Let’s take a look at the structure of an IPv6 Global Unicast address (GUA), a globally-routeable address:
IPv6 addresses, like IPv4 addresses, are Big Endian, that is, the most significant bits come first. That’s similar to decimal numbers, where thousands come before hundreds and so on. The most significant bits (the “high-order” bits) at the beginning of a GUA form the global routeing prefix. This is used by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to route traffic through the global Internet.
The standard IPv6 global routeing prefix assigned to a single-site enterprise is a /48. RFC 3177 specified /48 as the standard prefix for all sites, even home users, but subsequently RFC 6177 recommended longer prefixes for small enterprises and home users. With IPv4 an enterprise may only be assigned a /24, if that. That means that ISPs have (very) roughly 16 million times the address space to work with (248 versus 224); in fact 48 bits provides about 280 trillion prefixes, or roughly 38,000 prefixes for every human on the planet.
It’s the structure at the local end of an IPv6 address that’s surprising for someone like me who has worked with IPv4 all through their career. The network prefix (what in IPv4 is called the subnet mask) is a fixed /64 in length, as opposed to the variable-length subnet masking (VLSM) of IPv4. That means that the interface ID (broadly the IPv6 equivalent of the host ID) is also 64 bits long. In other words there’s enough address space on each subnet for 264 hosts, i.e. 18446744073709551616, or enough M&Ms to fill the Great Lakes.
Now that’s a huge number. With current networking technology it’s difficult to imagine it being practical to have more than, say, 10000 hosts on a single subnet. That only requires 14 bits, so the other (most significant) 50 bits are effectively redundant, in other words 18446744073709535232 addresses or 99.99999999999991%. In practice there is likely to be parallel running of IPv4 and IPv6 on the same subnets for some time, and IPv4 subnets are typically much smaller, say, 256 hosts, so the redundancy will be greater still.
The consequence of this fixed /64 network prefix is that the subnet ID, which is the local part of the network prefix, is typically only sixteen bits. For IPv4, most enterprises use private RFC 1918 addressing combined with Network Address Translation. They often utilise the 10/8 private prefix subnetted down to a /24 for individual subnets, which also provides a 16-bit subnet addressing space. So in practice IPv6 doesn’t provide any additional subnet address space for many enterprises compared to IPv4.
Sixteen bits is still a large number, equivalent to 65536 addresses, and it would be very generous if enterprises used those sixteen bits as a completely flat address space. However they usually structure the local subnet space hierarchically, in order to aggregate routes efficiently and minimise internal routeing tables (just as the global routeing address space is structured). IPv6 does have the advantage for network administrators that addresses are represented in hex rather than IPv4’s decimal; each hex character represents four bits (a “nibble”) as opposed to the 8-bit components of an IPv4 address (an “octet”). This means that the subnet space can be divided conveniently into 4-bit chunks in a way that’s easy to read, and so less prone to error. It is generally recommended (by Coffeen 2014 for example) to follow this practice when designing your IPv6 subnetting structure.
Nevertheless creating a hierarchical structure in this way means that there will be inevitably some inefficiency in the use of the address space. For example, take a site that has 20 buildings with 20 subnets per building. Each nibble can encompass only 16 objects, so you would need to assign two nibbles to the site level of the hierarchy and two to the building level of the hierarchy, thus using up the available subnet space, with quite a lot of redundancy. This is almost a worse-case scenario, but it shows how the address space for local subnetting is not that generous, and looks positively stingy compared to the address space for interfaces.
In summary, IPv6 uses a roughly 48-bit address space for global routeing, That’s a huge amount of prefixes, and to be fair it does deliver the original goal of IPv6, which was to increase the global address space. However, the way that the local part of IPv6 addresses is structured means that there is no useable expansion of address space at the local end. That stuff about galaxies and light-years is (mostly) hype.
In the next post I’ll take a look at why IPv6 addresses are structured in this way.