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The Impact of IPv6 on Mobile Data Networks

Fri, 06/04/2010 - 9:37am
Dave Kresse, Mu Dynamics

Of the many issues facing mobile operators in this tumultuous era, there is one major network transition that is quickly moving into the spotlight – the move from IPv4 to IPv6. Put in the starkest terms, if Y2K was a ticking time bomb, IPv6 is a slow gas leak.

Why is this issue so serious? Mobile operators' engineering departments are already swamped with testing for new 3G devices coming online, managing network resources in order to cope with the demands of data traffic and prepping their own 4G deployments and the associated ecosystem of new devices. With the percentage of available IPv4 addresses today at around 7 percent, it's no longer a question of if they will run out, but when. Forecasts are as early as 2011 for total Dave KresseIPv4 exhaustion. Unlike Y2K, which was a single point in time, the IPv6 transition is not. IPv4 addresses are not being disabled or un-supported – rather, they will continue to co-exist in what is known as a dual-stack environment with v6 for many years to come.

Many operators are unprepared for the transition to IPv6. Testing for new 3G devices alone (such as the more than 1 million iPads sold in just a month) is more than enough to keep operators up at night. The IPv6 transition adds yet another dimension of complexity to these initiatives. 

The challenges mobile operators will face with the transition to IPv6 include:

Functionality Migration
A mistake mobile operators can easily make is the assumption that if their underlying networking infrastructure supports IPv6, the migration will execute flawlessly. However, many of today's applications contain IP addresses embedded within higher-level protocols, such as SIP - one example being Voice over IP (VoIP). This means that without specifically developing IPv6 support for that application, it will not behave correctly when migrated. Also, the variety of operating systems that might connect to their network will all behave differently when operating in both IPv4 and IPv6 environment. Key elements such as domain name resolution need to be thoroughly tested because all applications depend on this working flawlessly.

Regression/Interoperability
Applications and services must be able to coexist over both v4 and v6 stacks. This means mobile carriers will need to ensure that every phone, for example, with IPv6 support is able to communicate both with other IPv6 phones of all makes and models, as well as all those supporting only IPv4. All transition mechanisms within the network will need to be exercised to ensure that each potential element in an operator's network is going to work well.

Security/Resilience
Application-aware systems such as DPI, IPS and firewalls have all had years of development and patches that have gone into detecting and managing attacks and exploits over IPv4. But how do you ensure that old v4-based attacks are properly detected and handled when they come in over IPv6? And what about the tunneling schemes that would allow IPv6-based exploits to be tunneled over v4?

What do these challenges mean for mobile operators? Without an appropriate transition plan in place, complete with adequate testing, mobile operators will experience unexpected and undesired consequences associated with their move to IPv6, including specific applications, services and devices failing to work as expected and perhaps as serious as a complete network meltdown.

The Government Shows The Way
The U.S. government has taken a proactive role in moving the adoption of IPv6 forward. As of July 1, 2010, all new procurements of networking infrastructure must reference the "USGv6 Test Program," which means they are appropriately tested for IPv6 conformance, interoperability and network protection.

The University of New Hampshire InterOperability Lab (UNH-IOL), and ICSA Labs, are the only two labs authorized by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to evaluate whether products meet USGv6 product requirements.

What Do Mobile Operators Need To Do Today?
Mobile operators will have to re-test every element within their current networks, as well as ensure their 4G networks under development can support both IPv4 and IPv6 simultaneously. A prudent strategy would be to implement a testing solution that allows an operator to leverage a single suite of tests which can seamlessly switch back and forth between IPv4 and IPv6 – thereby preventing the need to maintain and extend two independent sets of tests for the years to come when we will be living in a dual-stack world. 

In addition, operators may want to use this transition as an opportunity to re-evaluate their current testing tools and strategy. There are new and innovative testing approaches that have proven to be more effective in meeting the challenges mobile operators have for testing their networks, especially given the uniqueness and rapid rate of change associated with them. Instead of relying on "canned" tests that will at best serve as an approximation of their real world environment, new, more effective approaches use the mobile operator's own real service traffic as the basis for test creation. This not only allows tests to be created more rapidly, it also allows them to more accurately test the actual services being deployed by the operator.

Unless a mobile operator adopts this new, real world testing approach, they are only testing an approximation of what is going to happen when their service is deployed. And that means introducing significant risk into their business. In today's competitive environment, a poor product launch could cost a mobile operator hundreds of thousands or millions of subscribers. This can translate to millions of dollars in lost revenue.

So when you start your IPv6 migration effort in earnest, make sure your testing is taken just as seriously.

Dave Kresse is CEO of Mu Dynamics.

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