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When the Internet Runs Out of Addresses, It'll be IPv6 to the Rescue!

June 8, 2011 - 5:25pm

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Happy World IPv6 Day!

What is IPv6 you might ask? Well, IP is the Internet Protocol. It's the way all devices on the Internet from smartphones to supercomputers communicate with each other. Like every telephone in America, which has its own unique phone number, almost every device connected to the Internet must have its own unique IP address. Since the early 1980s the world has been using IP version 4 (IPv4), which specifies a 32-bit address space. This means that there are “only” 3.2 billion unique addresses available across the Internet and we are quickly approaching that limit.

Should we be worried? No way! Network engineers have been working on a new protocol called IPv6 to solve the problem. And the point of world IPv6 day is to bring awareness to this solution. 

So today we are talking to Michael Sinatra, a network engineer at the Department of Energy's Energy Sciences Network (ESnet) who is helping DOE laboratories across the country transition to IPv6. ESnet is headquartered at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Question: Okay Michael let's get straight to the point. Who is responsible for the IPv4 address shortage? Frankly, 3.2 billion unique addresses are a lot. How could we be running out?

Michael Sinatra: It's all about sheer numbers. Anything that connects to the Internet—from smartphones to supercomputers--must have an IP address. In IPv4, there is a provision for re-using certain addresses. It works well for some applications—I use it at home, for example, but it has a lot of limitations. For me, it's much easier to connect to individual computers in my home using IPv6 addresses because they are unique.

Also, there are 7 billion people on this planet, and according to a report recently released by the United Nations, they have a right to Internet access.”  IPv4 simply isn't big enough for today's world.

Q: How does IPv6 Solve the Internet address shortage?

MS: It does so providing a vastly increased address space—128 bits—which allows for 34 undecillion addresses (that's 34 followed by 37 zeroes). The drawback of IPv6 is that it is not compatible with IPv4 directly. Fortunately, most computers can easily "speak" both IPv4 and IPv6 simultaneously, so it's mostly a matter of simply turning it on.

Q: Should I be worried about IPv6?

MS: No, but you should be aware of it. One of the challenges with IPv6 is that it's not as well known and well-understood as IPv4. When something goes wrong with IPv4 in the Internet, everyone notices and scrambles to fix it. When there are problems with IPv6, a smattering of people (usually including ESnet staff) notice. If the problem is outside of the research and education community, sometimes it's hard to get people to solve the problem quickly, since IPv6 isn't as big a "blip" on their radar. However, that's rapidly changing as the scarcity of IPv4 addresses has increased.

Q: Is IPv6 a new idea? 

Actually, IPv6 isn't that new.  Currently there's a lot of interest because of the run-out of IPv4, but many of us have been aware of IPv6 for a number of years.  However, a lot of organizations didn't perceive the need for IPv6.  Over the years, there have been many exceptions to that rule, especially within the Department of Energy.  Idaho National Laboratory (INL), Brookhaven National Lab, and Fermilab have been moving forward with IPv6 deployments, and INL is a participant in World IPv6 Day. Berkeley Lab has been running some of its production websites as dual-stack for more than a year now, and they're about to upgrade their WiFi network to be IPv6-capable.  And then there's ESnet, which has been involved in IPv6 since 1996, back in the early days of the project.  ESnet has the very first production IPv6 address allocation in North America and we have had production services running on IPv6 for many years.  But it's important to note that nobody in DOE is resting on these laurels—there's still a lot of work to do and a lot of awareness to raise.  I expect to see even more activity in the Department of Energy over the next year or so.

Q: How do you plan on celebrating IPv6 day?

MS: Well, there's going to be a fair amount of work for World IPv6 Day. Everyone has to do their part to make sure IPv6 is working well all around the Internet. We plan to do a lot of network traffic monitoring, to see if there's a significant uptick of IPv6 traffic. We think we have all of our ducks in a row, but we will be keeping an eye on everything, just to make sure. As for the celebration part, I plan to invent a special cocktail for World IPv6 Day, but that's still a work in progress.

Q: What does ESnet do, exactly?

MS: ESnet is the Energy Sciences Network, a nationwide data network connecting the Department's Office of Science-funded national laboratories. The staff of ESnet maintains the existing network backbone and is currently designing the next-generation version of ESnet. We don't ever really stop making the network faster and better for science. In addition we work with the Department's national labs to make networking technology perform better for our users. We help them to adopt new technologies, such as IPv6, and we try to make existing technology work better.

Q: Why do scientists need their own network? Why can't they just use the regular Internet?

MS: Today's scientific research is based on the collaborative analysis of large-scale data. That demands a high-speed, high-performance network specifically geared toward science. Just as a Formula 1 race car can't easily drive on a gravel road, science networking has similar special requirements that are different than those I have when I watch Netflix on my Roku at home, and science requires a differently tuned network.

Q: What is ESnet doing to help out other government agencies with IPv6?

MS: ESnet is interested in enabling its users to make the maximum use of ESnet resources. That's another thing that makes us different from commercial providers, or ISPs. Helping other Department of Energy sites make use of the latest technology is part of our mission and we take that seriously. We also value our role in the community of research networks and ISPs, and we try to lead where we can. ESnet staff give presentations describing our experience in deploying the latest technologies at a variety of venues and we are actively sharing our experiences with other agencies—both to the benefit of ESnet and the agencies involved.

Q: When you talk with people who don't really understand networking, what's the thing that surprises them most?

MS: I don't think people realize how much work goes into making "the Internet" work as well as it does. As science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke has said, technology sufficiently advanced becomes indistinguishable from magic. When people actually see how things really work, it's rather surprising to them. I think the other thing that surprises people is that network engineers don't work in giant control rooms like what you would find at a nuclear plant. More work is done on the Internet sitting on a couch with a laptop than in any fancy operations center-type room. Many "Network Operations Centers" nowadays are really people at home with mobile phones and laptops.

Q: Sinatra, that is a famous name. We gotta ask, are you related to...?

MS: Sinatra is actually quite a common name—in Sicily, where most Sinatras are originally from. Vincenzo Sinatra was a notable 18th century architect in Sicily. Most Sinatras can trace their lineage back to somewhere in Sicily, and in the case of my immediate family, it's a town called Caltagirone, which is a sister city of San Francisco.

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