It's not too hard to imagine a world where almost everything is connected to the Internet. In the last few years, we've seen an explosion of smart devices and 'things' connected to the Internet which together form the Internet of Things. But what is the Internet of Things (IoT) exactly, and why should we care?
Put simply, the IoT is the inter-networking of physical devices, vehicles, buildings and other objects that enable these objects to collect and exchange data. There are already many objects other than computers and phones connected to the IoT, such as smart thermostats (adjust the temperature in your home from the office so you get back to a house warmed - or cooled - to the perfect temperature), smart locks (let your pet-sitter or maid into the house without having to give them a key) and smart fridges (get notified when you're low on certain supplies). And it's not just physical objects either. As our towns and cities are becoming 'smarter', more and more services and critical infrastructures are being connected to the IoT to ensure sustainability and efficiency.
Every device or object that needs to connect to the Internet must have a unique identifier - an IP address - to enable it to communicate with other devices. There are currently two versions of these unique identifiers in use, IPv4 and IPv6. There are 232 (around 4.3 billion) unique IPv4 addresses and in the early days of the Internet, this seemed like a huge amount. But the Internet grew faster than anyone could have predicted and engineers soon realised that the limited supply of IPv4 address space would not be enough to meet future demand for emerging users and connected devices. In anticipation of this, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) developed, tested and standardised IPv6 in the late 1990s. There are around 2128 IPv6 address (a number so long that it would take up several lines of this paragraph), which is more than enough to meet the addressing needs of the world and to ensure that every phone, tablet, smart car, bike, watch or pair of shoes can that is part of the IoT can be assigned an IP address for many, many years to come.
In 2011, the global pool of IPv4 address space, administered by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), was exhausted. This didn't mean that IPv4 address space could no longer be allocated to ISPs and network operators: each RIR still had its own supply of address space which was allocated to their respective members on the basis of justified need according to the policies defined by each of their own communities.
Since 2015, AFRINIC has been the only one of the RIRs with a non-critically low supply of IPv4 address space and is currently still assigning IPv4 address space to its members on a justified needs basis. AFRINIC members must show that they intend to use all the IPv4 space that they request. RIR members in other regions are no longer able to request IPv4 address space from their RIR unless they are a new member and already have an IPv6 allocation. If they meet these requirements they may be allocated a very, very small amount of IPv4 address space in order to enable them to offer their services over IPv4 and IPv6.
So what's the problem?
In a nutshell, there are already more devices and objects connecting to the Internet than there are IPv4 addresses available for them. And even though we are sitting on a huge supply of IPv6 addresses, it's not as simple as just allocating every device an IPv6 address instead of an IPv4 one. Most of the newer infrastructure and devices and smart objects are ready to connect using IPv4 and/or IPv6 but many existing networks and devices, especially in developing regions, are not IPv6 enabled. By design, IPv4 and IPv6 are unable to communicate directly with each other. This means that devices connecting to the Internet with only an IPv4 address cannot communicate with devices that are connecting with only an IPv6 address and vice versa.
Deploy in parallel
In order to ensure that networks continue to run seamlessly and all devices around the world can continue to communicate with each other, IPv6 must be deployed in parallel with IPv4. Although most network engineers now understand the critical importance of ensuring that their networks and products work with IPv4 and IPv6, making the transition can be costly if new equipment needs to be purchased and sometimes convincing a non-technical business owner or manager of the need is difficult.
There's enough IPv4 for Africa isn't there?
While AFRINIC may be the only region in the world that still has a supply of IPv4, consumption rates are increasing rapidly and there is no way to predict future consumption. Not only that, some network operators in other regions are turning their focus to AFRINIC's supply of IPv4 and transfer of IPv4 space from one region to another is already ongoing in other RIR regions. The AFRINIC community - a large group of engineers, governments, academics, individual users and policy makers who are interested in the global well-being of the Internet - defines how all address space is allocated and to who using an open and inclusive Policy Development Process (PDP).
Currently, AFRINIC policies state that all IPv4 address space must be used in networks within the region but discussions on IPv4 transfers out of the region and about exactly how much of the IPv4 space has to be used within the region to be in conjunction with the policy are ongoing. There is also a lot of debate within the community about whether the remaining supply of IPv4 should be consumed quickly in order to force those who have not deployed IPv6 to do so sooner rather than later or whether it should be preserved in order to ensure that our region will have enough IPv4 space to ensure that new entrants or those who cannot currently deploy or use IPv6 can still connect using IPv4.
Crucially, it is not AFRINIC that decides on this, but the community. These discussions and decisions take place on public mailing lists and during the AFRINIC Meetings which take place twice a year throughout Africa. This is why it's critical that anyone interested in the future of the Internet attends the upcoming conference, AFRINIC-25. The event takes place in Mauritius from 25 - 30 November 2016. Attendance is open to all and remote participation is facilitated for those unable to travel.
Without IPv6 the IoT has no future
So, if Africa still has IPv4 address space, what's the hurry to deploy IPv6? Africa has one of the world’s highest rates of mobile Internet users, a huge population of future Internet users waiting to get online, a growing tech industry and a large community of tech entrepreneurs. All of these networks, devices, services and 'things' will need an IP address. As the rest of the world gets to grips with only being able to get IPv6 space, new players are adapting their devices, objects and services to work without IPv4 because all they've got is an IPv6 allocation and little or no access to IPv4 addresses.
More and more networks are IPv6 ready, devices IPv6 enabled and content made available over IPv6. So there is a very real possibility that, in the future, certain parts of the IoT that remain on IPv4-only may become unreachable to those connecting with an IPv6 address and vice versa. The only solution is for network operators to deploy IPv6 as soon as possible and for manufacturers and entrepreneurs to make sure their products and services are available over IPv6.
What are we doing about it?
For AFRINIC, this is not a new 'problem'. The RIRs have known for many years that the IPv4 pool would not meet the needs of the next generation of the Internet. Together with the other four RIRs, AFRINIC has worked tirelessly to inform and educate the entire continent about IPv4 exhaustion and the urgent need for IPv6 deployment. Aside from comprehensive information on the website, AFRINIC delivers one of Africa's leading IPv6 Training programs, either at no cost or very low cost, sponsors and supports critical infrastructure initiatives, such as DNS and IXP development programs, provides Fellowships to ensure that all of Africa is represented in developing Internet number resource policies, and advocates about IPv6 deployment at global events throughout the world. AFRINIC's flagship Grants and Awards programme, the Fund for Internet Research and Education (FIRE Africa), supports, among many other projects, initiatives dealing with access, infrastructure development and security.
What can you do about it?
- If you're an AFRINIC member - or considering becoming one - make sure you request your IPv6 allocation as soon as possible and begin working on your deployment plan to ensure that your networks and services are not left behind.
- Sign up for one of AFRINIC's IPv6 Training Workshops to find out more about IPv6 and how to deploy it on your networks.
- Get informed: read the current AFRINIC policies and policy proposals and have your say about how IPv4 and IPv6 address space should be distributed in your region.
- Attend the next AFRINIC meeting, AFRINIC-25, to discuss policy, network with other IT professionals and Internet governance experts, and attend world class training sessions.