Where the road leads

Applications to ride the IPv6 highway are slow to emerge

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No matter how much rhetoric IPv6 generates, the new protocol will begin to fulfill its promise only when government agencies begin using applications that take advantage of the functions that IPv6 enables. So far, there’s no sign of that happening.

On the vendor side, little movement has occurred. The Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration made that point in a comprehensive technical and economic assessment of IPv6 that NTIA published at the beginning of this year.

“Application vendors are moving toward IPv6 at a much slower pace than are infrastructure vendors,” the NTIA report states. “Many application developers have been testing IPv6 and planning to integrate IPv6 into their products, although very few have actually begun selling IPv6-capable products, at least in the United States.”

Many vendors say they plan to release IPv6-capable products as early as 2007, the NTIA report states. But observers say even that projection might be too optimistic because no compelling business reason has moved them toward development.

“As far as applications are concerned, we have not seen a lot of push in IPv6 because there is just not that much demand,” said Herb Strauss, a research vice president at Gartner who analyzes worldwide public-sector markets. “Government guys are not asking for it.”

Infrastructure vendors are further along because they know IPv6 is coming and agencies have a mandate to upgrade their network backbones. No similar push exists yet for applications that use the backbone.

The billions of dollars that the government spends annually on information technology has less of an influence on applications developers than on infrastructure companies, Strauss said. “When an industry such as financial services starts requiring it, that’s when you’ll see application vendors moving” to IPv6.

One of the obvious drivers for IPv6 applications will be the eventual adoption of Microsoft Vista, the next-generation Windows operating system, said Walt Grabowski, senior director of telecommunications at SI International, the prime contractor working on the Defense Department’s IPv6 transition.

Microsoft’s latest announcements state that Vista will be available in business versions later this year and in a consumer version in early 2007. Windows XP users can turn on IPv6 now, but that requires some work. By contrast, IPv4 and IPv6 are turned on by default in Vista and share common transport and framing layers. Any application developed for Vista will inherently be an IPv6 application. It will take time, however, for those applications to appear and displace older IPv4 applications, Grabowski said.

IPv6 offers some advantages to application developers that should help speed the creation of applications. The principal advantage is that IPv6 provides for almost limitless allocations of IP addresses. IPv4 allows for more than 4 billion addresses, but given the expansion of the Internet, those are expected to run out in the next few years. IPv6, on the other hand, so vastly expands the number of available addresses that every living person could have 50 octillion of them.

That means network administrators don’t need to use workaround technologies, such as Network Address Translation, which lets a single server act as the address for all the nodes on a local network. By eliminating NAT, IPv6 eliminates much of the network complexity that characterizes the Internet. IPv6, in turn, enables other benefits, such as better security.

IPv6 features, such as self-authentication, make the whole area of security attractive to IPv6 application developers. “The type of thing we are looking at are applications that authenticate themselves using” IPSec protocols, said Tim LeMaster, director of systems engineering at Juniper Networks. “There’s less concern for interoperation and validation for organizations using multiple operating systems, and since the application authenticates itself, there’s less concern that it would not work.”

Multicasting will be easier with IPv6 because the protocol supports it. IPv4 can handle multicasting, but it requires additional protocols to perform functions such as group management and multicast routing. If someone wants to send a multicast over several different networks or send several multicast video streams at once, the load could stress the networks.

People can expect mobile applications to profit the most and fastest from the transition to IPv6. “Mobility is severely restricted in IPv4 now because it requires a number of components that revolve around the center [of a wireless network], and that requires a lot of configuration to get it to work right,” said Randy Hall, marketing manager for network systems at Cisco Systems.

With IPv6, a device or node needs only to register with the network’s home agent once before it can communicate on a peer-to-peer basis with all other network devices, he said.

That arrangement makes it much easier for agency employees in the field to establish connections with co-workers, Hall said. Likewise, warfighters could establish ad hoc mobile networks as they move. Ubiquitous, real-time communications with other troops and commanders at headquarters is also possible.

“IPv6 makes it much simpler for people to access others through these kinds of mobile applications,” Hall said. “We expect this to scale beyond belief in the next few years.”

Lockheed Martin has produced one of the few working examples of a field system that uses IPv6. The system consists of an unmanned aerial vehicle, a military Humvee with IPv6 networking equipment and warfighters on the ground carrying handheld computers.

In one hypothetical scenario, the UAV could fly over Iraq to take live video of a building and stream the video back to the ground, said Frank Cuccias, program manager for Lockheed Martin’s IPv6 Transition Support Office. At the same time, warfighters on the ground in Iraq and Pentagon officials in Washington, D.C., could receive real-time video of the target, he said.

“You can do that now with IPv4, but it requires all kinds of fixes and patches,” Cuccias said. “You need a separate network for every 254 unique IPv4 addresses, so if you start to multiply this scenario, you quickly run into an address problem. Things will quickly become unmanageable.”

That limitation becomes even more apparent when you try adding the millions of miniature nanobots that the military envisions dispersing across a battlefield to track enemy movements. The nanobots will become part of the mobile network, Cuccias said. “In the future, everything will have an IPv6 address. We can show this UAV scenario now and show people it is real.”

When an organization deploys an IPv6 application on a network, no user should need to know that, said Ray Williams, manager of network and enterprise architectures at Northrop Grumman. “Programming for either IPv6 or IPv4 will be old school,” he said. “People will just be able to trust that the operating system will handle it.”

Randy Glantz, director of business development at SI International, said people talking about the most important applications for IPv6 may be on the wrong wavelength.

“In the end, it could be IPv6 itself that’s the killer app,” he said.

IPv6 apps could be years away

Industry experts struggle to guess when IPv6 applications will appear in government agencies because no demand for them exists yet. And the experts don’t expect that to happen any time soon.

“For the more common applications, it will probably take a couple of budget cycles before they appear,” said Walt Grabowski, senior director of telecommunications at SI International. “It will probably be four years after the IPv6 backbones are in place.”

The Office of Management and Budget has required federal agencies to have IPv6 backbones by June 2008.

Tim LeMaster, director of systems engineering at Juniper Networks, said demand for IPv6 applications will develop gradually. “Some applications and services could come relatively quickly,” he said. But overall, he said he expects IPv6 applications to take five to 10 years to become prevalent.

DOD is of two minds on IPv6

If any organization in the government should have a head start on identifying its IPv6 application needs, it should be the Defense Department, which is regularly touted as one of the organizations that is most advanced in its transition to IPv6.

However, DOD might as well be the poster child for government indecision on the matter. “My soapbox on the need for IPv6 applications is that the DOD has no idea how to answer that,” said Chris Gunderson, executive director of the World Wide Consortium for the Grid, a research initiative to explore ways of accelerating the deployment of DOD’s Global Information Grid.

Many people at DOD understand the need for IPv6, but the only way to develop applications seems to be through “large ponderous experiments or as the aftermath of major engineering programs,” said Gunderson, who is also a research associate professor of information science at the Naval Postgraduate School.

People in various DOD program offices are frustrated because they feel they have no sandbox to play in when it comes to IPv6, he said. Plenty of people are prepared to say what IPv6 can deliver to DOD’s net-centric operations, he said. But for DOD to develop IPv6 applications, the department must show more innovation and dedication than it has so far, he added.

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