Thursday, July 29, 2010

Why paying attention to IPv6 is now important

As a personal interest I have been working with and following developments of IPv6 for several years. I started presented on IPv6 back in 2006 because of what was happening with Windows Vista and the changes that Microsoft was doing with the OS and their new networking stack. Here we are in 2010 and I think we are past early adopters in regards to IPv6. In fact, I now think if you are not paying attention to what is happening with IPv6 it could start impacting your ability to perform your job soon, especially if you are an IT Professional.

So, who do I think will be impacted the most by the transition and more prolific use of IPv6? I think you might be surprised.

The standard answer is network engineers and granted they indeed will be rolling out and maintaining dual IPv4/IPv6 networks for years to come but I actually don't think IPv6 will be as much of a challenge for network engineers to get up and running assuming they have moderately newer network equipment. Granted, there are issues with lack of feature parity but that will be resolved over time and will be fast tracked when equipment manufactures realize they are losing sales due to the lack of the parity.

Next on the list is system admins. I think many will find IPv6 to be a bit more of a challenge in regards to the differences in behavior of the protocol and getting worked out the behavior differences of applications as a result. This is a huge issue for client machines in terms of what OS you are running on your desktop and what the server does or does not support. I would argue that the majority of system admins know enough IPv4 networking to allow them to do their job but likely will have some challenges with differences in IPv6. I know there are some great system admins out there who could run networks also so obviously this a wildly general statement but I still feel there is going to be a bigger learning curve for system admins than they care to admit. Perhaps it is time for Microsoft to bring back a dedicated networking exam - like the old MCP TCP/IP exam?

The surprise group is application developers and database admins. Just think about how much code has been written out there to account for IPv4 addresses. IPv4 addresses are 32bit and I would imagine the majority of applications out there are storing that value under a declared INTEGER. I could be wrong - maybe they are all stored as a STRING instead but I have a feeling that isn't the case. IPv6 addresses on the other hand are 128bit and likely the majority of applications will have to be modified to account for the new size, difference in how they are represented (in HEX not DEC) and also the fact that the application might potentially have to pay attention to which interface it is directing traffic through. This doesn't even cover all the databases out there that are storing IPv4 information and the SQLNET statements all based around IPv4 to query those databases.

To top it all off, IPv6 can represented an address in multiple ways due to the zero compression option. So searching through logs or analyzing output could be an additional issue unless some standards are agreed to in advance in terms of how to store and represent an IPv6 address. So imagine trying to correlate information from multiple systems and they can't match stuff because the IPv6 addresses are represented differently in each system. I think some of these issues will be the biggest road blocks to overcome in the months and years ahead for IPv6.

So, why is it important to pay attention to IPv6 now? It is important because the adoption and momentum behind the protocol has already begun. Major content providers like Facebook and network providers like Comcast and content delivery providers like Limelight have all deployed IPv6 already and are doing their trials now. If you have no knowledge or understanding of IPv6 how will you address your business needs when you need to either access content, deliver content or work with a network when you don't understand the protocol they are using to move traffic?

In short, if you don't have a working understanding of IPv6, you are already behind. Take a quick quiz. Do you know what behavior Windows 7 has when it has a public IPv4 address? What is different if it gets a public IPv6 address? Which protocol does it use for DNS resolution if it has both an IPv4 and IPv6 address? Does the type of IPv6 address it has matter to the default behavior? This is all just for Windows 7, now do this for OSX, Windows Vista, Windows XP, Windows Server 2003, 2008, 2008R2, Linux and Solaris. How did you do?
- Ed

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