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Plug and Play
Getting ready for nearly 340 undecillion Internet addresses
By Virginia Stuart '75, '80G

For more than half a dozen years, UNH's InterOperability Lab, a 32,000-square-foot facility known nationally as a test bed for data communication products, has been helping bring about the next-generation underpinnings of the Internet. The lab got involved in the Internet Protocol version 6--known as IPv6--very early, and at one time was virtually the only place where companies could hire independent engineers to determine if their equipment would work in the brave new world of a bigger Internet. Nowadays other places are doing similar work, but only a tiny part of the Internet has moved to IPv6, and the task just keeps growing.

IPv6 exists largely to tackle one problem: The Internet is running short of "addresses." These underlying IP numbers are needed to tell Internet signals--a text message, a money transfer, a YouTube stream--exactly which computer they should end up at.

The current standard, IPv4, has roughly 4 billion addresses--not enough with China and India coming online, not to mention the advent of Internet appliances. IPv6 has 340,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 addresses, give or take a few.

The trouble is that machines and software designed to handle addresses of a certain size can't cope with addresses that are bigger, any more than you could draw an extra line on a supermarket bar code and have the cash register still understand it. Helping the Internet transition to bigger addresses without messing up all the work done using current addresses is where the lab comes in.

Erica Williamsen Johnson '01, the lab's IPv6 consortium manager, says about 25 companies pay a $20,000 annual fee to have their equipment and software tested. Ten people--undergraduates and staff--do the IPv6 studies, part of the roughly 130 people, 100 of them undergraduates, who work at the lab.

The protocol got a big boost three years ago when the Department of Defense said it would only buy equipment that was IPv6 compatible. It's getting another boost this year now that the civilian side of the federal government is saying the same thing. Microsoft's new operating system, Vista, is also an incentive, since IPv6 is its default protocol.

As a result, the lab was planning to run a massive test of an IPv6 network in June. In 2003, they ran a similar trial and it was a big success. This will be an entire "end-to-end" network test, which is key to getting extra functionality out of IPv6.

A variety of tweaks are making IPv4 last longer than expected, but it's estimated that unallocated addresses will be used up by 2010, and as a result IPv6 is increasingly imperative. "There's more and more that needs to be done, more products coming out as well as different protocols," says Johnson. "We need to prepare ourselves to test the standards as well as the actual software and equipment."

The variety is what makes Johnson's job so much fun. "We get everything from multi-million-dollar routers to itty-bitty cameras," she says. "One of the reasons why I'm doing what I'm doing is that we are at the forefront of this area."

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