There are three options open to companies when it comes to IPv6 migration and uptake: First, there is the option of doing nothing and waiting to see what happens when all IPv4 addresses and capabilities are exhausted. Secondly, to invest in new technology that enables compatibility between IPv4 and IPv6 equipment, and thirdly to completely rip and replace IPv4 technology for new specifically designed IPv6 technology – costly to say the least.

The Microsoft-Nortel deal values the IPv4 address blocks at £7 each, higher than the price many firms charge for a ‘.com domain’ – a clear indication that the market for IPv4 addresses is heating up. Registries are overseeing the allocation of net addresses and also working on plans for a re-location system that will take IPv4 addresses from firms that are using IPv6 and release them for use by others.

One way or another, IPv6 is on its way, and sooner or later it will have to be adopted by all – it will no longer do to bury our heads in the sand. The sooner companies come to terms with this and take the appropriate measures needed to adopt IPv6, the more prosperous they will be in the long term.

The Great Migration Begins!

On the 3rd of February at a ceremony held in Miami, the last five blocks of IPv4 address space were officially handed over to the five global Regional Internet Registries (RIRs). The event followed the final request from Pacific Network Information Center that triggered the exhaustion of the global pool of IPv4 address space.

With the depletion and now exhaustion of the free pool of IPv4 addresses, the focus now turns to IPv6 adoption as a way to continue to expand Internet innovation. During the ceremony aficionados noted that the event marked one of the most important days in the history of the Internet.

It marks far more than the transition from one Internet protocol to another; it marks the amazingly successful growth of the Internet with people all over the world coming online.

IPv4 will be around for many years

The current IPv4 based network will of course continue to function as usual. We can think of it as generational change – the older, previous generation doesn’t go away and still has a lot to contribute, but it is the newer generation that will carry the future.

IPv6 has a 128-bit addressing scheme and support for 340 trillion, trillion, trillion (34 x 10 to the 38th power), Internet addresses. To date, IPv6 adoption has been slow, but that is now likely to change – IPv6 adoption has been slow because we still had IPv4.

The other challenge facing IPv6 adoption is the fact that all Internet services work on IPv4 today. In order for the Internet to continue to grow, organisations will have to move to IPv6. If IPv6 is not adopted there will be all manner of difficult workarounds that will restrict the growth of the Internet and as an off shot, business.

IPv6 or ‘an increasingly brittle’ Internet

Alex Cruz Farmer of NetSumo commented: “If we continue to remain dependent on IPv4, we will need to spend increasing resources operating an increasingly brittle and non-transparent network. With this in mind, the Internet is likely to grow increasingly less capable of serving our needs.

There is no danger to the Internet right now, and it will continue to work tomorrow as it did yesterday. The danger is of not moving to IPv6 is about the future. The danger is in the loss of opportunities that might exist in a decade or two decades from now, if we move away from an end-to-end model where everyone can connect.

In time an end-to-end IPv4 network will not exist as new users and services adopt IPv6. He added that if we move to IPv6 all things remain possible and there will be innovation in the future that is unimaginable today.

While the need for IPv6 seems obvious there is no actual mandate in place that the global community as a whole move to the new addressing protocol.

There is nobody centrally mandating the use of IPv6. We all have to get there on our own and we have to get there together,” concluded Alex.