IPv4 vs IPv6
A Comparison of Protocols
IP stands for ‘internet protocol’, and it’s the method by which machines relay data online. Specifically, IP gives identification to packets of data that are sent and received online, and it also enables particular machines to have a unique identifying number, commonly known as an IP address.
IPv4 stands for Internet Protocol version 4, and until recently, has been the primary protocol in use across the web. Along with other early internet technologies, it wasn’t originally intended to be used as the global standard – nevertheless, IPv4 has become the default communications protocol.
However, all is not well in cyberspace. IPv4 is 32-bit, which means it allows for a maximum of around 4.3 billion unique IP addresses. A unique IP address is needed for every node on the network – and the number of machines and routers connected to the internet has led to ‘address exhaustion’. There are very few unique IPv4 addresses left to be allocated.
A solution is needed to make room for the vast numbers of nodes that will be required on the internet in future. That solution has been in development for years, and seems to have arrived in the form of IPv6.
What is IPv6?
IPv6 is the latest version of the IP communication protocol that’s been developed by the Internet Engineering Task Force. It’s a 128-bit system, meaning it allows for a maximum of around 4.8×1028 unique addresses per person – which to all extents and purposes, means address exhaustion should never occur again.
What is IPv6 Going to Do Better?
Its existence should future-proof the internet, ensuring that there’s more than enough capacity for all possible future unique addresses, providing a stable foundation for future global connectivity and data transmission. It also brings a number of improvements over the IPv4 protocol that have been deliberately baked in, with the intention of improving security and efficiency in data transmission.
IPv4 vs IPv6 – How They Stack Up
So what are some of the fundamental differences between IPv4 and IPv6?
More efficient Packet Processing
IPv6 enables more efficient processing of data packets as they pass through routers between source and destination. Traditional IPv4 requires that a checksum be performed at every router hop – however, this is redundant nowadays as errors can be detected via a checksum at both ends of the transmission. IPv6 takes advantage of this fact – IPv6 packets contain a simplified packet header which means that data packet processing by routers is more efficient.
In the IPv6 protocol, it’s possible to assign more than one address to the same device. Here IPv6 is clearly superior the IPv4 vs IPv6 matchup. Multiple addresses mean that devices can stay connected to more than one network at once – portable devices with IPv6 enabled can be connected to multiple WiFi networks, for example, which was not possible with the IPv4 protocol.
IPv4 vs IPv6 – Built In Services
IPv6 has the IPsec security standard built into it. IPSec is what encrypts and authenticates each packet of data, and was in fact originally developed for IPv6. It’s possible to implement on IPv4, and some networks do use it – but it’s intrinsic to IPv6, providing at least a low level of security for all data transmitted on the future IPv6 internet.
Another service built in to the IPv6 protocol is multicasting. This is the process of sending data packets to multiple devices at the same time, in a single transmission. Multicasting is an effective means of conducting video conferences and distance learning. The IPv6 multicast feature offers a number of improvements over the bolt-on multicast capability that was added to IPv4 as an afterthought.
IPv4 vs IPv6: A Compatibility Issue
The 128-bit nature of the IPv6 protocol means that it’s actually not compatible with IPv4. IPv6 addresses are stored in a hexadecimal format, as opposed to the twelve-digit numerical IP address of IPv4. A computer or router running one protocol will not be able to communicate with a device using the other protocol exclusively.
The Migration to IPv6
It’s time for any company with an online presence to consider their need for IPv6 capability. Internet users are increasingly using ISPs that implement the IPv6 protocol, so websites are starting to receive a percentage of traffic with IPv6 addresses. Since IPv4 and IPV6 aren’t compatible, users with an IPv6 address can only access a site if it’s IPv6 compatible.
ISPs are under great pressure to enable their users to have access both to new servers with IPv6 addresses, but most importantly, to have continued access to the “old internet”, composed of servers running only IPv4. Hosts need to enable dual-stacks that run both protocols, and ISPs need to invest in tunneling technology that allows their IPv6 users to connect to IPv4 servers.
Possible Downsides to the Switchover
IPv6 brings many advantages, but it also brings some significant difficulties.
One minor but obvious point where IPv6 loses in the IPv4 vs IPv6 matchup is the length of the address in the protocol. With its twelve digit maximum, network admins could easily memorize an IPv4 address or two as they set up a network. That’s probably not possible with IPv6 addresses, which can be composed of up to 32 characters. It’s a small but significant inconvenience for anyone involved in network administration.
A more serious problem is the difficulty of transitioning the internet to IPv6 on a large scale. The number of active IPv6 users is mushrooming as the last of the remaining IPv4 addresses get allocated. The pressure is on to complete the migration quickly – a fragmented internet is what we can look forward to otherwise. The transition is unlikely to cause major upsets, but it might prove to be a difficult, hurried and costly undertaking for many companies. Some end users may well experience difficulties during the rushed switchover process.
Despite the expected teething problems, IPv6 is an inevitable advancement in the core technology that makes the internet possible. It’s here to stay, and once the dust settles, IPv6 should make for a smoother, more efficient and more secure internet.