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Optical/IP

European IPv6 Plan Comes Under Fire

A bit of a tiff has broken out in Europe over whether there’s any urgency to upgrade telecom infrastructure so that it supports IP version 6, an improved version of IPv4, the current protocol used across the vast majority of the Internet.

The row centers over a "Communication" from the European Commission (EC) a couple of weeks ago (Feb 21), which urges early adoption of IPv6. It warns that IPv4 addresses will be in increasingly short supply by 2005 and says governments and industry need to head off this problem now by encouraging the adoption of IPv6, which can support vastly more addresses.

Getting on with IPv6 deployment now will avoid "rushed and therefore risky and more expensive implementations later," the EC paper says. A "concerted effort" to adopt IPv6 is called for, on the grounds that it will strengthen the competitiveness of not just European fixed and mobile service providers but also a "wide range" of other industries producing goods with embedded Internet access, such as automobiles and consumer electronics.

Pretty much everybody agrees that IPv6 will be needed one day, but there's disagreement over when that day will be. The protocol has been in existence for several years and has often been touted as the solution to an impending IP address crisis -- a crisis that so far has failed to happen.

Questions have been raised over whether it really makes sense for service providers to invest in IPv6 technology now, when they're so short of cash and when there are plenty of other things they need to fix -- including their billing systems -- to prepare for next-generation Internet services.

This discussion heated up yesterday when Paul Francis, chief scientist at Tahoe Networks, a startup developing "mobile Internet edge" infrastructure solutions, claimed that the EC report was "misleading."

Francis agrees with the general conclusion of the report -- that operators will eventually have to move to IPv6. However, where the EC suggests that carriers should migrate to IPv6 as soon as they can, Francis believes IPv4 combined with the Network Address Translation (NAT) standard should be able to cater to operators’ needs for years to come.

Francis invented NAT, which is now an Internet standard. It provides a way for many users on a LAN to share a single IPv4 address, thereby reducing overall address requirements. Francis believes that client-server applications like Web browsing, email, WAP, and streaming media do not require IPv6. These applications have worked for years through NAT, he contends, and can safely continue to do so for the time being.

Francis disputes, as well, an assertion in the EC paper that NAT cannot be used for peer-to-peer, "always-on" devices and applications. He acknowledges that IPv6 will do a better job of handling such applications but says the combination of IPv4 and NAT will still do the job adequately while carriers get their acts together on more pressing matters.

The precise wording of the EC paper is as follows: "While a user behind a NAT device can communicate out to servers on the Internet - the same user cannot be guaranteed to be accessible when external devices wish to establish a connection (as typified by the ‘peer-to-peer’ communication model)."

"What does 'cannot be guaranteed' mean?," asks Francis. "A mobile wireless user today cannot be guaranteed to get wireless access at all times -- but usually they can, and this is good enough to make the technology useful and successful."

According to Francis, using the TCP (transmission control protocol) and UDP (user datagram protocol) port numbers to make clients visible behind NAT boxes effectively increases the size of the IP address from 32 to 48 bits. This is enough, he asserts, to give each human on the planet 250 or more permanent, unique address/port combinations. Assuming the truth of that assertion implies that client-server, push, and to some extent peer-to-peer applications can be made to work through NAT.

All of this talk, however, as someone nearly said, may be akin to two bald men fighting over a comb. Both the EC report and Francis are correct. Carriers understand the need to move to IPv6, but they are unlikely to have vast amounts of ready cash to spend on making that transition at the moment.

"To be honest, I don’t think anyone’s got a lot of money to spend on upgrades - People are trying to squeeze as much as possible out of what they already have installed or in the ground," says Richard Webb, European market analyst at Infonetics Research Inc. "A wholesale migration to IPv6 may be a nice endgame, but its going to be a piecemeal process."

What's really driving European carriers to adopt IPv6 is that the use of the protocol is mandated in release 5 of the UMTS (universal mobile telecommunications system) standard from the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), a consortium of standards bodies trying to establish worlwide specs for mobile networks.

In addition, Nokia Corp. has said that it wants to have all IP mobile phone network kit using IPv6 available by 2004, although actual rollouts could take years after that. Companies as diverse as Cisco Systems Inc., Microsoft Corp., and Symbian Ltd. are all supporting IPv6.

In fact, Webb reckons the EC is actually playing catchup with the industry, producing a report that echoes what some tech soothsayers have been insisting on for years. The EC report is unlikely to convince carriers that they should move to the new protocol, because they knew they had to do that anyway. It is just another signpost along the long road to Ipv6.

— Dan Jones, Senior Editor, Unstrung
http://www.unstrung.com
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