IPv6 has been talked about for so long without widespread adoption, you might be forgiven for thinking that it is a solution in search of a problem: but nothing could be further from the truth. Vint Cert, co-creator of TCP/IP and currently chief Internet evangelist at Google, recently reminded us that the IPv4 addresses will run out next year or early in 2011. Its not just computers, servers and mobile devices that are gobbling up all of the existing address space: increasingly devices like the Amazon Kindle, M2M sensors and TV set-top boxes are searching for their own address.
IPv6 enables a whole spectrum of new applications across several vertical sectors. For example, cars using IPv6-enabled sensors could know, in advance, about traffic threats on the road, patients can be monitored in real time by their doctor and businesses can manage their supply chains and optimize them for maximum efficiency.
As well as allowing objects and sensors to interact with the world around them, IPv6 applies some very specific network control advantages that enhance the experience of anyone using them. Primarily, IPv6 is built to be more robust than its predecessor and this is apparent in its 'always on, real time' traffic delivery capabilities. Another IPv6 advantage is its support for more robust ad-hoc networking support where objects and sensors in different geographies could be moving on and off the network at any given moment, such as during a war or disaster recovery.
Network operators such as Orange have begun rolling out IPv6 support by upgrading their networks in advance of the proliferation of devices that will have their own address and a more interactive purpose in life. Industries including healthcare, automotive, manufacturing, environment and transportation are best positioned to take advantage of the efficiencies that IPv6 brings.
Healthy support for patients
IPv6 will boost the availability of mobile healthcare for patients, allowing chronic conditions to be monitored remotely by collecting data over the M2M network from a series of off-the-shelf devices that measure blood-glucose, pulse, blood pressure and weight. Advances could see these devices equipped with their own IP address and implanted in the body in order to monitor specific functions. For example, a pacemaker could provide 24/7 monitoring and act as an early warning system for heart attacks, or blood-glucose measured to maintain optimum health.
IPv6 is ideally positioned to support medical applications because it offers a huge amount of addressing space so that individual devices can be tailored for specific uses throughout the body. It also has IPSec support that will keep medical data safe in transit, and is optimized to work with 'always on' RF technologies such as WiMAX and WiFi.
Navigating a safe route for drivers
The adoption of IPv6 will drive uptake of IP technology in the consumer car market and the transportation industry as a whole. Consumers will be able to tap into multimedia entertainment while on the move, receive detailed live information about traffic conditions and their car's mechanical performance. Drivers can take advantage of remote diagnostics to troubleshoot breakdowns and get back on the road or have remote mechanics fix the problem. Data about road conditions can used by municipalities to manage traffic flows and maximize city and countrywide transport systems.
IPv6 efficiently routes data across the network so that high quality video and audio are available for applications like early warning and traffic mapping systems, and supporting mobile delivery across a number of air interfaces The wider application of telematics has much potential because it can create a network between organizations and vehicles, between vehicles themselves, different parts of the same vehicle, and roadside stations.
Keeping the chain supplied
IPv6 is a key technology for the RFID industry, where electronic tagging of objects in the supply chain is becoming more common. As more firms adopt RFID to track cargo shipments, monitor inventory and streamline their supply chains, IPv6 will be needed to support the huge number of objects in circulation. It also supplies the intelligence needed for RFID systems to interact with the Internet or private IP networks, and automate supply chains where 'just in time' supply and replenishment are key.
IPv6 supports constant live feeds of telemetry information which can be used by transportation firms to monitor and locate transport vehicles, or by border control agencies to automatically check-through cargo manifests or pay tolls and charges. The US military has been adopting IPv6 to allow tracking of battlefield and war theatre objects, where its robust addressing space capacity are a must where objects move around at pace on an ad-hoc networking basis.
New 'Touchatag' services enabled by IPv6 will allow consumers can use RFID tags to trigger applications such as powering up IT equipment, sending text messages or open a Web page.
Sensing the environment
IPv6 extends the sensor concept to help environmental and government agencies track what's happening in the outside world. It makes possible the millions of sensors needed to try and moderate global warming by acting in greener ways, and can warn of the climactic conditions that cause disasters before they happen. Organizations worldwide can aim for cheaper, greener environmental controls in their work premises, saving money on air conditioning, lighting and sanitary costs by closely monitoring demand. Sensors can be integrated into new building design to create intelligent buildings that think for themselves.
In the wider world, IPv6 can power sensors needed to warn of storms, earthquakes, mudslides or floods and provide data that can enable disaster agencies to deal more effectively with aftermaths. Proactive management of the environment and natural resources is also possible, where sensors feed in information about CO2 emissions or deforestation.
An Internet of things
IPv6 hastens the advent of the 'Internet of things' - where real-world objects and sensors are an integral, operational part of the Internet. The output from objects and sensors becomes more valuable the more networked they are, making it possible to know information or interact and influence objects, electrical systems or people, from any location. The Semantic Web takes this concept further by allowing the meaning or use of information or services linked to real world 'things' to be known to the Web itself, making it easier for the automation of responses to requests for information.
This article was co-written with Simon Marshall.
I've been writing about technology for nearly 20 years, including editing industry magazines Connect and Communications International. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Anthony Plewes. My focus in Futurity Media is in emerging technologies, social media and future gazing. As a graduate of philosophy & science, I have studied futurology & foresight to the post-grad level.