IPv6: Flying under the radar

Moving to a new generation of IP networking protocols is not yet a top priority for many feds, according to a Federal Computer Week survey

A small number of federal employees with specialized technical skills are spending considerable time and energy to help federal agencies install IPv6 on their networks by June 30, 2008. By and large, however, federal information technology employees are unaware of the challenges involved in the transition to a new generation of IP networking protocols.

That lack of awareness is one of several findings from a Federal Computer Week survey in July of federal IT employees. Fourteen percent of the 637 survey respondents said they were aware of a governmentwide policy that requires agencies to run IPv6 on their backbone networks less than a year from now. In addition, many said that competing priorities, such as issuing smart card identity credentials to employees and contractors, have diverted their agencies’ IT budget and employee resources.

In its analysis of the survey, “Transitioning to IPv6,” FCW focused on the 101 respondents who said they were aware of the transition requirement. It found that at least 30 percent of the respondents who were aware of the requirement were not aware of the status of their agency’s progress. Eight percent said they have completed the mandatory transition. But most agencies reported that they are still at the beginning stages. About 40 percent said they have met the first requirement that Office of Management and Budget policy-makers have stipulated for the transition: They have assigned an agency official to coordinate the effort.

Another survey finding suggests that the governmentwide Networx contracts, which the General Services Administration recently awarded, could initially slow rather than accelerate the adoption of IPv6. Respondents cited the contracts’ complexity as a factor. The contracts require all Networx services to be IPv6-compliant. Some vendors, however, have complained that the government has not acted quickly enough to define what it means by IPv6-compliant.

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Benefits of IPv6
The FCW survey also showed that although some employees question the necessity of the transition, others recognize the benefits of IPv6. Those benefits include more efficient routing of Internet traffic, easier network administration and quicker deployment of ad hoc wireless networks that are useful in battlefield or public-emergency situations. Agencies will see dramatic improvements in time-sensitive applications such as voice over IP and videoconferencing once they complete the transition to an IPv6 infrastructure, experts say.

The Defense Department started its transition to IPv6 in 2003. Two years later, OMB issued a policy memo that established a timeline for the rest of the federal government to begin the transition. FCW’s survey results show minimal progress toward meeting OMB’s requirements. For example, only 15 percent of respondents said they had completed an IPv6 transition plan for inclusion in their agencies’ enterprise architecture documents. And only 14 percent said their agencies had identified the fiscal and operational resources needed for the transition and the risks that might be involved.

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During the transition to the new infrastructure, agencies must operate in a dual mode in which they use IPv6 and the current protocol, IPv4, to support mission-critical activities, experts say. Most of the companies that make operating systems and routers already support both protocols in their software. Because of the layered composition of networks, other components in addition to routers and computer operating systems must support both protocols. Com panies that make firewalls and other essential Internet components plan to su pp rt both protocols unti l the transition to IPv6 is complete, a process that could take years, experts say.

Implications of IPv6
Many agencies said they already possess a substantial amount of IPv6 capability on their networks. About 40 percent of the survey respondents said most of their IT hardware is IPv6-capable, and more than half said their agencies require IPv6 when they buy network components.

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The survey findings also suggest that the transition to IPv6 is not foremost on the minds of many federal IT officials. However, officials who are familiar with maintaining or developing their network backbone understand the technical implications of the transition and said they hope to see agencies devote sufficient resources to IPv6 training. They worry that information security might be compromised as agencies move to a new technology whose ease of use could expose agencies to new information security threats.

Lunn is the 1105 Government Information Group’s research director.

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