European IPv6 Plan Comes Under Fire

Arguments are breaking out over a European Commission report that urges rapid rollout of IP version 6

March 7, 2002

5 Min Read
European IPv6 Plan Comes Under Fire

A bit of a tiff has broken out in Europe over whether there’s anyurgency to upgrade telecom infrastructure so that it supports IP version6, an improved version of IPv4, the current protocol used across thevast majority of the Internet.

The row centers over a "Communication" from the EuropeanCommission (EC) a couple of weeks ago (Feb 21), which urges earlyadoption of IPv6. It warns that IPv4 addresses will be in increasinglyshort supply by 2005 and says governments and industry need to head offthis problem now by encouraging the adoption of IPv6, which can supportvastly more addresses.

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

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

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

This discussion heated up yesterday when Paul Francis, chiefscientist at TahoeNetworks, a startup developing "mobile Internet edge" infrastructuresolutions, claimed that the EC report was "misleading."

Francis agrees with the general conclusion of the report -- thatoperators will eventually have to move to IPv6. However, where the ECsuggests 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 tocome.

Francis invented NAT, which is now an Internet standard. Itprovides a way for many users on a LAN to share a single IPv4 address,thereby reducing overall address requirements. Francis believes thatclient-server applications like Web browsing, email, WAP, and streamingmedia do not require IPv6. These applications have worked for yearsthrough NAT, he contends, and can safely continue to do so for the timebeing.

Francis disputes, as well, an assertion in the EC paper that NATcannot be used for peer-to-peer, "always-on" devices and applications.He acknowledges that IPv6 will do a better job of handling suchapplications but says the combination of IPv4 and NAT will still do thejob adequately while carriers get their acts together on more pressingmatters.

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

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

According to Francis, using the TCP (transmission control protocol)and UDP (user datagram protocol) port numbers to make clients visiblebehind NAT boxes effectively increases the size of the IP address from32 to 48 bits. This is enough, he asserts, to give each human on theplanet 250 or more permanent, unique address/port combinations. Assumingthe truth of that assertion implies that client-server, push, and tosome extent peer-to-peer applications can be made to work throughNAT.

All of this talk, however, as someone nearly said, may be akin to twobald men fighting over a comb. Both the EC report and Francis arecorrect. Carriers understand the need to move to IPv6, but they areunlikely to have vast amounts of ready cash to spend on making thattransition at the moment.

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

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

In addition, NokiaCorp. has said that it wants to have all IP mobile phone network kitusing IPv6 available by 2004, although actual rollouts could take yearsafter that. Companies as diverse as Cisco Systems Inc., Microsoft Corp., and Symbian Ltd. are allsupporting IPv6.

In fact, Webb reckons the EC is actually playing catchup with theindustry, producing a report that echoes what some tech soothsayers havebeen insisting on for years. The EC report is unlikely to convincecarriers that they should move to the new protocol, because they knewthey had to do that anyway. It is just another signpost along the longroad to Ipv6.

— Dan Jones, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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