FORUM: IPv6 - do we have the right sense of urgency?

Emphasis in the current debate is on the exhaustion of IPv4 addresses, not the opportunities presented by IPv6 adoption

The most striking impression from the IPv6 Task Force’s recent survey of IPv6 readiness in New Zealand, is the evident lack of perceived urgency in the business and ICT communities.

The methodology of the survey could certainly be questioned, but assuming the figures give even an approximate correct impression, we should be worried. According to the data, only six percent of respondents have already adopted IPv6 and only 33 percent expect to be doing so within a year, even for the public-facing parts of their network such as web pages and email.

Fully 27 percent said they have no plans yet to enable those parts of their network. At least that’s an improvement on the 46 percent that gave that answer in 2010.

In that year’s survey, by the way, 24 percent said they were going to implement IPv6 on their public links within one year. We have to ask what became of those plans.

The IPv6 Task Force, aided by InternetNZ, has run a few events and gives publicity on the www.IPv6.org.nz website to those who have already successfully enabled for the new protocols, but in general the Task Force has a low profile.

When the matter of adopting IPv6 is discussed in the general and business media that senior management reads, the emphasis is overwhelmingly on the exhaustion of IPv4 addresses. This encourages the mindset expressed by one comment in the 2010 survey: “We have an allocation of IPv4 addresses that [has] more than met our needs and internally we use private addresses so don’t know why we need to change.”

In other words, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. The IPv4 network is humming along and there is (as shown by the survey) little recognition of either the opportunities presented by IPv6 adoption, or the real threats of not doing so.

It is a similar attitude, perhaps, to that in the 1990s that kept so many organisations running on green screens and flat files rather than face the scary new world and skills gap presented by taking on GUIs and databases.

But it is another environment now; internationally, there will be more networks and devices built to operate preferentially or solely with IPv6 addresses and protocols. And the international arena is where we have to play; no longer are we mostly communicating and competing with fellow Kiwi companies.

Just as there is no “Fortress NZ”, so your ICT department cannot be a fortress any more either. The staff with the skills you need will, like it or not, bring in those IPv6-enabled devices and want to communicate with IPv6-oriented resources.

Yes, there is poor visibility of opportunities and threats at the moment; there will have to be a critical mass of organisations taking advantage of IPv6 – running large populations of individually addressable devices for pervasive communication throughout the enterprise and among enterprises - before that advantage becomes too great to ignore. But we have to question whether New Zealand can afford to wait until it does. It could well put us at a permanent disadvantage on the world stage.

At the moment, perhaps, the risks of upsetting the working ICT engine are perceived as greater than the opportunities. We are all ever more aware of data security and its failures and IPv6 offers a mixed picture on that front. There is improved security but there is also greater potential for vulnerability unless the transition is well managed.

A UK commentator, Ron Condon, expresses it well — security through the change is a semantic rather than a syntactic translation; policies will need to be rethought from first principles, not mechanically translated — and that’s a major commitment.

One further pair of discouraging results should be highlighted from the Task Force’s 2011 survey: when asked “does/do your telecommunications provider(s) provide IPv6 services”, 30 percent answered “don’t know”; and “has/have your telecommunications providers briefed you on their plans to support IPv6?” brought a massive 73 percent “no” response.

There’s a crucial missing link right there. If the telecomms sector is really that uncommunicative, that is a big worry and possibly a big factor in users’ lack of urgency. Look to it, telcos and ISPs.

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