24 hours to shape the Internet's future

The internet is fast running out of addresses. By the end of the year it is thought that almost all the available addresses for computers, smartphones and websites will have been exhausted. The best solution to ensure that the web can grow to its full potential is to change the way the system reads websites' addresses by moving to the next generation of addresses, known as IPv6.

However, this system has never been used at a global scale and potential problems need to be uncovered before it can become the internet's new standard. As befits the role of a leading research organisation, the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute is collaborating with leading internet providers and websites in a 24-hour global experiment - World IPv6 day. The goal of this day is to tackle this pressing issue and drive forward the change needed ensure the continued delivery of full and free access to data and resources to the research community via the web.

On Wednesday 8 June, the Sanger Institute will joining with a diverse range of more than 300 organisations, institutions, companies and governments to trial the future language of the internet: World IPv6 day. From 1am UK time (00.00 UTC) to 1am (UK) on Thursday morning, alongside Facebook, Google, Cisco, Yahoo, Sony, universities and many US Government departments, the Sanger Institute will open its websites to visitors using two methods of delivery: the current standard of IPv4 and the future standard of IPv6.

For more on how IPv4 and IPv6 work, please visit the 'IPv4 and IPv6 explained' tab.

For more on the possible effects of World IPv6 day, please visit the 'Possible Effects' tab.

This change is needed because IPv4 is about to run of addresses for all the websites, computers, smartphones and internet-enabled devices that are coming on stream. In fact, the last major batch of available IPv4 addresses (about 80 million of them) were given out in a ceremony on 3 February 2011. It is expected that all these addresses will have been taken by September 2011.

The inherent problem with IPv4 is that it has the ability to describe only 4.3 billion addresses. When it was introduced in the 1970s this seemed to be enough addresses to last a lifetime, but the phenomenal growth of the internet and connected devices has gobbled these up. Cisco systems has predicted that more than 15 billion devices will be connected to the internet by 2015 and, with more than 6.9 billion people in the world, it is clear that IPv4 in its current form is not sustainable.

"IPv4 has been a great servant of the internet. But, 30 years after it was introduced, it is coming to the end of its useful life and needs to be replaced by a more capable system," says Phil Butcher, Head of IT at the Sanger Institute. "IPv4 doesn't have the ability to cope with the staggering numbers of people and devices that want to connect to the internet. This has the potential to damage worldwide collaborative research by denying researchers access to the data and services they need. The system needs to move to IPv6 as soon as possible and we hope that participating in World IPv6 day will help to drive this forward."

The Sanger Institute is participating in a 24-hour global test-flight of the next generation of internet addresses.

The Sanger Institute is participating in a 24-hour global test-flight of the next generation of internet addresses.

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The best solution is to move the internet's mailing system to IPv6, a system that contains many trillions times more addresses than IPv4. In fact, IPv6 can produce 340 undecillion (that's 340 x 1036 IP addresses). This should ensure more than enough capacity for many lifetimes of growth.

However, the move to IPv6 is stalled by a 'chicken and egg' conundrum. Although the new addressing system was designed in the 1990s and its technical foundations are now well established, not everyone is using currently equipment that can handle IPv6. It is estimated that roughly 0.05% of internet users won't be able to connect to websites that offer both IPv6 and IPv4 (a system known as 'dual stacking'). Naturally, many websites are not keen to move to a system that might cause problems for 1 in 2000 of their users, yet the issue must be addressed.

To uncover any problems that might occur with a switch to IPv6, and to create an event to drive forward the change, the Internet Society is coordinating a global experiment. The society - a charity dedicated to ensuring the open development, evolution and use of the internet - is using this day-long event to create a common focus to bring together all stakeholders in the internet to resolve any issues: from governments and universities, to internet service providers, operating system suppliers and hardware manufacturers. To support the day, the Sanger Institute has been building IPv6 capacity into its systems for some time and it is keen to help drive the change.

"Our network is IPv6 ready and enabled in a number of our systems and we are continuing to roll out addresses across all our services. For IPv6 day we will be participating in the event by advertising our websites via both IPv4 and IPv6. In fact, our main website is already available via IPv6 as http://ipv6.sanger.ac.uk," says Jon Nicholson, networks team leader at the Sanger Institute.

Taking part in the day is important to the Sanger Institute because the aim of ensuring that the internet remains free, open and robust for decades to come chimes with the Institute's guiding ethos of open and free access to data to benefit collaborative research around the world to benefit mankind.

" The system needs to move to IPv6 as soon as possible and we hope that participating in World IPv6 day will help to drive this forward. "

Phil Butcher, Head of IT

"The supply of IP addresses is close to exhaustion, particularly in Asia. IPv6 is the future of the internet and has been shown to work well on many networks. However, it has never been trialled at the global scale before," explains Paul Bevan, web team leader at the Sanger Institute. "By participating in this 24-hour experiment with major websites across the world, we hope to uncover any problems in a controlled way and share this knowledge to enable websites, internet service providers, telecoms companies and hardware manufacturers to make the switch to IPv6."

The Sanger Institute is pleased to be able to help with this global venture to benefit collaborative research and data-sharing. For an organisation that was at the forefront of the global partnership to sequence the entire human genome, it is fitting that it should be participating in such a mammoth project to ensure that such data is available to all for generations.

IPv4 and IPv6 explained

All internet connected devices and websites have an IP address so that the internet's servers know where to send information to. When you type a website's address (or URL) into your browser, the system needs to convert it into an IP address so that it knows which computer to connect to.

To do this, the system uses the internet's equivalent of a phonebook, known as the Domain Name System (DNS). At the moment, the vast majority of IP addresses in the DNS resolve to IPv4 - the current standard for addresses. So even if you have an IPv6-enabled machine that is connected to an IPv6-enabled network, you will still be connected to another computer or website using IPv4.

(Some websites have been set up to use IPv6, but generally you need to type in a special web address (such as http://ipv6.sanger.ac.uk, or http://ipv6.google.com) to connect using the new protocol.)

On World IPv6 day, the Sanger Institute, along with more than 300 organisations, will advertise both IPv4 and IPv6 addresses in the DNS. This will allow users with IPv6-enabled devices to connect via IPv6 without needed to use the special address. Users without IPv6 connectivity will continue to access the sites using IPv4 as normal.

IPv4 uses four sets of numbers and letters to describe every address - known as 'dotted quad'. For example, one of the IPv4 addresses of the Sanger Institute is: 193.62.203.105. This 32-bit system allows for approximately 4.3 billion addresses.

In comparison, IPv6 uses 8 groups of 4 letters and numbers separated by colons. For example, one of the IPv6 addresses of the Sanger Institute is: 2001:0630:0206:0004:0000:0000:0000:0105. IPv6 is a 128-bit system and offers 96 bits more than IPv4. It can supply more than 340 undecillion (or 340 x 1036) addresses or 79 octillion (or 79 x 1027) times more addresses than IPv4.

Possible Effects

The Institute's participation in the global internet 'test flight' does come with a small risk of disruption during the day for researchers accessing the Sanger Institute's data. "We expect that almost all users will experience no difference on World IPv6 Day and will be able to use our sites and services without problems. After 24 hours we will stop advertising our websites via both addresses and will assess the impact it had in affecting researchers' ability to access our data," explains Jon Nicholson.

"Since this is an experiment some researchers may find that a few things don't work correctly. For the most part, this will be due to problems for home users who have routers that aren't configured correctly for IPv6 or aren't connected to an IPv6-enabled network. For example, some people may find there is a longer than usual delay in connecting to a site because their device that is able to use both IPv4 and IPv6, but is on a network that can't use IPv6. The delay occurs because of the time it takes for the device to decide between using IPv4 and IPv6."

However, the good news is that the trial is just for 24 hours and will allow such problems to be resolved in the future.

Contact the Press Office

Don Powell Media and Public Relations Manager
Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, Hinxton, Cambs, CB10 1SA, UK

Tel +44 (0)1223 496 928
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Email press.office@sanger.ac.uk

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