STC offers IPv6 to clients and cloud services

Through supplier Seacom, STC is one of the first in SA to invest in the equipment and training needed to deploy IPv6.

Johannesburg, 14 Jun 2019
Read time 6min 10sec

Smart Technology Centre (STC) is one of the first Internet service providers (ISPs) in SA to roll out a full production Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6) connectivity to its client infrastructure and cloud services platform.

“In essence, an IP address provides a unique location system for computers and devices connected to the Internet or on networks, and then routes this traffic across the Internet,” explains Richard Morris, managing director of STC. "A basic analogy is to compare it to a number plate, which identifies where your computer is from and where it is going across the Internet roadways and what information needs to be sent to and from it.

"We’ve invested in innovation, best-of-breed equipment and training to enable us to deploy IPv6 well ahead of many other ISPs in the country. Currently, those networks that have been connected using IPv6 and dual-stacked with IPv4 are performing well, with roughly 10% to 25% of our current Internet traffic."

IPv4, the de facto protocol used by most electronic devices in SA to connect to the Internet, has been around for many years and is essentially running out of IP addresses. “Things have changed rapidly. No one anticipated the explosion in the number of devices connected to the Internet, from cellphones and laptops to tablets, smart TVs, watches and routers, right down to smart fridges and home automation systems. The need for a robust communication protocol to manage the connectivity of these devices to the Internet is paramount,” says Morris.

“SEACOM has been IPv6-capable since 2011, when we launched our IP/MPLS backbone,” explains Claes Segelberg, chief technical officer at SEACOM, a STC supplier.

"What is important is that we have been promoting IPv6 connectivity to the community and for our customers since we began offering it as part of our IP services. More specifically, IPv6 deployment in consumer environments (such as that being done by STC in their FTTH deliveries) is where the majority of the progress towards IPv6 will happen, and SEACOM is happy to be part of the supporting infrastructure that enables STC to deliver IPv6 to its consumers."

According to Statista, the number of Internet-connected devices (Internet of Things) per person worldwide is expected to reach 6.58 devices per person by 2020, indicating a total of about 50 billion connected devices worldwide. That’s an incomprehensible number of unique IP address configurations. IPv6 provides a more advanced number and letter sequence, known as hexadecimal, that provides Internet addressing to an almost infinite number that should theoretically never run out.

Switching, however, is not a simple process. In certain states in America, IPv4 connectivity has already been completely phased out. In terms of IPv6 implementation, Africa and SA are far behind the curve, scoring a compliance of just 0.63%. This hardly registers a blip when you consider that the United States is at 50% and Europe at 30% in terms of being IPv6-compliant.

“Major content providers such as Facebook and Google have deployed dual-stack networks for the sake of continuity, to make their networks scalable and future-proof, as well as to accommodate countries that are lagging behind on their IPv6 deployment,” explains Morris.

“Essentially, what this means is that a device using IPv4 will eventually only be able to access old legacy content with their outdated IP address, and parallel systems will need to be set up to manage both IPv4 and IPv6 connected devices.

"Consumers should be looking at their choice of ISP and migrating to smarter providers that have fully switched to IPv6, since devices still connected through IPv4 will likely become incompatible. While we don’t foresee IPv4 being phased out in the immediate future, its shelf-life expiry is approaching.

“At STC, we believe it is crucial not to adopt a wait-and-see approach, but rather, to be proactive in raising the standards in the industry and ensuring seamless transitions for our clients in such a way that it does not disrupt their day-to-day operations, functionality, productivity or security,” concludes Morris.

IPv6 vs IPv4 in a nutshell

Q: What is an Internet Protocol?

Every device that connects to the Internet, such as smartphones, notebooks and tablets, all require an identifier. This is a unique identifier, known as an Internet Protocol (IP) address, which is used to identify the particular hardware device and connect to the Internet, thus allowing for data to be transferred across the network. The two most common versions of IP in use today are Internet Protocol version 4 (IPv4) and Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6), both of which come from finite pools of numbers. IPv4 uses 32-bits for its Internet addresses: in a nutshell, that means it can support 232 IP addresses in total; about 4.29 billion. It may have sounded like a lot a few years ago, but the connected age has resulted in almost all of these being used up.

Q: What is IPv6?

A: IPv6 is the sixth revision to the Internet Protocol and the successor to IPv4. The IPv6 address space is 128-bits (2 128) in size, containing a total of 340 282 366 920 938 463 463 374 607 431 768 211 456 IPv6 addresses. This should be enough to keep the internet operational for many, many lifetimes.

Q: When do we start panicking?

A: Don’t panic just yet. Although the current addresses have all been allocated, many of them are still unused and are available to be re-assigned. However, they are an increasingly scarce resource and will create a problem for the Web, as well as for you, your work productivity and everything else that goes with it, in the next few years. Although the depletion of IPv4 addresses was predicted years ago, the switch has been painfully slow and only a fraction of the Web has started to switch. Notably, SA is lagging behind other countries.

Q: Why the hesitation to switch on such a critical issue?

A: Much of this has to do with the fact that running both IPv4 and IPv6 requires special skills, gateways and parallel networks to transmit data between the two. To make the switch, software and routers need to be upgraded to support a more advanced network, and this requires time, money and great skill. Nobody is sure how much the transition will cost or how long it will take, but that’s why it’s crucial that we start the switch early and develop the necessary skills, training and support needed to ensure that the Internet and our critical networks can operate as usual. The alternatives are too dire to contemplate. Procrastination will rob us of our most mission-critical asset if we don’t get this right.

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