[Paleopsych] CHE: Missing the Boat, or Penny-Wise Caution?
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Fri Apr 15 20:29:26 UTC 2005
Missing the Boat, or Penny-Wise Caution?
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.3.11
Few colleges embrace an upgraded Internet system
By VINCENT KIERNAN
David Lee can do something cool on the Internet that the researchers
at your institution probably can't.
And it is not that Mr. Lee is smart and hard working, and has a spiffy
computer, though he is and does. It's because the University of
California at San Diego, where he is an applications engineer, has
configured its campus network so that some of its researchers can use
an emerging Internet technology, called Internet Protocol version 6,
that most American colleges have so far ignored.
Using the upgraded network technology, which engineers more commonly
call IPv6 or even simply "v6," Mr. Lee helps researchers on the San
Diego campus control a giant electron microscope in Osaka, Japan, and
see live, ultrasharp images produced by the device.
The microscope is connected to Japanese computer networks that use
only IPv6 and do not understand its predecessor, Internet Protocol
version 4, which computer networks on most American campuses, and in
most homes and businesses, use exclusively.
"We couldn't do this without IPv6," says Mr. Lee, who has been using
the technology since 1998, first with expensive custom-made networks
and more recently through networks such as Internet2's Abilene
Campus technology managers are facing the latest instance of that
all-too-common question of the wired age: Upgrade now, or wait? Sure,
their networks can do most everything they need at the moment, but as
more research devices like that Japanese microscope require IPv6-ready
wires, colleges that fail to embrace the technology could discover
themselves effectively cut off from much of the Internet. And unlike
so many other problems that bedevil campus IT officials, adding IPv6
to a campus network costs little. At least that's what proponents of
the technology say.
But critics retort that there is no hurry, and that it will be far
cheaper and less disruptive to gradually phase in the upgrade rather
than make a crash conversion. Colleges, they say, would be prudent to
take a wait-and-see approach.
The central issue in the debate over IPv6 is whether cyberspace is
about to run out of addresses. A major feature of the upgraded network
is that it allows 80,000 trillion trillion times more Internet
addresses than the current system. And those new addresses may soon
become necessary, especially as more and more gadgets, like cellphones
and home appliances such as refrigerators and laundry machines, have
their own identity on the information highway.
The situation is reminiscent of the Y2K crisis, in which colleges and
businesses scrambled to revise computer programs so that they could
handle years after 1999 as the millennium turned. But there is a
critical difference: It is harder to tell exactly when having this
upgrade will become essential.
The debate centers on revisions to the Internet Protocol, the set of
rules that govern how data are packaged and transmitted on the
Internet. Internet Protocol version 4, or IPv4, is the version that is
commonly used by desktop computers and the computers that run
Because of the way that it is set up, IPv4 can accommodate about 4.3
billion Internet addresses. That sounds like a lot, but proponents of
IPv6 note that that number is insufficient to give each inhabitant of
earth his or her own address, and much less than would be needed to
expand the Internet to incorporate devices such as cellphones, home
appliances, and climate sensors around the globe. Already, they say,
companies and colleges in Asia and the Pacific Rim are unable to get
Others, however, say the address shortage is decades away. "V6 is an
effort to solve a problem that hasn't happened yet," says Daniel
Golding, a senior analyst at the Burton Group, an
information-technology consulting company. Using recently developed
techniques to share Internet addresses, there may be enough IPv4
addresses until as late as 2028, he says, "so we've got a little
The address shortage is less of a problem in the United States than it
is in other parts of the world. That's because Western countries
snatched up many of the IPv4 addresses early in the Internet's
development, which IPv6's proponents say created an address shortage
for later arrivals such as certain Asian nations.
One way around that address shortage is to force several computers
(such as those on a campus network) to share a single Internet
address. But that creates new headaches. For example, say you want to
use an Internet-based telephone to call someone else's computer, but
that computer shares an Internet address with hundreds of other
machines. Where, exactly, do you send the phone call?
IPv6 solves that problem by making room for 340 trillion trillion
trillion different Internet addresses -- more than enough, networking
experts say, for every conceivable computer or device to have its own
unique address, even with the continued explosive growth of the
The upgraded network protocol has other benefits as well, such as
improved security features. It also has mechanisms to guarantee that a
high-priority Internet activity such as a live video transmission
isn't crowded out by other Internet traffic of lesser importance, such
as music downloads. And a network can offer both IPv4 and IPv6 at the
Although colleges in Asia and Australia have embraced IPv6
enthusiastically, most colleges in the United States have not. Because
American institutions got into the Internet early, they have more than
enough Internet addresses, and campus computing officials feel no
urgency to upend their networking apple carts. Few institutions have
an IPv6 connection into the campus network, and even fewer make the
technology widely available across the campus network.
Few hard data are available on the use of IPv6 in academe. Generally,
IPv6 accounts for a small fraction of the traffic on Internet2's
Abilene high-speed computer network, says Lauren B. Kallens, a
spokeswoman for Internet2. But occasionally the usage jumps. On one
recent Monday, for example, almost half of the traffic between Seattle
and Sunnyvale, Calif., was in IPv6, possibly due to usage at the
University of Oregon, which connects to Abilene in Seattle and is an
"In real life, the amount of v6 deployment is very, very small and
mostly limited to research applications," says Mr. Golding, of the
The institutions that have waded into IPv6 tend to be research
institutions seeking to use the technology to conduct research or as a
subject itself of networking research.
A few colleges have made IPv6 widely available. Almost every user on
the University of Oregon's network has access to IPv6, as do about 95
percent of users at Indiana University.
In many cases, institutions have moved to install IPv6 on their
network at the behest of researchers. That was the case at Auburn
University, which had no plans for using IPv6 until a sole
computer-science researcher asked for it. University officials are
planning to make it available across the whole network.
But such demand from researchers is spotty. Examples like the Japanese
microscope notwithstanding, IPv6 is so new that there are few systems
or programs to which it alone offers access.
Often, an institution with IPv6 has it only for isolated segments of
the campus network.
At the University of Pennsylvania, only a few engineers can use IPv6.
"We're hoping that within the next six to 12 months we'll have a
significant deployment," says Shumon Huque, senior network engineer at
Penn. The university operates a regional connection point to Abilene
through which other institutions will be offered IPv6 connections, he
Similarly, at the University of Hawaii, IPv6 is available only to
network engineers. The university will probably include IPv6 in an
upgrade of its core network backbone now being planned, making it more
widely available, says Garret T. Yoshimi, information-technology
services manager for the University of Hawaii System. "There frankly
hasn't been a lot of folks pounding down our doors and saying they
really want to have it."
Even at Mr. Lee's home base of the University of California at San
Diego, IPv6 is available only on selected portions of the network. San
Diego will add IPv6 throughout the network late this year or early
next year, as part of a general upgrade of its network routers.
How to Upgrade
Installing IPv6 on a campus network involves three major technical
tasks: securing an IPv6 connection from the Internet to the campus
network, configuring campus desktop computers to use it, and making
sure that the network's controller computers can understand it. The
campus network itself need not be rewired.
The first step -- connecting the campus network to the rest of the
Internet through IPv6 -- can be challenging. Abilene, the
high-speed-network backbone that 220 colleges and companies now have
access to, does handle IPv6 traffic, but not all Internet service
Configuring desktop computers is surprisingly easy and inexpensive,
according to campus computing officials. Computers running the
Microsoft Windows XP operating system or Apple's OS X operating
system, for example, are already set up to use IPv6.
Adding IPv6 to network routers also need not cost much. Most vendors
of computer- networking gear now sell equipment that can
simultaneously handle IPv4 and IPv6, at least in part because of a
Defense Department decision in 2003 that it would refuse to buy
networking equipment that cannot handle IPv6 after 2007.
Indeed, many colleges' computers may already be ready for IPv6, and
the biggest cost for most institutions may be the labor by campus
computing technicians to configure and debug the setup. Older
equipment that cannot handle IPv6 can be replaced with newer gear
through the campus's ordinary network maintenance efforts.
Consequently, few college presidents are likely to be presented with a
request from the IT department to spend a lot of money specifically on
IPv6. "It seems most likely that this will be off the radar of the
typical university president," says Dikran W. Kassabian, senior
director of networking and telecommunications at the University of
But evocative of the Y2K crisis, in which colleges suddenly discovered
that they had to pour money into fixing longstanding problems in their
software, the president of a college that does not take steps to
introduce IPv6 may be in for a rude shock if at some point officials
decide it needs to do so in a hurry.
"If it's not done thoughtfully, for some schools it's going to be a
big financial bite," warns Eric G. Frost, an associate professor of
geological sciences at San Diego State University who uses IPv6 in his
Proponents say that it is only a matter of time before colleges wake
up to the need for IPv6. For example, as faculty members seek to
expand their online collaborations with researchers in other nations,
or as distance-education programs move to broaden their overseas
audiences, colleges will discover that lacking support for IPv6 will
leave them at a competitive disadvantage.
"If the backward Americans want to be able to technically work with
the more advanced Japanese, they'll need to be able to use IPv6," says
Larry L. Smarr, director of the California Institute for
Telecommunications and Information Technology, a joint venture of the
University of California's campuses in Irvine and San Diego.
And even those colleges without overseas ambitions will recognize the
need for IPv6's extra addresses as domestic uses of the upgraded
Internet system expand. For example, Mr. Frost is exploring the use of
a huge set of dispersed sensors -- numbering perhaps in the tens of
millions -- to monitor climatic conditions.
"IPv6 is realistically the only way you can get the address space for
that," he says.
But Mr. Golding, the consultant, continues to urge caution. "Don't be
swayed too much by the Pied Piper of IPv6," he says. "One of the worst
reasons to do something in IT is because it seems cool."
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