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Monday, June 6, 2011

Expanded Internet getting a trial run

David Brooks

Techy folks aren’t always great at thinking up brand names, which may explain why the biggest change to hit the online world in years carries the non-memorable name IPv6.

Ugh. No wonder the change has been ignored even with the approach of World IPv6 Day, in which giants like Google and Facebook will run parallel versions of their sites as part of an Internet-wide test.

Here’s a better idea for a brand name: Internet 2G.

Not “2.0,” which reeks of annoying software upgrades, but “2G” as in cell phones, which is still reasonably cool.

Good, isn’t it?

Alas, I can’t take credit. This name was suggested by Mark Bowman – who is network administrator for The Telegraph, which squashes my “techy folks can’t brand” stereotype.

“It’s not going to be a new Internet. Think of it as an expansion,” Bowman said. “Think of it like 2G, 3G, 4G. . . . This is Internet 2G.”

Actually, the name is more appropriate for the Internet than for your smartphone.

In cell phones, 2G/3G/4G refers to vaguely defined technical upgrades that aren’t always new generations – but on the Internet, IPv6 (Internet Protocol version 6) reflects a specific change that’s a real step forward, expanding the number of available Net address by a gazillion or two.

The transition to IPv6 will be invisible to you and me. It’s a lot more work for those who exist at the Internet service provider level, who have to make sure that all the equipment and software on their system will know how to read the new, extra-long addresses when they become ubiquitous.

Consider Comcast, which has generally been near the forefront of IPv6 preparation. It has established a test site (test-ipv6.comcast.net) for people to check their systems and discover whether they’ve got an incompatible home router or something like that.

You and I don’t need to panic if we’re not IPv6-ready. The Internet isn’t going to switch completely over on Wednesday – existing addresses will remain viable for a long, long time.

But as months and years go by, more Web sites will crop up that are IPv6-only, meaning we won’t be able to see them if we’re not ready. Later, as Internet-enabled devices come online, like an air conditioner you can control remotely through a browser, the new addressing will be obligatory.

IT folks in industry, who will get yelled at if things go awry, are also interested in the topic.

“I do get some technical type customers that want to deploy it on their equipment, on their servers. Some just want to play around with it; a few have some kind of initiative where they’re supposed to deploy it,” said James Dogopoulos, CEO of Dynamic Internet, an Internet hosting company in Salem.

Dogopoulos thinks the transition will go well, largely because the old addresses will continue to work because the network is “running dual-stack.”

“It’s unnoticeable; doesn’t affect existing traffic,” he said.

As you may know – I’ve written about it several times, so it’s not my fault if you don’t – the Internet is running out of addresses thanks to the huge increase in people, services and devices being connected online. The last batch of addresses under its original format, known as IPv4, were allocated in February, and in parts of Asia they might actually run out of them as early as this year.

Everybody has seen this coming for years, which is why IPv6 was developed.

It uses 128-bit addresses instead of 32-bit, which means it has room for lots of different Web sites, devices and the like. And I mean lots: 2 to the 28th power of them, a number so huge that it’s not worth trying to describe.

The problem is that old software and hardware wasn’t made to handle 128-bit addresses, and can’t find anything that uses IPv6.

In theory, computer and network equipment and software has been IPv6-ready for several years. That’s why Bowman says The Telegraph hasn’t really spent anything to get ready for the new address system: The upgrades have occurred as a natural byproduct of upgrades and improvements.

That’s in theory, of course. UNH has an Interoperability Laboratory that has been testing equipment for IPv6 compatibility for years, and reports varying success.

There’s a real possibility that some equipment at various places on the global network won’t handle the new addresses well, which could derail Web sites or other connections.

It’s unlikely to be much of a problem, although you can’t say for sure.

In the meantime, I’m can’t wait to order my Internet 2G T-shirt.

Granite Geek appears Mondays in the Telegraph, and online at www.granitegeek.org. David Brooks can be reached at 594-5831 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com.