Cyber Eye: The country needs a Y2K crisis for IPv6

William Jackson

The year 2000 computer crisis sparked a wonderful example of the government and private sectors working together to accomplish a huge IT task under a tight deadline. Cybersecurity was supposed to be the 'Next Y2K,' but security has turned out to be an ongoing process with no identifiable endpoint, and doesn't lend itself well to that kind of collaborative effort.

So I'm nominating the transition to Internet Protocol Version 6 [see Page 1] as the new, official Next Y2K.

The great thing about Y2K was the sense of mission and degree of cooperation it engendered. The problem was broad, the cost was huge and there were no solutions that could be legislated.

But the government took a leadership position, set the agenda and ramrodded a national effort to ensure the country's hardware and software were ready for the 21st century. Calendars changed without a hitch.

With the coming of a new set of Internet Protocols, we once again have a technology challenge that lends itself to this kind of initiative. It would be a shame to waste the kind of proven government-industry organizational potential we saw in 1999.

The Internet Protocols are a set of rules describing how computers communicate with each other. The interconnected, global packet-switched network known as the Internet now runs primarily on IP Version 4. But the Internet has outstripped its original vision and the 30-year-old set of protocols is showing its age.

The next-generation IP v. 6, which solves issues of address limits and improves routing, among other things, is ready for adoption. But transitioning will be a formidable task.

Risk falling behind?

Those nations whose infrastructures are most heavily vested in IP v. 4 will face the most difficult transition. This is a large disincentive for the United States, where the Internet was born and which holds the lion's share of the IP v. 4 address space.

But as Japan and other Asian Pacific nations move aggressively to IP v. 6, the United States risks losing its lead in the new information economy. Products and services that take advantage of IP v. 6 will grow up and flourish in those countries that can use them. Over time, the U.S. infrastructure may become less interoperable as its hardware, operating systems, applications and services are unable to work and play well with others. Once a critical IP v. 6 mass is reached, the world may tip away from us.

The only major U.S. commitment to IP v. 6 so far has been from the Defense Department, which has mandated a move to the new protocols by 2008. This is a splendid example, but DOD speaks for no one but itself. What is needed is a White House office of IP v. 6 that can set a national agenda and lead a transition by both the public and private sectors to the new protocol suite.

Like Y2K, this is not a job that can be directly legislated. Stakeholders who control the infrastructure will have to be willing to invest money and effort to replace something that works now with something that promises to work better. This will require cooperation and a sense of urgency, and that will require leadership.

The one element missing from the Next Y2K is a clear deadline like the one presented by the last Y2K challenge. But the deadline is out there somewhere. It would be a shame if we discovered only in hindsight that we missed it.

William Jackson is a GCN senior writer. E-mail him at wjackson@postnewsweektech.com..

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