IPv6: 3 more big steps to the promised land
Pathfinding military agencies show what obstacles remain
Federal agencies have been cleared for takeoff for adopting the next generation of IP, but that doesn’t mean they’re ready to fly.
The experience of trendsetting military agencies shows that a number of major hurdles remain before agencies can really take advantage of the benefits that IPv6 technology provides. Those hurdles include:
- Finding the right IPv6-capable products that will work alongside existing technology assets.
- Getting an address management system in place.
- Guarding against unauthorized or uncontrolled deployments of the new protocol.
The Office of Management and Budget has reported that all agencies met a deadline of June 30, 2008, to upgrade their network backbones to support the new protocol. But that means only that they are physically capable of handling the new generation of tools and devices that will be able to access the Internet for all kinds of tasks.
Meanwhile, the Defense Information Systems Agency has moved more aggressively than most civilian agencies to build robust IPv6 networks. DISA has future projects planned — such as one to use sensors to track individual service members’ location, medical and supply status — that can’t be supported by networks running IPv4, the decades-old but still widely deployed predecessor of IPv6.
The primary problem with IPv4 is that its pool of about 4 billion available addresses is rapidly running out. The number of Internet servers and individual computers that connect to them is increasing, and at the same time, devices such as mobile phones also need IP addresses. In addition to providing an almost infinite number of new addresses that can easily absorb this growth, IPv6 also improves an IP network’s capabilities for security and system management.
But one of the first problems agency planners still face as they look to extend IPv6 to other parts of their networks — a step that does not have a deadline — is sorting through limited choices to find the right IPv6-capable security and management products for their environments.
DISA officials have been evaluating IPv6-capable products with a particular focus on information assurance devices, such as firewalls and virtual private networks, but have been hindered by limited choices. “The availability and the number of products that exist in this [new] category are not nearly the number that they are in IPv4,” said Gerald Doyle, chief of DISA’s Systems Engineering Center.
Part of the problem is that some aspects of the standard are still moving targets. “Not everything has been absolutely nailed down,” Doyle said.
The bottom line is that planners must fully test any new IPv6 equipment for interoperability problems with their already installed IPv4-based information technology assets.
“The biggest thing is for [chief information officers] to have some level of assurance that the things they’re putting on their networks have been plugged in before someplace else,” said Tim Winters, IPv6 manager at the University of New Hampshire’s interoperability testing lab. That lab worked with DOD and others to build the wide-area IPv6 testing network named Moon v6.
Managing old with new
Because of the slow development of commercial products, all agencies should expect to operate hybrid IPv4 and IPv6 networks for several years. OMB allows agencies to operate with both protocols — a technique called dual stacking.
“I’m absolutely convinced that the dual capability will be around for many years,” Doyle said. “There are a lot of programs that don’t have a pressing need to convert to straight IPv6, and if there is no demand for them to do so, I speculate they won’t. It is going to be a gradual transition.”
Agencies also should have an address management system in place to track all the IPv6 and IPv4 addresses under their charge, said Charles Lee, chief technology officer at Verizon Federal. The number of such addresses will skyrocket as new digital devices proliferate and are connected to networks. IP address management systems track, manage and allocate IP addresses to provide services that include Web access, e-mail and other applications.
“Few organizations have current documented data on what their assets are, how they are being used, and which ones are most critical to their operations,” Lee said.
Agencies should begin to factor IPv6 — or at least assess and understand its potential effects — into all IT development plans, not just those only focused on network upgrades, said Paul Giradi, director of engineering at AT&T Government Solutions. “The benefits of IPv6 on an IT project can be easily overlooked in the planning and design phase,” he said.
Even if IPv6 features are not among the main reasons for doing a new IT project, it would be wise to make all new projects IPv6-ready, Girardi added. That prepares the new systems for the day when they can take advantage of the better security, network management and quality of service capabilities that an eventual IPv6-based network will offer.
As more commercial products become IPv6 capable, IT staff members also should guard against unauthorized or uncontrolled deployments of the new protocol, which could create security vulnerabilities.
For example, Windows Vista and Windows Server 2008 have IPv6 enabled by default, said Sean Siler, Microsoft’s IPv6 program manager. “This was an intentional design decision to ease the implementation of IPv6.”
However, leaving IPv6 enabled in the operating system will not result in an IPv6 address being assigned to the host device. That can be done only if a user manually configures the address or if the host machine receives instructions to do so from another device on the network, Siler said. IT staff members can prevent that kind of manual configuration by using system management tools to turn off permission to make such changes, he said.
With much work still remaining, knowing exactly when IPv6 will be a functioning part of government networks, even in DOD, is not known.
“It will be [there] when we are able to declare without reservation that the capability with IPv6 is equivalent to what we have on IPv4, in terms of throughput, reliability, availability and integrity,” Doyle said.
Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Federal Computer Week.