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IPv6 connectivity up; enterprises begin to take note

The 2014 North American IPv6 Summit showcased the growth of the protocol and shed some light on what enterprises are doing to (finally) adopt it.

DENVER -- Is it finally time to put a stake in all the discussion about IPv6's arrival? Proponents of the protocol have been championing its essentialness ever since the standard was first approved 15 years ago.

Leave it to the North American IPv6 Summit, which wrapped up late last month, to once again make IPv6's case: Speakers contended that adoption of the protocol is firmly on its way. In just one measure, IPv6 connectivity is now available to 10% of U.S. users, according to Google. The search giant added that almost 4.5% of traffic to its website is now v6-enabled. That doesn't sound like much, but Internet IPv6 adoption growth rates have eclipsed 150% in the past year, according to one assessment of Google's statistics.

Almost a third of .gov websites, meanwhile, support v6, according to the National Institute of Standards and Technology. And mobile providers such as Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile are migrating to v6 as well, with Verizon's deployment of the protocol topping 50%, according to statistics from the Internet Society.

The summit, as it usually does, trotted out a lineup of speakers who all discussed the importance of accelerating the industry's adoption of IPv6.

But it also featured two enterprises that are internally deploying IPv6. Although many websites and core Internet providers have moved to the protocol, enterprise adoption remains stubbornly slow, said Tom Coffeen, IPv6 evangelist at IP address management vendor Infoblox Inc.

"It will continue to be a challenge for the enterprise," Coffeen said. But, he added, "IPv6 is here." IPv4 address exhaustion -- the last U.S. address blocks are all but gone -- is just one reason to make the move. Equally important, he said, is the evolution of the Internet of Things (IoT), which will cause a "data flood of services" that consumers and businesses will struggle to access unless the protocol is adopted. "It's a scale issue and one that requires the addressing that IPv6 provides," Coffeen said.

Smart meter project enabled by IPv6, utility says

Sara Bavarian, senior engineer at BC Hydro, the power company serving Vancouver, British Columbia, said the company is using IPv6 to anchor an ambitious Cisco-based field area network designed to provide smart meters to more than 1.8 million residential and commercial customers in the province.

Because of the size of the network and long-term investment, we ruled out IPv4.
Sara BavarianBC Hydro

The network also includes some 10,000 sensors to assess the system's health via devices attached to approximately 200,000 transformers and other BC Hydro grid components.

"This is more than metering. We had to have the vision to go beyond that," Bavarian said about the four-year-old initiative. When the project is complete in the next 12 to 18 months, BC Hydro will be managing more than 2 million IPv6 devices on its low-power 6LOWPAN network.

"Because of the size of the network and long-term investment, we ruled out IPv4," she said. "We wanted to have a standardized foundation and didn't want to install something that at its end-of-life would no longer be supported."

Additionally, v6 will enable BC Hydro to gain real-time visibility into the grid with network management and monitoring tools. "This is something that for the power distribution industry is unheard of," she said. BC Hydro also intends to extend performance data to consumers, who will be able to obtain real-time feedback on their energy usage through a smartphone app. "This kind of relationship is a new paradigm for the industry," she said, adding that these tools will underpin BC Hydro's energy conservation efforts.

BC Hydro's mesh topology network will use a series of data collectors, each of which will support up to 2,000 smart meters, or 4,000 in failover mode. The use of 6LOWPAN, a technology that governs wireless connectivity in low-power settings, will let the utility concentrate on network design and not bandwidth, said Tony Mauro, a specialist engineer at Powertech Labs, the BC Hydro subsidiary that helped architect the network.

"This will be one of the biggest IoT platforms in the world, so we wanted to look at low cost and low data as opposed to spending huge dollars on bandwidth," he said. Using IPv6 and the Routing Protocol for Low-Power and Lossy Networks, the protocol designed for low-power deployments, will let BC Hydro flatten its mesh topology, which can now extend to as many as 30 hops, Mauro said.

Security, meanwhile, will be handled via a variety of protocols and standards, including device certificates and link layer encryption. "It's a huge concern, and this is the model we believe will be seen across other IoT deployments because security is so important," Mauro said.

Merger of banks fueled IPv6 examination

Wells Fargo began to lay its IPv6 groundwork five years ago, following its acquisition of Wachovia in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. John Burns, Wells Fargo's lead architect, said that when engineers and executives began examining how much address space the combined bank would need, "Right at that point, we said, 'Huh. This is a major problem, not having a ton of registered space.'"

Executives suggested IPv6, but at the time, Burns said, the bank was in no position to consider it. "It's a great idea and we [would have] loved to be able to, this was is back in 2009, we were still a Windows XP shop, etc.; there is no way in a merger you'd even to try to take this on. But it did get [IPv6] on our radar screen."

As a result, the bank kicked off an informal agenda to evaluate the protocol. "We couldn't just drop a bunch of people in a room and say, 'Believe in v6, go' and have them run out and say 'I'm converted,'" Burns said. "So we started tracking what the industry was putting out,” with Wells Fargo IT staffers taking time to attend conferences, review white papers and check the consumption of v4 address space.

In February 2011, when the Internet Assigned Number Authority announced that the last IPv4 addresses were allocated, Burns said it was time to act. "That's when we said we have to take this up to leaders and begin to do something about this," he said. "Now we can get the CIO to listen and take it more seriously."

After conducting a series of studies and establishing formal committees to spearhead IPv6's adoption, the bank last May took its first v6 steps, initially focusing on the DMZ "for reasons that should be obvious," said Wayne Smith, Wells Fargo's technology program strategy manager and the IPv6 initiative's enterprise sponsor. "The public Internet-facing stuff is, we think, the most relevant for the kinds of changes we are making." The bank's wellsfargo.com website is in the finishing stages of being IPv6-enabled.

The bank is also in the early stages of deploying the protocol in its data centers --Wells Fargo has seven core data centers and 100 regional operations -- incorporating IPv6 in its server and backbone environment. The last phase -- to be completed over the next several years -- will be the end-user and access space, Smith said. That would include services used by the bank’s employees, which now number approximately 265,000.

Wells Fargo is taking a phased approach for several reasons, with Smith explaining that unless there were specific drivers pushing the bank to refresh equipment to enable IPv6, the organization would rely on “organic processes” to drive the process.

In the meantime, Wells Fargo, in a controlled introduction, placed a "tiny sliver" of outbound proxy traffic in one of its data centers -- as well as some inbound VPN traffic and a third-party imaging application -- on the IPv6 protocol, Smith said. "We have demonstrated successes that we can take and say, 'See this works, it didn't cause any problems' and now all we need to do is replicate that model over and over throughout the environment."

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