IPv6 And The IT Channel: Assessing, Integrating, Mythbusting

The tech world's abuzz about IPv6, and for the IT channel, the transition to IPv6 undoubtedly means opportunity. But the level of that opportunity -- as well as the level of urgency -- is what's up for debate among IPv6 observers, solution providers and any vendor with a stake in enabling the IPv6-led infrastructure of the future.

"The dialogue has increased dramatically and the big thing right now is fact-finding," said Don Edwards, managing director of The Broadleaf Group, a Houston-based solution provider. "The other thing pushing it is the onslaught of mobile devices: how to secure these mobile devices and how IPv6 will be taken into mobility. It's still in the early stages of discussion."

"Without a doubt, it's time for integrators and resellers to be looking at the issue," said Vince Ricco, senior network consultant at IP networking vendor Allied Telesis. "It's a good opportunity to be value-add to customers by looking at a migrational transition and advising on how they need to prepare, making sure they know what's available."

IPv6 is a story as lengthy and layered as any other in IT, but the short version of why of the IPv6 transition is happening is a matter of supply and demand. Internet Protocol Version Four (IPv4) has been the standard for formatting Internet addresses since its adoption in 1981, but its format enables 32-bit addresses. Therefore, there's a limit to the supply of IPv4 addresses for addressable devices -- nearly 4.3 billion -- and thanks to astronomical growth in Internet-connected devices over the past decade, that limit is fast approaching.

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Technically, IPv4 address exhaustion has already happened: the last blocks of IPv4 addresses were allocated to the world's Regional Internet Registries (RIR) in early February. And in mid-April, the Asia Pacific Network Information Center released the last block of IPv4 addresses in its available pool, meaning that, effectively, the Asia Pacific region has run out of IPv4 addresses.

Structurally speaking, IPv4 addresses are four sets of numbers ranging from 0 to 255, separated by periods, whereas IPv6 addresses are eight sets of four-digit hexadecimal numbers -- a 128-bit address format that yields enough theoretical addresses that exhaustion will never be a problem.

Solution providers interviewed by CRN said that urgency around the IPv6 transition is much greater among service providers than enterprise business customers. Most service providers have had IPv6 transition plans in place for many years: they see obvious ROI in making the transition because of customer demand and their ability to create new revenue streams around IPv6 address availability, especially with the exploding demand for mobile applications.

But heightened urgency around the transition at a macro level is creating a number of ripple effects. One is the frenzy to purchase IPv4 blocks in bulk where they can be had. Microsoft, for example, offered Nortel $7.5 million for more than 666,000 IPv4 addresses at the end of March. And also emerging are grey and black markets for IPv4 address resale -- the site tradeipv4.com is one such block exchange.

Look for more of those types of trends in the short term, said Jon McCarrick, product marketing manager for virtualization software vendor Parallels.

"I think in the next 12 months we're talking about gray markets and some major providers just hanging on to IPv4 addresses," he said. "There is a certain amount of recycling that goes on, in that companies say, 'It's probably best for me to turn off some of these services and addresses I haven't used for for a while.'"

Another ripple effect is the move by many technology companies to spotlight the issues around IPv6. Google, for example, has been providing data on the availability of IPv6 connectivity among Google users since September 2008. According to the most recent update, Google's graph shows that only about 0.3 percent of Google visitors would be able to access an IPv6 version of Google search at present.

Much is being done at a general awareness level, too. The Internet Society will be staging World IPv6 Day in June, in which a range of participating technology companies -- from Akamai, Cisco and Facebook to Google, Microsoft, Limelight Networks and Juniper -- will be enabling IPv6 on their networks for 24 hours, as a test.

NEXT: The IPv6 Opportunity For Assessment

As customers ask the questions, a number of IT vendors have looked to position themselves for IPv6 thought leadership. One is Cisco, which has a dedicated section of its main corporate Web site devoted to IPv6 education, Cisco products and Cisco IOS technologies to support the transition -- including how to set up Cisco devices to run IPv4 and IPv6 in parallel -- and how to develop an IPv6 transition plan. Another is Brocade, which earlier this month introduced new products and services to properly transition data centers and service providers to IPv6.

Most of the vendors with a stake in networking and infrastructure are at the very least trying to light the path for their channel partners. Count Patrick Bedwell, vice president of product marketing for Fortinet, among vendor executives who see a definite opportunity for solution providers.

"It's definitely time for our partners to be reaching out to their customers to engage around a planning process," Bedwell told CRN. "Identifying the systems they do have in place that are going to be compatible with IPv6, and those that aren't. This is a significant undertaking because essentially every network device is going to be affected."

Many partners will find that in enterprise, customers have IPv6-ready products acquired as part of regular infrastructure upgrades, whether they know it or not. Those products have been available for many years; Fortinet's Fortigate network security appliance, for example, has been IPv6-compliant since 2007, and according to Bedwell, compliant with the U.S. Department of Defense's IPv6 requirements since 2008.

"The U.S. government is a key customer base for us," he said. "We had to invest heavily in IPv6 several years ago."

Solution providers won't find big, forklift upgrade opportunities because IPv6 is more of a gradual transition and not a Y2K-style deadline, Bedwell said.

"Most customers have a refresh plan going anyway, and that might be a structured, capital budget, or it might be something they're just thinking about," he said. "It's not a hard-and-fast deadline like Y2K was."

The VARs that have information and can explain the transition to customers comfortably are the ones that will see early demand for assessments, he suggested. The reason? Many customers, especially in the enterprise, haven't yet felt IPv6 urgency in and aren't yet sure of what IPv6 questions to ask. They're starting to educate themselves as well.

"The question we hear a lot of it: where do I start?" Bedwell said. "What they're reading about is that the address space has now been exhausted. So it's now top-of-mind for a lot of people, and they're slowly realizing that it's not something trivial like uploading a patch onto software."

Which can mean a proactive, rather than reactive, opportunity for the channel.

"It gives you the ability to look like a thought leader in your space," said Parallels' McCarrick. "It's similar to the Y2K problem in that it's, 'Let me go in and give you a solution before you even knew you had a problem.'"

In the short term, McCarrick said, a lot of enterprises will be running dual-stack implementation technologies, which implement IPv4 and IPv6 protocol stacks usually in hybrid form.

That's important for many organizations as they make the IPv6 transition but need to support the move gradually, and some vendors have marketed products that cover dual-stacking. Parallels's recently released Plesk Panel 10.2 control panel, for example, provides complete support on IPv6 on either Linux or Windows servers, and can run each new subscription on IPv4, IPv6 or as a dual stack for both versions simultaneously.

"If I'm a large company with a website that I want a lot of people to reach, I'll want to have an IPv6 architecture as well as an IPv4 architecture," McCarrick said.

NEXT: How Solution Providers Are Benefiting From IPv6

As is typical with gradual transitions happening in IT, solution provider opinion on the level of opportunity for IPv6 transition is a range.

"The short answer is: it depends," said Chris Morales, solutions engineer at Accuvant, a Denver-based solution provider. "The news in Asia is that we're out of IPv4 addresses. That's a big deal -- to Asia. North America doesn't have the shortage of addresses that Asia has. For a lot of companies, as I talk to them, until someone makes them do it, there isn't a big rush to do it."

Accuvant, like many solution providers and integrators involved with the IPv6 transition, finds most of its current IPv6 opportunity in assessment. In other words, said Morales, customers have heard about the IPv6 transition, mentally filed it away as something they need to get done down the road, and thanks to a few recent milestones putting IPv6 back in the news, have started to ask questions.

Accuvant has a handful of Fortune 100 customers requiring intensive IPv6 transition work, but according to Morales, there just isn't a lot of urgency right now.

"There is an opportunity for assessment," Morales said. "People are at least asking: if I get to IPv6, what's it cost me, and what do I get out of it. But for enterprises, there's no immediate business driver to go to it right now. They don't have to do it today. But a lot of it is network assessment, and from a security point of view, finding out will you be able to handle it."

As for specific security issues, Morales said, many of the potential problems related to v6 transition won't reveal themselves for some time.

"We really don't know what some of the big issues are going to be," he said. "Most security issues are application-based, not protocol-based. So for us, it's let's just make sure the network is configured properly and the right gear is in place. You'll start seeing projects based around IPv6, but the two will live side by side for a while."

Fortinet's Bedwell said security problems will emerge when infrastructure products that could troubleshoot threats appearing in IPv4 can't do so as effectively in IPv6.

"The threats that are out there -- the malicious code that customers can get infected with by downloading a file off Facebook or clicking on a link that's in some message for someone -- that stuff is not gong to go away," he said.

While much of the hype surrounding IPv6 is recent, the idea that solution providers and integrators can be key advisers for the transition -- especially for enterprise businesses -- is not.

"This not a new subject, for starters," said Rodney Thayer, a security integrator with RSG Model Works. "But the timeframe is right to look at it. People see the address exhaustion that happened in February, and you can now draw a line between here and some day in the future where you'll need a public IP address for a new site and you won't be able to get it in in a V4 flavor."

NEXT: Separating The IPv6 Experts From The Pretenders

Mike Zozaya, Borderless Networks practice manager for Nexus Information Systems, a Minnetonka, Minn.-based solution provider, is another IPv6 expert who sees definite assessment opportunity, if not an overwhelming customer push to migrate. Nexus drives a lot of infrastructure upgrades behind Cisco's Borderless Networks architecture, Zozaya said, and in one sense, the move is like any other technology transition.

"There is some resistance to change because engineers and technicians get set in their ways," Zozaya said. "When you first look at IPv6, it's a little scary, and you're also dealing with the C-level people who worry it's going to be this expensive upgrade."

The Broadleaf Group's Edwards agreed that much of the work solution providers are seeing now is gap analysis.

"It's 'Here's where your current infrastructure components are, here's how ready they might be'," he said. "I think it's a ways out. It's been in the industry for a while, and we'll be running things in parallel for a while, and in a lot of cases where there are big upgrades, it's because of [an organization] that was going to do a big overhaul anyway."

Scott Hogg has a different take.

"I think the large majority of resellers have totally ignored V6," said Hogg, director of advanced technology for Denver-based integrator Global Technology Resources Inc. (GTRI) and also chair of the Rocky Mountain IPv6 Task Force. "There's really a lack of IPv6 knowledgeable resources at the reseller level. What there is is chatter: those that hear a lot about it and say, 'I want to get in on this.' But there's a small group that's been doing it since 2000 or earlier, and have far more experience on IPv6."

The FUD factor with IPv6, Hogg said, has led not only to increased customer interest, but also a generation of solution provider bandwagon-hoppers.

It's something longtime IPv6 experts like Hogg shake their heads at, not least because IPv6 assessment isn't new, and definitely isn't something for dilettantes.

"They don't know how to create an addressing plan, they don't have v6 training created, and they haven't been involved in the discussion and the conferences," Hogg said. "People should trust those companies that have eight to 10 years or more of experience."

GTRI mounts detailed technical transition plans that include training, integration, licensing and assessment. Even a short engagement, Hogg said, could be an $80,000 job depending on infrastructure and consulting requirements.

Hogg said he now spends 100 percent of his time on IPv6 projects, whereas as recently as a year and a half ago, it was 25 percent or less.

But Hogg and other solution providers agreed they spend a lot of time myth-busting when it comes to customer questions about IPv6 -- it's an area that's endlessly exploitable for marketing.

"There is a lot of FUD around this," said RSG's Thayer. "I've been preaching IPv6 to my customers for a long time, and I'm used to sounding crazy about it. It's not a huge stampede -- we're still seeing early adopters -- but it is picking up."

"It's more of an evolution," Thayer added. "It's not a crisis."

But there is a need, IPv6 experts agreed.

"They've got to have an answer," said Parallels' McCarrick, discussing IT managers. "It's a lot like the Y2K problem where there's fear and urgency about it, yet for many people, Y2K was all hype, and there wasn't a whole lot of danger. But here, this is actually a much more serious problem. The IPv4 addresses are gone, and we're going to have to at some point adapt."