Coming soon: IPv6 applications

Vendors and evangelists at the U.S. IPv6 Summit in Reston, Va., are beating the drums for the seamless, always-on ubiquitous network serving up device-agnostic services and applications promised by the new generation of Internet protocols. They gave talks citing the usual uses for these networks, from programmable refrigerators to digitally connected network-centric warfighters.

What were largely missing in the presentations were the tools and applications to use the brand-new IPv6 networks being set up by military and civilian agencies.

Version 6 of the Internet Protocols is the latest iteration of the standards for packet switching by which devices communicate over IP networks. They are a significant upgrade from the IPv4 now currently in use on most networks, and the government has committed itself to establishing IPv6-capable networks by next year.

Most of the focus so far has been on getting network backbones ready for handling IPv6 packets. But applications to take advantage of the new protocols are emerging only slowly.

One of the few examples of these applications is Windows Meeting Space, a collaboration tool in Microsoft's Windows Vista operating system. Microsoft put a lot of effort into making Vista and its upcoming Longhorn Server support IPv6 by default, rewriting the TCP/IP stack from the ground up. In Windows XP and 2003 Server, IPv6 was an add-on to the stack and those operating systems offer only limited support for IPv6 applications.

Microsoft sold 20 million Vista licenses in February, the first full month of the operating system's availability. Chris Mitchell, group program manager for Windows networking, said the company will continue to support XP for the foreseeable future.

'We are probably a couple of years away from' the end of life for XP, he said.

Most of Vista's functionality will work with IPv4, but the peer-to-peer networking that Meeting Space uses requires an IPv6 network, Mitchell said. He said some enterprise users have begun deploying IPv6 on internal networks to take advantage of Meeting Space.

The move to peer-to-peer networking promised by IPv6, in which users communicate and share resources without a server as a central arbiter, puts a premium on access control, said Siafa Sherman, director of technology for Nortel Government Solutions.

Peer-to-peer access control for Vista users is established with logical networks using IPsec security. Devices and users on a logically separated network are forced to authenticate themselves when connecting with each other. Only trusted identities are allowed to connect, Mitchell said.

Creating an infrastructure to carry IPv6 packets is the first step in using the new protocols, Mitchell said. The second phase is to establish a test lab to understand how legacy IPv4 applications will run on the new network. But the real test is to establish an operational IPv6 network and begin using it.

'Test labs are great,' Mitchell said, but only an operational network will tell you how well your applications work and play together in the new environment. Unfortunately, there are few tools and products out there for managing and monitoring a working IPv6 network.

Although IPv6 was designed to offer better security than IPv4, security remains an issue in new installations because of the scarcity of security tools designed for the protocols. Microsoft has nothing against other vendors' personal firewalls, Mitchell said, but for the time being you probably will be limited to the personal firewall that comes with Vista.

'Existing firewalls out there probably won't work in Vista because of the new stack,' he said.

Mitchell said other vendors have committed to supporting Vista with their security products and other applications. He said IPv6 Internet gateway routers for home networks are expected to be available this year.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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