The online industry is gearing up for what promises to be a watershed moment in the history of the internet on 6 June - a day known as World IPv6 Launch.
On that day, internet service providers (ISPs), home router manufacturers and web companies around the world will permanently enable version six of the IP addressing scheme (IPv6) for their products and services, in an attempt to kickstart a global transition to the new internet protocol.
Participating ISPs, such and AT&T, Comcast and the UK's education network Janet, will enable IPv6 for enough users so that at least one percent of their residential subscribers who visit participating websites will do so using IPv6.
Meanwhile, home networking equipment manufacturers, such as Cisco and D-Link, will enable IPv6 by default through their home router products, and web companies like Facebook, Google and Microsoft Bing will permanently enable IPv6 on their main websites.
IPv6 is seen as critical to the internet's continued growth, as the current protocol, IPv4, allows for just 4.3 billion IP addresses - a number close to exhaustion due to the explosion of internet-connected devices. In comparison, IPv6 allows for 3.4 trillion trillion trillion addresses.
As well as accommodating internet growth for the foreseeable future, IPv6 could also enable the 'Internet of Things' - providing a large enough address pool for every electronic appliance to have an IP address and share data with other appliances in real time without human intervention.
"With IPv6, things are about to get very interesting indeed," said Ben Pirt, VP of engineering at Cosm. "Already we're starting to see devices as diverse as weighing scales, lighting and toasters connect to the Internet of Things. In the near future we're going to see much more sophisticated uses for these connected objects and sensors, helping us to better understand the world around us."
In February 2011, the internet authority IANA allocated its last batch of IPv4 addresses to the regional internet registries (RIRs), which are responsible for local distribution of IP addresses to enterprises and ISPs. When those stocks of IPv4 addresses run out, as has already happened in Asia, the RIRs will have no choice but to start distributing IPv6 addresses.
IPv4 and IPv6 can coexist, but they cannot intercommunicate, meaning that the two protocols will have to run in parallel - or dual stack - for some time, in order to avoid breakages in the network. However, this relies heavily on Network Address Translation (NAT), which limits the performance of the internet.
Last June, the Internet Society held a "test flight" for IPv6, dubbed World IPv6 Day, when tech giants such as Facebook, Google and Yahoo and content delivery networks Akamai and Limelight Networks all enabled IPv6 on their main services for 24 hours. The aim was to motivate organisations across the industry to prepare their services for the imminent transition.
Speaking to Techworld about World IPv6 Launch, Daniel Karrenberg, chief scientist at the RIPE NCC - the RIR for Europe, the Middle East and parts of Central Asia - said that the point of the event was to raise awareness and get the big content providers to put their money where their mouths are.
"Personally, I would have expected a lot more deployment of IPv6 by now, but from what we have seen it doesn't manifest itself," he said.
"Either nobody is growing, which seems very unlikely, or they are hiding behind NATs. That will not really work once you get higher bandwidth and more complex applications."
The reluctance to enable IPv6 could be due in part to the investment required, both in terms of operational costs and the cost of upgrading physical equipment such as broadband modems and set top boxes. However, most companies have been buying kit over the past few years that supports both IPv4 and IPv6.
Karrenberg said the Ripe NCC does not expect any large-scale disruption to internet services as a result of World IPv6 Launch, as many of the issues that arose during last year's World IPv6 Day have been ironed out.
For example, the tests ran during World IPv6 Day revealed that some networks appear to support IPv6 when in fact they do not. As some operating systems are programmed to try and connect via IPv6 in the first instance, before falling back on IPv4, this caused significant delays for some users.
"The operating system algorithms have been tweaked since IPv6 Day to be more aware of the fact that there might be the appearance of IPv6 connectivity but no actual IPv6 connectivity, and to work around that," said Karrenberg.
However, this is not a permanent solution, so the focus of this year's campaign will be to get more content providers on board, and persuade network providers to enable IPv6 by default for their customers.
"What we're saying is, as the content becomes available, there are a number of access networks that will turn it on by default, and now is the time for the last ones who have been ignoring it to make up their minds what they want to do," he concluded.