IPv6: The future is now

Despite struggling to get a handle on the new Internet, agencies should already be thinking of how they'll use it.

By all measures, the federal transition to IPv6 is progressing slowly. Just ask the Government Accountability Office, which released a progress report last month. Or ask third-party researchers, who've found the same sluggish movement in meeting the 2008 deadline set by the Office of Management and Budget.

But the transition is progressing, and by some indications it may be picking up steam. Now that most agencies have submitted to OMB their last official transitional reports, all that looms is the heavy lifting'actually upgrading the networks. And according to OMB, various groups are preparing the kind of guidance that agencies will need to migrate their network backbones to the new Internet protocol.

If that sounds like we're in the home stretch, it's in terms of deadlines only.

While June 2008's implementation date is the next official milestone, reporting to OMB and actually executing are two different things. To execute, experts say, agencies should understand today why having IPv6 will be important in 10 years.

'This is one of many mandates,' said Gerald Charles, public-sector executive adviser for Cisco Systems Inc. 'There are lots of things they have to do. Which ones are they really going to do?'

No perception of benefits

In June, Cisco, in conjunction with research firm Market Connections Inc. of Fairfax, Va., released the results of a survey of 200 federal IT officials. Only a small fraction of those surveyed had completed agency migration plans required to meet OMB's IPv6 mandate.

But digging deeper into the results indicates that, so far, there is no clear perception of the benefits of IPv6. And for IPv6 migration to build momentum, agencies need to understand how they'll use the technology once the project is completed.

'There are a lot of people who don't have familiarity with IPv6,' said Aaron J. Heffron, vice president of Market Connections. As a result, there is a danger that the IPv6 transition will be treated as a check-box exercise, jeopardizing operational success.

The transition is too important to be regarded merely as an IT issue, said NASA CTO John McManus, who heads up the Federal CIO Council's IPv6 working group.

'The next step is going from thinking about IPv6 the protocol [to] thinking about it as an enabling capability,' he said. 'If we are deploying it in 2008 and we want to be able to take advantage of it in 2008 or [2009], we have to start planning now.'

The Internet Protocols are the set of rules defining how computers can communicate with each other using individually routed packets rather than dedicated circuits. Most online systems now use version 4 of the protocols, but a move has begun toward version 6. The new version addresses many shortcomings of IPv4, primarily by expanding the address space and including additional data in the packet header.

Associates at Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. of McLean. Va., which is helping some agencies down the IPv6 path, estimated that at least 75 percent of them probably have completed inventories of their infrastructure to determine what elements support IPv6. But according Cisco and Market Connections, less than 8 percent of those surveyed have completed their transition plans. Observers say money is a primary factor in the slow progress.

'This was another of those unfunded mandates,' said Booz Allen senior associate Leslie Allen. 'They didn't have a lot of budget to work through this, so the temptation is to meet the minimum requirements.'

OMB says no additional money should be needed for hardware and software, because they should be addressed in routine upgrades and refreshes. But resources will be needed for the planning and to manage the transition and the resulting dual-stack network.

The Market Connections survey shows that 60 percent of those questioned have not begun the funding approval process. If agencies do not know how they will be using the resulting network, receiving funding approval will be more difficult.

That's why McManus says it's important to begin thinking about how to use the shiny new toy scheduled to show up on networks in two years. The uses will vary according to the mission of each user.

'How do I take advantage of a larger address space?' McManus said. 'How do I take advantage of mobile addressing? What could I do with it as an atmospheric scientist that I couldn't do today?'

Lost opportunities

NASA scientists and project planners are developing experiments today that will be using the technology seven to 10 years from now. Ignoring the capabilities offered by IPv6 could result in lost opportunities and efficiencies. NASA might be unusual in the size of the lead-time in its programs, but all agencies are subject to a certain time lag. 'That's one of the disadvantages of a two-year budget cycle,' McManus said.

Defining operational goals for the coming network will mean both outreach to end users and responding to their requests. 'We have people who are always pushing the edge,' McManus added. 'They are forcing us to think ahead. Some folks are going to come to you, and some folks, you are going to have to go to them,' he said. 'I see that as my responsibility.'

McManus admits it's a responsibility he hasn't focused on before.

'We had to make priority decisions, and our first area of concentration was on what needed to be done with the core infrastructure,' he said. 'I see us over the next 1 1?2 years doing the outreach and putting into the pipeline the research that will take advantage of that.'

Booz Allen has laid out a series of steps to make the jump from plan to transition:
  • Pilot development, with beds to test both individual network components and infrastructure for performance and interoperability

  • Implementation, the actual installation of needed equipment and turning on IPv6 features, probably phased in over time and across different segments

  • Support, which will involve managing essentially two networks, since IPv4 will not be going away any time soon.

Realistic deadlines

Fourteen percent of those surveyed by Cisco said they had begun the transition to IPv6 and another 18 percent said they expected to begin this summer. But fully 30 percent said they did not know when they would begin the process.

Despite the uncertainties, most observers feel that the deadlines set by OMB, though aggressive, are realistic.

'We needed that deadline to get from just thinking about it to doing it,' McManus said.

The goal of the transition was limited somewhat when OMB changed its guidance in November. The new goal is to have agency backbones IPv6 capable, rather than enabled, by 2008. This means they must be ready to accommodate IPv6 traffic by that time, but will not necessarily have to be passing IPv6 packets.

'Since they dropped language from 'enabled' to 'capable,' that gave them a break,' said Booz Allen associate Sue Yu.

This flexibility may well be necessary, because of the varying levels of IPv6 readiness in products. Most networking equipment is billed as 'IPv6-ready' or 'IPv6-capable,' but different devices communicate on different layers of the IP stack.

'It's comparing apples to oranges,' said Randy Hall, marketing manager for Cisco's Network Systems Group. 'I don't think there is any simple way to say what is 'IPv6 compliant.' '

The Defense Department has an IPv6 certification program to help settle questions about compliance, but the move to a fully functional, exclusive IPv6 network is not likely to be finished in 2008.

'For most agencies, the transition and evolution will go on for years past that,' McManus said.

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