IPv6 Deployment

IPv6 Transition at IETF 72

By: Geoff Huston

Date: October 7, 2008

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The developmental work of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) on IPv6 has, from the outset, included the study of the particular issues associated with transition to IPv6. The first effort to explore the transition space was at IETF 29 in March 1994, and it was termed TACIT, an acronym of Transition and Coexistence including Testing. While it was admittedly a forced acronym, it was illustrative of the IETF’s desire to include consideration of transition issues as part of the design of IPv6 itself. The underlying consideration here is a study of how a diverse amalgam of applications, hosts, and network elements that collectively make up the Internet and the related collection of enterprise networks can be upgraded, selectively augmented, or replaced in order to support IPv6 and, ultimately, to deprecate all further use of IPv4 while at the same time preserving all of the essential, “any-to-any” end-to-end property of the Internet Protocol (IP) through the transition. From the TACIT birds-of-a-feather sessions, the baton was then passed to the NGTRANS working group in July 1995 at IETF 33. This working group was active until IETF 55 in mid-2002, when the baton was again passed-this time to the V6OPS working group, which met first in early 2003 at IETF 56. The study of transition to IPv6 has now broadened in scope, and today a number of IETF working groups are examining aspects of transition to IPv6, including the SOFTWIRE, BEHAVE, and INTAREA working groups, in addition to V6OPS.

Given that this study now encompasses a period of 14 years, what exactly are the issues with respect to the transition to IPv6, and why is this transition taking such a long time?

Backwards Compatibility

This is not the only transition we’ve faced at the basic level of protocol infrastructure, and the conventional approach is to make the changes “backward compatible” Backward compatibility can take many forms, but typically involves some form of initial negotiation between communicating parties that establishes whether both parties are capable of recognising and using some extension or new attribute. For example, the Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) is in the process of transitioning from 16-bit Autonomous System (AS) numbers to 32-bit AS numbers. This BGP transition uses a combination of translation and tunnelling that allows a BGP speaker configured to use the longer AS numbers to be backward compatible with the existing installed base of BGP that uses the 16-bit AS number format. The protocol specification of BGP includes an initial capability negotiation when BGP is first started up up, allowing a “new” BGP speaker to establish whether its BGP neighbour is also capable of supporting longer format AS numbers or not. As a result, upgraded versions of BGP can co-exist with older versions of BGP, so that the overall transition of BGP to use 32 bit AS numbers can be undertaken on a piecemeal basis. This particular backward-compatible translation technique relies on a combination of capability negotiation and the properties of hop-by-hop interpretation of tokens, where AS-number values are interpreted in a strictly local context.

IP is an end-to-end protocol, as distinct from a hop-by-hop protocol, and an IP packet’s destination address needs to have meaningful context at all points in the network. IP itself is a connectionless datagram protocol, without any form of capability negotiation. Its also a very challenging exercise to equip a network with intermediaries that attempt to change the IP packet header midflight. This implies that the use of translation and substitution to create backward compatibility has limited applicability in the context of IP itself.

A Classical Transition

The original approach to IPv6 transition could be termed a “classical” view of transition. Because IPv6 is not a backward-compatible augmentation of IPv4, it is not possible to deploy new hosts and network infrastructure with support for only IPv6 and have these networks, devices, and applications exchange IP packets with their IPv4 counterparts. An application that is equipped with IPv6 requires its host to have IPv6 support in its protocol stack, and for the host to be able to communicate, the network is required to have IPv6 support. And if an application wishes to communicate with another application, all the networks on the path between the two hosts also must be configured to support the transmission of IPv6 packets. In other words, a “complete” deployment of IPv6 requires all applications, hosts, and network infrastructure and middleware to be aware of IPv6 and explicitly configured to handle IPv6 packets. In this classical form of transition, the major constraint is to avoid any flag day, or any other form of synchronized or orchestrated common activity across the entire network. Individual elements of the network should be able to undertake their part of the transition without requiring any action to be performed on any other element. The transition should be a piecemeal activity. This classical approach, in general terms, assumes that each application, host device, and network element is able to make an independent decision as to when to enable support for IPv6. To preserve connectivity of the network as a whole, then, as and when each network element or end device is configured with support for IPv6, it would not “cut over” and remove all IPv4 support from the device, but, instead, it would support the operation of both IPv4 and IPv6 for an extended period. This was termed the dual-stack transition approach. This mode of progressive shift of the elements of the Internet to a dual-stack operation would continue for as long as there were essential components of the overall environment-from applications to Internet infrastructure-that support only IPv4. Only when the entire connectivity domain was supporting comprehensive dual-stack operation would it be possible to deprecate IPv4 from the network and remove all support for this protocol.

Figure 1
Figure 1. The Progressive Stages of IPv6 Transition

The issue with this approach to IPv6 transition was that it relied on a strong mix of altruism, common purpose, and shared motivation, as well as a high level of technical capability from everyone: from suppliers and vendors through to network operators and even end users. For early adopters of IPv6, whether it was application designers, suppliers of host operating systems or routers, or network operators and system administrators, the investment in dual-stack capability in their area of responsibility would generate the greatest extent of resultant benefit only when the transitional dual-stack phase was complete. In other words, there was no immediate reward for those early adopters of IPv6, and late adopters did not experience any detrimental side effects, because the full benefits of an outcome of IPv6 adoption would be realized only once the entire environment adopted IPv6 in a dual-stack configuration with IPv4, at which point IPv4 could be deprecated from the operational network.

This approach assumes that all parties are equally motivated to undertake this transition, and that each party will do so as quickly as possible. It also assumes that all applications, all connected devices, and all components of the network’s infrastructure are capable of being configured to operate in dual-stack mode. Perhaps those assumptions may have been feasible in practical terms if IPv6 had been in a position to offer very significant cost, performance, or functionality improvements over IPv4. In such a case the superior characteristics of the new technology would have propelled the transition process. However, any such major relative improvement in performance, cost, and utility is not the case in a comparison of IPv6 with IPv4, because IPv6 represents only a marginal change in the underlying network design. Following a further decade of incremental refinement in both IPv4 and IPv6 we have the current situation where, apart from the larger address fields in the packet header, there is no significant relative change in IPv6 from a performance or benefit perspective. In addition, the Internet itself is now so much larger and so much more diverse that commonality of purpose is difficult to sustain. These days, altruism often takes a backseat to business interests as the Internet now operates as a collection of quite conventional business enterprises. Indeed, since the bursting of the Internet bubble at the start of this decade, this sector of business is relatively conservative as well, and far greater emphasis is placed on securing immediate returns on invested capital over and above the undertaking of longer-term investments and with less-certain outcomes. This implies that any such commonality of purpose and a vision of a longer-term outcome is extremely challenging to sustain in the face of shorter-term considerations.

The combination of these factors creates a situation that has been incapable of sustaining the operation of this “classical” transition process. So the IETF was motivated to look at transition in slightly different terms-to see whether this approach could be refined to offer some more-immediate benefits to early adopters and not to stall the entire process while awaiting completion of the late adopters of dual stack.

Transition with Incremental Outcomes: Tunnelling

The initial refinement to this original transition model, explored in the NGTRANS working group, was intended to allow various IPv6-only and dual-stack applications to support IPv6 from the outset, so that any benefits related to IPv6 could be realized immediately and not be forced to await the actions of the slowest adopters to also make their moves. The motivation involved the restoration of simple application programming interfaces for applications, the restoration of coherent end-to-end packet delivery in an IPv6 network, and the benefits that this clear and simple application architecture offers to applications that operate in an over-the-top mode. Such an end-to-end packet transport environment offers strong end-to-end channel security as well as restoration of the uniform binding of IP address to end-point identity in the IP architecture.

The objective of the attempt to operate in an end-to-end IPv6-only mode over a largely IPv4 substrate network led to the development of a number of approaches to IPv6 transition that relied on tunnelling techniques, wherein IPv6 packets are encapsulated in an IPv4 packet wrapper, allowing these IPv6 “islands” to treat the IPv4 network as a form of transmission media, or a non-broadcast multicast network. That led to the development of the general technique of carrying IPv6 packets in IPv4 by treating IPv6 as an IPv4 protocol-namely protocol 41.

Figure 2
Figure 2. IPv6 in IPv4 Tunnelling

The general characterization of this approach to this form of dual-stack transition was to allow the initial “islands” of IPv6 adoption to connect to each other via these tunnels, essentially creating an IPv6 connected network from the outset. As more of the infrastructure adopted the same form of dual-stack support, these islands would start to directly interconnect, making the islands larger and the tunnelled gaps shorter. As these gaps shrink to the point of general dual-stack support, it may be an option to then tunnel the remaining IPv4 traffic over IPv6, but perhaps that’s getting well ahead of ourselves right now.

Figure 3. Transition Using Tunnels

While the motive and logic for the use of tunnels in this transition scenario are certainly sound, the overhead here is that tunnels normally require explicit configuration of both ends of the tunnel, and any form of tunnel topology that attempts a fully meshed interconnection of the IPv6 islands runs into an N-squared scaling problem in tunnel configuration almost immediately.

This, in turn, has led to exploration of approaches that supported the concept of fully meshed tunnels-but with an extremely simple single end configuration. This is achieved by associating an IPv4 tunnel endpoint in an endpoint IPv6 address. When such a packet is passed to a tunnel ingress, the IPv4 tunnel egress address is defined by the original IPv6 destination address, so that the tunnel does not have to be explicitly configured at both ends. One of these is the 6to4 technique, which generates an IPv6 48-bit prefix by prepending 2002::/16 to the front of the 32-bit IPv4 address. This allows a dual-stack gateway to double as an IPv6 tunnel egress, serving a local network of IPv6 hosts with tunnel services. Each 6to4 gateway, or 6to4 individual host, needs only to configure its end of the tunnel. All IPv6 packets between 6to4 sites are passed directly from 6to4 gateway to gateway. To complete the picture, each local 6to4 network needs to provide 6to4 gateway service for IPv6 packets from non-6to4 IPv6 networks.

Figure 4
Figure 4. 6to4 Tunnelling

A related form of embedding IPv4 in IPv6 addresses to aid in autotunnelling is ISATAP, the Intra-Site Automatic Addressing Protocol, which embeds the IPv4 address in the interface identifier field of the IPv6 address to support a local scope automated IPv6 over IPv4 tunnelling approach. These approaches can be combined, so that an enterprise can construct an IPv6 network with a single infrastructure gateway that creates the prefix and tunnels over the wide area network by using 6to4 while tunnelling over the local area network by using ISATAP.

The shortcoming of the 6to4 approach is that it assumes a general availability and use of public IPv4 addresses. A single host behind a network-address-translation (NAT) gateway cannot use this approach given that the implicit IPv4 tunnel endpoint is drawn from a private address pool and is therefore not visible outside the IPv4 private address scope. It also requires firewalls to be aware of protocol 41 and apply the IPv6 filter rules to the inner IPv6 packet.

The Teredo approach addresses both of these concerns by using explicit support for NAT traversal, and embedding the IPv6 packet inside an IPv4 UDP transport session rather than as an IP transport. Teredo takes a relatively conventional approach to NAT traversal, using a simplified version of the STUN active probing approach to determine the type of NAT, and uses concepts of “clients,” “servers,” and “relays.” A Teredo client is a dual-stack host that is located in the IPv4 world, possibly behind a NAT. A Teredo server is an address and reachability broker that is located in the public IPv4 Internet. A Teredo relay is a Teredo tunnel endpoint that connects Teredo clients to the IPv6 network.

The tunnelling protocol used by Teredo is not the simple IPv6-in-IPv4 protocol 41 used by 6to4. IPv4 NATs are sensitive to the transport protocol and generally pass only Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and User Datagram Protocol (UDP) transport protocols. In Teredo’s case, the tunnelling is UDP, so all IPv6 Teredo packets are composed of an IPv4 packet header and a UDP transport header, followed by the IPv6 packet as the tunnel payload. Teredo represents a different set of design trade-offs compared with 6to4. In its desire to be useful in an environment that includes NATs in the IPv4 path, Teredo is a per-host connectivity approach, compared with 6to4’s approach, which can support both individual hosts and end sites within the same technology. Also, Teredo is now a host centric multiparty rendezvous application, and Teredo clients require the existence of dual-stack Teredo servers and relays that exist in both the public IPv4 and IPv6 networks. From Teredo’s hos tcentric perspective, it could be said that Teredo is more a connectivity tool than a service solution.

Figure 5
Figure 5. Example of a Teredo Rendezvous

The common feature of all of these transition approaches is the use of tunnels. Tunnels are extremely convenient in terms of their ability to interconnect diverse islands of IPv6 without requiring any change to the intervening IPv4 infrastructure. However, tunnels are not without their attendant problems. Tunnels can be fragile, unstable, and challenging to diagnose. The issue of Internet Control Message Protocol (ICMP) treatment within tunnels is a good example, where a return ICMP error notice is sent not to the original source host, as intended, but to the tunnel ingress point that is the source address of the outer tunnel packet. The inner payload, which contains the initial fragment of the original packet, also includes the tunnel header. The critical point here is the interplay between end-to-end signalling and Maximum Transmission Unit (MTU) discovery. Where there is a tunnel MTU mismatch coupled with an ICMP handling problem, the situation often manifests itself as a TCP “hang”, where the initial SYN handshake succeeds, but the first large data packet is never transmitted. A typical dual-stack implementation will lock into IPv6 or IPv4 at the point of completion of the initial TCP handshake completion, and the data payload problem then causes the user’s application to hang. The name to protocol family association is now locked into the user’s cache, so that resetting the connection and forcing the application to use IPv4 rather than IPv6 is invariably beyond the user’s direct control.

So, is it possible to avoid tunnels and still achieve incremental outcomes for early adopters of dual stack? Behind all of the transition scenarios so far lies the assumption that IPv4 and IPv6 support distinct universes of connectivity. However, both protocols present much the same set of functions to the upper-level transport protocols, and the header fields of the protocol are similar. Just how bad is this backward incompatibility of IPv6 with respect to IPv4? Is it completely impossible for an IPv4-only host to initiate, maintain, and close a conversation with an IPv6-only host and vice versa? If one allowed various forms of intermediaries, including protocol-translating NATs and various permutations of Domain Name System (DNS) servers, is this still impossible? Probably not impossible, but it would go well beyond the conventional mode of packet protocol header manipulation and would call upon protocol header translation, cross-protocol NAT bindings, DNS manipulation, and various forms of application level gateways.

An approach to this form of translation was described in RFC2766, “Network Address Translation-Protocol Translation (NAT-PT).” The approach creates a number of security vulnerabilities and appears to operate with a high level of assumption about application behaviours, making its operation extremely fragile. The NAT-PT approach was subsequently deprecated in RFC 4966 which consigned NAT-PT from Proposed Standard to Historic status, with the comment: “Accordingly, we recommend that: the IETF no longer suggest its usage as a general IPv4-IPv6 transition mechanism in the Internet, and RFC 2766 is moved to Historic status to limit the possibility of it being deployed inappropriately.”

IPv4 Exhaustion and IPv6 Transition

The one common assumption in all of these transition scenarios is that this dual-stack transition will take place across the period when there is still sufficient IPv4 addresses to address the entire Internet across the entire transition phase and that the event that IPv6 was primarily intended to avert, the exhaustion of the supply IPv4 addresses from the unallocated pool, would not occur during the transition process.

It is generally anticipated that this transition will take up to a further decade to complete from the current time, while depletion of the unallocated IPv4 address pool may occur within the next two to three years. On one hand, while the overall transition toolbox always assumed a wide array of deployment approaches, this forecast shortage of IPv4 will shift the scaling trade-offs for transition approaches in ways that will be more complex and more expensive to operate than the simpler, dual-stack approach would have been. On the other hand, this is a forced scenario because there is no opportunity to go back in time to try this transition again under different circumstances.

Whatever scenario of IPv6 transition we contemplate, it now has to be one that will take into account the forthcoming acute shortage of public IPv4 addresses, which implies an environment that is heavily reliant on various forms of NATs and possibly some further extensions to NAT behaviours and NAT deployment models, including the possibility of augmenting the NAT-at-the-edge deployment model with various forms of NAT in the middle, as the industry contemplates the potential of so-called carrier-grade NATs and related approaches.

The challenge as we undertake these new technical approaches will be to not lose sight of the fact that short-term cost pressures need to be balanced against the collective long-term desirable outcome of an achievable exit strategy from the ever more complex environment of keeping IPv4 operating.

IETF 72 Activity

In IETF 72, the issues that we have been confronting, with this combination of dual-stack transition to IPv6 and IPv4 address depletion, were discussed in a number of working groups, as well as the Technical Plenary session. What follows is a brief summary of the relevant activity in each of those working groups. While these brief summaries provide a general overview of current activities, the brevity of the description here can get in the way of precision, and the reader is referred to the proceedings of the IETF 72 meeting and of course the associated Internet Drafts for a more complete description of these technical contributions (http://www.ietf.org).

At the Technical Plenary, the IETF was shown some of the underlying metrics of address allocation and the current predictions of depletion of the unallocated IPv4 address pool in 2011. The prospect of broadening the domain of NAT deployment from the edges of the network to parts of the interior boundaries using carrier-grade NATs was also foreshadowed at that session. A report of the experience gathered at Google pointed to a pragmatic approach to dual-stack deployment that advocated undertaking IPv6 support designed to the same production quality standard as IPv4. It was reported that Google was not in a position to dual stack its major service point at present, given that IPv6 today still represents lower reliability and higher latency for some users as compared with IPv4 connectivity to the same service point. A presentation by Apple pointed to consumer products that already make use of IPv6 link-local addressing. The presentation also looked at a dataflow model of connection establishment in a dual-stack environment, where both IPv4 and IPv6 connections are initiated in parallel, and the first path to successfully complete the DNS and initial packet exchange to complete the connection is the protocol that is associated with the application’s original connection request.

Figure 6
Figure 6. A Dataflow Model of Protocol Selection [Adapted from: Stuart Cheshire, Apple, IETF 72 Plenary]

The V6OPS working group is looking at some of the basic operational tools to support transition, and, in particular, a reexamination of the requirements for V4-V6 translation mechanisms to see whether there may be viable approaches to provide the original NAT-PT function that might address some of the shortcomings in the original specification. The basic problem being addressed by that effort can be envisaged in a scenario where there are no more IPv4 addresses and a network domain is deployed using only IPv6, and this domain wants to be able to communicate with a domain that is still operating in IPv4 only and has not deployed IPv6. At IETF 72, the working group reviewed a set of goals to see whether there could be a viable set of requirements that could be refined from such a set. While this approach of first defining a set of requirements and then working on potential solutions is a conventional mode of operation for the IETF, the consideration relating to market timing, where deployment of a solution is anticipated to be needed by 2010, is a very sobering call to focus the effort here. A related effort concerns the evaluation of modified NAT behaviour, where the conventional binding space of a vector of inner and outer addresses and ports and an associated protocol is replaced by an outer-side address and port and an inner-side tunnel identifier and an address and port that refer to the NAT device at the other end of the tunnel. The essential concept here is that the NAT function is then a distributed function across a common outer-facing-edge device and the set of inner NATs that are used as a customer-premises-equipment (CPE) device. Other work presented at IETF 72 included a review of proposed refinement of the Teredo specification that would improve its NAT behaviour discovery function from the simple two-mode discovery in the current specification to a mode that discovers up to eight different NAT types. The motivation here is that the more Teredo traffic that can be off-loaded from the Teredo relay to an optimized peer-to-peer connection, the more reliable the Teredo performance. Related work has been reexamining the security issues that are exposed by the use of tunnelling and the potential for disruption and hostile attack on the tunnel.

The BEHAVE working group started out with a charter to provide some standard specifications for the behaviour of IPv4 to IPv4 NAT units, but in recent times this has been expanding to encompass examination of the role of NATs in various IPv6 transition scenarios, including examination of NATs that perform protocol translation. The current agenda of contributions to review includes the IVI scheme-a proposal to use bidirectional address mapping between subsets of IPv6 and IPv4 addresses to allow a form of stateless transition wherein the binding of the translation is carried in the address fields of the packet itself. Another approach to NAT-PT is also being studied. In this case, the asymmetric nature of conventional 4-to-4 NATs is exploited and a proposal for a 6-to-4 NAT was made to the working group. In this contribution, the communication is initiated by the IPv6 host, and the synthesized view of the remote IPv4 world is provided by embedding the IPv4 address in the synthesized IPv6 address. The NAT64 host performs a protocol translation by extracting the IPv4 address out of the IPv6 destination address and providing one of its own addresses as the source address of the IPv4 packet. A NAT binding state is maintained-indexed by the IPv4 address values. The reverse packet performs a binding lookup, allowing the IPv6 destination address to be substituted, and the source IPv4 address is again wrapped up in the synthesized IPv6 packet. BEHAVE also reviewed a contribution calling for specification of the carrier-grade NATs, whereby the NAT translation function is provided at the interior boundary of an Internet service provider (ISP) network in conjunction with NATs being performed at the CPE edge.

The SOFTWIRES working group has also been involved in aspects of the IPv6 transition with regard to consideration of Softwires NAT, or SNAT. SNAT combines IPv4 NAT and IPv4-in-IPv6 softwires to carry IPv4 traffic through the ISP network that uses only IPv6 service. In essence, this approach creates a split NAT whereby the inner NAT is connected to the outer NAT via an IPv6 software tunnel. Multiple CPE NATs are multiplexed through a single external NAT, thereby reducing the total number of IPv4 addresses in use by the ISP.

Figure 7
Figure 7. Softwires SNAT

The INTAREA meeting considered a proposal that calls for standard handling of MTU negotiation, fragmentation, and signalling for tunnels. Given that tunnels appear to be major components of this piecemeal IPv6 transition model, the consistent treatment of tunnelled traffic appears to be an emerging, near-term imperative for the transitioning Internet and for the IPv6 Internet as well. The impending exhaustion of the IPv4 address pool has caused another critical-use address proposal to emerge. In this case, it’s a call for reservation of IPv4 unicast address space to be used within a carrier’s infrastructure for bridging the gap between the carrier-grade NAT at the boundary of the carrier’s network and the CPE devices at the boundary to the customer. Given the often protracted debates such calls for reservation of address space often engender-and the relatively short time frame left for exhaustion of the remaining pool of IPv4 addresses-it’s not clear whether the IETF will be able to reach a clear consensus on this proposal in the remaining time available.


There is no doubt that the impending exhaustion of the IPv4 unallocated address pool adds some level of urgency as well as an element of complexity to the IPv6 transition agenda, and the work of the IETF will no doubt increase in intensity in future meetings. It appears we’re now working under strict time pressures to develop the standard specification for tools and protocol mechanisms that need to be fielded into production networks within a very compressed time frame; and having every vendor, every network operator, and every operating system suppler devise distinct approaches runs the risk of making the situation more difficult than it would otherwise be.

The challenge for the IETF is to ensure some clarity of focus on the work concerning transition tools for IPv6 that also would assist in increasing the address utilization efficiency of IPv4 addresses and to be mindful of the increasingly strident call for standardization of these hybrid technologies that couple tunnelling, address mapping, NATs, and protocol transformation in ways that application designers, operating system vendors and providers, and operators of networking infrastructure can use in simple and effective ways.


The foregoing views do not necessarily represent the views or positions of either the Asia Pacific Network Information Centre or the Internet Society.

About the Author

GEOFF HUSTON is chief scientist at APNIC, the Regional Internet Registry serving the Asia Pacific region. He holds both a B.Sc. and an M.Sc. in computer science from Australian National University. Geoff has been closely involved with development of the Internet for many years-particularly within Australia, where he oversaw initial build of the Internet within the Australian academic and research sectors. He is author of a number of Internet-related books; was a member of the Internet Architecture Board from 1999 until 2005; and served on the Board of Trustees of the Internet Society from 1992 until 2001. Visit Geoff’s Web site at www.potaroo.net.