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IPv6 - IP Version 6

While CIDR may buy a few more years' time, everyone realizes that the days of IP in its current form (IPv4) are numbered. In addition to these technical problems, there is another issue looming in the background. Up until recently, the Internet has been used largely by universities, high-tech industry, and the government (especially the Dept. of Defense). With the explosion of interest in the Internet starting in the mid 1990s, it is likely that in the next millennium, it will be used by a much larger group of people, especially people with different requirements. For one thing, millions of people with wireless portables may use it to keep in contact with their home bases. For another, with the impending convergence of the computer, communication, and entertainment industries, it may not be long before every television set in the world is an Internet node, producing a billion machines being used for video on demand. Under these circumstances, it became apparent that IP had to evolve and become more flexible.

Seeing these problems on the horizon, in 1990, IETF started work on a new version of IP, one which would never run out of addresses, would solve a variety of other problems, and be more flexible and efficient as well. Its major goals were to

  1. Support billions of hosts, even with inefficient address space allocation.
  2. Reduce the size of the routing tables.
  3. Simplify the protocol, to allow routers to process packets faster.
  4. Provide better security (authentication and privacy) than current IP.
  5. Pay more attention to type of service, particularly for real-time data.
  6. Aid multicasting by allowing scopes to be specified.
  7. Make it possible for a host to roam without changing its address.
  8. Allow the protocol to evolve in the future.
  9. Permit the old and new protocols to coexist for years.

To find a protocol that met all these requirements, IETF issued a call for proposals and discussion in RFC 1550. Twenty-one responses were received, not all of them were full proposals. By December 1992, seven serious proposals were on the table. They ranged from making minor patches to IP, to throwing it out altogether and replacing with a completely different protocol.

Three of the better proposals were published in IEEE Network. After much discussion and deliberation, a modified combined version of the Deering and Francis proposals, by now called SIPP (Simple Internet Protocol Plus) was selected and given the designation IPv6 (IPv5 was already in use for an experience real-time stream protocol).

IPv6 meets the goals fairly well. It maintains the good features of IP, discards or de-emphasizes the bad ones, and adds new ones where needed. In general, IPv6 is not compatible with IPv4, but it is compatible with all the other Internet protocols, including TCP, UDP, ICMP, IGMP, OSPF, BGP, and DNS, sometimes with small modifications being required (mostly to deal with longer addresses). The main features of IPv6 are discussed below.

First and foremost, IPv6 has longer addresses than IPv4. They are 16 bytes long, which solves the problem that IPv6 was set out to solve: provide an effectively unlimited supply of Internet addresses.

The second major improvement of IPv6 is the simplification of the header. It contains only 7 fields (versus 13 in IPv4). This change allows routers to process packets faster and thus improve throughput.

The third major improvement was better support for options. This change was essential with the new header because fields that previously were required are now optional. In addition, the way options are represented is different, making it simple for routers to skip over options not intended for them. This feature speeds up packet processing time.

A fourth area in which IPv6 represents a big advance is in security. IETF had its fill of newspaper stories about precocious 12-year-olds using their personal computers to break into banks and military bases all over the Internet. There was a strong feeling that something had to be done to improve security. Authentication and privacy are key features of the new IP.

Finally, more attention has been paid to Type of Service than in the past. IPv4 actually has a 8-bit field devoted to this matter, but with the expected growth in multimedia traffic in the future, much more is needed.

The Main 1Pv6 Header

The IPv6 header is shown in figure below. The Version field is aIways 6 for IPv6 (and 4 for IPv4). During the transition period from IPv4, which will probably take a decade, routers will be able to examine this field to tell what kind of packet they have. As an aside, making this test wastes a few instructions in the critical path, so many implementations are likely to try to avoid it by using some field in the data link header to distinguish IPv4 packets from IPv6 packets. In this way, packets can be passed to the correct network layer handler directly. However, having the data link layer be aware of network packet types completely violates the design principle that each layer should not be aware of the meaning of the bits given to it from the layer above.

The Priority field is used to distinguish between packets whose sources can be flow controlled and those that cannot. Values 0 through 7 are for transmissions that are capable of slowing down in the event of congestion. Values 8 through 15 are for real-time traffic whose sending rate is constant, even if all the packets are being lost. Audio and video fall into the latter category. This distinction allows routers to deal with packets better in the event of congestion. Within each group, Iower-numbered packets are less important than higher-numbered ones. The IPv6 standard suggests, for example, to use 1 for news, 4 for FTP, and 6 for Telnet connections, since delaying a news packet for a few seconds is not noticeable, but delaying a Telnet packet certainly is.

The Flow Label field is still experimental but will be used to allow a source and destination to set up a pseudo-connection with particular properties and requirements. For example, a stream of packets from one process on a certain source host to a certain process on a certain destination host might have stringent delay requirements and thus need reserved bandwidth. The flow can be set up in advance and given an identifier. When a packet with a nonzero Flow label shows up, all the routers can look it up in internal tables to see what kind of special treatment it requires. In effect, flows are an attempt to have it both ways: the flexibility of a datagram subnet and the guarantees of a virtual circuit subnet.

Each flow is designated by the source address, destination address, and flow number, so many flows may be active at the same time between a given pair of IP addresses. Also, in this way, even if two flows coming from different hosts but with the same flow number pass through the same router, the router will be able to tell them apart using the source and destination addresses. It is expected that flow numbers will be chosen randomly, rather than assigned sequentially starting at 1, to make it easy for routers to hash them.

The Payload length field tells how many bytes follow the 40-byte header shown above. The name was changed from the IPv4 Total length field because the meaning was changed slightly: the 40 header bytes are no longer counted as part of the length as they used to be.

The Next header field is a simplified one. The reason the header could be simplified is that there can be additional (optional) extension headers. This field tells which of the (currently) six extension headers, if any, follows this one. If this header is the last IP header, the Next header field tells which transport protocol handler (e.g., TCP, UDP) to pass the packet to.

The Hop limit field is used to keep packets from living forever. It is, in practice, the same as the Time to live field in IPv4, namely, a field that is decremented on each hop. In theory, in IPv4 it was a time in seconds, but no router used it that way, so the name was changed to reflect the way it is actually used.

Next come the Source Address and Destination Address fields. Each of these fields are a fixed-Iength l6-byte long.

The IPv6 address space is divided up as shown in table below. Addresses beginning with 8 zeros are reserved for IPv4 addresses. Two variants are supported, distinguished by the next 16 bits. These variants relate to how IPv6 packets will be tunneled over the existing IPv4 infrastructure.

Prefix (binary)UsageFraction
0000 0000Reserved (including IPv4)1/ 256
0000 0001Unassigned1/ 256
0000 001OSI NSAP addresses1/ 128
0000 010Novell NetWare IPX addresses1/ 128
0000 011Unassigned1/ 128
0000 1Unassigned1/ 32
0001Unassigned1/ 16
001Unassigned1/ 8
010Provider – based addresses1/ 8
011Unassigned1/ 8
100Geographic – based addresses1/ 8
101Unassigned1/ 8
110Unassigned1/ 8
1110Unassigned1/ 16
1111 0Unassigned1/ 32
1111 10Unassigned1/ 64
1111 110Unassigned1/ 128
1111 1110 0Unassigned1/ 512
1111 1110 10Link local use addresses1/ 1024
1111 1110 11Site local use addresses1/ 1024
1111 1111Multicast1/ 256

The use of separate prefixes for provider - based and geographic - based addresses is a compromise between two different visions of the future of the Internet. Provider - based addresses make sense if you think that in the future there will be some number of companies providing Internet service to customers, analogous to AT&T, MCI, Sprint, British Telecom, and so on providing telephone service now. Each of these companies will be given some fraction of the address space. The first 5 bits following the 010 prefix are used to indicate which registry to look the provider up in. During then, three registries were operating, for North America, Europe, and Asia. Up to 29 new registries could be added later.

Each registry is free to divide up the remaining 15 bytes as it sees fit. It is expected that many of them will use a 3-byte provider number, giving about 16 million providers, in order to allow large companies to act as their own provider. Another possibility is to use 1 byte to indicate national providers and let them do further allocation. In this manner, additional levels of hierarchy can be introduced as needed.

The geographic model is the same as the current Internet, in which providers do not play a large role. In this way, IPv6 can handle both kinds of addresses.

The link and site local addresses have only a local significance. They can be reused at each organization without conflict. They cannot be propagated outside organizational boundaries, making them well suited to organizations that currently use firewalls to wall themselves off from the rest of the Internet.

Multicast addresses have a 4-bit flag field and a 4-bit scope field following the prefix, then a 112-bit group identifier. One of the flag bits distinguishes permanent from transient groups. The scope field allows a multicast to be limited to the current link, site, organization, or planet. These four scopes are spread out over the 16 values to allow new scopes to be added later. For example, the planetary scope is 14, so code 15 is available to allow future expansion of the Internet to other planets, solar systems, and galaxies.

In addition to supporting the standard unicast (point-to-point) and multicast addresses, IPv6 also supports a new kind of addressing: anycast. Anycasting is like multicasting in that the destination is a group of addresses, but instead of trying to deliver the packet to all of them, it tries to deliver it to just one, usually the nearest one. For example, when contacting a group of cooperating file servers, a client can use anycast to reach the nearest one, without having to know which one that is. Anycasting uses regular unicast addresses. It is up to the routing system to choose the lucky host that gets the packet.

A new notation has been devised for writing l6-byte addresses. They are written as eight groups of four hexadecimal digits with colons between the groups, like this:


Since many addresses will have many zeros inside them, three optimizations have been authorized. First, leading zeros within a group can be omitted, so 0123 can be written as 123. Second, one or more groups of 16 zeros can be replaced by a pair of colons. Thus the above address now becomes


Finally, IPv4 addresses can be written as a pair of colons and an old dotted decimal number, for example


Perhaps it is unnecessary to be so explicit about it, but there are a lot of 16-byte addresses. Specially, there are 2128 of them, which is approximately 3 X 1038. If the entire earth, land and water, were covered with computers, 1Pv6 would allow 7 X 1023 IP addresses per square meter. Students of chemistry will notice that this number is larger than Avogadro's number. While it was not the intention to give every molecule on the surface of the earth its own IP address, we are not that far off.

In practice, the address space will not be used efficiently, just as the telephone number address space is not (the area code for Manhattan, 212, is nearly full, but that for Wyoming, 307, is nearly empty). In RFC 1715, Huitema calculated that using the allocation of telephone numbers as a guide, even in the most pessimistic scenario, there will still be well over 1000 IP addresses per square meter of the earth's surface (land and water). In any likely scenario, there will be trillions of them per square meter. In short, it seems unlikely that we will run out in the foreseeable future. It is also worth noting that only 28 percent of the address space has been allocated so far. The other 72 percent is available for future purposes not yet thought of.

It is instructive to compare the 1Pv4 header with the IPv6 header to see what has been left out in IPv6. The IHL field is gone because the IPv6 header has a fixed length. The Protocol field was taken out because the Next header field tells what follows the last IP header (e.g., a UDP or TCP segment).

All the fields relating to fragmentation were removed because 1Pv6 takes a different approach to fragmentation. To start with, all IPv6 conformant hosts and routers must support packets of 576 bytes. This rule makes fragmentation less likely to occur in the first place. In addition, when a host sends an IPv6 packet that is too large, instead of fragmenting it, the router that is unable to forward it sends back an error message. This message tells the host to break up all future packets to that destination. Having the host send packets that are the right size in the first place is ultimately much more efficient than having the routers fragment them on the fly.

Finally, the Checksum field is gone because calculating it greatly reduces performance. With the reliable networks now used, combined with the fact that the data link layer and transport layers normally have their own checksums, the value of yet another checksum was not worth the performance price it extracted. Removing all these features has resulted in a lean and mean network layer protocol. Thus the goal of lPv6 - a fast, yet flexible, protocol with plenty of address space - has been met by this design.

Extension Headers

Nevertheless, some of the missing fields are occasionally still needed so IPv6 has introduced the concept of an (optional) extension header. These headers can be supplied to provide extra information, but encoded in an efficient way. Six kinds of extension headers are defined at present, as listed in table below. Each one is optional, but if more than one is present, they must appear directly after the fixed header, and preferably in the order listed.

Extension HeaderDescription
Hop-by-hop optionsMiscellaneous information for routers
RoutingFull or partial route to follow
FragmentationManagement of datagram fragments
AuthenticationVerification of the sender's identity
Encrypted security payloadInformation about the encrypted contents
Destination optionsAdditional information for the destination

Some of the headers have a fixed format; others contain a variable number of variable-length fields. For these, each item is encoded as a (Type, Length, Value) tuple. The Type is a 1-byte field telling which option this is. The Type values have been chosen so that the first 2 bits tell routers that do not know how to process the option what to do. The choices are: skip the option, discard the packet, discard the packet and send back an ICMP packet, and the same as the previous one, except do not send ICMP packets for multicast addresses (to prevent one bad multicast packet from generating millions of ICMP reports).

The Length is also a 1-byte field. It tells how long the value is (0 to 255 bytes). The Value is any information required, up to 255 bytes.

The hop-by-hop header is used for information that all routers along the path must examine. So far, one option has been defined: support of datagrams exceeding 64K. The format of this header is shown in figure below.

Next header01940
Jumbo payload length

As with all extension headers, this one starts out with a byte telling what kind of header comes next. This byte is followed by one telling how long the hop-by-hop header is in bytes, excluding the first 8 bytes, which are mandatory. The next 2 bytes indicate that this option defines the datagram size (code 194) as a 4-byte number. The last 4 bytes give the size of the datagram. Sizes less than 65,536 are not permitted and will result in the first router discarding the packet and sending back an ICMP error message. Datagrams using this header extension are called jumbograms. The use of jumbograms is important for supercomputer applications that must transfer gigabytes of data efficiently across the Internet.

The routing header lists one or more routers that must be visited on the way to the destination. Both strict routing (the full path is supplied) and loose routing (only selected routers are supplied) are available, but they are combined. The format of the routing header is shown in figure below.

The first 4 bytes of the routing extension header contain four 1-byte integers: the next header type, the routing type (currently 0), the number of addresses present in this header (1 to 24), and the index of the next address to visit. The latter field starts at 0 and is incremented as each address is visited.

Then comes a reserved byte followed by a bit map with bits for each of the 24 potential IPv6 addresses following it. These bits tell whether each address must be visited directly after the one before it (strict source routing), or whether other routers may come in between (loose source routing).

The fragment header deals with fragmentation similarly to the way IPv4 dose. The header holds the datagram identifier, fragment number, and a bit telling whether more fragments will follow. In IPv6, unlike in IPv4, only the source host can fragment a packet. Routers along the way may not do this. Although this change is a major philosophical break with the past, it simplifies the routers' work and makes routing go faster. As mentioned above, if a router is confronted with a packet that is too big, it discards the packet and sends an ICMP packet back to the source. This information allows the source host to fragment the packet into smaller pieces using this header and try again.

The authentication header provides a mechanism by which the receiver of a packet can be sure of who sent it. With IPv4, no such guarantee is present. The encrypted security payload makes it possible to encrypt the contents of a packet so that only the intended recipient can read it. These headers use cryptographic techniques to accomplish their missions.

When a sender and receiver wish to communicate securely, they must first agree on one or more secret keys that only they know. How they do this is outside the scope of IPv6. Each of these keys is assigned a unique 32-bit key number. The key numbers are global, so that if Alice is using key 4 to talk to Bob, she cannot also have a key 4 to talk to Carol. Associated with each key number are other parameters, such as key lifetime, and so on.

To send an authenticated message, the sender first constructs a packet consisting of all the IP headers and the payload and then replaces the fields that change underway (e.g., Hop limit) with zeros. The packet is then padded out with zeros to a multiple of 16 bytes. Similarly, the secret key to be used is also padded out to a multiple of 16 bytes. Now a cryptographic checksum is computed on the concatenation of the padded secret key, the padded packet, and the padded secret key again. Users may define their own cryptographic checksum algorithms, but cryptographically unsophisticated users should use the default algorithm, MD5.

Now we come to the role of the authentication header. Basically, it contains three parts. The first part consists of 4 bytes holding the next header number, the length of the authentication header, and 16 zero bits. Then comes the 32-bit key number. Finally, the MDS (or other) checksum is included.

The receiver then uses the key number to find the secret key. The padded version of it is then prepended and appended to the padded payload, the variable header fields are zeroed out and the checksum computed. If it agrees with the checksum included in the authentication header, the receiver can be sure that the packet came from the sender with whom the secret key is shared and also be sure that the packet was not tampered with underway. The properties of MD5 make it computationally infeasible for an intruder to forge the sender's identity or modify the packet in a way that escapes detection.

It is important to note that the payload of an authenticated packet is sent unencrypted. Any router along the way can read what it says. For many applications, secrecy is not really important, just authentication. For example, if a user instructs his bank to pay his telephone bill, there is probably no real need for secrecy, but there is a very real need for the bank to be absolutely sure it knows who sent the packet containing the payment order.

For packets that must be sent secretly, the encrypted security payload extension header is used. It starts out with a 32-bit key number, followed by the encrypted payload. The encryption algorithm is up to the sender and receiver, but DES in cipher block chaining mode is the default. When DES-CBC is used, the payload field starts out with the initialization vector (a multiple of 4 bytes), then the payload, then padding out to multiple of 8 bytes. If both encryption and authentication are desired, both headers are needed.

The destination options header is intended for fields that need only be interpreted at the destination host. In the initial version of IPv6, the only options defined are null options for padding this header out to a multiple of 8 bytes, so initially it will not be used. It was included to make sure that new routing and host software can handle it, in case someone thinks of destination option someday.

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About the Author
Rajeev Kumar
CEO, Computer Solutions
Jamshedpur, India

Rajeev Kumar is the primary author of How2Lab. He is a B.Tech. from IIT Kanpur with several years of experience in IT education and Software development. He has taught a wide spectrum of people including fresh young talents, students of premier engineering colleges & management institutes, and IT professionals.

Rajeev has founded Computer Solutions & Web Services Worldwide. He has hands-on experience of building variety of websites and business applications, that include - SaaS based erp & e-commerce systems, and cloud deployed operations management software for health-care, manufacturing and other industries.

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