A few years from now, the Internet could become a victim of its own success. Its dramatic growth -- often cited as 15 percent growth per month in number of users connected and as much as a factor of 10 growth per year in Internet backbone bandwidth required to support them -- could overburden the current infrastructure, resulting in networks held together with cyber-baling wire and virtual glue.
One of the biggest long-term growth and scalability problems for the Internet is the lack of sufficient address space to globally address all systems with the current Internet Protocol (known as version 4, or IPv4). A new version, called Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6), has been adopted as the next generation (IPng) network layer protocol standard. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Sciences Network (ESnet), managed by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, is now leading the effort to roll out IPv6 to the Internet community.
"IPv6 is another example of what ESnet is all about -- providing leadership to the Internet community," said James Leighton, head of ESnet. "There is a pressing need to revamp the undercarriage of the Internet, and IPv6 is the approach we’ve agreed to take. ESnet has decided to provide an early stimulus by getting IPv6 out to our customers."
IPv6 is the result of more than five years of international collaboration by members of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). They have developed a new protocol which will allow the Internet to seamlessly overcome existing barriers to expansion as well as providing new features, such as addressability for many more networks and user/server systems, as well as easy and highly automatic configuration. The Internet Protocol is the basic tool of standardized connectivity on the ‘Net, allowing various networks and nodes to communicate with each other.
To help get the IPv6 ball rolling, ESnet has requested and been assigned the very first production IPv6 addressing prefix by the American Registry for Internet Numbers (ARIN) and is using it to provide IPv6 services to ESnet users, said Bob Fink, Associate Head for Network Research at ESnet and co-chair of the IETF IPv6 Transition planning Working Group.
ESnet, which provides high-speed connectivity to thousands of scientific researchers at more than 30 Department of Energy sites, has established a production IPv6 network initiative, called the 6REN, to provide stimulus for Research and Education Networks worldwide to provide early production native IPv6 service.
In addition, ESnet and CANARIE, Canada's advanced Internet development organization, have joined together to provide the 6TAP (or IPv6 Transit Access Point), a common connection and "peering" point for all worldwide IPv6 networks. The 6TAP is located at the Science, Technology, and Research Transit Access Point (StarTAP) facility at the Ameritech Network Access Point (NAP) in Chicago.
The 6TAP will enable the 6REN initiative to demonstrate early scientific applications operating using IPv6 by interconnecting IPv6 networks. Initial applications at the University of California in San Diego, Osaka University in Japan and at Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois will lead the way by demonstrating the operation of very large electron microscopes over the Internet using IPv6.
"Our goal is to prove the viability of using IPv6 to run scientific applications using IPv6 technology and the ubiquity of the Internet," Fink said.
ESnet grew out of networking efforts started 25 years ago to allow scientists around the country to tap into a supercomputer in California. That bold (at the time) concept helped pave the way for many networking capabilities taken for granted today, such as videoconferencing and remote access to computers.
One of the biggest problems with the current IPv4 is that it uses 32-bit addresses, allowing about 4 billion addresses to be assigned. However, given the necessary assignment practices in use today, the actual number of usable addresses is much smaller. The explosive growth of demand for addresses could result in rationing, requiring new organizations to use patchwork technologies to provide connectivity.
Because IPv6 uses 128-bit addresses, it offers a theoretical maximum of about 256 trillion trillion trillion addresses. This should allow the Internet sufficient addressing scalability to keep up with the current and future growth rate of the Internet, thus allowing for universal addressability and reachability using Internet technology.
Other features designed into IPv6 include built-in security, dynamic automatic configuration, multicast, mobility, quality of service and a more efficient format that will ultimately allow routing systems to operate more efficiently.
"The Internet model of everyone connected everywhere is getting ready to break," Fink said, "and while it can be patched together in the short term, the long-term solution is IPv6, which will maintain the viable, scalable architecture on which the Internet is built."
Getting IPv6 into widespread use presents something of a chicken-and-egg problem, Fink said. Manufacturers are waiting to incorporate IPv6 technology into routers and user systems until users demand IPv6. Conversely, demand for IPV6 is currently low because there is not widespread support of IPv6 in routers and systems yet.
"Because IPv4 and IPv6 can coexist in routers and user systems, and are compatible in that Internet applications will operate the same over either one, Internet users won’t see an immediate difference between the two," Fink said. "In fact, the two protocol versions are likely to coexist for the next 10 to 15 years as IPv6 is implemented and users switch from IPv4 to IPv6.
"We’re all in this together," Fink said of the Internet community, "and maintaining that global connectivity is important for scientific research, for our economy and for everyday communication. IPv6 is the key next step to keeping us all connected."
ESnet is operated for the U.S. Department of Energy by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Berkeley Lab conducts unclassified research and is managed by the University of California for the Department of Energy.