Fed’s IPv6 plan called a "game changer"

Internet leaders say 2012 deadline for e-gov services to support new standard will spur IT industry

Internet policymakers and industry leaders are hailing the Obama Administration's plan to upgrade all federal Web sites and e-government services over the next two years to support IPv6, the long-anticipated upgrade to the Internet's main communications protocol.

Also see: At long last, Obama highlights IPv6 issue

The plan was released today by Federal CIO Vivek Kundra, who issued a memo requiring all federal agencies to upgrade their public-facing Web services – including Web, email, DNS and ISP services – to native IPv6 by September 30, 2012.

The Kundra memo establishes a second deadline of September 30, 2014 for federal agencies to upgrade internal client applications that communicate with public Internet servers to use native IPv6. Each agency is required to designate an IPv6 transition manager to direct IPv6-related activities, and they must purchase network hardware and software that complies with the federal government's IPv6 testing process.

"This [memo] is the single largest impetus for change that I've seen in the last few years," says Ram Mohan, executive vice president of Afilias, which operates .info and a dozen other Internet domains. "It's going to make network providers who are on the fence about IPv6 jump off the fence because the federal government is now speaking very clearly that it is going to adopt IPv6 fully. I think it will push them to make the capital investments that are necessary to adopt IPv6. It comes at a good time because this is budget season in corporate America."

The federal IPv6 directive "is very good for IPv6 deployment in the United States," says John Curran, President and CEO of the American Registry for Internet Numbers (ARIN), which doles out IPv4 and IPv6 addresses to network operators in North America. "It's also encouraging that it follows the historic practice in the U.S. in that the emphasis is on coordination and on the federal government as a user of IT. It's not a regulatory or prescriptive direction."

Kundra released the IPv6 memo in conjunction with an IPv6 workshop held by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) today. The workshop featured high-profile executives from government, industry and Internet policymaking organizations who urged  the federal government to set a deadline for IPv6-enabling their Web sites.

The workshop represented the first time the Obama Administration has given IPv6 any publicity in the 21 months it has been in office. Indeed, government insiders said Kundra didn't ask them about agencies' progress on IPv6 until last week, when he began preparing for NTIA's workshop.

IPv6 is the biggest upgrade in the 40-year history of the Internet. Forward-looking carriers and enterprises are deploying IPv6 because the Internet is running out of IP addresses using the current standard, known as IPv4.

IPv4 uses 32-bit addresses and can support 4.3 billion devices connected directly to the Internet. IPv6, on the other hand, uses 128-bit addresses and supports a virtually unlimited number of devices -- 2 to the 128th power.

About 94.5% of IPv4 address space has been allocated as of Sept. 3, 2010, according to ARIN. Experts say IPv4 addresses could run out as early as this December but will certainly be gone by the end of 2011.deadline of June 2008 for all federal agencies to demonstrate IPv6 connectivity over their backbone networks.

This is the second time the President's Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has established a mandate for federal agencies related to the deployment of IPv6. Back in 2005, the Bush Administration established and later met a

Kundra's follow-on IPv6 directive was met with a positive reaction among industry experts, who said the deadlines were reasonable.

"It's pragmatic," Mohan says. "They are saying that by fall 2012 they will get their outward-facing systems compatible with IPv6 and that by the end of fiscal 2014 they will get everything internal done. On top of that, they are assigning IPv6 managers inside government. I thought one of the best things they did was the fourth directive, which [requires] agencies to be fully IPv6 compatible."

Mohan said it would have been difficult for the U.S. government to reach a deadline sooner than September 30, 2012 to add IPv6 capabilities to all public-facing Web sites and services. That's because so many IPv6 products that are sold today are not fully compatible with the IPv6 specifications, with IPv6 products from other vendors, and with existing IPv4 products and services.

"Pushing a faster date won't necessarily create a faster implementation because there are a tremendous number of technical issues with IPv6," Mohan said, pointing out that there is no load balancing system on the market today that is fully IPv6 compatible. "I think the federal directive will expose a lot of the holes that those of us on the front lines of IPv6 enablement know about, and hopefully by sometime next year many of those will be fixed."

Curran says that having the U.S. government as an early adopter of IPv6 capabilities on its Web sites will help carriers and IT vendors by giving them a large potential customer base for their IPv6-enabled offerings.

"We did hear concerns at the panel today about getting production-quality, high-performance firewalls, load balancers and network management gear that supports IPv6,"Curran says. "Those vendors haven't seen a customer base appear before…Now we have the federal government saying that it is going to be buying this equipment as part of its initiative to make its Web sites support IP6. The equipment will be there when the enterprise goes to look for it."

Curran has been urging Web site operators to embrace IPv6 by January 2012, but he said the federal government's deadline of September 2012 is not nine months too late.

"Does it matter that it's September and not January? No, because it's not a cliff-edge situation," Curran says. "Strategically, we need to enable as much content that is dual IPv6 and IPv4 as soon as possible…There are quite a number of federal Web sites. Getting those reachable via IPv6 would be a major step forward."

Besides the IPv6 memorandum that was released by Kundra at the workshop today, the federal government committed to delivering three other items that will help U.S. network operators migrate to IPv6:

--A template that corporate boards of directors can use when evaluating the risks that a company faces related to IPv6 deployment.

--A uniform checklist that network engineers can use to measure whether IT products are fully compatible IPv6 specifications and existing IPv4-based infrastructure.

--A dashboard on the status of IPv6 deployment nationwide.

Federal CTO Aneesh Chopra committed to delivering the first items within 90 days with help from industry leaders.

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