IPv6: Asia's Agent of Change

Back to Contents of Issue: July 2003

Northeast Asia leads the way in giving everything including the kitchen sink an Internet address

by John Alderman

ON THE INTERNET, AS on a city street, location is everything. In a world of data where an address is the only proof of being, getting a location is the foremost concern; lose that and existence stops. Internet Protocol (IP) is the way the Internet determines a user's address and identifies a packet of data. It works by assigning addresses to everything connected to the Net (which then becomes a host), and including those addresses in the headers attached to the packets of data transmitted on the Net. Only with such an address can information be sent and received. The problem is, this protocol was set nearly 30 years ago, when the popularity (and coming ubiquity) of the Internet was not even a dream. The current standard, IPv4, was developed in the 70s and adapted by Darpa, an organization of the American Department of Defense, in 1981. While France, for instance, was busy with its own Minitel network, the Internet was originally built mostly by and for Americans, so the United States ended up with the lion's share of addresses, approximately 74 percent.

Internet Protocol Version 6 (IPv6) is the agent of change. Approved by the current standards body, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), "a large, open, international community of network designers, operators, vendors and researchers," IPv6 will be more equitable. Making the change overnight would be expensive, though, because new hardware is required; so it is taking time, the change happening incrementally as providers routinely update older hardware. But with the backing of the Japanese government (JPY8 billion in 2001 alone) and industry, along with that of other countries like South Korea and China, IPv6 is coming to Asia first. Both the Japanese and Chinese governments have set a target date of 2005 for full implementation.

As things get serious, the amateurs are turning pro, and big services are launching. The 6Bone, an IETF free test bed for checking IPv6 since 1996, announced in March that it would no longer accept new applicants and would begin completely phasing itself out by 2005, as commercial services become the norm. In Japan, large-scale Internet access provider Internet Initiative Japan rolled out its "IPv6 Gateway" service in March, targeting ISPs, ASPs, contents providers, household-appliance makers, the medical industry, automakers and hardware and software developers. A company signed up with the service is provided approximately 3x1026 IP addresses per contract so that they can assign IPv6 addresses to each of their products or services.

Behind the momentum in Asia are two things: A simple need for more addresses and something even more visionary -- a plan in which nearly all electronic devices, including phones, televisions, refrigerators, elevators, trains and automobiles, become part of the network. For personal electronics manufacturers in Japan and the rest of Asia hoping to regain some economic momentum, IPv6 is an issue of great importance. With the network in place, the usefulness, effectiveness and ultimate success of a whole new range of devices -- consumer and enterprise -- will be decided.

"In Japan, 1,200 taxis are connected
with IPv6 and receive weather and traffic
information while roaming through town

According to Silvia Hagen, the Swiss-based IPv6 consultant and author of the technical resource IPv6 Essentials, what drives the deployment in Asia is basically just the address space problem. "Realize," she says, "that the US holds approximately 70 percent of the total IPv4 address space (with a population of about 300 million people) and, for instance, China has 20 million IPv4 addresses and needs 320 million just to connect their educational networks." Providers in the US such as Genuity, she points out, sometimes have more IPv4 address space than almost all of Asia. Resourceful administrators have developed something of a hack by employing Network Address Translation to assign private addresses to groups of users working out of the same IP address. This reduces privacy and can put a strain on systems, so it's hardly a desirable fix.

For the Internet to fulfill even its most basic level of service in a country like China, the switch to a new protocol is certain. Says Hagen, "They simply have no choice ... How do you want to connect China to the Internet with IPv4?"

In 1992, as the Internet was beginning to gain momentum (two years before the first advertising-based Web sites appeared), IETF began work on a new protocol to address a lack of addresses. IPv6 is a combination of the best of them. IPv4 offers a maximum of 4.3 billion addresses, divided unequally. IPv6 will provide 3.4x1038 addresses. With such a number, it hardly matters if the division is equitable. IIJ is offering each customer of its Gateway service more addresses than are currently available in the whole Internet using IPv4. At least from the perspective of the early 21st century, that's an incredible abundance.

"If you imagine that IPv4 was developed in the early 70s, and it is capable of running today's networks that were beyond imagination at that time, the developers did an awesome job," Hagen says. "The same people have now learned from more than 20 years of experience with IPv4 and developed IPv6, which will be able to deal with the networks and services of today and tomorrow."

Tomorrow's services are where things get interesting. Junichiro "Itojun" Hagino, a researcher in the IIJ laboratory, affirms that his company is pushing the standard as a way to ensure the vision of "every house connected via DSL" and also to rectify a situation in which US students with laptops each have their own IP address, while those in Asia do not have that luxury. "It isn't fair," he says. "IPv4 is not enough for supporting IP-enabled cellphones, IP-enabled vehicles, IP-enabled home appliances, IP-enabled PDAs, IP-enabled watches and what have you. IPv6 is a must for all of us."

IPv4 is not enough for supporting IP-enabled
cellphones, vehicles, home appliances, and
what have you. IPv6 is a must for all of us.

Of course, fairness isn't everything, and Hagino admits another reason why Japanese industry is so serious about IPv6: "(We) are seeking a way to get more market share in Internet-related equipment, routers, switches, whatever, during the transition period." Hitachi is an early subscriber to IIJ's IPv6 Gateway service, clearly planning on giving a boost in services to its IPv6-compliant GR2000 series of routers, which it markets worldwide.

And it's not just servers. For Japan, as with the rest of Asia, a region with a long history of turning new technologies into seductive and profitable consumer goods, this is important. Computer use continues to grow, but Internet-linked devices and networked everything could be a much bigger boom. A network increases in value exponentially as its users rise afterall: One fax machine in a void has no value. As more of our world becomes a part of the Internet, having reliable access to that network becomes more valuable, just as unforeseen uses arise. IPv6, by giving more than enough addresses to assign one for every inch on the planet, paves the way for interesting effects. A Berkeley, California, company called Dust was founded in 2002 to sell millimeter-sized networked computers, or "motes." Who knows what will arise when a single network connects your phone in Tokyo, laboratories in Northern California painted with such "smart dust" and all the video cameras in the world? While no one knows, it's a safe bet that Japanese and Korean manufacturers will have some nice equipment to make it consumer friendly.

Another researcher, Nobuo Okabe, manager at Yokogawa Electric, has recently made a telling change in his activities. Okabe, along with others from the University of Tokyo and Yokogawa Digital Computer Association, founded the Tahi organization (www.tahi.org) in 1998 to write free software that tested and verified IPv6 implementations. This kind of industry-sponsored standards help is a typical way of driving change on the Net, and Tahi seems to be doing its job admirably. But Okabe has recently traded the reins of that project for Taca (Tiny software and system Architecture for non-Computer Appliances, www.taca.jp), a group focusing on some big action: getting non-computer appliance makers to switch to IP in its updated version. Or, in the project's words, the group "researches, develops and opens technologies that enable 'everything on IPv6.'"

Persuading manufacturers to build devices that use the Internet instead of proprietary networks is one of Taca's chief goals. This is challenging, Okabe says, because people using non-Internet networked technologies work in areas that "are very cost sensitive" and sometimes have a hard time seeing the advantages in switching to the Internet. "Internet technologies are obviously more costly than the many legacy/closed/proprietary network technologies," he says. "To introduce Internet technologies impacts CPU performance, code size, work area size or memory size on a system of non-Internet areas."

While Okabe says that IPv6 is "necessary" for future development, solving address space, adding a plug-and-play function and enabling end-to-end communication, he sees difficulties in the short term because so many companies have investments in legacy systems with specialized protocols. But eventually it will be hard to compete with the advantages offered by one network that a vast number of great minds are constantly working to improve and in which so many have a deep investment. Taca's strategy to convince industries is to "show them the big picture" and the many benefits of Internet technologies.

Tomorrow's services are where
things get interesting

IPv6 offers features that will give more consumer and corporate confidence in the Net. A security feature (IPsec) is a mandatory part of the package, giving end-to-end security from your computer, phone or refrigerator all the way to its destination. The ability to set the priority to data packets ensures that pieces of data for time-sensitive applications, streaming audio or video will arrive without the gaps that cause annoying static. Multicasting, which lets a computer send a single stream that later gets picked up by many end users, is also allowed. This is a much more efficient way of handling bandwidth-intensive streams like movies and concerts on demand. Also a plug-and-play ability will allow any new device to instantly give itself a permanent IP address, useful if loads of networked devices pop on the scene. "IPv6," Hagen says, "will restore the simple Internet as it was supposed to be, with end-to-end connections and end-to-end security."

Connection with the Internet can come in many different ways -- via wireless LAN, Bluetooth, a power line (Echonet), a wire-line LAN (Ethernet) or IEEE 1394. Getting there is going to be very easy. How to deal with all of these new residents is the kicker, so IPv6 is needed. As the model of a personal computer tied to the desktop grows into a world of portable and accessible devices, new functions emerge. Hagen has seen implementations that affirm her belief. "In Japan, 1,200 taxis are connected with IPv6 and receive weather and traffic information while roaming through town. In Germany there is a beautiful project called GANS (Guardian Angel System). Two universities together with Ericsson have implemented a system where emergency teams can connect with experts back at the hospital if they are in need of help for a patient in critical status. They press one button to connect to the center (over IPv6) no matter where they are. The network is used to transfer pictures, voice and vital data."

For Japan, as for the rest of Asia, the stakes in getting it right are very high, because a next generation of appliances rests on having workable, dependable access to the Internet. Even those who are unconvinced of the need for a Net-enabled toaster might be grateful for that solid network when a rescue team starts to operate. @

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