By: Jesse Cryderman
It's hard to talk standards without covering a standard that touches every piece of IP-based traffic on the planet: Internet Protocol, or IP.
IP addressing is a little like phone numbering, in that it's subject to number exhaustion. Residents of densely populated cities like New York City are familiar with phone number exhaustion. As more and more people sign up for phone service, area codes run out of numbers, and new area codes are added.
Instead of 10 or 11 digits routing voice traffic to phones at the end of the line however, IP addresses route data packets to networked devices using a different numbering schema. And while there is a logical limit to how many people can inhabit a specific plot of land (in biology, it's called the carrying capacity), there is no limit to the number of networked devices that can exist.
Like phone numbers, addresses for IPv4 (IP version 4, the current IP addressing protocol) might look like an 11-digit number to a human—126.96.36.199, for instance. In reality, those digits are actually hexadecimal representation of 32-bit binary expressions; in other words, numbers that make sense to people vs. computers. Computers work in the cold world of binary code, and each IPv4 address is actually 32 ones and zeros in sequence. The number of variations in a 32-digit binary sequence then, is approximately 4 billion, which is a big number, representing a lot of IP addresses.
However, 4 billion is no match for the connected world of today, and as more and more devices—from televisions to automobiles—become networked, the number of IP addresses required to support this evolution must be able to scale beyond our wildest expectations.
Enter IPv6, the addressing standard to rule them all.
A Big Number
In order to keep pace with the explosion in connected devices, 32-bit addressing just won't cut it. The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) decided that 64-bit addressing is also too limiting, and instead settled on a 128-bit addressing scheme. That means each IP address would be comprised of a 128 digit sequence of ones and zeros. The number of variations, or addresses, enabled by IPv6 is massive; 340 trillion trillion trillion, or 34 x 1038 addresses. This is equal to every atom in the human body managing 8 billion unique IP addresses. Suffice it to say, IPv6 should have no problem keeping up with the connected universe.
Aside from providing an addressing scheme designed to (possibly) outlive the human race, IPv6 has the additional benefit of providing innate security to the data packets it shuttles around the globe. Internet Protocol Security (IPsec) encrypts and authenticates packets of data traveling on an IPv6 network. IPsec is another standard specified by the IETF. While IPv4 + IPsec solutions are in use currently, they are not the norm; with IPv6, all standards-compliant implementations must utilize IPsec. And unlike widespread security standards like SSL, IPsec is application and platform agnostic. If your network is running on IPv6, it is much more secure than in the past.