IPv6 comes to life in Japan

Developers at Networld+Interop Tokyo this week began showing products based on Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6), the long-awaited successor to IPv4, which has so far underpinned the growth of the global Internet. Engineers have been warning for some time that IPv4 addresses are running out, a problem which IPv6's bigger address space will solve.

"IPv6 has become reality this year," said Jun Murai, a professor of Keio University, a panel member of the Japanese government's think-tank on IT strategy and one of the founders of Japan's Internet. Projects are already taking place that rely on IPv6 technology and its ability to let devices keep their addresses as they travel from network to network.

One such project is going on in Yokohama, just outside Tokyo. Since February, around 300 vehicles in the city, such as taxis, service trucks and public buses, have been continuously connected to the Internet. The project is demonstrating "real space" networking -- something that differs from cyberspace because users are able to connect through the network to devices that exist in their real space and not just out on the network, said Murai.

The Yokohama trials allow users to monitor traffic conditions by detecting their car's speed, road conditions by how many times they used the anti-lock brake system and the weather by the movement of windshield wipers.

"My dream is for all vehicles in Japan to have IP addresses," said Murai. "Up until now, we only managed experimenting with one or two Internet cars. Compared to that, this experiment using 300 cars was a big move." Without IPv6, and its much larger address space, giving each car its own unique address would be impossible.

The shortage of IPv4 addresses has been masked to some extent by network address translation (NAT) technology. NAT allows many networked devices to have their own local addresses, but they connect to the Internet through a device which holds a single IPv4 address. Some engineers, however, don't like the idea of NAT because it represents a fracturing of address space -- not all devices have a unique global address.

"The Internet should go back to its original style, a peer-to-peer connection," said Yukihiro Kikuchi, an engineer for Internet Initiative Japan Ltd. (IIJ), the first company in Japan to start an IPv6 backbone service and which is leading local development of IPv6. When the Internet has global addresses and a simple one-on-one connection for all the addresses, many new applications and services can be developed, he said. "This year is the turning point for IPv6," he said.

Some predicted the spread of IPv6 as early as the beginning of 2002.

"That is when the third-generation (3G) cellular services are really starting, said Kei Noguchi, a spokesman for Access Co. Ltd., which produces microbrowsers for NTT DoCoMo Inc.'s I-mode service and recently developed an TCP/IP protocol stack to support IPv6 in cell phones. "3G is the key for IPv6."

In Japan, cell phones were the devices that influenced consumer electronics makers' attitudes toward networks. "I think I-mode changed everything," said Takaaki Higuchi, a program manager for Sun Microsystems Inc. "It made the end-user corporations realize that computers aren't the only devices that connect to networks."

Many engineers are enthusiastic about the emergence of commercial switches and routers for IPv6 and also that consumer electronics makers have started paying attention to the potential of networked products.

Toshiba Corp.'s "Smart Kitchen" concept is to connect all home appliances to the network. The company demonstrated a prototype IPv6 refrigerator and showed what household devices can do when each of them has an individual IP address . With such a refrigerator, a consumer can decide what to buy at the supermarket by looking at the refrigerator's contents remotely using a cell phone connected to the Internet, according to the company.Each device, such as a microwave or an air conditioner, has a separate set of potential applications. "But what we really want to do by networking consumer products is maintenance service," said Morio Hirahara, a specialist at the digital and network applications development group for Toshiba.

When a customer requests maintenance, customer service engineers can detect what is wrong with a product via the Internet. If the fault is minor, it may even be possible to correct it over the Internet, removing the need for a house visit.With IPv4, the Internet will run out of addresses if 1 million[M] households had six network devices each, according to Murai. When the concept such as Toshiba's "Smart Kitchen" becomes the mainstream in Japan's households, it will be the era of IPv6.

Such household networks will come around year 2003, Toshiba's Hirahara predicted.

"My view may be different from my own engineers," said Koichi Suzuki, the president and CEO of IIJ at a business-to-business electronic commerce conference Thursday. "They must be happy that finally their efforts are making it to the public, but I think it will take a while for IPv6 to become the mainstream." said Suzuki.


Copyright © 2001 IDG Communications, Inc.

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