Will IPv6 finally arrive stateside in 2010? That's the question U.S. ISPs and network equipment vendors are asking themselves after seeing a rise in IPv6 activity during the last six months of 2009.
The Internet engineering community has been waiting a decade for widespread adoption and deployment of IPv6, an upgrade to the Internet's main communications protocol known as IPv4.
IPv6 is needed because the Internet is running out of IPv4 addresses. IPv4 uses 32-bit addresses and can support approximately 4.3 billion individually addressed devices on the Internet. IPv6, on the other hand, uses 128-bit addresses and can support so many devices that only a mathematical expression -- 2 to the 128th power -- can quantify its size.
IPv6 activity in the United States grew significantly in 2009.
Hurricane Electric, a Fremont, Calif. ISP, said in November that its IPv6 network doubled in size this year, with connections to more than 600 other IPv6 networks. Hurricane Electric claims to be the No. 1 IPv6 backbone in the world in terms of the number of IPv6 networks that it peers with and the number of IPv6 routes that it announces.
NTT America also saw 100% growth in its IPv6 traffic, says Cody Christman, director of product engineering.
"Our routing table for IPv6 doubled in the last year," Christman says. "We've had about 40% growth in the number of ports that we've sold for IPv6. A port may be a new customer or an existing customer getting another Gig-E connection. Either way, it's still significant growth."
Christman says 20% of NTT America's customers have purchased IPv6 transit services, most of which are dual stack and support both IPv6 and IPv4 traffic. NTT America is an IP transit wholesaler, so most of its customers are Internet, telecom, Web hosting and Web services companies.
"We're going to continue to see better-than-linear growth in 2010," Christman says. "But I doubt it will be hockey stick growth."
Global Crossing also predicts steady — but not astronomical — growth for IPv6 services in 2010. Another wholesaler, Global Crossing says the number of new orders it received for IPv6 transit services tripled this year, with most of the activity coming in the last two quarters of the year.
"IPv6 represented 6.3% of the new order activity in our Internet product line," says Matt Sewell, director of product management for Internet access at Global Crossing. Sewell says that figure was up from 2.1% in 2008.
"I expect the new order activity to rise to about 10% throughout 2010," Sewell adds. "More of our customers are asking if we are ready for IPv6."
Global Crossing's IPv6-related VPN sales are smaller, with only 0.2% of new customers requesting an IPv6 configuration this year. But the carrier is seeing interest from enterprise customers engaged in software development.
"One of our largest customers is trialing IPv6 on their VPN," says Joda Schaumberg, senior director of product management for enterprise networking at Global Crossing. "They have developers in the Middle East and Africa, and they are starting to see that IPv6 isn't just nice-to-have globally, but a requirement as they develop software applications that are IPv6-enabled."
The number of Internet content providers supporting IPv6 also grew in 2009.
The biggest splash came from Google, which added IPv6 to several applications including Search, Docs, Gmail and News as well as its Chrome browser and Android platform for mobile devices. Google engineers said they plan to deploy IPv6 on YouTube next year.
Other Internet content providers that rolled out IPv6 support this year were Limelight Networks, a video streaming service, and NetFlix, a popular movie distribution site.
"We did see some pretty promising things from a content perspective in 2009," says Dave Siegel, vice president of switched data product line management at Global Crossing. "2010 may be the year when IPv6 has an awakening."
Comcast plans IPv6 trial for 2010
If IPv6 is going to take off in the United States in 2010, it's likely to be driven by Comcast, which plans to run a residential trial of the technology next year.
Even Comcast rivals are watching to see what IPv6 services the cable company offers in 2010.
"In 2010, I'd watch residential broadband providers and see what they are doing," NTT America's Christman says. "I think that's where IPv6 is going to have to happen. That's where the IPv4 address depletion problem is going to be."
John Jason Brzozowski, chief architect for the IPv6 program at Comcast, says the Philadelphia-based ISP plans to have subscriber-based, high-speed trials of IPv6 in 2010. In the meantime, Comcast is readying its network infrastructure for IPv6.
"Overall network readiness for IPv6 is still something that we're carefully yet feverishly moving towards, with the expectation that we'll be able to leverage IPv6 for the things we need it for," Brzozowski says. "For back office type applications, we hope the upgrades will be completed sooner than for various aspects of our access network, which will have ugprades continue through 2010."
Comcast also is working on IPv6-enabling some of its own Web content, which includes Web sites operated by E! Entertainment Television, Style Network and the the Golf Channel.
"We will be announcing in the not-too-distant future a portal for IPv6," Brzozowski says.
Comcast already offers commercial IPv6 transit services to its wholesale customers, which include The Planet and BitGravity. "We've seen greater-than-expected interest there," Brzozowski says.
Comcast agrees that it has seen more IPv6 activity in the last six months than in previous years, and the carrier takes some credit for pushing the upgrade to the forefront.
"This is the greatest movement that I've seen in this space in the 10 years that I've been heads-down working on IPv6," Brzozowski says. "I'm optimistic that as an industry we can come together make some stuff happen in 2010."
Comcast predicts the U.S. market will see more residential broadband customers using IPv6 as well as more IPv6 content available to them. The carrier also hopes to see more IPv6-enabled home networking devices and consumer electronics components become available in 2010.
"I'd like to see a higher level of quality where that content and connectivity is concerned," Brzozoswki says. "A lot of the feedback that we get is that [companies] don't pay as much attention to their IPv6 services as their IPv4 services."
IPv6: Less than 1% of Internet traffic
Despite the growth in 2009, IPv6 still represents less than 1% of all Internet traffic, according to industry estimates. Arbor Networks says IPv6 traffic accounts for 0.03% of all Internet traffic. Google says 0.2% of its users have IPv6 access.
No one seems to know when IPv6 will represent a more significant portion of the Internet's traffic.
Cisco says 2010 could be the tipping point for IPv6 because of emerging new services that will require more Internet-connected devices, particularly sensors.
“We've talked for years about IPv6. It really has come down to the applications and the services that will help bring about the tipping point for IPv6," says Dave West, director, public sector, at Cisco. "We'll see IPv6 applications and services start rolling out in 2010."
Among the applications that Cisco believes will foster IPv6 deployment are Smart Grid, the Obama Administration's multi-billion dollar effort to modernize the nation's electric grid, and its push toward electronic health records and home healthcare monitoring devices.
"People are looking to do things more efficiently and to provide greater services through the Internet," West says. "It could make next year the tipping point for IPv6 in the delivery of next-generation services such as Smart Grid, e-Health and the expansion of broadband services."
Another potential application for IPv6 is building management and monitoring systems designed to reduce electricity and water usage.
Despite the promise of IPv6, transition to the new protocol will be gradual, Cisco predicts.
"I believe we'll start to see IPv6 grow slowly but surely in 2010," West says.