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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Thursday, December 22, 2005

IPv6 and nuclear power


1.A few weeks ago I read a letter in the Scottish Herald newspaper by an advocate of nuclear power. The writer dismissed the possibility of micro-power generation (household level wind, solar, water devices) on the grounds that the national grid could not cope with the chaos that would ensue. Electricity generation had to be kept centralised, he argued. Only nuclear power could take over from existing fossil fuelled mega-power stations.

2. But is this centralised power generation and supply model outdated? I suggest it is.

2.1 Think of how the internet works. It is a highly devolved system, with multiple routes for information to flow back and forth between millions of computers. Think of electric power as information. The existing model is a 'broadcast' system, with electricity (information) generated at a few centres and 'broadcast' to millions of passive 'receivers'. With the internet + world wide web this model has been turned upside down. Every computer is a transmitter as well as a receiver of information.

2.2 If every home became a micro-generator of electricity, could the electricity distribution system become more like the internet? Yes, it could, so long as sufficient 'intelligence' is embedded in it. This intelligence would have to be able to balance supply and demand constantly and continually across the system. To do this it would also have to balance supply and demand within each home / office/ factory. This is exactly the kind of job computers are very good at. Their ability to do so keeps the internet going.

3. What will be necessary to achieve this objective?

3.1 The existence of intelligent technology which can micro-manage power use in each environment (home/ office/ factory/ street). This technology is already available , for example linking lighting/ heating etc. to motion sensors so empty rooms can be 'powered down' even if someone forgets to switch the lights out before leaving.

3.2 The development of micro-power generators. This would mean solar panels and windmills on every roof plus hydro-electric generators on every (viable) stream. Again this technology is already available, but as with personal rather than mainframe computers, requires a 'paradigm shift' before it becomes viable.

3.3 Insulation + energy efficiency. This is essential. Minimising energy need and minimising energy waste reduce energy demand.

3.4. Internet Protocol version 6. This is due to start replacing Internet Protocol version 4 over the next 12 months. IPv6 will make the internet more secure. It means that each 'packet' of information sent over the internet will reveal its origin as well as its destination. This will make it harder (impossible?) to send Spam and to carry out 'phishing'. It will also create three hundred billion billion billion billion possible internet addresses. IPv4 (the current standard) only provides 4 billion. Even kettles and fridges will soon have their own internet addresses/ identities.

3.4.1 In theory then, Internet Protocol version 6 will allow the micro management of electrical use and generation.

4. Info on IPv6 from Guardian- see below

New media

Inside IT

Bigger and better: the internet gets a sixth sense

Ambitious plans to connect not just phones and TVs but kettles and fridges to the net will come to fruition in 2006

Kieren McCarthy
Thursday December 22, 2005
The Guardian

No more spam. No more "phishing" bank scams. News, pictures and short clips sent seamlessly to your phone ... or your fridge. Video conferencing that works first time, no hassles. Free, stereo-quality phone calls anywhere in the world. No, it's not a utopian ideal, it's the internet that some people will begin to experience in the next 12 months.

Unknown to virtually everyone except IT engineers, the internet is being upgraded to a system called IPv6 (for Internet Protocol version 6). Just as you upgrade your mobile phone, computer or any modern appliance, the internet is undergoing a vast, gradual upgrade that will transform how it works and the way we interact with it.

The change could be compared with that from analogue to digital TV. Like that shift, the benefits are obvious to those involved, but people will have to buy new equipment and the network's infrastructure will in some cases need a virtual rebuild. It will also, in some places, create incompatibilities between old and new.

But the shift to IPv6 is largely seen as inevitable, and big companies including Microsoft and BT have already made the move. Ironically, the US, where the internet was developed, will be among the last countries to move over as it has so much invested in the old system.

Communication over the internet works by breaking up information - an email, web page, picture, or even voice call - into small chunks, called packets. Using a combined method called TCP/IP (for Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol), these packets are sent by myriad routes from one computer in the world to another somewhere else.

Ability to expand

Each packet carries an electronic label that explains what it is and where it wants to get to. Non-terminating computers that handle the packets try to send them on to the terminating machine. There, the information is reassembled using the rest of the header information. The fact that it doesn't matter what route the packet took from one computer to another explains its incredible ability to expand, because (in theory, at least) no route is more important than any other, so you can add more as you like.

For years, TCP/IP has been stuck on version 4 which while not perfect (you can't trace where packets originated because their headers can be "spoofed"), does work, and is easy to implement.

But IPv4, as it is known, is becoming outdated. An updated version, IPv6, provides solutions to many of the problems that have cropped up.

All IPv6 effectively does is change the format of the electronic label on each packet. But doing so has enormous consequences.

The first is to allow the internet to potentially expand virtually to infinity. Here's why. Everything connected to the internet needs its own numerical address so the packets know where to go. IPv4 offers a maximum of just over 4 billion such addresses. That could never cope with the ambitious plans to connect not just every phone, TV and computer in the world to the internet, but also things such as kettles and fridges. IPv6 solves this by providing not 4bn addresses but more than three hundred billion billion billion billion (actually, 3.4 x 10^38, or 2^128).

IPv6 will also make the entire internet more secure by including a check on every single packet sent. The packet's receiver will know its origin and that it wasn't tampered with on the way. Fears about online security, which still stop many people from buying online, will be squashed.

Visible scams

Such precision will also make life harder for online criminals. Scams will become far more visible and reveal spam's origin - making it easier to track down offenders.

This tighter connection between packet and computer also makes the internet far more efficient, and allows for an "always-on" connection for mobile devices - vital for new 3G mobile phones. Suddenly, the "internet on your phone" becomes a practical reality rather than a futile disappointment.

Video conferencing and internet phone calls will become several orders more reliable and hence of far better quality. Peer-to-peer sharing networks, which big media companies are building so you can download music and films direct to your living room, will become faster and more reliable. You will no longer need to walk to the local video store - just click and play.

IPv6 also helps new devices automatically configure themselves, so connecting new things to the internet will simply become a matter of sticking a wire into a socket.

Yet the bad news is that, despite being invented 10 years ago, IPv6 remains a poor cousin to the old IPv4.

This is where the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann) comes in. At its recent meeting in Vancouver, the organisation, which acts as an overseer and organiser of all "technical" parts of the internet, announced that IPv6 would soon be introduced into the internet's "root" servers, so IPv6-only communication at the highest level of the internet was now possible.

Psychological impact

IPv6 expert Suzanne Woolf called it a big step forward. It has certainly had a huge psychological impact as many companies were previously running combined IPv4 and IPv6 systems, providing little impetus to move to IPv6. Add official governmental support from the European Community, Japan and Korea, and the next generation network is finally on its way.

But it isn't without potential pitfalls. Just as you can't watch digital TV on a purely analogue TV, an IPv4 network can't handle "pure" IPv6 packets; so there must be compromise and workarounds, and they all cost money. One internal report has said the move to IPv6 will cost the US government anywhere from $25bn to $75bn over the next three years, bringing visions of a terrifying boondoggle to compare with the Y2K "millennium bug" panic. But those costs are tiny compared with the billions spent in business transactions across the internet each day.

These sudden shifts are thanks in part to Icann sorting out its own problems. At its summit in Tunis last month, the world's governments gave the non-profit organisation their full backing, giving it a huge mandate to implement change.

Vint Cerf, who chairs Icann and is also the co-inventor of the TCP/IP system, said that Icann "has a pretty modest role in the daily operation and ultimate operation of the internet" and that "99% of the internet is in private hands". But he accepted that it "has a pretty important role" in influencing what happens in the internet's domain name system.

It's a busy road ahead, but we are all going to benefit.


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