Saturday, 23rd January 2021

IPv6 is finally gaining a foothold – have ISPs seen the light?

The successor to IPv4 is nothing new in the world of IP addresses. In fact, you may be surprised to hear that IPv6 launched back in the 1990s. However, to say that ISPs have been slow to upgrade to IPv6 is something of an understatement. Even though our supply of IPv4 addresses is now depleted and there is huge potential for IPv6 to grow the Internet, ISPs have been reluctant. However, new data from the RIPE NCC, the Internet registry for Europe, the Middle East and parts of Central Asia, reveals that 66% of its Local Internet Registries (LIRs) now hold IPv6 number resources. IPv6 is gaining traction. In this article Stephen Strowes, Senior Research Scientist at the RIPE NCC, poses the question, have ISPs finally seen the light on IPv6?

Solid momentum

While the Internet industry had displayed caution around IPv6 for a number of years, there have been recent signs of a change of heart. Apple made the progressive move to tell its developers at the WWDC 2020 conference in early July, that they should use IPv6 as its median connection setup times are 1.4 times faster than IPv4. Many LIRs, which encompass a broad range of companies including ISPs, Internet exchange providers (IXPs), content delivery networks (CDNs), various network services companies, and miscellaneous others, hold IPv6 resources. However, IPv6 deployment is uneven: while many LIRs haven’t yet put these resources into active use, many others have.

Domestic ISPs, such as Sky Broadband UK, are one such example. They rapidly deployed IPv6 in early 2016. Today Sky Broadband UK displays well over 90% IPv6 readiness. The same organisation is now developing Sky Italia, a greenfield ISP with a focus on IPv6 from 2021. Deutsche Telekom has demonstrated a gradual but consistent rollout programme; they now show 70% readiness across its networks. These are far from isolated examples. Many networks have significant, or at least growing, IPv6 deployments.

Much of the IPv6 traffic that users request is served via CDNs. Large CDNs (such as Akamai, Cloudflare, and Fastly) have been running IPv6 services for quite some time. Facebook has been operating its datacentres with only IPv6 for many years. IPv6 is popular with content networks, because the architectural implications of reducing their IPv4 footprint can lead to significant cost reductions. This is important as these networks have millions of subscribers, generating a lot of IPv6 traffic.

Alongside content networks, several governments, including China and the United States, are preparing plans to drive nationwide IPv6 adoption. These government plans could have a profound impact on the global development of IPv6.

Overall progression

There is an overall trend of progression around IPv6 adoption, as the reality of the IPv4 run out takes its toll. Of the five Regional Internet Registries (RIR), the RIPE NCC is the leading RIR for IPv6 adoptions. It’s allocated 145,673 /32s (a block of IPv6 addresses), followed by Asia Pacific Network Information Centre (APNIC), which has recorded 82,930 /32 allocations.

Demand for IPv6 in the RIPE and ARIN regions have led to additional /12s being allocated to these registries by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), the first large allocations since 2006.

Currently the RIPE NCC is issuing around 50 IPv6 allocations per week, rising to 80 during busier periods. The RIPE NCC operates the IPv6 RIPEness programme, which awards stars to RIPE LIRs based on indicators of IPv6 preparedness. For example, holding an allocation of IPv6 with the RIPE NCC grants the first star. A growing number of LIRs (35%) are now three and four star rated on the IPv6 RIPEness rating system.

The number of networks in the RIPE NCC service region that are announcing IPv6 prefixes into global routing (data to ensure people arrive at the websites they are trying to reach) also increased by 29.5% of a total of 27,427 operators, from 26.20% in 2018.

Driving factors

These upward trends indicate the lack of IPv4 is driving ISPs, and other organisations, to secure IPv6 allocations and develop their IPv6 deployments. As referenced earlier, there is particular interest in very large allocations of IPv6 from governments, but also from some private enterprises. In light of the ‘dead end’ that the IPv4 run out creates, many governments are targeting Internet growth via sophisticated nationwide deployment plans for IPv6.

Yet there is still a lack of general knowledge around IPv6. There is also a lot of confusion over the IPv6 registration process. This is no doubt driven by the previous focus on IPv4 addresses. Organisations are requesting large amounts of IPv6 number resources. However, when the RIPE NCC analyses their plans, we often end up advising that a smaller allocation of IPv6 will do.

The RIPE NCC can help with registrations and IPv6 training. It has a specialised IPv6 team within Registry Services, which can provide advice and guidance during allocation requests.

An IPv6 driven future

While there is a demonstrable upward trend in IPv6 allocations, it’s somewhat challenging to say what types of services LIRs will launch. We do know that IPv6’s inherent reliability, improved security and scalability makes it better equipped to support large-scale IoT

networks. Something IPv4 cannot sustain. The Internet industry has been trying to connect seven billion users, and several billion more devices, using 4.3 billion IPv4 addresses.

With more and more endpoints connected every day, the Internet is growing too fast for IPv4. Scalable Internet growth needs IPv6. With its 32-bit addressing format, which offers 340 trillion, trillion, trillion addresses, IPv6 is more than capable of supporting the development of the Internet. With an almost inexhaustible amount of Internet number resources, ISPs can discover new possibilities around network configurations, efficiency and affordability. Service innovation won’t happen if the Internet can’t grow. IPv6 is playing a crucial role in enabling that growth and helping network operators build the Internet of the future.

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