Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Disabling IPv6 in Windows Vista: Pros and Cons

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Windows Vista features a dual stack which allows it to run IPv4 and IPv6 simultaneously. Although Vista isn't the first Windows operating system to support IPv6 (Windows 2000 had it too), it is the first Windows OS to have IPv6 enabled by default. This fact when combined with the notion that hardly a few people are really using IPv6, raises the question: Why not just disable IPv6?

Why disable IPv6?
There are actually compelling arguments both for and against leaving IPv6 enabled. Let's start out by talking about some reasons for disabling IPv6.

We all know that Windows Vista is a system resource hog. The IPv6 protocol consumes resources such as CPU time and system memory; it also consumes network bandwidth. Moreover you, mostly, don’t use this feature but it still continues to consume system resources! Conserving system resources is one possible reason for disabling the IPv6 protocol. Another is that disabling the IPv6 protocol may possibly increase the security of your system. You may be confused: After all, IPv6 was specifically designed to overcome some of the security shortcomings of its predecessors. Even so, there is a law of computing that states that the larger the size of your code base, the greater the chance that the code will contain an exploitable security vulnerability. Adding an additional protocol to Windows increases the size of the Windows code base, which could potentially lead to security problems.

Readers, please note that I still have not come across any serious security problems specifically related to the IPv6 protocol in Windows Vista. One more reason why you may want to disable the IPv6 protocol is that IPv6 is nothing like IPv4. The Windows Vista implementation of IPv6 is self configuring, but if the administrators in your company make a habit of monitoring network traffic, they will probably need additional training so that they can learn the anatomy of an IPv6 packet.

Why you should think twice before disabling IPv6…
I know there are more compelling reasons why you would disable IPv6 protocol, but remember that Microsoft enabled it by default in Windows Vista for certain reasons. In fact, IPv6 is not only enabled in Windows Vista, it is the preferred protocol. For example, if a Windows Vista workstation performs a DNS query, and the query returns an IPv4 address and an IPv6 address, Vista will use the IPv6 address every time. This prompts the question: Why has Microsoft placed so much emphasis on IPv6 in Vista? Many of the reasons behind the IPv6 push are political. For example, the federal government has mandated that federal agencies make the transition to IPv6 by June 2008. Microsoft wants to sell software to the government, so why not offer an operating system in which IPv6 is already in place?

Thinking beyond politics, IPv6 offers the potential for better security than is available with IPv4, and the IPv6 protocol also overcomes the problem of a global shortage of IP addresses. The main reason for leaving IPv6 enabled is that some Vista features break when it is disabled! This happens because Vista includes a new discovery service that is dependent on the IPv6 protocol. For now, the discovery service is mostly involved in peer networking. Normal users need not worry too much about it right now! Windows Vista is capable of browsing a corporate network without using the IPv6 protocol or the discovery service, but some hardware manufacturers are starting to create network devices, such as switches and routers, that will respond to multicast discovery packets.

So should you disable the IPv6 protocol or leave it enabled? I think that the answer really depends on your preferences & needs. In my opinion:

As long as your workstations are not strapped for resources and your network's bandwidth isn't saturated, you should leave IPv6 enabled. Even if you aren't really doing anything with IPv6 right now, I think it's a safe bet that IPv6 will be much more heavily used in the future - especially after Windows Server 2008 is released.

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