Government takes the lead on IPv6 adoption

OMB mandate is a key step toward ensuring a smooth transition

The recent Office of Management and Budget mandate for agencies to enable IPv6 on public-facing Web servers and internal networks is a welcome and much needed step toward future-proofing the Internet.

At first glance, the task, announced last month by Federal CIO Vivek Kundra, might seem daunting: enable the use of native IPv6 on external servers by October 2012 and internal networks two years after that. But it is important to remember that this isn't about switching over to the new generation of IP during the next two years; it's about preparing the infrastructure so that when traffic using the new protocols begins appearing, the .gov domain will be able to handle it without bottlenecks.

There is still some breathing room before that traffic begins appearing in significant volumes. The expected exhaustion of unallocated IPv4 address space in the next 18 months will not signal the death of IPv4. Many enterprises have reserves of addresses already allocated that they can continue to use for years to come. And addresses already in use are not going away.

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As noted in the OMB memo, “to ensure interoperability, it is expected that agencies will also continue running IPv4 into the foreseeable future.”

However, as new devices and services are brought online en masse, more of them they will be using IPv6. Increasingly, that's where the growth of the Internet is going to be, and now is the time to start preparing.

The task will have challenges. On one hand, most of the necessary equipment probably already can handle IPv6 to some extent. On the other hand, how well that equipment will handle the traffic and whether the individual pieces will play well with one another remain open questions. And the job of managing and securing a network with an additional set of protocols running on it will have a steep learning curve. That’s why it’s important to start answering questions and learning lessons now, before what is now a mandate becomes a crisis.

Adoption of IPv6 has been slow — almost nonexistent — up to now because nobody is using it. Service providers don’t use it because there are virtually no applications or users for it. Vendors aren’t making IPv6 applications because there is no content for them or networks to ride on. Content users aren’t using it because there are no applications or user demand. Users aren’t demanding it because there is nothing to demand.

The easiest way to end a classic chicken-and-egg standoff such as this is for someone to step forward and go first. This is another reason the government’s decision is important. Although some other countries have adopted national strategies for implementing IPv6, the United States has been a leader in the area by requiring agencies to ready their backbones for the protocols in 2008. The United States also requires vendors to offer IPv6-ready equipment and is developing and testing program for compliance and interoperability.

Enabling IPv6 within government networks is another important step toward ensuring that the Internet can move into its next phase of development with a minimum of disruption.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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