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IPv4 vs. IPv6: What are the main differences?

IPv4 vs. IPv6
(Image credit: Pixabay)

It’s no news that the Internet, which currently runs on internet protocol version 4 (IPv4), has a limited number of IP addresses available, and has already fallen short to suffice the needs of modern-day demand. With the constantly growing Internet penetration and the majority of the population having one or more smart devices, the new protocol version 6 (IPv6) is considered to be the best solution to address such needs, especially since the amount of IPv6 addresses available is enough to be assigned to every atom on Earth.

Although the current industry norm is IPv4, this form of IP address is being slowly replaced with the latest version of the Internet protocol. However, before shifting to IPv6 completely, it’s important to look at the main differences between IPv4 and IPv6.

Despite both being used to identify machines connected to a network, there is evidence of key structural disparity, since the two protocols are different in the way they work. That said, it’s important to note that while IPv4 is only 32-bit address length, meaning the total number of available IPs is 4.3 billion, the latter is 128-bit which equals 340 undecillion global unique IPs - enough for each user for decades to come and suffice the growing Internet infrastructure needs.

New protocol

The new protocol also exceeds IPv4 in terms of complexity and efficiency. For example, while the previous protocol requires to configure a newly installed system before it can communicate with other systems, version 6 configuration is much faster.

Additionally, IPv4 is a relatively constrained network - when operating on IPv4, network administrators need to figure out a way to efficiently allocate the available addresses so the system doesn't run out of IPs. On the contrary, due to IPv6 having so many IP addresses, the new protocol takes away such stress, although it's worth noting IPv6 is not at all simpler than the previous protocol. Such an automatic process permits devices to configure themselves independently, allowing smoother overall network connectivity, especially as the number of mobile devices grew by 121 million in the past 12 months and is continuing to increase.

Fewer problems and increased security

Essentially, unlimited IPv6 resources mean the process of managing IP attribution causes fewer problems. Anyone with their hands on a smart device can connect to the network without risking to significantly overwhelm the infrastructure, especially since the majority of the population has not just one, but multiple devices in use, such as smartphones, laptops, as well as computers.

Furthermore, it’s important to understand that IPv4 was not designed with heightened security in mind. Unlike IPv6, protocol version 4 doesn’t have an inbuilt Internet Protocol Security (IPSec) option which provides confidentiality, authentication, and data integrity. With an integrated IPSec feature, the new protocol is considered to be much safer and can run end-to-end encryption that prevents third parties from gathering data at the time of its transfer.

The Internet of Things

Aside from structural differences and serving the users' needs, protocol version 6 also plays a part in the faster development of IoT (Internet of Things), especially since it’s complex nature and an immense amount of address spaces is better suited to support further industry development. According to McKinsey, the total number of IoT-connected devices around the world is projected to triple by 2023 and reach 43 billion. This means that each device, connected to the Internet, needs to have an IP address for it to work but here arises the issue: due to IPv4 being so scarce, each of the connected machines aggravates the problem by adding additional strain on the Internet and hinders the overall growth of the IoT sector.

The Internet of Things is set to become one of the main influences when it comes to IPv6 adoption. With an increasing demand for constant connectivity and the doubling number of the devices connected to the network, trillions of IP addresses available in IPv6 could help facilitate the development of the IoT industry and give its products away to operate for a very long time. However, we must not forget that IPv4 is not going anywhere, even with full IPv6 rollout, due to a large number of devices, which will continue to run on IPv4 only.

Internet revolution

With the increasing strain on the market and the need to suffice the skyrocketing demand for network access, the implementation of IPv6 is the obvious next step in the Internet evolution. However, since it's full implementation still seems to be a long way ahead, and we continue to connect more and more devices to the Internet, there are alternative ways to ease the IPv4 exhaustion, IP leasing, which enables monetizing IP resources among market players, being a prime example. It could facilitate the transition to the new protocol, as well as prevent the network from crashing and burning until a widespread rollout of IPV6 is in place.