Data Centers & IPv6: Why It Matters to You


Richard Donaldson is the CEO and Co-Founder of 6connect, a network automation company, located in Palo Alto, Calif. that provides network automation tools  emphasizing IPv6 implementations.


TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol) is the technology that devices use to interact. IP addresses are the unique identifier that devices use to communicate to each other over the Global Internet. At the inception of the Internet, IP version 4 (IPv4) was and is currently the most widespread protocol used to communicate. By their binary nature, IP addresses are a finite resource. IPv4, specifically, is approaching full deployment globally. The keeper of the free address pool, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, (IANA), is fully depleted of IPv4 resources.

Also, the Asia Pacific Regional Internet Registry, 1 of the 5 regional registries that report to IANA, is fully depleted of IPv4 resources. Another, the American Registry for Internet Numbers, (ARIN), is not far behind. To continue the operation of the Internet, Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6) was created. This address space is vast–more than 170 undecillion addresses–and unlikely to be depleted in the next 50 years. Networks wishing to grow, or new networks wishing to enter the market, must transition to include both IPv6 and IPv4, eventually transitioning entirely to the new protocol.


Coundown to IPv6 - Graphic shows that the number of Internet addresses available is reaching zero. Click for larger image.

This evolution will require an entirely new paradigm of IP resource management and will affect all things wishing to communicate via the Internet – including everything inside your data center from HVACs to lights, security to VFDs. Simply put, this protocol is something you need to know about, even if  you don’t need to become a network engineer.

Data centers have been evolving at a very rapid pace since the mid 2000s. We’ve seen significant effort and results in energy efficiencies through the reduction of PUE from industry averages of 2.0 (1) to designs that now claim below 1.2 and even 1.1. This effort has primarily focused on both mechanical and electrical efficiency gains such as hot/cold row containment, direct/indirect evaporative cooling, the move away from raised floors, the move to higher voltage power supplies in servers thereby avoiding step down losses, and much, much more.

Transparency Has Helped Industry Become More Evolved

The data center industry has further benefited from more transparency provided by data center experts like Google, Yahoo, eBay, Amazon and now Facebook. These forward thinking companies have opened their “kimonos” so to speak, shedding light on their work, data, and future designs so that all data center operators can learn from others’ experiences.

As the industry continues to collect and share data, more and more points of control (both hard and soft) will yield ever more data that can be analyzed for more efficiency gains. However, we must put the data center “on a network” to begin to harvest the data and then crunch it. So while 2005-2010 might have been the years of deconstructing myths around data center designs, 2011 and beyond will be the years of wiring the data center into the network, which necessitates a knowledge of the upcoming transition from IPv4 to IPv6 and what to look for on a “going forward” basis.

IPv4 and IPv6 Are Different

IPv4 and IPv6 are not compatible. If you take anything away from this article, this is the most significant. This means that any device that wishes to be “online” must be compatible with both protocols for some time to work properly. To clarify, the world network operators will be “dual stacking” these protocols for some time. This means that both IPv4 and IPv6 will concurrently run on the same wires, even though they do not interact. In fact, any modern operating system and/or browser is actually IPv6 ready today, and run both IPv4 and IPv6 simultaneous – check out of TCP/IP settings and you’ll see that you should have both types of addresses already.

While both protocols will be running together for some time, not all hardware or connection points support this concept of “dual stacking.” It is imperative to know this as a data center operator as you begin to assess either how to bring your current infrastructure online and/or design/spec future builds so that all equipment selections support both protocols. Even if you are running other protocols like BacNET or ModBus or LON, eventually those will be translated into IP traffic so as to universally communicate with the servers or people tasked with monitoring or tracking this data and this will be on the Internet.

I hope this article has shed light upon a little known yet profound change that is underway with respect to the Internet at large and how it will affect data centers. The intent is to enable data center operators and designers to ask their vendors about IPv6 support as well as begin to understand the implications of how monitoring, securing, reporting, maintenance, and even availability are affected by the newer IPv6.

(1) According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2006 U.S. data centers had, on average, a PUE of 2.0 or higher, a number the agency expects to decline to 1.9 by 2011.

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  1. I'd like to add some clarification about the following statement: "Even if you are running other protocols like BacNET or ModBus or LON, eventually those will be translated into IP traffic so as to universally communicate with the servers or people tasked with monitoring or tracking this data and this will be on the Internet." BACnet doesn't get "translated" into IP traffic at all. It communicates natively on IPv4 networks using the IANA assigned port 47808. There's currently an addendum being written which will also add native IPv6 support to the BACnet standard. The goal is to get this addendum published as part of the standard later this year. At that point, BACnet manufacturers will begin to ship equipment that is IPv6 capable.

  2. Coleman - good clarification - if only people take away from this article that IPv6 DOES matter, then we've achieved the goal - since all things should and need to be "on line", they will be subject to new IPv6 networking best practices. A question back to you is how does the BACnet standard deal with Stateless Address Autoconfiguration (SLAAC) with respect to "end of wire" devices or points of control? It seems that there are a lot of questions vis-a-vis simple DHCP: - since that will all get upended in IPv6, has thought been put into that yet in your community?

  3. Richard, Those items are handled just above the data link layer by virtual address (VMAC) resolution messages within BACnet.