University of Alberta sees many upsides after switching to IPv6

In 2018, the University of Alberta switched its wifi to IPv6 (internet protocol version 6). Raymond Richmond, Team Lead for IST at the University, talks about his experience with becoming IPv6-enabled, and the benefits that have come with making the change. (One of the biggest benefits right now is being able to offer a more seamless connection to foreign students).

What motivated the University of Alberta to become IPv6 enabled?

"We began testing IPv6 around 2010, but we had been talking about it for at least a decade prior to that. We finally had to admit that this wasn’t a bleeding-edge technology any more. And with us being a research institution, we figured enough is enough, we need to do this! 

There were concerns about whether it was production-ready, but it worked. When we finally got it switched on, most staff and students didn’t even notice a difference (which is the best outcome you can hope for)."

How did the actual switchover play out?

"It wasn’t arduous at all. We started with the biggest chunk of our network that needed the least amount of work: the wireless network. Before we switched, we did some change management work internally. (We knew it was important to have conversations with all the service administrators, including the ones who don’t normally see the network or infrastructure issues, to help them understand what we were doing, and why it was important). 

There was one painful surprise with one piece of equipment that did not have sufficient capacity to handle the IPv6 traffic routing load. That caused a bad afternoon, but we were able to address that with a small design change on the wireless system back-end to make different components responsible for routing. In the end, we didn’t have to spend any additional capital to make it work.

After we turned it on we monitored the traffic. By the end of the first year, ~25% of our traffic had moved from IPv4 to IPv6. People’s devices just determined on their own that IPv6 was a preferable way to reach those resources.

Our next step will be rolling out services and content to be IPv6 enabled, including e-learning applications, which will be a big one. 

Once we see the traffic on IPv4 completely going away, we’ll turn it off."

What have been the biggest benefits of switching to IPv6?

"Definitely the foreign student content delivery. Many of our remote foreign students, particularly in Asia, are on IPv6. For them to connect to a university that’s using IPv4 requires patches and redirects, which slows down their experience. By offering IPv6, we’re using native addresses all the way through. 

Ultimately, it’s bringing us back to what the internet is supposed to be — direct connections, and not a patchwork of various systems.

On top of that, there’s a greater opportunity for anonymization with IPv6, which is important for privacy protection. 

What would you say to other institutions that are on the fence about enabling IPv6?

You are alienating a lot of your remote student population if you’re on IPv4. This will give them a much better learning experience.

I would also assure anyone who’s worried about getting started that it’s not that big of a deal."

Any practical advice?

"I would recommend starting with the areas that create the biggest change with the least amount of work (for the University of Alberta, it was the campus-wide wifi).

I would also advise that you go dual stack, operating both IPv4 and IPv6. You can tool up your infrastructure to monitor both, and see how the traffic flows and changes over time, from IPv4 to IPv6.

Think broadly when you’re planning. This infrastructure should last longer than the rest of your career, so you need to get it right. (Think of it as building the foundation for your house).

And communicate widely! Talk to your service administrators, firewall administrators, developers of your web apps, etc. They all need to hear the same message.

I know IPv6 can be very scary, especially when you take a quick glance at the addressing. It’s a different ballpark from how IPv4 is structured, and it took me a long time before I could wrap my head around it. Just know that you don’t need to understand the addresses, you just need to understand the approach."

About IPv6

Every device that connects to the internet needs its own IP address in order to communicate. Not long after the internet became a globally used medium, network scientists realized that the pool of IPv4 (internet protocol version 4) addresses being used by all computers was going to run out. The solution they created was IPv6 — a protocol that uses a hexadecimal system of numbers and letters. This makes it expansive enough to provide every atom on the surface of the earth with its own IP address.

Cybera has been touting IPv6 for several years now. An additional benefit to making the switch is free traffic! Any IPv6 transit and peering traffic that traverses the National Research and Education Network is free for the institution.

To find out more about how to make the switch, contact Cybera’s network team.