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IPv6 - T Minus 1 Year

It's June and in the government IT world that means that one of the most lack luster but far reaching federal IT initiative deadlines is just one year away.

IPv6 was created in the mid-1990s under direction of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), which is an international body responsible for developing Internet standards. On August 2 of 2005, OMB (Office of Management and Budget) set the objective to enable government networks for IPv6 by June 30, 2008. The looming deadline only applies to network infrastructure equipment such as switches, routers and hardware firewalls which makes it much easier and affordable than upgrading the entire extended network. Simply stated, an IPv6 compliant device or system will be able to receive, process and/or transmit IPv6 packets as well as interoperate with IPv4 and other protocols.

The unfunded initiative began simply by encouraging the planning and normal replenishment of equipment to the IPv6 protocol. As with many new government IT initiatives or mandates, the stimulus or push back for adoption is less about technology innovation and more about funding. At a Federal Information Assurance Conference on this topic, Peter Tseronis, co-chair of the group and a network services director for the Education Department, suggested applying real world IPv6 benefits and business cases in order to facilitate funding. While the value of IPv6 is relative to the beneficiary, the benefits of this new protocol are clear.

  • A greatly expanded address space over IPv4; 128 bit over 32 bit
  • End to end network performance
  • Peer-to-peer IP traffic security; with a virtually infinite number of IP addresses, peer to peer communication can occur over an infinite number of always on devices
  • Enhanced mobility features for wireless utilization
  • More efficient administration and auto configuration

In reality, much of the IPv6 hardware conversion costs are within most well organized technology refresh budgets. However, the training costs involved to truly maximize the value of this new protocol will likely be offset from other competing interests. Regardless of funding sources, there is no question this is a costly endeavor. An October 2005 study prepared by RTI International for NIST estimated that government agencies will spend approximately $1.5 billion over the next five years and $4.6 billion over the next 20 years transitioning to IPv6.

There's little doubt that OMB's mandate is in part political. The governments transition, or put another way, the world's largest IT buyer's transition, will both increase IPv6 awareness and influence the growth of IPv6 commercial IT products and services. It's also interesting to recognize that US government agencies are behind other countries IPv6 adoption in part because US government agencies and companies initially secured large blocks of IPv4 addresses when the Internet was first created - thereby lessening the need for the greater addressing schema. IPv6 is more popular in Europe and Asia where IPv4 address space is quite scarce.

The path to this mandate is not unlike most other technology upgrades. First, assess your IT/IP inventory in order to quantify your IP compliant and non-compliant devices. Per OMB, this should be done no later than this month. Second, incorporate the IPv6 standard into IT strategy and budgeting. A key here is justifying this protocol with real and tangible value. Third, incorporate this standard into all new procurement requests and RFPs. Fourth, for significant backbone equipment which may require a longer replenishment cycle, you may want to consider transition technologies such as IPv6-in-IPv4 tunneling technology which routes IP6 packets through virtual paths by encapsulating them in IP4 network address headers. Fifth, upgrade your IP address requirements, justification and provisioning policies. And finally, allocate some time and money to IT training for this protocol.

I find it interesting that while the IPv6 mandate does not apply to state and local governments, a recent survey illustrated that 46 percent of state and local respondents reported they are well into their IPv6 planning and budgetary requests and that an estimated 36 percent of their collective IT infrastructure is currently IP6 ready, a slightly higher percentage than civilian federal agencies.

Posted June 11, 2007 in IT Mandates
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