The Internet has revolutionized the way in which we carry out our lives. Originally developed as an exclusive network for research and resource sharing in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the Internet has since seen a huge increase in traffic as people connect mobile phones, televisions, computers, music systems and even fridge freezers to the World Wide Web.
What is an IP address?
Every device that connects to the Internet is required to have its own Internet Protocol (IP) address in order to communicate with other devices. The exponential increase in communication devices over recent years has meant the number of available addresses has dwindled to the point of exhaustion. There is therefore a need to change the IP system to increase the supply of addresses to match demand. The latest version of the IP system (IPv6) aims to solve this problem by increasing the number of available addresses.
What is IPv6?
IPv6 is the latest Internet Protocol that is due to succeed the existing IPv4. IPv6 vastly increases the number of available addresses, enabling the continued growth of communication devices into the distant future. IPv6 also introduces some new features that will improve how the Internet functions.
How many IP addresses currently exist?
IPv4 has provision for around 4.3 billion addresses. It is testimony to the huge growth of mobile communication devices that this is no longer sufficient. IPv6 will provide a staggering 340,282,366,920,938,000,000,000,000,000 billion addresses. Such is the vastness of this figure, it would be possible for the size of the Internet to double every year for the next 96 years without addresses becoming a limiting factor.
How can I access IPv6?
It is possible to connect directly over an IPv6 network if your service provider supports it; currently, few service providers do. To connect directly you will also need a broadband router to support IPv6 and again, there are few currently available. Nevertheless with IPv4 exhaustion beginning to happen, it is inevitable that more and more service providers will be forced to support IPv6 provision in the near future.
An alternative to direct connection is a process called ‘tunnelling’, whereby a device can be connected to IPv6 services over an IPv4 network. Most operating systems (including Windows Vista, Windows 7 and iOS 6) allow connection to IPv6 in this way.
Do I need to do anything to prepare for IPv6?
There is no particular need to do anything. The onus is on service providers to ensure a smooth transition from IPv4 to IPv6. If you run your own website you may want to check with your service provider if they provide IPv6 and if so, how you can be supported in using it.
Why should I switch to using IPv6?
The pace of progress is extremely rapid and it is an undeniable fact that IPv4 exhaustion is happening. As soon as there are no more IPv4 addresses available, service providers will need to supply IPv6 addresses and it makes sense to provide a gradual rather than abrupt transition. Eventually as IPv6 grows in size and usage, those who are not able to use IPv6 may find that certain parts of the Internet are unusable or inaccessible.
Currently we are living through this transitional stage. Many websites which claim to support IPv6 do in fact rely on aspects of IPv4, so a complete switchover to IPv6 is not yet a viable proposition.
What’s holding things up with usage of IPv6?
Early trials of IPv6 have shown that there is a problem known as ‘dual stack’ whereby a computer may favour a non-functional IPv6 connection over a functioning IPv4 connection. This results in connectivity problems and has understandably worried website operators, who fear that they may not be reaching some users with IPv6. Many of the most influential website operators (e.g. Google, Yahoo and Facebook) have been involved in further trials, helping to inform the further refinements that are necessary.