NATO begins making the case for moving to IPv6

Spurred by international competition and the Defense Department's decision to move to Version 6 of Internet Protocols, the United States' European allies are making plans to follow suit.

NATO is developing a transition plan to move its military headquarters and WAN to IPv6 Rob Goode, principal scientist for NATO's Consultation, Command and Control Agency, told the Coalition Summit for IPv6 today that coordinating the move among 26 member nations will be a complex process. NATO must create a consensus among its members, not only for IPv6 standards and definitions but also for why countries with large investments in existing infrastructure should spend money to make the switch.

'We haven't managed yet to make a clear business case, although we're close,' Goode said. 'There is no single, overarching reason why NATO should switch to Version 6.' Rather, there is a host of reasons, including improved end-to-end connectivity, simpler mobile computing and the promise of greater network security.

The United States and Europe lag behind Asia in deploying IPv6 infrastructure, primarily because they have a more extensive investment in existing Internet infrastructure and hold a disproportionately large percentage of the IPv4 address space. Only the United States and Western Europe have more than one address per person. And despite some clumsiness, there are adequate workarounds for problems in the current IPv4 protocols, said Ulf Dahlsten, director of the European Commission's Information, Society and Media General Directorate.

'It is possible for us to live with version 4,' Dahlsten said.

This creates a powerful incentive for telecom and networking companies to protect their existing investments rather than move to a new set of protocols.

'This is a sad story for Europe,' Dahlsten said. 'We are losing some of the position we have had to the more aggressive development in Asia. We want to catch up.'

In an effort to close the gap with the Pacific Rim, the European Community is spending 90 million euros (approximately $113.5 million) on IPv6 pilots and R&D, one-third of that for a major European test bed network. The European Community has formed a task force to create a policy for IPv6 transition, although each member country will make the move at its own pace.

'Probably France has gone the furthest in its development, and they are a bit disappointed in the rest of Europe for its reluctance to move fast enough,' Dahlsten said.

He added that defense spending is expected to be a major force in moving the EU to the new protocols. 'I share the opinion that IPv6 is absolutely essential for defense' because it will enable broad interoperability and end-to-end connectivity for voice, video and data needed for international cooperation in network-centric warfare.

Goode said NATO's transition will be slow because of the complexity of the process.

'A big bang is not possible because of the interconnectivity with national systems,' he said.

Certifying firewalls and other security devices for the new protocols will take years, and a complex environment of hybrid networks will be created during the transition. These will use dual-stack equipment running both IPv4 and IPv6, tunneling one protocol through another and translating between protocols.

'Dual stacks and tunneling are useful during the transition period, but ultimately they don't give you the connectivity you are going to need,' Goode said.

Protocol translation provides the connectivity but is a more complex mechanism. All three methods will be used, with the method used in each case depending on the needs of the application.

'The transition period will be going on for a considerable period of time,' Goode said. 'We envision having an IP v.4 network for a long time in addition to IPv6.'

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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