Federal mandate to boost IPv6, but ...

The federal government's mandated move to IPv6 over the next few years is expected to also spur demand for the upgraded protocol in portions of the private sector.

However, many enterprise network executives, with no equivalent of a government mandate to force adoption, will still need a good reason to make the switch, experts say.

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) plans to set policy soon that will compel all federal agencies to upgrade their network backbones to IPv6 by 2008, with the expectation that upgrading applications and other components will follow. The OMB is charged with supervising the effectiveness of programs, policies and procedures set by agencies in the executive branch, among other things.

The Department of Defense required its own upgrade to IPv6 by 2008 and is working with the protocol. But other federal agencies have little experience with or interest in IPv6, even though the protocol is 10 years old and touted by some as the basis for the next-generation Internet.

Nonetheless, with agencies forced to upgrade, government contractors, hardware and software vendors, and service providers will need to make sure their offerings are updated, too. And that could spur adoption in the commercial world.

"If the government deployed IPv6 on a worldwide basis, I believe that would create a great catalyst and wonderful assistance to the promotion and deployment of IPv6 in the commercial sector," says Jim Bound, chair of the North American IPv6 Task Force, a volunteer group established to promote the adoption and deployment of IPv6. "I believe enterprises are in tune and aware of IPv6 today."

Glacial progress Department of Defense aside, only a handful of the 24 largest federal agencies have done any IPv6 preparation.
Performed an inventory of IPv6-capable equipment:Performed inventory, established a business case, estimated cost:
Department of StateNational Science Foundation
Department of Transportation 
Small Business Administration 
SOURCE: GENERAL ACCOUNTING OFFICE

Yet others say if the federal agencies that will be forced to upgrade to IPv6 in less than three years aren't yet sold on the protocol's benefits, private-sector organizations that aren't under such pressure are even less convinced. A recent study of 349 government and industry IT decision makers sponsored by Juniper indicated 7% consider the protocol "very important" to achieving their IT goals.

The government's move to IPv6 "is going to resonate with companies, if only from the perspective that large technology-support companies will have to migrate to understand what their customers are doing," says David Lane, a contractor working with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). "If your user base starts using a protocol, then your back end has to be converted . . . so it will trickle down, but I don't think it will be a big bang."

However, it has happened in the past that when the government requires a technology be used by its agencies, the commercial sector falls in line.

"When the [General Services Administration] said everything must be submitted to it in DOS format, that made Microsoft the monopoly," says Joel Coulter, president of consulting firm Joel Coulter and Associates and an IPv6 advocate. Government adoption of technology "is one way to spur market forces. But the key word is transition; the market needs a catalyst for transition."

Once the OMB sets policy that IPv6 must be implemented throughout the federal government by 2008, agencies will have their reason to upgrade - they'll have no choice. But that doesn't mean the IT decision makers in these agencies believe it will be the best use of their budgets and talent.

Shortly after the OMB revealed its policy plans for IPv6 in late June, Lane's supervisor asked him how the VA should plan its transition to the protocol, because the agency's CIO inquired about the subject. Unfortunately, there's no easy answer. "Saying the federal government is going to convert to IPv6 is like saying today we're all riding bicycles and tomorrow we're going to drive cars. . . . It's a completely new way of doing business," Lane says. "This is one of those things where there is nothing that really compels us to make the change. IP is like water; we all need it to survive, but it's not very sexy."

The OMB has outlined a number of advantages offered by IPv6, including expanded address space (although most U.S. companies and government agencies have found ways around this limitation in IPv4); improved security and information routing; enhanced mobility features; and simplified activation, configuration and operation of networks and services.

Yet in the eyes of many government IT executives, these benefits pale in comparison to the pains associated with upgrading. The biggest hurdle standing in the way of IPv6 adoption among federal government agencies is cost, in part because many agencies don't keep pace with the commercial world when it comes to upgrading to new technology. So while vendors, including Microsoft and Cisco, have allowed for IPv6 in their products for the past few years, agencies might not yet have those versions.

However, the OMB could set aside funds dedicated to IPv6 transitioning, which would mean agencies wouldn't have to take money for upgrading from existing budgets, Coulter says. Such funding would be managed by a separate transition office that would also promote information sharing among agencies.

Other hurdles include training staffers to understand the new protocol, maintaining backward compatibility with IPv4, and ensuring ongoing security while the transition to IPv6 is underway.

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