Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Google, Facebook test IPv6 Internet upgrade

Today hundreds of Internet giants, including Google and Facebook, are participating in the first worldwide "test flight" of a major engineering upgrade to the Internet's infrastructure.

You didn't notice a thing? Good.

Wednesday is World IPv6 Day, a clunky name for an experiment that should be invisible to Web surfers but plays a critical role in keeping the Internet running smoothly.

One of the Net's foundational layers is the Internet Protocol, a global communications standard used for linking connected devices together.Every networked device you own -- your PC, smartphone, laptop, tablet and other gizmos -- has a unique IP address. The problem is that we're running out of them. The current system, called IPv4, has the technical capacity to handle 4.3 billion addresses. They're almost all used up: The last remaining batch was assigned out in February.

The solution is a next-generation protocol called IPv6. Just as the U.S. telephone system handled soaring growth by increasing the digits in each telephone number, the new IP system -- under development for more than 12 years -- uses longer addresses to fit more devices into the network.

Internet is expanding at breakneck speed

The old system could handle several billion addresses. IPv6 has room 340 undecillion of them. That's 34 followed by 37 zeros -- enough for every human on Earth to have trillions of personal gadgets.

But the two systems aren't easy to integrate; they're essentially parallel, independent networks. Internet service providers, operating system manufacturers, browser developers and website operators have been working for several years on the extensive technical changes needed for the switch. Wednesday's experiment is the first global road test of their work.

For 24 hours, starting at midnight UTC (8 p.m. ET) more than 400 major websites around the world are switching their sites over to IPv6 delivery. Google (GOOG, Fortune 500), Facebook and Yahoo (YHOO,Fortune 500) are leading the charge.

When all works well, users won't even notice the change.

"The vast majority (99.95%) of people will be able to access services without interruption: either they'll connect over IPv6, or their systems will successfully fall back to IPv4," Google wrote earlier this week in a blog post about the test. "However, as with any next-generation technology, there may be teething pains. We estimate that .05% of systems may fail to fall back to IPv4, so some people may find Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Bing and other participating websites slow or unresponsive on World IPv6 Day."

Google has a tool posted at that you can use to test your own connection.

'Ready for prime time': Planning for World IPv6 Day began last year through the Internet Society, a global standards-setting organization with headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, and Reston, Va. Internet service providers said they were ready to support IPv6 -- but it would be an empty gesture without IPv6 content for them to steer their customers to.

Getting Google, Yahoo and Facebook all on board for the test deployment was key, according to Leslie Daigle, the Internet Society's chief Internet technology officer. It's an "everyone leap at once" moment. Even if the forecasts prove true and just a fraction of 1% of the Internet's users encounter glitches, that adds up.

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