IPv6 allows for exponentially more IP address space than IPv4. IPv4 uses a 32-bit address, which allows for 2 32 or over 4 billion addresses, less if the sizable reserved blocks and IPs burned by subnetting are removed. IPv6 uses a 128-bit address, which is 2 128 or 3.403 x 10 38 IP addresses. The standard size IPv6 subnet defined by the IETF is a /64, which contains 2 64 IPs, or 18.4 quintillion addresses. The entire IPv4 space can fit inside a typical IPv6 subnet many times over with room to spare.

One of the more subtle improvements with IPv6 is that no IP addresses are lost to subnetting. With IPv4, two IP addresses are lost per subnet to account for a null route and broadcast IP address. In IPv6, broadcast is handled via the same mechanisms used for multicast involving special addresses sent to the entire network segment. Additional improvements include integrated packet encryption, larger potential packet sizes, and other design elements that make it easier for routers to manage IPv6 at the packet level.

Unlike IPv4, all packets are routed in IPv6 without NAT. Each IP address is directly accessible by another unless stopped by a firewall. This can be a very difficult concept to grasp for people who are used to having their LAN exist with a specific private subnet and then performing NAT to whatever the external address happens to be.

There are fundamental differences in the operation of IPv6 in comparison to IPv4, but mostly they are only that: differences. Some things are simpler than IPv4, others are slightly more complicated, but for the most part it’s simply different. Major differences occur at layer 2 (ARP vs. NDP for instance) and layer 3 (IPv4 vs. IPv6 addressing). The protocols used at higher layers are identical; only the transport mechanism for those protocols has changed. HTTP is still HTTP, SMTP is still SMTP, etc.

Firewall and VPN Concerns

IPv6 restores true peer-to-peer connectivity originally in place with IPv4 making proper firewall controls even more important. In IPv4, NAT was misused as an additional firewall control. In IPv6, NAT is removed. Port forwards are no longer required in IPv6 so remote access will be handled by firewall rules. Care must be taken to ensure encrypted VPN LAN to LAN traffic is not routed directly to the remote site. See IPv6 VPN and Firewall Rules for a more in-depth discussion on IPv6 firewall concerns with respect to VPN traffic.