IPv6 transition: All deliberate speed

IPv6 is 'absolutely essential' to the Defense Department, Maj. Gen. Dennis Moran told an audience at the U.S. IPv6 Summit in Reston, Va. But the Army's vice director of command, control, communications and computers spent much of his keynote address Tuesday managing expectations about the department's use of the next generation of Internet Protocols.

'We're a conservative organization,' Moran said. 'The DOD has a huge challenge in how we implement them.'

DOD in 2003 set a goal for making its network backbones IPv6 capable by 2008. Two years later, the Office of Management and Budget set the same goal for civilian agencies. Defense is on target to meet that deadline, Moran said, but having the ability to carry IPv6 packets on a network is a separate matter from employing IPv6 applications. The department is moving cautiously with new applications using the capabilities of the new protocols. Need, money and the availability of a killer app will determine how fast new functionality is rolled out.

This caution on the implementation of the protocols was not what U.S. IPv6 Summit chairman Alex Lightman wanted to hear. Lightman has made a career of evangelizing IPv6, urging U.S. government and industry for five years to move faster in its adoption. The protocols hold the promise of a new generation of networking applications and services, and he sees their adoption as a matter of national economic survival.

It is almost a foregone conclusion that the country will eventually move to IPv6, and Lightman said completion of the move would come sooner rather than later. He went out on a limb and predicted that IPv4 traffic, the current version of the protocols now in use on most of the Internet and other IP networks, would peak by 2011, and that the government would shut off IPv4 traffic entirely by 2017.

Most observers think that versions 4 and 6 will coexist on our networks for well over 10 years as legacy applications and equipment continue to be used, and Moran's comments seem to bear this view out.

Moran said DOD would move to IPv6 applications in a smart and economic way, focusing on mission needs and business cases rather than making a wholesale shift. Security also will be a major consideration in implementing IPv6 while still running IPv4, he said. Right now, many security tools such as firewalls and antivirus engines that protect IT systems do not work at all or do not work efficiently with IPv6. DOD is working with the National Security Agency to produce the tools needed to handle both types of traffic.

'It will take a few years of partnering with the NSA to get the security devices capable of protecting us in both environments,' he said.

The speed of adoption of IPv6 in the military's quest for network-centric warfare also will depend on how effectively it can be used.

'What's going to force us is the killer application,' Moran said. He said that application may well come on the business and administrative side of DOD rather than on the warfighting side. 'I think it will be in the logistics domain.'

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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