Agencies must prepare for IPv6

Evans sets a June 2008 deadline for shift

Read the testimony as presented to the House Government Reform Committee

The move to the next generation of Internet technologies is inevitable, but civilian agencies that planned to take it slow received a wake-up call last month. Karen Evans, the Office of Management and Budget's administrator for e-government and information technology, set a June 2008 deadline for civilian agencies to add the new technology to their network backbones.

The Defense Department has already started migrating from the current IP Version 4 to IPv6, the new technology. But a Government Accountability Office report released in May shows that civilian agencies have done almost nothing to prepare for the migration.

IPv6 will offer a greatly expanded number of unique Internet addresses. IPv4 can support about 4.3 billion addresses, while IPv6 will offer 340 trillion trillion trillion, expressed in scientific notation as 3.4 x 1,038. The technology also features tighter security and easier network management, according to its proponents.

The task is made easier by network hardware and software makers that are already adding IPv6 support to their products, said Ben Schultz, managing engineer of the interoperability lab at the University of New Hampshire. The applications that use the technology are available and waiting for agencies to upgrade network backbones, he said.

"I've really seen it take off in development and the equipment vendors," Schultz said. "In terms of meeting that deadline, I think that is possible if and only if people continue their current development efforts. I don't see any real signs that they're not going to."

However, Schultz counseled caution. Agencies should understand why they must make the transition and plan for the best way to do it, he said. "IPv6 overall is a good thing," he said. "In the long run, it's best for everybody if we move to that. But I think it's best if we ask the hard questions of why we're doing what we're doing."

Unlike upgrading systems to accommodate four-digit year fields, which was necessary to solve the date problem when the calendar switched from 1999 to 2000, the switch to IPv6 won't be instant, he added.

Although vendors' efforts may smooth the transition, Evans said, it still won't be simple. "Since there is a large embedded base of IPv4-compatible equipment and applications, transitioning to IPv6 will also require large capital investments and labor resources," she testified last month before the House Government Reform Committee. "While the challenges are significant, they are not insurmountable, especially if we approach them methodically and in phases."

A memo that Evans promised to issue shortly will outline four steps for agencies to follow, she said. Agencies must also assign a single person to lead and coordinate the agency's planning, which must include developing an inventory of the agency's IP-capable devices and technologies. That inventory will give agency officials a good grasp of what they will need to migrate from the old technology to the new.

Finally, they must conduct an impact analysis to determine the fiscal and operational risks of making the transition.

A fifth directive in the memo will address the CIO Council, which must develop detailed guidance on implementing IPv6 this year.

All of those requirements prepare for the 2008 deadline. "Once the network backbones are ready, the applications and other elements will follow," Evans said. "Setting this firm date is necessary to maintain focus on this important issue."

Alex Lightman, chief executive officer of Charmed Technology and the IPv6 Summit, said some nations, particularly in Asia, are ahead of the United States in making the move.

"What makes the transition in Korea and Japan so powerful is that the people who lead [those efforts] are elected officials," he said. "They stand alone."

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