On the Internet, data is transmitted in the form of network packets. IPv6 specifies a new packet format, designed to minimize packet header processing by routers. Because the headers of IPv4 and IPv6 header packets are significantly different, the two protocols are not interoperable. However, in most respects, IPv6 is a conservative extension of IPv4. Most transport and application-layer protocols need little or no change to operate over IPv6;
The main advantage of IPv6 over IPv4 is its larger address space. The length of an IPv6 address is 128 bits, compared with 32 bits in IPv4. The address space therefore has 2128 or approximately 3.4×1038 addresses. By comparison, this amounts to approximately 4.8×1028 addresses for each of the seven billion people alive in 2011.
In addition, the IPv4 address space is poorly allocated, with approximately 14% of all available addresses utilized. While these numbers are large, it wasn’t the intent of the designers of the IPv6 address space to assure geographical saturation with usable addresses. Rather, the longer addresses simplify allocation of addresses, enable efficient route aggregation, and allow implementation of special addressing features.
In IPv4, complex Classless Inter-Domain Routing (CIDR) methods were developed to make the best use of the small address space. The standard size of a subnet in IPv6 is 264 addresses, the square of the size of the entire IPv4 address space. Thus, actual address space utilization rates will be small in IPv6, but network management and routing efficiency is improved by the large subnet space and hierarchical route aggregation.
Renumbering an existing network for a new connectivity provider with different routing prefixes is a major effort with IPv4. With IPv6, however, changing the prefix announced by a few routers can in principle renumber an entire network, since the host identifiers (the least-significant 64 bits of an address) can be independently self-configured by a host.
The IPv6 packet header has a fixed size (40 octets). Options are implemented as additional extension headers after the IPv6 header, which limits their size only by the size of an entire packet. The extension header mechanism makes the protocol extensible in that it allows future services for quality of service, security, mobility, and others to be added without redesign of the basic protocol.
Simplified processing by routers:
In IPv6, the packet header and the process of packet forwarding have been simplified. Although IPv6 packet headers are at least twice the size of IPv4 packet headers, packet processing by routers is generally more efficient, thereby extending the end-to-end principle of Internet design.
The packet header in IPv6 is simpler than that used in IPv4, with many rarely used fields moved to separate optional header extensions.
The IPv6 header is not protected by a checksum; integrity protection is assumed to be assured by both link-layer and higher-layer (TCP, UDP, etc.) error detection. UDP/IPv4 may actually have a checksum of 0, indicating no checksum; IPv6 requires UDP to have its own checksum. Therefore, IPv6 routers do not need to recompute a checksum when header fields (such as the time to live (TTL) or hop count) change. This improvement may have been made less necessary by the development of routers that perform checksum computation at link speed using dedicated hardware, but it is still relevant for software-based routers.
The TTL field of IPv4 has been renamed to Hop Limit in IPv6, reflecting the fact that routers are no longer expected to compute the time a packet has spent in a queue.
Unlike mobile IPv4, mobile IPv6 avoids triangular routing and is therefore as efficient as native IPv6. IPv6 routers may also allow entire subnets to move to a new router connection point without renumbering.
The transmission of a packet to multiple destinations in a single send operation, is part of the base specification in IPv6. In IPv4 this is an optional although commonly implemented feature. IPv6 multicast addressing shares common features and protocols with IPv4 multicast, but also provides changes and improvements by eliminating the need for certain protocols. IPv6 does not implement traditional IP broadcast, i.e. the transmission of a packet to all hosts on the attached link using a special broadcast address, and therefore does not define broadcast addresses. In IPv6, the same result can be achieved by sending a packet to the link-local all nodes multicast group at address ff02::1, which is analogous to IPv4 multicast to address 188.8.131.52. IPv6 also provides for new multicast implementations, including embedding rendezvous point addresses in an IPv6 multicast group address, which simplifies the deployment of inter-domain solutions.
In IPv4 it is very difficult for an organization to get even one globally routable multicast group assignment, and the implementation of inter-domain solutions is very arcane. Unicast address assignments by a local Internet registry for IPv6 have at least a 64-bit routing prefix, yielding the smallest subnet size available in IPv6 (also 64 bits). With such an assignment it is possible to embed the unicast address prefix into the IPv6 multicast address format, while still providing a 32-bit block, the least significant bits of the address, or approximately 4.2 billion multicast group identifiers. Thus each user of an IPv6 subnet automatically has available a set of globally routable source-specific multicast groups for multicast applications.
Internet Protocol Security (IPsec) was originally developed for IPv6, but found widespread deployment first in IPv4, for which it was re-engineered. IPsec was a mandatory specification of the base IPv6 protocol suite, but has since been made optional
Like IPv4, IPv6 supports globally unique IP addresses by which the network activity of each device can potentially be tracked. The design of IPv6 intended to re-emphasize the end-to-end principle of network design that was originally conceived during the establishment of the early Internet. In this approach each device on the network has a unique address globally reachable directly from any other location on the Internet.
Network prefix tracking is less of a concern if the user’s ISP assigns a dynamic network prefix via DHCP. Privacy extensions do little to protect the user from tracking if only one or two devices are using a static network prefix. In this scenario, the network prefix is the unique identifier for tracking.
In IPv4 the effort to conserve address space with network address translation (NAT) obfuscates network address spaces, hosts, and topologies. In IPv6 when using address auto-configuration, the Interface Identifier (MAC address) of an interface port is used to make its public IP address unique, exposing the type of hardware used and providing a unique handle for a user’s online activity.
It is not a requirement for IPv6 hosts to use address auto-configuration, however. Yet, even when an address is not based on the MAC address, the interface’s address is globally unique, in contrast to NAT-masqueraded private networks. When privacy extensions are enabled, the operating system generates random host identifiers to combine with the assigned network prefix. These ephemeral addresses are used to communicate with remote hosts making it more difficult to track a single device. Privacy extensions are enabled by default in Windows (since XP SP1), OS X (since 10.7), and iOS (since version 4.3). Some Linux distributions have enabled privacy extensions as well. Privacy extensions do not protect the user from other forms of activity tracking, such as tracking cookies.
Stateless address auto configuration (SLAAC):
IPv6 hosts can configure themselves automatically when connected to an IPv6 network using the Neighbor Discovery Protocol via Internet Control Message Protocol version 6 (ICMPv6) router discovery messages. When first connected to a network, a host sends a link-local router solicitation multicast request for its configuration parameters; routers respond to such a request with a router advertisement packet that contains Internet Layer configuration parameters.
If IPv6 stateless address auto configuration is unsuitable for an application, a network may use stateful configuration with the Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol version 6 (DHCPv6) or hosts may be configured manually using static methods.
Routers present a special case of requirements for address configuration, as they often are sources of auto configuration information, such as router and prefix advertisements. Stateless configuration of routers can be achieved with a special router renumbering protocol.
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