Matthew Prince (Global) - Migration to IPv6

Long before search giants and devices began connecting to the network that gave rise to them, in 1981, early Internet architects developed the addressing scheme we all know today as Internet Protocol version 4 (IPv4).

Every device, whether it is a laptop or a smartphone, a Mac or a PC, which connects to the Internet uses one of the 4 billion possible addresses allowed by the IPv4 protocol. Somewhere around the 4 billion-and-first device to connect to the network, we will hit the maximum capacity of the Internet. After that, no more devices can connect.

Luckily, the Internet's architects realized this day would come and they proposed a new protocol: Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6). The new protocol massively expands the number of possible devices connecting to the Internet up to 340 undecillion. That means every atom on the surface of the Earth could connect to the Internet and we'd still have enough space left over for several other planets.

So, there’s a new Internet with more space. What’s the problem?

While the new IPv6 protocol allows the Internet to continue to expand, it suffers from one flaw: the IPv4 and IPv6 networks are incompatible. A web surfer on one network cannot reach a website on the other. As a result, today less than 1% of the Internet's total traffic travels via IPv6 and fewer than 10,000 of the 250 million IPv4 websites are available on the new network. In other words, the IPv6 Internet is like the Internet on IPv4 circa 1996.

How serious a problem this is for you today depends on where you are in the world. The addresses used by devices that connect to the Internet are distributed to Internet Service Providers and hosting companies by five Regional Internet Authorities, or RIRs. These RIRs represent North America (ARIN), South America (LATNIC), Europe (RIPE), Africa (AFRINIC), and Asia (APNIC). The explosive growth in Internet users in China, India, and other parts of Asia has meant that APNIC ran out of new addresses in April 2011. Europe will run out in February 2012, followed by Africa in July 2013, followed by North America in February 2014, followed finally by South America in May 2014.

As the supply of IPv4 space has become constrained in Asia, the price of hosting a website in that region has steadily crept up. The same trend will repeat itself as we run out of space in other regions. For example, Microsoft recently established the spot price per address when it bought a block of 666,624 IPv4 addresses from the bankrupt telecommunications company Nortel for $7.5 million, or $11.25 per address. Companies like Kalorama.com, Addrex.net and TradeIPv4.com have already sprung up hoping to take advantage of the implied $48 billion potential market in IPv4 space.

How do we fix it?

The solution, IPv6, was developed more than a decade ago. Unfortunately, because few websites are available on the IPv6 network, few web surfers want to be there and vice versa.  However, every website, whether you’re an enterprise, small business or a blogger will have to make this transition sooner or later. Fortunately, due to the vast amount of IPv6 addresses, costs to obtain addresses will remain low. Since IPv6 started with a clean slate in terms of registration databases, there are no costs associated with establishing who owns what address block.

Using transition technologies can mitigate or even eliminate some of the costs associated with transitioning to IPv6. For example, CloudFlare’s Automatic IPv6 Gateway allows IPv4-only websites to support IPv6-only clients for free. We make it so IPv4 and IPv6 can talk to each other. An established website can keep its existing IPv4 infrastructure and now be available to new IPv6 users. And, in the other direction, a new website just getting started can host inexpensively on IPv6 but still be available to legacy web surfers on the IPv4 network. Similar technologies exist, both free and available for purchase, to tackle different aspects of the migration to IPv6.


* For the careful reader, there was an IPv5, proposed at the same time as IPv6. It was abandoned in favor of skipping straight to IPv6 when the Internet's architects realized how long and difficult changing the process of changing the Internet protocol would be.


Matthew Prince is the co-founder and CEO of CloudFlare (www.cloudflare.com), the web performance and security company.


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