Wireless IPv6

The next generation of Internet Protocol is here… or is it?

Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6) was finalized in the nineties and established by the IEEE as the logical successor to version 4 (version 5 having provided a temporary test platform as a streaming solution). Yet while leading network-industry vendors have been shipping traditional cable-based switches and routers which include IPv6 compatibility, the wireless LAN industry has been slower to move towards it.

That’s beginning to change, though. In October 2004, Airespace , the manufacturer of WLAN solutions ranging from access points to multipurpose appliances that is soon to be owned by Cisco , announced it will be the first WLAN vendor to integrate IPv6.

“The primary short-term reason was largely driven by the international market, such as Japan,” said Jeff Aaron, senior manager for Product Marketing at Airespace.

The logic there lies in the historical appeal of IPv6 vs. IPv4. The primary initial advantage of the new protocol? It’s designed for an Internet of vastly greater size and sophistication than the present Internet, which is a product stemming from design goals thirty years old or more.

Consider for instance that the IPv4 address space has 32 bits. The mathematics of address allocation mean that an IPv4-based Internet is therefore limited to a relatively small 4.3 billion different addresses and, in theory, the same number of network nodes.

While the United States has the large bulk of available IPv4 address allocations, other nations of the world, moving quickly toward Internet ubiquity, naturally have far smaller allocations; this means they are in several cases verging on IP address exhaustion. Countries such as Japan, India and China, with high ratios of population-to-IPv4 address allocation, have been facing this serious problem for some time.

For this reason they have outpaced the US in turning to IPv6, which is built around an address space of 128 bits. That translates into some 3.4 W 10^38 (3.4 dodecillion ) addresses, or, phrased another way, enough for each citizen of the planet to have a personal allocation of billions of IP addresses. IPv6 is, in conjunction with NAT (Network Address Translation), perceived as the ultimate fix for the address allocation issue.

Japan in particular has embraced IPv6 with all due speed. In 2002, for instance, NTT DoCoMo became one of the first large-scale carriers to enable IPv6 nationwide. With some 40 milllion subscribers, DoCoMo is the world’s largest Web-enabled cell phone service provider and Japan, like Europe, has a surplus of Web-enabled cellphone usage. For the Japanese, therefore, the need was dire.

In the United States, while leading operating systems such as Windows XP and Mac OS X have long had IPv6 integration, ISP deployment of IPv6-integrated hardware remains a minority share. That may change in the immediate future, however.

In 2003, the Department of Defense committed to a permanent shift of all of its network technology to IPv6 by 2008. Network vendors with government contracts, you can be sure, see the writing on the wall and are updating their products to suit. And on July 20, ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) announced that the root DNS servers for the Internet had been modified to support both IPv6 and IPv4.

What’s the domestic picture like for WLAN vendors such as Airespace? “Well, we are seeing increasing interest in IPv6 in the US as well,” said Aaron. “The need domestically clearly isn’t as great as in markets like Asia but there are definitely [WLAN] vendors that have seen it as important enough to put it into play, among which Airespace is the first,” he went on. “I’d definitely see it becoming part of the general WLAN roadmap in a year.”

Of course, IPv6 brings with it other advantages as well. For instance: IPSec, a standard for securing Internet Protocol (IP) communications by encrypting and authenticating all IP packets. IPsec is a suite of interrelated protocols designed to create both secure packet flow and the security key exchange process by which that flow can be initiated. Aaron sees this as an essential selling point for the IPv6 bandwagon: “The ability to use IPsec is critical.”

Additionally, there are improvements in quality of service, which will become significant as ever-increasing demands on wireless LANs lead users to expect not merely higher performance but higher consistency of performance. In the case of voice over IP deployed over WLANs, for instance, user expectations are really rather high in a real-time conversation. While in the course of a normal data transmission such as Web surfing bad or dropped packets can be re-requested and resent, in the case of a phone call this process could lead quickly to a fundamentally unsatisfactory user experience. Thus as voice and data continue to converge digitally, IPv6 should become more and more compelling in proportion.

All this said, the immediate demand for IPv6 in the WLAN space remains relatively low. Still, companies like Airespace are determined to distinguish themselves in a competitive marketplace by meeting demand before it occurs.

“We want to future-proof our solutions as the market emerges in the US,” said Aaron. “We’re thinking five years into the future so our customers get the best possible return on their investment.”

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