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Backbone operators see IPv6 connectivity demand up, but little traffic

Internet backbone operators anecdotally report rising demand from carrier customers for IPv6 connectivity, but it's unclear when large amounts of traffic will materialize.

Internet backbone and wholesale carriers are anecdotally reporting a rapid rise in demand from their service provider customers for IPv6 connectivity—an apparent prelude to the full-scale arrival of the IPv6 Internet as World IPv6 Day looms on the horizon. 

We've seen a tremendous increase in IPv6 traffic. Granted, though, it still comes nowhere near our traffic on v4.

Reid Fishler, director, Hurricane Electric

Backbone operators, however, acknowledge that the amount of IPv6 traffic still pales in comparison to that of its predecessor, IPv4, and that it's still too early to tell how quickly it will grow.

Hurricane Electric, which claims to operate the world's largest IPv6-native Internet backbone, has established three dual-stack (both IPv4 and IPv6) points of presence (POPs) at carrier hotels since March. Citing growing demand from operators for European peering points with IPv6 Internet connectivity, the wholesale provider connected its backbone to the Equinix Paris Exchange last week.

When Hurricane Electric offered native dual-stack services to carriers two years ago, few accepted them, according to Reid Fishler, director of carrier sales and purchasing at Hurricane Electric. Customers were confused or disinterested, but now "the vast majority" of service providers that are buying wholesale access at these Internet peering points are opting for dual-stack—and in rare cases, IPv6-only connections, he said.

"We've seen a tremendous increase in IPv6 traffic. Granted, though, it still comes nowhere near our traffic on v4," Fishler said. "But look at any one of these [Internet] exchange fabrics and compare v6 traffic to v4 traffic. Up until a year ago, you couldn't even rate [the amount of IPv6 traffic], and now you're starting to see it [on the Internet], and you definitely see a lot of the traffic coming in from China and Asia as v6 traffic now."

Hurricane Electric also established dual-stack POPs in Internet exchange point Telehouse Paris Voltaire and VegasNAP in Las Vegas in March. Late last year, demand for IPv6 Internet connectivity prompted Hurricane Electric's POP expansions into peering points Comfluent, in Denver; Equinix Singapore Exchange; and the Northwest Access Exchange in Portland, Ore.

Shawn Morris, manager of IP development at NTT America, said IPv6 Internet traffic is still "a tiny fraction" of all Internet traffic, but NTT America has seen a steady increase of demand for and questions about IPv6 connectivity from its carrier customers over the past few years. A large portion of the demand is coming from service providers in Latin America, which have been slower to adopt IPv6 than carriers in other regions, Morris said.

Demand for dual-stack peering at public Internet exchanges and at private peering points has also increased, said Morris, who oversees network architecture, hardware and software.

"I wouldn't say it's at parity with IPv6, but it's definitely trending in that direction," he said. "That's a big change. In ‘03 and ‘04, we went native [with IPv6 on our backbone] and were ready to peer with any of our peers, but it took a good six to seven years before we really saw an increase in demand."

More requests for IPv6 connectivity, but traffic barely materializing

NTT America could not provide any data regarding IPv6 Internet traffic levels. But in its search for a new network monitoring platform, one of its requirements was more granular visibility into levels of IPv4 and IPv6 traffic, Morris said.

"We don't have any hard statistics ... but we definitely keep seeing more customers adding v6 onto their connections and an increase in the v6 routing table," he said. "But we're also expecting, to be honest, quite a bit of growth in the IPv4 routing table as people start to split up the address space in the run-out. So, we're planning for a large amount of growth in both tables."

Order requests for IPv6 connectivity have doubled every year for the past three years at Global Crossing, according to Anthony Christie, the backbone operator's chief technical and information officer. But that hasn't translated yet into any significant amount of IPv6 Internet traffic on Global Crossing's network, he said.

"The traffic that we're seeing would need to increase 100 times the current levels in order for it to be a meaningful percentage in total traffic," Christie said. "The content, addresses and infrastructure associated with [IPv4] is not yet exhausted, so you wouldn't necessarily expect a switch to flick because someone has decided to order a v6 port on our network."

The American Registry of Internet Numbers (ARIN)—the Regional Internet Registry (RIR) for the United States, Canada and much of the Caribbean—has seen similar rates of growth in requests for IPv6 address space blocs, according to John Curran, president and CEO of ARIN. In 2008, ARIN received 250 requests for IPv6 address blocs from ISPs and hosting providers; in 2009, that rose to just above 400. Last year, ARIN received 700 requests. Within the first quarter of 2011, it has received 500 requests for IPv6 address blocs and expects that to total 1,500 by the end of the year, Curran said. 

"We've seen, for the last three years, the requests for IPv6 address space double," Curran said. "But that may not result in traffic."

Internet backbone provider Level 3 Communications, which recently announced its intention to buy Global Crossing, has seen similar IPv6 connectivity and traffic trends.

"Level 3 has witnessed growth in the number of IPv6 routes that are being advertised, but IPv6 routes still account for a very small portion of all Internet routes," said Mark Taylor, vice president of content and media at Level 3. "Likewise, even as IPv6 Internet traffic is on the rise, it is still small relative to the growth in address announcements."

What will spur growth of the IPv6 Internet?

Backbone operators don't doubt that the IPv6 Internet will grow—but how rapidly or under what conditions is anyone's guess.

Hurricane Electric's Fishler said he expects rapid growth will be spurred by consumer demand for a "killer application" that only functions on the IPv6 Internet.

"If some large Internet-addressable service ... comes out and it needs to have 10,000 servers or whatever it needs, that next thing is going to [require] v6," he said. "That next product, whatever it'll be, will be IPv6 primarily and IPv4 secondarily ... and that's when we're going to see IPv6 take off, and that's when customers and service providers are going to be taken aback [if they can't] do it natively."

Morris, of NTT America, didn't rule out the IPv6 killer app theory but predicted more conservative, steady growth of the IPv6 Internet.

"We're going to see a more gradual increase in IPv6 traffic as time goes on, unless something comes along that's a killer app that's only available on IPv6," he said. "I honestly don't know what that would be ... but something like that might spurn a really quick uptake in IPv6. But what I think we're going to see is more and more organic growth."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Jessica Scarpati, News Writer.

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