Apple's iPhone-driven mobile future, IPv6, and you

By Jonny Evans

Apple [AAPL] already provides support for IPv6, the latest iteration of the IP addressing system that launches today, World IPv6 day. While the significance of this may not impact you just yet, I've put together a general guide to IPv6, the reasons to support it, and Apple's support.

[ABOVE: Now available at Apple's retail outlets, the Nest Learning Thermostat is an example of the kind of connected devices which will drive future IPv6 adoption.]

What is IPv6?

In very simple terms, the Internet relies on IP addresses to find every computer, server, smartphone and iPad on the vast network (there are alternative methods, such as NAT addressing). Until now we've been using a standard called IPv4, which is not directly compatible with IPv6 and must be run concurrently.

However, the IPv4 standard is only capable of offering up 4.3 billion unique IP addresses, and while that sounds like an awful lot, it isn't as we're expecting over 50 billion connected devices will be in use by 2020.

IPv6 is the solution. It promises 340 undecillion (3,400 followed by 35 zeros) IP addresses. That's hopefully going to be enough to serve the Internet to mobile devices, Macs, PCs, and the coming wave of M2M and connected home devices (above).

There's an excellent infographic explaining the need to move to IPv6 right here.

Deployment challenges

IPv6 was originally expected to run in parallel with IPv4, with transition expected to begin immediately. This didn't happen as ISPs and online enterprises resisted the migration, they didn't need the expense. One problem with IPv6 is its backward incompatibility with the preceding standard -- you need to "tunnel" traffic via IPv4 networks, among other ways to run both concurrently.

To tunnel means an: "IPv6 packet is put inside an IPv4 packet so it can be forwarded by existing IPv4 routers until it reaches an IPv6-capable router again."

Business has lacked a clear case for adoption of the standard.

The case is emerging now as the explosion in mobile and connected devices, particularly in emerging markets has seen many players in those markets opt for IPv6.

As an example, an online retail store based on IPv4 will not be accessible to users on IPv6 networks until it (and its ISP) deploy support for this. Many enterprise providers are now working toward IPv6 support today in order to invest in the expertise they require to manage tomorrow's full transition.

Apple and IPv6

Starting with Jaguar, Mac OS X supports IPv6 out of the box. In 2008, Google data confirmed Apple users to be ten times more likely to be IPv6-capable than Windows and Linux users. Apple also offers some support resources. For example, you can test your IPv6 connectivity by visiting this webpage.

If you find sites you regularly visit cease to function correctly in the next few days, Apple notes some helpful suggestions for resolving IPv6 connectivity problems, symptoms of which might include:

  • The web browser is unresponsive after you enter a search in the search field
  • The web browser reports that it is unable to connect to server because it isn't responding
  • The web browser connects, but only after several minutes
  • The web browser connects, but downloads take much longer than normal, or never complete
  • Other Internet-enabled activities such as reading mail or posting photos do not complete, possibly only when using certain sites

Be aware: today is IPv6 day, when Google, YouTube, Yahoo, Akamai, Facebook and over 2,500 websites are switching on their IPv6 provision.

This means many smaller websites and search engines are also experimenting with support for the standard, so those problems listed above may appear in the next few days on a service or site you regularly use. So here's Apple's troubleshooting link again.

"While it is expected that fewer than 1 out of every 20,000 people will be affected on June 8, 2011, some customers may experience difficulties such as performing searches or connecting to popular websites, such as Google, Yahoo!, YouTube, and Facebook," Apple informs.

"World IPv6 Launch Day is a lot larger than people understand," says president and CEO of the American Registry for Internet Numbers (ARIN), John Curran. "It's not a small decision for the major content providers to turn on IPv6 and leave it on. From now on, everything they roll out will be on IPv4 and IPv6."

AirPort and IPv6

"One key advantage of IPv6 is that it configures itself automatically. In most cases, your computer and applications will detect and take advantage of IPv6-enabled networks and services without requiring any action on your part," Apple tells us, while also offering instructions with which to manually enable or disable support for it.

For the most part, Apple's applications (Safari for example) also support IPv6, but there's a few flaws in this (see here).

Apple's AirPort Base Stations already support IPv6, though the company removed specific management tools from its AirPort Utility software within the most recent release, which generated much hue and cry. It isn't known yet how the company intends updating the software for the management features you need for the standard.

"Apple has taken the ability to seamlessly support IPv6 away from the AirPort Utility.. It's a little concerning. We hoped to see more IPv6 support, not less, among [customer premises equipment] vendors," responded Comcast's Chief Architect for IPv6, John Brzozowski.

However, given that OS x and iOS both now support IPv6, it's clear the company recognizes the importance of such support.

The growing awareness of IPv6 is articulated within the most recent Arbor 'Worldwide Infrastructure Security Report':

"Nearly 42 percent of respondents project that their IPv6 traffic volume will increase 20 percent over the next 12 months, almost 18 percent forecast greater than a 100 percent IPv6 volume increase across the same period."

So, is it all IPv6 everywhere?

Short answer: No. Today's move by some of the biggest Internet firms to enable support for the standard is significant, but most analysts expect full migration to take until 2020. Meanwhile you'll see an Internet based on both IPv4 and IPv6. Most major ISPs are moving to adopt it, as are equipment suppliers, but as with any transition you can expect the unexpected -- there will be problems.

Must we make the move?

Yes. Connected devices sales are exploding. These don't just include your iPads, iPhones and smartphones, these also include IP-enabled cars (smart cities aren't too far away), the fast-growing markets in mHealth devices, home intelligence and industrial control systems and more. As an example, it's thought that 92 million cars will be connected to the Internet by 2016 while 825 million electricity meters will also be connected.

Yes, there are alternatives to IP address provision for some of these devices, but these numbers are huge -- 4.3 billion addresses just aren't enough.

In 2011, 53 percent of the 201 million IP addresses allocated by the provision authorities went to companies in the Asia-Pacific, where IPv6 provision is far advanced.

These booming markets will quickly catch up in terms of smartphone use and mobile device allocation, and will forge ahead with new notions of the connected age.

Apple's leading position in the mobile device industry hasn't yet translated into the firm taking an active position vis-a-vis IPv6 Day, but it's operating systems long-existing support for the addressing schema confirms the company is ready to embrace the transition.

What should it mean to you as an everyday user? As little as possible: all parties investing in IPv6 support are attempting to implement it with as little inconvenience to customers as possible, however if you are using older equipment it is worth checking to see if your devices can support the protocol, as you'll likely find elements of your Internet experience will change in the coming months.

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