DISA gets ready for next-generation Internet

Lack of commercial products and funds drained by the war effort threatens to slow progress, say agency managers.

The Defense Information Systems Agency has made significant progress readying its networks for the next-generation Internet, top agency officials said on Wednesday.

Comment on this article in The Forum.Agencies have until June 30 to meet an Office of Management and Budget deadline to have their network backbones capable of communicating using Internet protocol version 6, the upgrade to the way information is sent across the Internet. Currently, IPv4 is the most widely used communications protocol, but with IPv6, agencies will have more Internet addresses to support advanced applications, better security and increased automation.

DISA now can pass traffic over its networks using 128-bit addresses supported by the new protocol and 32-bit addresses in the old protocol, said Cindy Moran, director of the network services directorate at DISA, during a webinar held by Government Executive. This means the networks will be capable of supporting unique addresses measured in the sextillion range, or about six times the 4.3 billion addresses that IPv4 now can support.

The huge pool of addresses that the Defense Department can rely on will lead to an explosion of uses for the information and data generated by thousands or millions of sensors on the battlefield, said Gerald Doyle, chief of DISA's Systems Engineering Center, who also appeared on the webinar. For example, medical sensors attached to a soldier could immediately relay data on the soldier's health status if wounded. The payoff for IPv6 would be measured not only in dollars, but potentially in saved lives.

Doyle added that the new protocol also will help improve the quality of service on the new Internet, which is essential for applications such as Voice over Internet Protocol phone calls, end-to-end security, and better support for peer-to-peer networking and multicasting to groups of users.

Much of the increased functionality that IPv6 promises will not be available to Defense users for years, because of the complex nature of DISA's networks and subnetworks operated by the four services and other Defense agencies, Moran said.

Doyle emphasized that transition to the new protocol was a process of synchronizing "a lot of moving parts" on DISA's classified and unclassified networks, which serve more than 3 million end-users, who are connected through 15,000 network enclaves. A network enclave can range in size from the Pentagon, which has more than 20,000 end-users, to a remotely deployed military unit, which could have only a handful of users.

DISA will transition its unclassified network core in July, but doesn't anticipate that the classified network will become IPv6 capable until July 2010, according to Moran. She said one of the challenges DISA faced during the transition of the unclassified network was the availability of commercial products designed to support the new protocol.

"Industry has not been as aggressive as we hoped," in developing products that support the new Internet standard, Moran said. She specifically cited a dearth of choices for firewall software designed to support the new Internet standard, a point underscored in an opinion column written by Kris Strance, Defense lead for Internet protocol policy at the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Networks and Information Integration for the Defense Chief Information Officer.

DISA faces a similar equipment problem in transitioning its classified networks to the new standard with new encryption products requiring test and certification accreditations by the National Security Agency, Moran said. She urged vendors to develop products for use on both the classified and unclassified networks.

In addition, DISA must consider cost factors in its transition to the new Internet standard. Moran said the agency cannot afford to do an immediate wholesale swap of its equipment, but plans instead to replace gear as it reaches the end of its useful life.

Doyle said funding for network transition has to compete with requirements to support operations, and operations have the priority. Neither Doyle nor Moran provided a cost estimate to move Defense to the new Internet standard.