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Managing The IPv6 Transition In The Enterprise

As Internet access has become increasingly ubiquitous, the massive number of connected devices has depleted the supply of available IP addresses. IPv6 is the new protocol specifically designed to fix this issue by making 340 undecillion potential new IP addresses available. This is done using an addressing system of 128 bits, compared to the IPv4 format that uses an addressing system of 32 bits, which supplied approximately 4.3 billion addresses.

With IPv6, enterprise networks will have more than enough IP addresses to support expansion plans for the foreseeable future. But IPv6 implementations must be carefully planned in order to ensure a smooth transition.

IPv6 enterprise benefits

The improvements that are available through IPv6 provide the enterprise with increased efficiencies and capabilities, making it easier to incorporate and support new technologies such as machine-to-machine (M2M) communications and the Internet of Things. Under IPv4 it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to assign IP addresses to all of these M2M and IoT devices; this is not a problem with the large number available under IPv6.

Besides the obvious increase in available IP addresses, the IPv6 provides the enterprise with new and expanded capabilities that were previously unavailable. For example, the new IPv6 address auto-configuration of devices occurs without manual intervention, which simplifies enterprise network configuration. Enterprises will be able to more easily support and incorporate BYOD into the network strategy because many new devices now have IPv6 enabled by default.

Administrators will be able to rely on the plug-and-play capabilities of IPv6 to allow use of such devices on the network. In addition, mobile IPv6 allows mobile devices to continuously update a server with  location information, providing improved performance, reliability and seamless mobility. This means that mobility and collaboration services will become much easier to develop, deploy and use, which can increase employee productivity.

Other expected improvements include elimination of Network Address Translation to provide true end-to-end connectivity at the IP layer, helping to enable the support of new services. This transparency allows peer-to-peer applications such as VoIP or streaming media to work more smoothly and efficiently.

IPv6 also eliminates IP-level checksum, making packet processing more efficient. With a simpler packet header structure, the time required to process the header is minimized, increasing packet processing speed. Extension attribute packets have also been defined for encryption, management, performance, and Quality of Service and assigned their own unique packet structure. Furthermore, data flows and delivery of information across the enterprise network are more efficient with multicast improvements and flow label QoS field that have been added to the existing Differentiated Services and Integrated Services QoS attributes.

As you can see, IPv6 can bring a variety of benefits to the enterprise. The primary challenge enterprises face today is not deciding whether to transition to IPv6 -- it is how to do it and when.

Easing the IPv6 transition

There are a few key steps companies should consider when implementing IPv6 within their environment. First, they must perform a readiness assessment prior to any implementation to evaluate and analyze their existing infrastructure. The readiness assessment needs to include a thorough inventory check to ensure support for IPv6 by the DNS provider, the network, servers, and all other associated equipment. The assessment should also include a review of all vendors to ensure that the IPv6 features correspond.

Second, the enterprise should determine which of its applications are only able to connect via IPv4. This would help the business determine what might be immediately impacted by such a transition, and enable it to ensure that support for these applications and services will continue. Then, the enterprise needs to evaluate the IT staff's level of IPv6 knowledge  to determine if training is required.

Once the initial analysis is complete, companies must decide whether to move forward with a full and complete IPv6 infrastructure or if a dual-stack implementation makes more sense. A dual- stack implementation provides the enterprise with more flexibility because it provides time to gradually convert the network from IPv4 to IPv6, but it does add a layer of complexity to the network.

After deciding which approach to use, the enterprise must develop an IPv6 migration and implementation plan that considers the logistics of moving, converting all equipment to IPv6 or installing new equipment. Proper planning should also acknowledge the potential impact of the IPv6 migration on end users and identify a strategy for mitigating those impacts should any problems arise from the migration.

Clearly, IPv6 is a significant improvement over IPv4 and provides the enterprise with enhanced capabilities that have previously been unavailable and in some cases unimaginable. However, there are potential pitfalls inherent in this migration and the negative impacts of an improperly managed transition can be substantial. Enterprises must think carefully about how to manage this migration safely and cost-effectively, with the minimum impact on their operations. When to begin this migration is an open question, when to start planning is not – the answer is now.