The creation of IPv6, and its slow replacement of IPv4, has been a huge and critical innovation for the future of internet communications. (We go into more detail about that in What Is IPv6?: An Overview.)
The primary function of IPv6 is to allow for more unique TCP/IP address identifiers to be created, now that we’ve run out of the 4.3 billion created with IPv4. This is one of the main reasons why IPv6 is such an important innovation for the Internet of Things (IoT). Internet-connected products are becoming increasingly popular, and while IPv4 addresses couldn’t meet the demand for IoT products, IPv6 gives IoT products a platform to operate on for a very long time.
There are dozens of reasons why IPv6 is superior to IPv4 (and why this new internet protocol is important for companies to understand), but we’re zeroing in on IPv6 for IoT. Let’s take a look at three of the distinct advantages it offers.
3 Reasons Why IPv6 Is Important For the Internet Of Things
With billions of new smart products being created every day, security is an important thought in the back of all IoT engineers’ minds. Organizations and individuals have learned of the real and imminent threat that hackers pose in past years, but the IoT brings up a whole new line of security intricacies. Hacking a secure network and harvesting millions of credit card numbers is terrible—but if someone with ill intentions was to hack into a smart city, or a neighborhood of smart houses, the outcome could be far more catastrophic. You can tell why IoT security is very important—and the good news is that IPv6 offers better security solutions than its predecessor, largely due to IPSec.
For one thing, IPv6 can run end-to-end encryption. While this technology was retrofitted into IPv4, it remains an extra option that is not universally used. The encryption and integrity-checking used in current virtual private networks (VPNs) are a standard component in IPv6, available for all connections and supported by all compatible devices and systems. Widespread adoption of IPv6 will therefore make “man-in-the-middle” attacks—i.e., thinking that you’re signing into a secure bank log in when you’re actually walking into a cyber “trap”—significantly more difficult.
IPv6 also supports more-secure name resolution. The Secure Neighbor Discovery (SEND) protocol is capable of enabling cryptographic confirmation that a host is who it claims to be at the time of the connection. This renders Address Resolution Protocol (ARP) poisoning and other naming-based attacks more difficult. And while IPv6 isn’t a replacement for application- or service-layer verification, it still offers an improved level of trust in connections. With IPv4, it’s fairly easy for an attacker to redirect traffic between two legitimate hosts and manipulate the conversation or at least observe it—but IPv6 makes this very difficult.
These added security features depend entirely on proper design and implementation of IPv6, and the more complex, flexible infrastructure of IPv6 makes this process more difficult. Nevertheless, if properly configured, IPv6 networking will be significantly more secure than IPv4 by a longshot.
According to a report put out by Gartner, 25 billion “things” will be connected to the internet by the year 2020. That’s a pretty incredible estimation, considering the same report notes that 4.9 billion devices will be connected in 2015. This purported 400% increase in growth in only five years sheds some light on how much exponential IoT growth we can expect to see in the next 10, 20, or even 50 years.
Given these numbers, it’s easy to understand why IPv6 (and its trillions upon trillions of new addresses) are important for IoT devices. Creators of IoT products that are connected over TCP/IP can rest assured that there will be a unique identifier available for their devices for a long, long time.
With billions of new IoT devices entering the market each year, connectability—i.e., allowing network-connected devices to “speak” to each other—is vital.
With IPv4, there were quite a few issues with allowing IoT products to speak with one another. Network Address Translation (NAT) posed one of these major issues. NAT was created as a workaround for organizations who needed multiple people and devices to be able to work off of the same IPv4 address. Not only does this pose a security issue (which we’ll talk about in a moment), but it also poses a difficult issue for IoT products. IPv6 allows IoT products to be uniquely addressable without having to work around all of the traditional NAT and firewall issues. Larger and more advanced host devices have all sorts of tools to make working with firewalls and NAT routers easier, but small IoT endpoints do not. By using IPv6, many of these issues become easier for TCP/IP enabled IoT devices to handle.
Is IPv6 A Perfect IoT Solution?
While IPv6 is an excellent and necessary upgrade from IPv4, it’s certainly not an be all, end all solution for the IoT.
One challenge that companies face is determining how to get IPv4 and IPv6 devices to communicate properly. The foundation of the internet has been laid with IPv4 addresses, but what happens when internet service providers (ISPs) stop supporting IPv4 (or don’t yet support IPv6)?
An even more pressing challenge is that not all IoT products are directly connected to the internet using TCP/IP. Some need very slim packet headers to maximize payload allocations in very small datagrams. For example, if you are limited to sending only 20 numbers at a time, and 18 are needed just for addressing, you don’t have much room left for useful information. This means that long-range messages need as little of the message to be used for addressing as possible. When this is the case, IPv6 isn’t a good solution because it has too much overhead.
IPv6 is a great and important update to an outdated Internet Protocol. But, it’s not a perfect solution, and it doesn’t fix every challenge with the IoT. We will talk more about the issues with IPv6 when applied to low power, low data rate systems in our next IPv6 article.