Monday marks a red-letter day for the internet, with the introduction of services that allow IPv6-based IP addresses to translated into domain names and vice versa.
The change comes as net governance organisation IANA adds AAAA records for the IPv6 addresses of six of the 13 root name servers, making it possible for two internet hosts to find each other without using the old IPv4 protocol. Similar changes involving only the Japan (.jp) and Korea (.kr) top level domains were made some years ago.
IPv6 is designed to replace the current Internet Protocol IPv4, which has a maximum address space for 4.3bn, which is starting to run out (perhaps by as early as 2010).
Some operators have worked around this limitation by using network address translation (NAT). NAT is fine for client/server-based Internet applications but limits the deployment of innovative network applications and services where every device needs a unique IP address.
As well as resolving the looming number shortage IPv6 boasts a number of other advantages including simplifying routing aggregation and address autoconfiguration. The protocol also had advantages in terms of mobility or security, such as integrated encryption capability.
The change over to IPv6 has been proceeding slowly for a decade or so. In fairness it's a big change. Support for the protocol has been introduced in operating systems and in networking hardware. For example, Cisco introduced IPv6 support on Cisco IOS and switches in 2001. Apple Mac OS X supported IPv6 since 2006, but full baked-in support in Windows didn't really arrive until Vista.
Service providers also need to make changes to their infrastructure in preparation for the wider use of the protocol. Claranet, one of the few UK internet providers to provide IPv6 capabilities to its customers, said that although market demand for IPv6 services is yet to build, service providers still need to think ahead about the next generation protocol.
"Many ISPs haven't implemented IPv6 for a very simple reason - customers haven't asked for it yet," said Dave Freedman, Claranet's group network manager. "It is only now, with IPv4 exhaustion just around the corner, that many organisations are beginning to take this issue seriously.
"Internet address space will start running out in two years' time unless ISPs adopt the new version of the Internet Protocol, IPv6, across their networks. Although modern computers, servers, routers and other online devices are able to use IPv6, many ISPs have yet to implement the system. Meanwhile, the UK Government is failing to take the lead in preparing the country for IPv4 address exhaustion." ®