What Is This?
IPv6 stands for Internet Protocol version 6. It also is referred to as the Next Generation Internet. IPv6 will expand the Internet with new coding, ways to transmit data and provide more Web addresses. Internet users are running out of space under the IPv4 format, which uses 32-bit addresses. That means IPv4 can offer about 4.3 billion addresses -- that's 4.3 with eight zeros attached. Ipv6, which offers 128-bit addresses, will provide 3.4 followed by 37 zeros.
Ipv4's 4.3 billion addresses may seem like a lot, but Internet experts estimate space for addresses will run out around 2010. More important, in the future just about every device - your desktop, laptop, cell phone, and even household appliances and a lot of the individual devices in your car - will have a Web address to download the latest software and integrate other devices. The potential for government, including the military and intelligence agencies, to use IPv6 to integrate devices that can improve the way they deliver public services and defend the nation also will require millions of new addresses. It could make tracking, managing - and most important, finding - the government's trillions of dollars worth of assets, much of which agencies cannot account for, possible.
IPv6 will allow the Defense Department, for example, to create an address for every aircraft, each of the plane's subsystems and every one of its components. If each component has an address, then that component can report back to a maintenance site that it is failing before it breaks down completely, allowing for minimum interruptions.
IPv6 is a global standard; it already is in place in China and parts of Europe. With it,the Internet can grow in ways never considered when IPv4 was installed nearly 20 years ago. IPv6 is laying the foundation for more effective ways to communicate and for new ideas that have not even been thought up yet. It will give federal agencies a chance to update old systems, rewrite coding and retire legacy systems.
In June 2005, the Office of Management and Budget mandated that federal agencies switch to IPv6 by June 2008, and agencies have moved forward to meet the deadline. Not only will the mandate expand the backbone of the Internet, allowing the number of addressesto increase, but it also will provide an expansion of video, voice and data on the Internet. IPv6 will make it easier to carry information for mobile technology, and it will provide easier access to other networks that already have expanded or will expand.
Why Should I Care?
IPv6 is putting in place the building blocks for new ways to use the Internet including peer-to-peer and mobile applications. It will replace the government's old (decades old, in some cases) technology with newer systems to communicate with other countries utilizing IPv6. It will allow the Defense Department to move more swiftly on net-centric warfare, its strategy to integrate the military services via computer networks soit can provide real-time information from the battlefield to commanders.
If the government wants something that works on time, it has to test it and make it work in the coming two years, before IPv4 runs out of addresses. It will allow the use of more powerful networks and lightweight applications.
The Latest Thinking
The Internet is a system of all computers connected to it, with each device able to communicate with any other device or computer on it. With IPv6, the Internet will enable all sorts of devices to communicate, from video cameras on the battlefield to devices reading particulates and pollution in the environment.
With IPv6, it will become cheaper to integrate different types of data streams. The protocol will upgrade the standards to handle different kinds of communications more smoothly such as information from a combat zone and data from weather sensors and other sources. It also will provide better security for end-to-end communication systems. It will allow for the instant deployment of mobile networks, and it will smooth the production of multicast audio and video.
But the federal government is falling behind foreign governments in implementing IPv6. "In this country, the government is moving faster than the private sector. Overseas, it is the other way around," says David Kreigman, president of Command Information, a Washington company that provides solutions to federal and commercial clients to develop the next generation Internet.
Experts predict that while most agencies will meet the IPv6 deadline, there is little incentive to take advantage of it, absent a mandate from OMB, which plans no such mandate. Stan Tyliszczak, senior director of technology integration in the Chief Technology Office of General Dynamics, a Falls Church, Va., systems integrator, says agencies will easily meet the IPv6 deadline, but they "need to begin looking at the application benefits they can drive out of IPv6. It's not just additional addresses." He says OMB should push agencies to develop advanced applications that take advantage of the new technology. Manyplan to use tunneling strategies that encapsulate IPv6 packets of data within IPv4 to allow two IPv6 networks to communicate through an existing IPv4 network. This is like dressing the data in a disguise to fool the network into allowing it to pass.
That won't allow agencies to fully leverage IPv6. For example, packets of information that travel over an IPv6 network can be as large as 4 gigabytes, more than 65,000 times the limit in IPv4.
In addition, IPv6 allows for self-forming ad hoc networks, where connections are established directly between wireless devices, such as laptops or handhelds, rather than first being routed through a server. This is valuable for first responders, who could connect immediately to one another at the scene of an incident and exchange information housed on their networks. A police officer could share geospatial data available through a network application with firefighters trying to gauge the scene of an accident, for example.
How Do I Get Started?
It is important for agencies to develop training and education with an eye toward the network of the future. OMB and Defense rules already require that technology procurements be IPv6 compliant. A test environment ust be provided. Develop an address plan and identify what is on your network that needs to be changed. Tap into the GSA Networx contracts that provide competitive plans for IPv6. Name a point person to manage IPv6 at your agency. Get ready for IPv6 Phase 2, which begins after June 30, 2008. Industry and government partners will have to decide what equipment needs to be configured. Keep an eye on the National Institute for Standards and Technology, which is working with global organizations to develop standard protocols.
Judi Hasson is a technology writer who lives in McLean, Va.