The UK’s IPv6 Failure: Conspiracy Or Cockup?

Peter Judge
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The UK government fumbled IPv6, says Peter Judge. Or did it do that on purpose?

The UK should be ashamed of its failure in IPv6 adoption. The lack of government support for the protocol is a scandal, given the way David Cameron and other ministers continue to promote the idea that Britain is a tech powerhouse. But is there more to this than meets the eye?

Throwing up its hands in disgust, the IPv6 promotion body 6UK disbanded, saying there was nothing it could do to get IPv6 into wider use, given the level of government indifference. The government tossed 6UK £20,000 when it set up in 2010, but has done absolutely naff-all since.

IPv6 Big

“It beggars belief that you can’t access any UK government website using IPv6,” said 6UK’s spokesman Philip Sheldrake.

IPv6? They’ve heard of it

The Department for Business Industry and Skills made a particularly pointless statement: “We will continue to explore with industry and other partners the need for IPv6 and relevant ways in which we may be able to assist.”

Sheldrake and his colleague Nigel Titley of RIPE have spent the last two years – alongside their other jobs – telling government departments EXACTLY what they can do to assist, and it’s quite simple. Just start using IPv6. It is as simple as that.

It’s also not a great cost. ISPs can offer dual stack IPv6 for customers on leased lines (not for broadband users, sorry) and it’s a four line configuration change, says Titley.

With that, the government would promote increased usage of IPv6, and a way out of today’s Internet where increasingly NAT (network address translation) masks different enclaves off from the Internet, breaking the end-to-end addressability which the network was originally supposed to have, by sharing one IP address among many users.

IPv6 increases the number of Internet addresses. Because of NAT, IPv6 hasn’t been essential in the way its original creators thought. NAT allows users to share IP addresses.

But without the ability to address all end systems, the creativity of the early Internet has been lost.

New protocols like VoIP were created with the expectation that any two nodes on the Internet could reach each other using an IP address. In a world of NAT, those protocols can be bodged to work form end to end. You can tell Skype is a kludge of some sort, because it carries on working when your other apps stop.

In the last ten years, no exciting new Internet protocols have emerged, says Titley, because developers no longer have the expecation (or even hope) that they can reach an end system using an IP address.

What kind of things might get developed if we have IPv6? Well, it’s actually hard to talk about what might exist, but the kinds of things that could be developed would most likely involve peer-to-peer networking.  And that is an interesting class of applications – and suggests a possible reason why authorities might not want to support IPv6.

For instance, IPv6-enabled phones might be able to contact each other directly, without going through the centre of the operator’s network. This could be fantastically more efficient, and reduce the load on the network, but it would also allow users to route round the operators’ billing systems.

Among the most enthusiastic users of IPv6 networks are BitTorrent downloaders, who find that peer-to-peer networks facilitate file sharing.

As NAT becomes more widespread, and native IPv4 addresses become impossible to find, NAT will get embedded more deeply into the network. Whole providers, or even conceivably whole countries, might be NATted off from the rest of the Internet, communicating through a gateway.

This might facilitate tighter controls over what people do within those networks, perhaps even allowing the kind of Internet control that was proposed by Russia, China and others at the current WCIT  meeting on telecoms regulations. In fact, of course, as large countries with a well-established Internet presence, Russia and China are among the countries least likely to NAT themselves off. But the Internet would be easier to control within their borders in proportion to the amount which is behind a NAT box.

So, is it possible that the UK government  actually has some nefarious reason for failing to support IPv6? Not very likely in Titley’s view.

“Never ascribe to conspiracy what you can ascribe to cockup,” he said, averring it is far more likely the government is just being dumb.

In any case, end-to-end addressibility would actually promote one of the government’s agendas. The ability to track online activity, as envisaged in the Communications Data Bill or Snooper’s Charter, would become easier, if the Government doesn’t have to rely on a provider’s NAT box to disentangle the actual IP address of a user it wants to track for possible wrongdoing.

So why is the UK government failing to support IPv6? It’s not because they are evil. It’s because they are incompetent.

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