U.S. faces a yawning gap over enthusiasm for IPv6

The biggest hurdle in moving government networks to the next generation of Internet Protocols may not be technical or even financial. It could be a general lack of enthusiasm.

After listening to numerous presentations on 'why IPv6 is good for you' at a recent workshop sponsored by the Potomac Forum, many agency employees remained unimpressed with the need for a transition.

'I haven't seen anything I want to use,' said one attendee. 'But they're telling me I have to do it.'

'They' are the Office of Management and Budget, which announced last month that a policy memorandum would be issued soon providing guidance on an orderly transition to IPv6.

Karen Evans, OMB administrator for electronic government and IT, told the House Government Reform Committee that 'our policy will also set June 2008 as the date by which all agencies' infrastructure must be using IPv6.'

According to the Government Accountability Office, which released a study in May urging OMB to take this action, the issue is not whether government systems should move to IPv6. 'The transition is occurring today,' Dave Powner, GAO director of IT management issues, said during the workshop. The issue is whether agencies will manage the transition or stumble into it without seeing the pitfalls.

IP upgrade needed

The Internet Protocols are a set of rules defining how computers and other networked devices communicate with each other using packet switching. The Internet has been wildly successful using the current version, IPv4, but limitations of that version are becoming apparent.

Japan and China, and to a lesser extent the European Community, already are moving to IPv6. But interest in the United States has remained lukewarm. To date, only the Defense Department is pursuing a policy of moving to IPv6.

Just how a governmentwide transition will be managed has not been decided. Chuck Lynch, technical director of the DOD IPv6 Transition Office, said 'a single coordinating office would be very beneficial.'

But Powner said the DOD transition office has its hands full with its own project and has not shown any interest in assuming leadership for a governmentwide transition.

The Government Reform Committee is asserting jurisdiction over the transition by virtue of its oversight authority for information policy. But policy counsel Chas Phillips said the committee would defer to OMB for the time being. As issues develop, Government Reform will work closely on the subject with the armed services and appropriations committees, he said.

A lack of IP address space in the face of rapidly growing consumer use has been a major driver for the transition to IPv6 in Asia. But that is not the reason for DOD's move, Lynch said.

'It's the added functionality, not the address space,' Lynch said. Improved security, the option of end-to-end connectivity, mobility and auto configuration all are attractions.

DOD is being moved to the new protocols by its vision of a networked warrior. So far, U.S. industry has not found a similar motivation. A survey by the Consumer Electronics Association found little awareness of issues involving IPv6, and only 23 percent of respondents rated a transition as important.

In the face of such indifference, questions are being raised as to whether U.S. IT vendors will be able to support a major government switch to IPv6. Although most networking equipment now supports the new protocols to some degree, applications, middleware and equipment in which IPv6 is the primary method of transport are not yet common.

Microsoft Corp. hopes to change all of this with the release of its next major version of the Windows operating system, code named Longhorn. Jawad Khaki, vice president of Windows networking and devices technologies, said Longhorn is expected to be a catalyst for IPv6 adoption. The new operating system will be IPv6-enabled by default and Version 6 will be the preferred version for communicating.

Khaki said DOD has been a driver for this capability.

'They have clearly told us they want this,' he said.

Telecom companies, primarily in Europe and Asia, also have been demanding it. Demand from U.S. telcos has not been as great.

'In this country demand is indirect,' Khaki said. 'Customers don't come to us saying they want Version 6, they say 'this won't work,' and we find that IPv6 is the solution they need.'

Khaki said Microsoft is in the final stages of readying the first beta release of Longhorn, expected in a matter of weeks.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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