Cyberspace is getting bigger, wider, and greater in every sense of the word. Aside from the many benefits that come from it, such enhanced connectivity also comes with a new set of challenges.
One of such challenges is that the old version of Internet Protocol (IP), known as IPv4, is no longer enough to cover everything. Next to this one we also now have IPv6 in use, which leads many to wonder, what exactly is the difference between the two and how do they compare against each other. This article will overview the main features of IPv4 vs. IPv6 and how they relate to each other.
What is the Internet Protocol (IP)?
The Internet Protocol (IP) is the set of rules that define how to route and address data packets as they travel across the internet. It is closely related to the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) which is the routing protocol for establishing and maintaining a network connection that allows applications to exchange data. Together the IP and the TCP form the IP/TCP suite, which is the basis for establishing connections that enable data transfer that accounts for all the internet traffic.
One of the most important features established by the guiding protocols is the Internet Protocol address, commonly known as the IP address. This is the unique address given to a device by which it can be recognized and sent data to. The ascription of IP addresses is carried out by the internet service provider and overseen by the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA).
Different IP versions have different types of addresses. At first, there were 3 experimental Internet Protocol versions that never came to be widely utilized. This brings us to the fourth and, thus far, most widely used version.
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What is IPv4?
Internet Protocol version 4 (IPv4) came to be in 1983 as part of ARPANET which was the predecessor of the Internet as we know it today. At first, it was the only version in active use. As the Internet Protocol should, it defines how information packets should be configured to transfer from one device connected to the network to another.
One of the most important aspects of IPv4 is its specific IP address notation. In this version, IP addresses are 32-bit numbers, typically presented as 4 fields of digits separated by dots. Thus, an example of how an IP address looks could be this: 188.8.131.52. Using this notation IPv4 allows creating approximately 4.3 billion unique IP addresses.
What is IPv6?
Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6) is the newer version of the Internet Protocol and the replacement for IPv4. The main reason why the previous version needed to be replaced was the limit of unique addresses it could generate. Over 4 billion was a lot in the 1980s, but it would be far from enough long before now if we did not have an additional Internet Protocol.
IPv6 comes to the rescue. It is a 128-bit alphanumeric address, meaning that it utilizes both letters and numbers, which allows generating significantly more unique IP addresses. They are made up of 8 groups, separated by colons. Each group is made up of 4 digits, or hexes, of the hexadecimal system. The 16 hexes are numbers from 0 to 9 and letters from A to F. Thus, an example of an IPv6 address could be something like this: AB01:CD23:4444:56E7:8FA9:4321:5ABC:92FD.
Both versions are in use right now with some devices having an IPv4 address and others an IPv6 address. This might raise the question of whatever happened to Internet Protocol version 5? IPv5 was in development, but ultimately abandoned precisely because it still used the same 32-bit address types as IPv4. Once the need for more unique addresses was evident, there was no point to release IPv5 and we moved straight to IPv6.
Together IPv4 and IPv6 can cover our unique address needs. But, of course, there are more differences between the two versions. Thus, to answer which is better IPv4 vs. IPv6, we need to look closer at how they work.
How does IPv4 work?
The way IPv4 is structured and works is described in the 1981 publication RFC 791 by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). The basic concept that defines how information transmission works according to IPv4 is quite straightforward.
Data packets travel from one network to another. The first segment or segments of the version 4 IP address specify the receiving network. This means that all devices on the network have IP addresses that start identically. However, the remaining sequences of numbers are different with each device. This allows the information reaching the network to find the specific device which is meant to receive it.
Features of IPv4
Above are the basics of information transmission as defined by IPv4. Here are some of the main features of this IP version.
- Connectionless protocol.
- Supports Unicast, Broadcast, and Multicast types of addresses.
- Allows creating a simple virtual communication layer over diversified devices.
- Uses the Post Address Resolution Protocol to map to the MAC address.
- Requires less memory.
- Supports Virtual Length Subnet Mask (VLSM).
- This version of the protocol is already supported by millions of devices.
- Offers video libraries and conferences.
How does IPv6 work?
The newer version of the Internet Protocol works much the same way as IPv4 as far as basic information transmission is concerned. Utilizing the larger address space created by the new formatting of IP addresses, IPv6 allows transmission of datagrams across the networks. While keeping some of the familiar and usable design principles and features of the previous version, IPv6 also adds new developments and solutions.
Features of IPv6
Some of the most important defining characteristics and features of IPv6 are as follows.
- End-to-end connectivity at the IP layer – due to unique IP addresses every system can connect with each other directly, without needing Network Address Translation (NAT).
- Simplified header, as compared to IPv4.
- Larger address space.
- Supports Unicast, Multicast, and Anycast addressing.
- Uses Multicast for broadcasting to multiple IP addresses.
- Faster forwarding/routing.
- Supports both stateless and stateful auto-configuration.
- Additional IPsec (Internet Protocol security).
- Extensibility of header, allowing to add more options when needed.
- Allows mobile hosts, like laptops and mobile phones, to keep the same IP address in different geographical locations.
- Traffic class and flow label, which enhance priority support, telling routers how to effectively process the data packets.
- Smooth transition.
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Differences between IPv4 and IPv6
From the listed features above one can already get a sense of the fact that IPv4 and IPv6 are similar in some aspects but differ in others. As a newer version should, IPv6 comes with certain updates. But does it make it better? The table below depicting IPv4 vs. IPv6 comparison will make the matter clearer.
IP address size
IP address structure
IPv4 address is a numeric address, with binary bits separated by dots (.).
IPv6 address is an alphanumeric address, using the hexadecimal system (numbers from 0 to 9, letters from A to F). Its binary bits are separated by colons (:)
Number of header fields
Length of a header field
IP address example
IP address types
Unicast, Broadcast, and Multicast.
Unicast, Multicast, and Anycast.
Has checksum fields
Does not have checksum fields
IP address classes
Offers five different classes of IP address – Class A to E.
Allows storing an unlimited number of IP addresses.
In IPv4 IPsec (Internet Protocol security) is an optional add-on.
IPv6 IPsec is already built into the protocol, thus every IPv6 device has it. But that does not make it mandatory to use. It is up to the internet service providers (ISPs) to implement it or not.
Used to identify which bits of the address belong to the network portion and which to the host portion.
Manual or via Dynamic Host Configuration server in accordance with Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP).
IPv6 supports auto-configuration capabilities, allowing it to automatically generate a local address and a globally routable address when an IPv6 router is discovered by the device.
IPv4 allows fragmentation from both routers and the sending host.
IPv6 allows fragmentation only from the sending hosts.
Variable Length Subnet Mask (VLSM) Support
Offers VLSM support.
Does not offer VLSM support.
Routing Information Protocol (RIP)
Uses RIP version 1 (RIPv1) and RIP version 2 (RIPv2).
Uses the upgraded RIP-next -generation (RIPng).
Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP)
Used for management and monitoring of network-connected devices
Does not use SNMP.
Mobility and interoperability capabilities
Relatively limited mobility capabilities. The dot-decimal notation of IPv4 is not suited for mobile devices.
IPv6 has a high capacity for mobility and interoperability and is well-suited for mobile networks.
576 bytes required with optional fragmentation.
1208 bytes required without fragmentation.
Does not identify packet flow for Quality of Service (QoS) handling.
The packet header contains a Flow label field that specifies packet flow, supporting QoS handling.
Domain Name System (DNS) records
Address A records, maps hostnames.
Address AAAA records, maps hostnames.
IP to MAC resolution
Uses Address Resolution Protocol (ARP) to map to Media Access Control (MAC) addresses.
Uses Neighbor Discovery Protocol (NDP) to map to MAC address.
Has optional fields.
Does not have optional fields, but extension headers are available.
Local subnet group management
Internet Group Management Protocol (IGMP).
Multicast Listener Discovery (MLD).
Speed and performance
Slower in theory, but in longer use, thus highly optimized. Might sometimes perform faster, although there is not much difference.
Faster in theory as there is no need for the Network Address Translation, but currently not widely confirmed in practice. Should perform faster when optimized in the future.
Making the switch
The comparison of IPv4 vs. IPv6 points to the fact that the latter version has more features and utilizes new developments to efficiently guide information transmission.
However, that does not necessarily mean that an everyday user will feel much difference today. In theory, IPv6 should perform better and there are some scattered reports of that happening. But to date, there is not enough empirical evidence to say that IPv6 affects ping to a noticeable degree.
One might wonder about the possibility of converting the versions. There are many tools that will convert IPv4 addresses to their IPv6 equivalent. And such addresses can then be converted backward. But not all IPv6 addresses could be converted to IPv4 simply due to the fact that there are not enough IPv4 addresses. Which, as one recalls, was the initial reason to introduce IPv6 and move towards its widespread usage.
And yet IPv4 is still in use and has a more mature network infrastructure. This is due to the fact that making the full-scale transition to IPv6 would be quite costly, as it would mean that all the routing devices would have to be updated. Thus, although some organizations have taken steps toward it, the general strategy thus far is to just let IPv4 age gracefully and gradually move out of use.
Comparing IPv4 vs. IPv6 requires keeping a few things in mind. The main reason why we needed IPv6 was simply that we needed more IP addresses. And although the newer version is the future of IP addressing, the older IPv4 is still very much in use. Both IPv4 and IPv6 are capable of doing their job, that is guiding the data packets through the interconnected networks that we all know as the Internet. Thus at least for now, we should be used to seeing both IPv4 and IPv6 addresses.
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