Crystal clear: what you need to know about IPv6

17.08.2017

Our tiny country is a frontrunner for the adoption of the new Internet protocol IPv6: in July, 37.3% of all Internet traffic in our country went through IPv6. But what exactly is IPv6, and what is it used for?

What is IPv6? Wasn’t IPv4 good enough?

There are millions of computers and other devices such as printers, cameras, handheld devices and all sorts of office automation contraptions that are connected with the Internet. They use a common language to communicate:  the Internet Protocol (IP). Every connected device is given its own IP address, to identify itself on the network. In this way, the routers on the network know where the data package you drop on the network has to be delivered.

With the IPv4, the fourth generation of the Internet Protocol in use since the 1980s, the address actually consists of a binary 32-bit number. To make it easier for people, it is converted into four groups of figures (called octets), ranging from 0 to 255, each divided by a dot, e.g. 198.51.100.0.

This combination makes 4.3 billion unique IP addresses possible, which certainly sufficed in the early years of the Internet. In the meantime, the number of devices with an Internet connection has risen enormously. Cameras, refrigerators, TVs, smart assistants such as Amazon Echo and Google Home, etc., all need an IP address.  The IPv4 addresses were at risk of being exhausted. The IETF, the organisation that defines the standards for the Internet, had actually foreseen this situation. Work on a new version of the Internet Protocol, i.e. IPv6, had got under way already at the turn of the century.

The IPv6 uses 128-bit addresses. These addresses too are translated in a somewhat easier form for people, i.e. 8 groups of 4 hexadecimal figures at most, separated by a colon.  A typical IPv6 address looks something like this: 2001:0db8:85a3:0000:1319:8a2e:0370:7344

This opens up the door to more, far more Internet addresses:  2 to the 128th power, to be precise, which is a sextillion or a number with no fewer than 40 zeros! This should suffice, for the time being, to give a proprietary IP address  to every device that is connected to the Internet...

What are the differences between IPv4 and IPv6?

The major difference of course is that IPv6 will be able to meet amply the demand for new IP addresses for a number of years.  IPv6 moreover has many advantages for ISPs and network operators. For instance, there is a better multicast routing, simpler header format, more efficient routing, the possibility to provide real Quality of Service, built-in authentication, simpler administration, etc.  

In plain language: normally, you have only one IP address on the Internet, that of your router who connects you with your ISP. Your router in turn gives internal, private IP addresses to all devices in your house which are connected with that router, for it must keep an eye at all times on which packages have to go to which device. That also entails that the internal private IP addresses have to be converted to that public IPv4 address.  That is not efficient, however, and makes things more complicated.

In IPv6, on the other hand, there are more than enough addresses to give each device its unique public IPv6 address as a standard.  It is far simpler, in other words, so this problem belongs to the past.

What should I do to have the advantages of IPv6?

The answer is really quite simple:  nothing. IPv6 was rolled out imperceptibly in the background these past years. There is a great chance that you are already surfing with IPv6.  
In concrete terms, to be able to use IPv6, you need:  

  • An IPv6 compatible operating system – and most of them have been compatible for some time now. Windows has supported IPv6 since Vista and later versions. Windows XP does not support it, but in all honesty, this version must not be used any longer for security reasons.  All modern versions of the Mac OS X and Linux support IPv6.
  • A router with IPv6 support – which most have already since 2012, especially routers who are supplied by the ISPs themselves for a new connection.
  • An Internet Service Provider who has activated IPv6.  And we in Belgium have nothing to complain about on this front: our providers the frontrunners in the use of IPv6.

According to  Akamai figures from July 2017, with an adoption ate of 37.3%, Belgium is the frontrunner when it comes to the adoption of the IPv6 protocol, followed at a distance by Greece (27.9%) and the US (24.8%).  If we look at the network per provider, Telenet scores a fine 66.7% and Belgacom Skynet 41%. (The latter figures are however based on the number of IPv6 requests to Akamai).

There is a great chance that you already have an IPv6 connection with the Internet – which is a good thing, as ultimately more and more websites will become IPv6 only, and will no longer be accessible via IPv4. You are therefore ready for the future!

Are you wondering whether you already have IPv6? Then just do the test on TestMyIPv6.

It’s quite nice, actually, how the organisations who are responsible for the reliability of the Internet in the background,  have made sure that we needn’t lose any sleep worrying about IPv4 addresses being exhausted. They have implemented this important transition to IPv6  smoothly, without you even noticing it.  So you can sleep with peace of mind again:  the Internet will be fine for years to come!

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