Due to the emergence of the WWW (World Wide Web), the Internet has experienced explosive growth with an increasing number of computers communicating via TCP/IP in the last ten years. Since Tim Berners-Lee at CERN (http://public.web.cern.ch) invented the WWW in 1990, the number of Internet hosts has grown from a few thousand to about 100 million.
As mentioned, an IP address consists of only 32 bits. Also, quite a few IP addresses are lost — they cannot be used due to the way in which networks are organized. The number of addresses available in your subnet is the number of bits squared minus two. A subnetwork has, for example, two, six, or fourteen addresses available. To connect 128 hosts to the Internet, for instance, you need a subnetwork with 256 IP addresses, from which only 254 are usable, because two IP addresses are needed for the structure of the subnetwork itself: the broadcast and the base network address.
Under the current IPv4 protocol, DHCP or NAT (network address translation) are the typical mechanisms used to circumvent the potential address shortage. Combined with the convention to keep private and public address spaces separate, these methods can certainly mitigate the shortage. The problem with them lies in their configuration, which is quite a chore to set up and a burden to maintain. To set up a host in an IPv4 network, you need to find out about quite a number of address items, such as the host's own IP address, the subnetmask, the gateway address, and maybe a name server address. In fact, all these items need to be known, meaning they cannot be derived from somewhere else.
With IPv6, both the address shortage and the complicated configuration should be a thing of the past. The following sections tell more about the improvements and benefits brought by IPv6 and about the transition from the old protocol to the new one.
The most important and most visible improvement brought by the new protocol is the enormous expansion of the available address space. An IPv6 address is made up of 128 bit values instead of the traditional 32 bits. This provides for as many as several quadrillion IP addresses.
However, IPv6 addresses are not only different from their predecessors with regard to their length. They also have a different internal structure that may contain more specific information about the systems and the networks to which they belong. More details about this are found in Section 14.2.2. “The IPv6 Address System”.
The following is a list of some other advantages of the new protocol:
IPv6 makes the network “plug and play” capable, which means that a newly set up system integrates into the (local) network without any manual configuration. The new host uses its autoconfig mechanism to derive its own address from the information made available by the neighboring routers, relying on a protocol called the neighbor discovery (ND) protocol. This method does not require any intervention on the administrator's part and there is no need to maintain a central server for address allocation — an additional advantage over IPv4, where automatic address allocation requires a DHCP server.
IPv6 makes it possible to assign several addresses to one network interface at the same time. This allows users to access several networks easily, something that could be compared with the international roaming services offered by mobile phone companies: when you take your mobile phone abroad, the phone automatically logs in to a foreign service as soon as it enters the corresponding area, so you can be reached under the same number everywhere and are able to place an outgoing call just like in your home area.
With IPv4, network security is an add-on function. IPv6 includes IPSec as one of its core features, allowing systems to communicate over a secure tunnel to avoid eavesdropping by outsiders on the Internet.
Realistically, it will be impossible to switch the entire Internet from IPv4 to IPv6 in one fell swoop. Therefore, it is crucial that both protocols are able to coexist not only on the Internet, but also on one system. This is ensured by compatible addresses on the one hand (IPv4 addresses can easily be translated into IPv6 addresses) and through the use of a number of tunnels on the other (see Section 14.2.3. “IPv4 versus IPv6 — Moving between the Two Worlds”). Also, systems can rely on a dual stack IP technique to support both protocols at the same time, meaning that they have two network stacks that are completely separate, such that there is no interference between the two protocol versions.
With IPv4, some services, such as SMB, need to broadcast their packets to all hosts in the local network. IPv6 allows a much more fine-grained approach by enabling servers to address hosts through multicasting — by addressing a number of hosts as parts of a group (which is different from addressing all hosts through broadcasting or each host individually through unicasting). Which hosts are addressed as a group may depend on the concrete application. There are some predefined groups to address all name servers (the all name servers multicast group), for instance, or all routers (the all routers multicast group).
As mentioned, the current IP protocol is lacking in two important aspects: on the one hand, there is an increasing shortage of IP addresses; on the other hand, configuring the network and maintaining the routing tables is becoming a more and more complex and burdensome task. IPv6 solves the first problem by expanding the address space to 128 bits. The second one is countered by introducing a hierarchical address structure, combined with sophisticated techniques to allocate network addresses, as well as multihoming (the ability to allocate several addresses to one device, giving access to several networks).
When dealing with IPv6, it is useful to know about three different types of addresses:
Addresses of this type are associated with exactly one network interface. Packets with such an address are delivered to only one destination. Accordingly, unicast addresses are used to transfer packets to individual hosts on the local network or the Internet.
Addresses of this type relate to a group of network interfaces. Packets with such an address are delivered to all destinations that belong to the group. Multicast addresses are mainly used by certain network services to communicate with certain groups of hosts in a well-directed manner.
Addresses of this type are related to a group of interfaces. Packets with such an address are delivered to the member of the group that is closest to the sender, according to the principles of the underlying routing protocol. Anycast addresses are used to make it easier for hosts to find out about servers offering certain services in the given network area. All servers of the same type have the same anycast address. Whenever a host requests a service, it receives a reply from the server with the closest location, as determined by the routing protocol. If this server should fail for some reason, the protocol automatically selects the second closest server, then the third one, and so forth.
An IPv6 address is made up of eight four-digit fields, each of them representing sixteen bits, written in hexadecimal notation. They are also separated by colons (:). Any leading zero bytes within a given field may be dropped, but zeros within the field or at its end may not. Another convention is that more than four consecutive zero bytes may be collapsed into a double colon. However, only one such :: is allowed per address. This kind of shorthand notation is shown in Output 14.3. “Sample IPv6 Address”, where all three lines represent the same address.
Example 14.3. Sample IPv6 Address
fe80 : 0000 : 0000 : 0000 : 0000 : 10 : 1000 : 1a4 fe80 : 0 : 0 : 0 : 0 : 10 : 1000 : 1a4 fe80 : : 10 : 1000 : 1a4
Each part of an IPv6 address has a defined function. The first bytes form the prefix and specify the type of address. The center part is the network portion of the address, but it may be unused. The end of the address forms the host part. With IPv6, the netmask is defined by indicating the length of the prefix after a slash at the end of the address. An address as shown in Output 14.4. “IPv6 Address Specifying the Prefix Length” contains the information that the first 64 bits form the network part of the address and the last 64 form its host part. In other words, the 64 means that the netmask is filled with 64 1-bit values from the left. Just like with IPv4, the IP address is combined with AND with the values from the netmask to determine whether the host is located in the same subnetwork or in another one.
IPv6 knows about several predefined types of prefixes, some of which are shown in Table 14.4. “Various IPv6 Prefixes”.
Table 14.4. Various IPv6 Prefixes
|00||IPv4 addresses and IPv4 over IPv6 compatibility addresses. These are used to maintain compatibility with IPv4. Their use still requires a router able to translate IPv6 packets into IPv4 packets. Several special addresses (such as the one for the loopback device) have this prefix as well.|
|2 or 3 as the first digit||Aggregatable global unicast addresses. As is the case with IPv4, an interface can be assigned to form part of a certain subnetwork. Currently, there are the following address spaces: 2001::/16 (production quality address space) and 2002::/16 (6to4 address space).|
|fe80::/10||Link-local addresses. Addresses with this prefix are not supposed to be routed and should therefore only be reachable from within the same subnetwork.|
|fec0::/10||Site-local addresses. These may be routed, but only within the network of the organization to which they belong. In effect, they are the IPv6 equivalent of the current private network address space (e.g., 10.x.x.x).|
|ff||These are multicast addresses.|
A unicast address consists of three basic components:
The first part (which also contains one of the prefixes mentioned above) is used to route packets through the public Internet. It includes information about the company or institution that provides the Internet access.
The second part contains routing information about the subnetwork to which the packet shall be delivered.
The third part identifies the interface to which the packet shall be delivered. This also allows for the MAC to form part of the address. Given that the MAC is a globally unique, fixed identifier coded into the device by the hardware maker, the configuration procedure is substantially simplified. In fact, the first 64 address bits are consolidated to form the EUI-64 token, with the last 48 bits taken from the MAC, and the remaining 24 bits containing special information about the token type. This also makes it possible to assign an EUI-64 token to interfaces that do not have a MAC, such as those based on PPP or ISDN.
On top of this basic structure, IPv6 distinguishes between five different types of unicast addresses:
This address is used by the host as its source address when the interface is initialized for the first time — when the address cannot yet be determined by other means.
The address of the loopback device.
The IPv6 address is formed by the IPv4 address and a prefix consisting of 96 zero bits. This type of compatibility address is used for tunneling (see Section 14.2.3. “IPv4 versus IPv6 — Moving between the Two Worlds”) to allow IPv4 and IPv6 hosts to communicate with others operating in a pure IPv4 environment.
This type of address specifies a pure IPv4 address in IPv6 notation.
There are two address types for local use:
This type of address can only be used in the local subnetwork. Packets with a source or target address of this type are not supposed to be routed to the Internet or other subnetworks. These addresses contain a special prefix (fe80::/10) and the interface ID of the network card, with the middle part consisting of null bytes. Addresses of this type are used during autoconfiguration to communicate with other hosts belonging to the same subnetwork.
Packets with this type of address may be routed to other subnetworks, but not to the wider Internet — they must remain inside the organization's own network. Such addresses are used for intranets and are an equivalent of the private address space as defined by IPv4. They contain a special prefix (fec0::/10), the interface ID, and a sixteen bit field specifying the subnetwork ID. Again, the rest is filled with null bytes.
As a completely new feature introduced with IPv6, each network interface normally gets several IP addresses, with the advantage that several networks can be accessed through the same interface. One of these networks can be configured in completely automatic fashion, using the MAC and a known prefix, with the result that all hosts on the local network can be reached as soon as IPv6 is enabled (using the link-local address). With the MAC forming part of it, any IP address used in the world is unique. The only variable parts of the address are those specifying the site topology and the public topology, depending on the actual network in which the host is currently operating.
For a host to go back and forth between different networks, it needs at least two addresses. One of them, the home address, not only contains the interface ID but also an identifier of the home network to which it normally belongs (and the corresponding prefix). The home address is a static address and, as such, it does not normally change. Still, all packets destined to the mobile host can be delivered to it, no matter whether it operates in the home network or somewhere outside. This is made possible by the completely new features introduced with IPv6, such as stateless autoconfiguration and neighbor discovery. In addition to its home address, a mobile host gets one or more further addresses that belong to the foreign networks where it is roaming. These are called care-of addresses. The home network has a facility that forwards any packets destined to the host when it is roaming outside. In an IPv6 environment, this task is performed by the home agent, which takes all packets destined to the home address and relays them through a tunnel. On the other hand, those packets destined to the care-of address are directly transferred to the mobile host without any special detours.
It is unlikely that all hosts connected to the Internet will switch from IPv4 to IPv6 overnight. A rather more likely scenario is that both protocols will need to coexist for some time to come. The coexistence on one system is guaranteed where there is a dual stack implementation of both protocols. That still leaves the question how an IPv6 enabled host is supposed to communicate with an IPv4 host and how IPv6 packets should be transported by the current networks, which are predominantly IPv4 based.
The first problem can be solved with compatibility addresses (see Section 22.214.171.124. “Structure of an IPv6 Address”), the second one by introducing a number of different tunneling techniques. IPv6 hosts that are more or less isolated in the (worldwide) IPv4 network can communicate through a specially wrapped channel — IPv6 packets are encapsulated as IPv4 packets to move them across an IPv4 network. Such a connection between two IPv4 hosts is called a tunnel. To achieve this, packets must include the IPv6 destination address (or the corresponding prefix) as well as the IPv4 address of the remote host at the receiving end of the tunnel. A basic tunnel can be configured manually according to an agreement between the hosts' administrators. This is also called static tunneling.
However, the configuration and maintenance of static tunnels is often too labor-intensive to use them for daily communication needs. Therefore, IPv6 provides for three different methods of dynamic tunneling:
IPv6 packets are automatically encapsulated as IPv4 packets and sent over an IPv4 network capable of multicasting. IPv6 is tricked into seeing the whole network (Internet) as a huge local area network (LAN). This makes it possible to determine the receiving end of the IPv4 tunnel automatically. However, this method does not scale very well and it is also hampered by the fact that IP multicasting is far from widespread on the Internet. Therefore, it only provides a solution for smaller corporate or institutional networks where multicasting can be enabled. The specifications for this method are laid down in RFC 2529.
With this method, IPv4 addresses are automatically generated from IPv6 addresses, enabling isolated IPv6 hosts to communicate over an IPv4 network. However, a number of problems have been reported regarding the communication between those isolated IPv6 hosts and the Internet. The method is described in RFC 3056.
This method relies on special servers that provide dedicated tunnels for IPv6 hosts. It is described in RFC 3053.
|The 6bone Initiative|
In the heart of the “old-time” Internet, there is already a globally distributed network of IPv6 subnets that are connected through tunnels. This is the 6bone network (www.6bone.net), an IPv6 test environment that may be used by programmers and Internet providers who want to develop and offer IPv6-based services to gain the experience necessary to implement the new protocol. More information can be found on the project's Internet site.
The above overview does not cover the topic of IPv6 comprehensively. For a more in-depth look at the new protocol, refer to the following online documentation and books:
An article series providing a well-written introduction to the basics of IPv6. A good primer on the topic.
Here, find the Linux IPv6-HOWTO and many links related to the topic.
Visit this site if you want to join a tunneled IPv6 network.
The starting point for everything about IPv6.
The fundamental RFC about IPv6.
A book describing all the important aspects of the topic. Silvia Hagen: IPv6 Essentials. O'Reilly & Associates, 2002 (ISBN 0-596-00125-8).