Colleges join internet goliaths in long-awaited protocol change

Colleges are expected to use IPv4 for another decade.

June 6 was perhaps the most important day in the history of the commercial internet, and hardly anyone noticed.

Google, Facebook, Yahoo!, and a host of the web’s most visited sites made the switch to the Internet Protocol Version 6 that day—known as World IPv6 Day—marking a momentous shift from the old protocol, IPv4, after it ran out of web addresses last year.

Colleges and universities have followed suit as well, turning to IPv6 after years of preparation on the part of campus technology leaders and their IT staffers, and so far, everything has gone smoothly.

Campus technology officials said students and faculty reported some difference in the speed of the campus network in the hours and days after the transition, likely because the IPv6-supported machines are using a far less congested network.

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The absence of blaring headlines about internet slowdowns and outages was a decidedly good thing for campus technology officials who have made network alterations and hardware upgrades for years ahead of World IPv6 Day.

“I would say the change from IPv4 to IPv6 is certainly going to be one of the single biggest overhauls in the fundamental foundation of the internet,” said Casey Russell, director of IT at Fort Scott Community College in Kansas, where the IT staff first made plans for the IPv6 shift in 2008.

Small campuses like Fort Scott, Russell said, probably can make the major changes necessary to move away from IPv6 far more quickly than a massive research institution.

Shifting to the new protocol four years ahead of World IPv6 Day wasn’t prompted by any “external pressures” or stalled by bureaucratic infighting, he said.

“At universities, you have many more layers of decision making to get through,” he said. “It’s just a much more complicated setup at the university level. … It wasn’t like that for us, so we decided to take the plunge.”

Colleges and universities in early 2012 looked to The Domain Name System Security Extensions (DNSSEC), along with the Internet Society, for advice on how to make the protocol shift. The groups introduced a website in January, called Deploy360, that included case studies, best practices, and a host of technical papers designed to help IT officials convert to IPv6.

Richard Jimmerson, member of the Internet Society and head of Deploy360, said research universities connected to the ultrafast Internet2 network were ahead of the curve in switching from IPv4 to IPv6.

Higher education overall, he said, was on par with the private sector in preparing for the change.

“It’s quite a significant day because the future of the internet is iPv6,” Jimmerson said. “The internet cannot continue to grow the way it has without IPv6. IPv4 was never intended for a commercial global internet, so really what this does is signifies a starting point for the future of the internet.”

Scarcity of IP addresses certainly won’t prompt the next internet protocol switch. While IPv4 had about 4.3 billion addresses, IPv6 will provide more than 300 trillion trillion trillion IP addresses. Experts expect the old protocol to stick around in some capacity for another decade as the shift to IPv6 continues.

Industry estimates project that 80 percent of the web is still running on IPv4.

In fact, even schools at the forefront of the IP address protocol conversion said they took a “dual stacking” approach, meaning both protocols will run on campus for many more years before every desktop, laptop, and mobile device operates via IPv6.

Russell said colleges and universities that have invested hundreds of thousands in outdated legacy systems won’t make the full IPv6 conversion for years because that legacy equipment wasn’t made to run on the new protocol.

“It takes a long time to work that equipment out of the market,” he said. “They’ll be around for a long time to come. IPv4 is not going anywhere anytime soon.”

In a whitepaper detailing Oxford University’s transition away from IPv4, Guy Edwards, the university’s network development and support officer, said college IT departments should wait for scheduled hardware updates “rather than spending money to replace a large quantity of equipment” in their effort to convert to the new protocol.

Some of the world’s biggest, most popular websites “turned up” IPv6 on June 6, 2011, one year before the official protocol launch date, to ensure there were no glitches that would cause web users problems in June 2012.

“What you saw demonstrated last year was that everyone turned it up for a day, and nothing broke,” Jimmerson said. “Now it’s turned up and it’s the new normal.”

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