Hatching IPv6

There’s no rush to convert the world to IPv6, the next-generation Internet protocol. So concludes a new report from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s IPv6 Task Force, which says going slow on IPv6 is just fine. Or, in the report’s snooze-inducing language: “The Task Force therefore believes that aggressive government action to accelerate deployment of IPv6 by the private sector is not warranted at this time.”

Of course, the biggest push the feds could give IPv6 would be to use it themselves. Which will happen by mid-2008, according to an Office of Management and Budget policy directive.

What’s going on? Simple: The chickens and eggs are at it again.

You know the chicken-and-egg problem: IPv6 is a better protocol for the Internet, but like lots of new technologies, it’s competing against an installed base. (OK, newish — IPv6 is a decade old.) The installed base is IPv4, which turns 25 this year and handles the vast majority of Internet traffic.

There’s lots of IPv6-capable equipment out there. But there’s even more IPv4-only equipment, and IPv6 gear also works in IPv4, so that’s the default. The advantages of IPv6 only come when a connection is end-to-end IPv6. But converting to IPv6 is costly. And until enough networks are converted — especially the big one, the public Internet — we can’t reap IPv6’s advantages to justify the cost. No chickens, no eggs. No eggs, no chickens.

Which brings us back to the dueling statements from the Commerce Department and the OMB. The Commerce Department’s task force points out correctly that in the near term, say, the next five years, we won’t get much advantage from IPv6. In fact, “premature” adoption could result in higher costs and even reduced Internet security. (You can read the whole report at this Web site

But the OMB is gung-ho, not go-slow. Last June, the OMB announced that federal agencies will be required to use IPv6 by June 2008. In fact, those agencies are already inventorying their existing IPv6-capable equipment and analyzing the financial impact and risks of a switch.

Who will win this battle of the bureaucrats? The OMB will; it’s requiring, not recommending. True, it will cost more to make a hard push to IPv6 than it will to wait for everyone else to go first. Yes, there will be rough spots, including security glitches.

But the IPv6 chicken-and-egg problem will be history. IPv6 will be rolling. Why does this matter to corporate IT? Because when the world’s biggest IT buyer goes to IPv6, then products, support and knowledge will follow. That government transition will force the long-delayed shift on companies that connect with the government. They, in turn, will force a shift on their other business partners.

Like Wal-Mart with RFID, the feds will mandate IPv6. And ready or not, it will come.

But that’s not all. A big federal shift to IPv6 will soak up available expertise. It’ll be like Y2K all over again, but this time, you’ll be short of network administrators who can configure IPv6 addresses instead of Cobol programmers who can change date fields.

The time to start preparing is now. You know the timeline. When that switch to IPv6 ripples out from federal agencies to government contractors and down through supply chains starting in 2008, all you want left to do is to throw the switch making your IPv6 address public.

How close are you to that? Your answer will define just how many eggs you’ll have to break when the IPv6 chickens come home to roost.

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–Frank Hayes, Computerworld’s senior news columnist, has covered IT for more than 20 years. Contact him at frank_hayes@computerworld.com.