Preparing for IPv6: The game is afoot

The Office of Management and Budget has given agencies a tight timetable for moving to the next generation of Internet Protocols over the next three years. That might a good thing.

“An aggressive schedule may be appropriate to move the government in this direction,” said Walt Grabowski, vice president of network integration for SI International Inc. “Without an aggressive goal, nothing would happen.”

The Defense Department decided two years ago that it would move to IP version 6 by 2008, and the Reston, Va., company has a contract to lead the department through the transition. OMB announced in June that the rest of the executive branch would follow DOD’s lead and issued guidance this month outlining the timetable for the process.

Charles Lynch, who heads the DOD IPv6 transition office, said civilian agencies would find many resources to aid them in the transition, both in industry and in government.

“Each agency is going to have to shape its transition to meet its internal needs,” Lynch said. “But there are a tremendous number of similarities” between DOD and other departments, and those departments can learn from DOD’s experience.

The most important lesson: “Architecture and planning are key,” Lynch said, the same as in implementing any new technology.

That was the message of the Government Accountability Office when it recommended in May that agencies begin planning now for the transition.

The Internet Protocols are a set of rules defining how computers and other networked devices communicate with each other using packet switching. IPv6 has been designed to solve problems with IP address availability, mobility, discovery and security in the current protocol, IPv4.

According to GAO, the issue is not whether government systems should move to IPv6.

“The transition is already under way, because IPv6-capable software and equipment already exists in agency networks,” GAO found. If agencies do not manage the process, they are likely to be overwhelmed by the costs, complexities and security risks of the IPv6 transition.

Going governmentwide

Karen Evans, OMB’s e-government and IT administrator, in June announced before the House Government Reform Committee that civilian agencies would move to IPv6 by June 2008. She issued a memo Aug. 2 detailing the milestones.

“Since the Internet Protocol is core to an agency’s IT infrastructure, beginning in February 2006, OMB will use the Enterprise Architecture Assessment Framework to evaluate agency IPv6 transition planning and progress,” Evans wrote.

In preparation for the transition, agencies must appoint an official to oversee the process and inventory networking equipment to evaluate their IPv6 readiness.

Although networking experts agree that a complete switchover to IPv6 will not be feasible for years, or even decades, agency backbones must be running both IPv6 and IPv4 by June 30, 2008.

All networking equipment bought now must be IPv6-capable. Putting the necessary equipment in place through the normal tech-refresh cycle over several years requires that planning begin now, Lynch said.

“This will play itself out not through forklift upgrades, but piece by piece,” he said.

Agencies will be aided in the transition by further guidance from the CIO Council’s Architecture and Infrastructure Committee and by standards defining IPv6 capability from the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Industry will be waiting anxiously for the final word on just what IPv6 capable means, Grabowski said. Although most networking software and hardware can accommodate IPv6 packets now, exactly what range of IPv6 services must be supported to meet the definition is not clear.

Several industry groups have proposed their own definition of capable, but “we at DOD don’t share their view,” Lynch said. DOD has proposed its own standard, which is being vetted by the industry.

Will the NIST standard be based on DOD’s? “I don’t think so,” Lynch said. Many DOD requirements are too specific. The DOD standard is likely to be just one subset of the final NIST requirements.

Grabowski said that industry is ready to provide the technical support agencies will need, once standards are finalized.

“There is no doubt that the manufacturers are prepping,” he said. “Application providers are ready to go. The carriers are looking forward to this,” because the transition will create government markets for new services.

Although the timetable for change is aggressive, agencies will be aided by the fact that OMB requirements focus on the core networks, Lynch said.

“The networking problem is far easier to solve than the application problem,” he said. “The problem government will have is getting everything to work together.”

That problem will be eased by the fact that backbones will be able to continue routing IPv4 traffic until all applications and services can be switched over.

Each agency will have its own challenges in moving to IPv6, but similarities may outnumber differences. Lynch said he has been working with agencies that DOD works with, such as the Federal Aviation Administration, the Homeland Security Department and the civilian intelligence community.

“They are very much like us in the way they go about their day-to-day business,” he said.

He said the DOD model of a strong central authority setting policy for all agencies would be a good idea for the civilian transition. Each service has its own transition office to oversee implementation of IPv6, and Lynch’s central office sets overall policy.

“The technical challenges are the same,” Lynch said.

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