IPv6 compatibility milestone approaches

On June 30, U.S. federal government officials expect to declare an early victory on the IPv6 front. But they admit that meeting their much-heralded June 30 deadline for IPv6 compatibility is just the opening salvo of a long-term battle to get their networks ready for the Internet of the future.

Under a White House policy issued in August 2005, all federal agencies must demonstrate the ability to pass IPv6 packets across their backbone networks by this deadline. Federal officials and IPv6 service providers are reporting little last-minute scrambling by agency CIOs or their network operations staff. That’s because the federal IPv6 requirements aren’t too difficult to meet, according to industry experts who predict agencies will file the required IPv6 test results on time to the Office of Management and Budget.

“It’s surprisingly quiet given all the focus and attention and money that the agencies have spent on the IPv6 initiative and planning for it,” says Bill White, vice president of federal sales for Sprint, which has worked with a half-dozen federal agencies to meet the mandate. “Agencies have done their testing and they have done the minimum to be in adherence with the OMB mandate.”

“I have not heard of anybody who is not going to make the IPv6 deadline,” says Pete Tseronis, chair of the IPv6 working group of the Federal CIO Council and a senior technical advisor at the U.S. Department of Energy. “For the last two-and-a-half years, agencies have been reporting on their IPv6 progress through their Enterprise Architecture quarterly and annual reports. … If someone doesn’t make the deadline, it will be interesting to know why.”

While the federal IPv6 deadline appears to be coming and going without drama, it is still a significant milestone in the anticipated rollout of the next-generation Internet. IPv6 has been available for a decade but has yet to be widely deployed.

IPv6 is an upgrade to the Internet’s main communications protocol that provides virtually unlimited address space, built-in security and simplified network management. Created by the Internet Engineering Task Force in 1998, IPv6 replaces IPv4, which supports 4.3 billion individually addressed devices on the network.

IPv4 address space is running out, and experts agree that the 27-year-old protocol will not support all the Internet-connected devices used by the world’s 6.5 billion people in the future. IPv6 provides so many IP addresses — 2 to the 128th power — that it is expected to enable secure, mobile and embedded applications that are inconceivable today.

Although commercial deployment of IPv6 is furthest along in Asia, where IPv4 addresses are scarce, the United States was the first country to require its federal networks to support IPv6 by a particular date. Indeed, the U.S. government’s apparently successful effort to make its backbone networks IPv6 capable has prompted action among other countries worried about falling behind in next-generation Internet technology.

The European Commission held an IPv6 Day in Brussels, Belgium, in May to discuss Europe’s lagging IPv6 deployment. European Union countries have set a goal — but not a requirement — for 25% of commercial, government and residences to use IPv6 by 2010. Canada has announced no deadline as yet.

“Basically, what they were saying at this meeting is that [Europe is] a little bit behind the U.S. and Asia,” says Cody Christman, director of product engineering at NTT America, which has offered IPv6 Internet access for five years and counts the Federal Aviation Administration among its customers. Christman attended the May 30 IPv6 Day. “This is a call to action for the EU to get on the stick.”

OMB says agencies will comply Karen Evans, administrator of the Office of E-Government and Information Technology in OMB, says that she expects all federal agencies to meet the IPv6 deadline.

“We have no reason to believe that agencies are not going to meet the deadline,” Evans says. “Based on everything they have been reporting to us and how the process is supposed to work, there is no reason for the agencies not to be able to demonstrate compliance with IPv6.” Evans said 10 cabinet-level agencies have submitted the required e-mail to OMB from their CIOs stating that they have successfully transmitted IPv6 packets. Evans expects to receive similar e-mails from 14 other cabinet-level agencies in the next few days.

“They’ve done the work; they just need to send in the notification to OMB to validate the work that’s been done,” Evans says. “This doesn’t mean I’m in a panic because I haven’t received the form from 14 agencies. This is normal. We track [IPv6 progress] on a quarterly basis…We have no reason to believe that we won’t receive the other notifications.”

Evans says no federal agency has notified OMB of having failed to pass IPv6 packets successfully over the backbone network, and no federal agency has asked for an extension beyond June 30.

“It’s a huge accomplishment for all of us to make the deadline,” Evans says. “Agencies had to buy IPv6-compliant hardware, put the services out there and properly implement them so that they can run IPv6 across their backbones.”

Even more important to the Bush Administration is the fact that the U.S. federal government met its IPv6 deadline without a huge influx of cash. When the federal IPv6 mandate was being considered, some IPv6 marketers said the U.S. federal government needed to spend upwards of US$10 billion on IPv6 transition. OMB proved them wrong. Instead, the U.S. government is migrating to IPv6 through its regular tech refresh budget with some minor additional spending in training and network engineering.

“We’re going through this transition based on the life cycle of our IT investments,” Evans says. “The infrastructure that agencies were buying already have IPv6 capabilities….

If we had done this as an after-thought, then it would have been a huge cost….We’re transitioning to IPv6 in a very concerted way.”

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