IPv6 Checkup Time

Despite the hype, U.S. enterprises seem to be in no hurry to adopt the next-generation Internet protocol. Here’s why.

One fact has become clear about IPv6, the next-generation Internet protocol developed to gradually replace the current IPv4: Adoption by U.S. enterprises is not happening on Internet time. Even those who see potential in the technology, like Dan Demeter, CIO of talent management company Korn/Ferry International, are taking it slow. He plans to introduce IPv6 by 2010 as part of a worldwide network upgrade for his company.

“We believe that [by] adopting IPv6 and restructuring our network routers and servers, we can deliver faster and more reliable and secure client solutions,” Demeter says. Also, Korn/Ferry employees use BlackBerry mobile devices to access key company executive search data, and Demeter wants to explore the potential of IPv6 for providing additional mobile services.

Among top benefits, IPv6 promises a significant increase in the number of addresses available for networked devices such as mobile phones, and simpler administration of networks.

China’s IPv6 Plan

What’s the vision for IPv6 on the other side of the globe? See Internet Strategy: China’s Next Generation Internet.

But Demeter says Korn/Ferry is in the exploration stage, with no firm time frame for a pilot test. “Our approach is to focus on the areas where we can derive the most benefits and move ahead in gradual fashion as our experience grows and as we ensure that all the infrastructure components are compatible with IPv6.”

He’s not alone. Federal government agencies are mandated by the Office of Management and Budget to move their network backbones to IPv6 by June 2008—and so are the contractors that do business with agencies. But outside that space, few organizations seem to be deploying the standard. Research firm Gartner estimates enterprise adoption at less than 1 percent.

Should IPv6 be on your drawing board yet? Consider the key issues and the experiences of early adopters carefully.

Few Business Drivers for IPv6

Several factors are fueling the sluggish adoption rate. A study by Cisco in 2006 cited the lack of dedicated funding and IT staff for IPv6 implementations.

Another hurdle: “The fact that IPv6 implementation is viewed more as a technology issue than a business benefits driver probably also is an obstacle to its immediate widespread adoption in the U.S.,” says Michael A. Gold, a senior partner in the litigation group of Los Angeles law firm Jeffer, Mangels, Butler & Marmaro and cochair of the firm’s Discovery Technology Group.

“This is very shortsighted in terms of global competition,” Gold says. “In the not-too-distant future, many home appliances—even dog collars—will be Internet connected. Many automobiles are connected today. Each of these devices will require using an Internet address in order to communicate across the network.”

Quite simply, the system will run out of addresses some years from now without IPv6. (ARIN, a regional Internet registry organization that provides services related to the management of Internet number resources, won’t comment on when those IPv4 addresses will run out.)

Other countries, notably China, have pushed the implementation of IPv6 more aggressively than the United States.

Among the other possible benefits of IPv6, the technology enables a more simplified network architecture that removes network address translation devices, clearing the way for powerful peer-to-peer capabilities, says Erica Johnson, senior manager of software and applications and IPv6 consortium manager at the University of New Hampshire’s InterOperability Laboratory. The lab oversees the Moonv6 project, a global effort to test IPv6 equipment from different vendors.

IPv6 also includes a greater amount of usable address space for additional nodes on the network, allowing better utilization of multiuser technologies such as VoIP, interactive video and collaborative applications, she notes. But Johnson concedes that even with the potential gains from IPv6, building a business case for adoption will be a challenge for many. “A lot of that has to do with testing and education,” she says. “It’s not going to be a light switch; we don’t have a Y2K effect with deploying IPv6.”

Some analysts are more blunt. “Commercial enterprises have little reason to adopt IPv6,” says David Willis, research VP at Gartner. “Migration costs are very high for established IP networks, and attempts to transition even moderate-size networks have revealed many unexpected problems and hidden costs.”

Willis says most of the benefits of IPv6 “can be delivered with current IP [IPv4] workarounds such as network address translation and IPsec [the Internet security protocol].”

Willis adds that he expects IPv6 to “creep into the enterprise as we see stronger Vista rollouts in 2008.” Enterprises will use various approaches to support both IPv4 and IPv6 for several years, he says.

Early Adopter Lessons

CIOs starting to explore the IPv6 issue can learn from the approach of early adopters like engineering and construction giant Bechtel. By 2003, the U.S. Department of Defense, a big Bechtel customer, had called for departmentwide deployment of IPv6 by 2008. Bechtel began seeing RFPs from the U.S. Army and other customers explicitly calling for IPv6 products and services. So in 2004, Bechtel launched a phased, enterprisewide deployment of IPv6 “designed to develop broad awareness and competence in the new protocol, with the initial deployment focused on our government business unit,” says Fred Wettling, Bechtel fellow and technology strategy manager.

The company sees an opportunity to create an IT infrastructure that will be “a platform for future innovation,” he says. “This is a technology that can transform the way we do business.”

Wettling says Bechtel sees IPv6 as an enabling technology, as the Web was in the 1990s. For example, the company is exploring how IPv6 will help with wireless sensor networks to help track logistics, and with mobile ad hoc networks that can be set up quickly at the start of a project.

Bechtel’s IT group tried to minimize the problems and costs associated with a broad technology change by using a planned, gradual approach spanning several years. This included sending 3 dozen people to an “IPv6 boot camp” run by Native6 (now part of Command Information, a provider of IPv6 training and services) and creating an IPv6 lab to perform distributed configurations and testing without putting Bechtel’s production network at risk.

“We set up small IPv6 labs at four locations, each with a few servers, routers, switches, and put them in isolated networks within each office and interconnected them across the Internet,” Wettling says.

By the end of 2006, Bechtel had enabled IPv6 on the production networks and hundreds of computers at four of its primary sites, and created a scalable model for future deployments.

The company instructed all its application developers on how to configure machines for IPv6. Today, Bechtel has more than 9,000 computers (desktops, portables and servers) in 70 cities worldwide running IPv6. The majority of its offices support IPv6, and the company is turning on other offices one at a time.

Hardware Hiccups

What challenges did Bechtel encounter on its road to IPv6? While most of the applications weren’t affected by the change in IP version, several presented problems. First, some databases weren’t set up with big enough fields to accommodate IPv6 addresses and had to be expanded.

Also, not all commercial or internally developed applications have the needed IPv6 attributes in them. Some of Bechtel’s monitoring and configuration software had to be tweaked to display IPv6 data.

“Not all products out there [such as Windows XP] have the IPv6 features we want,” Wettling adds. “XP doesn’t fully support IPv6 as well as [Microsoft’s] Vista does.” Bechtel will start deploying Vista later this year, he says.

For these reasons and others, aeronautics manufacturer Lockheed Martin figures its move to IPv6 will be a huge undertaking. “The transition to IPv6 will require a greater effort than the Y2K bug,” says Frank Cuccias, director of Lockheed’s IPv6 Center of Excellence. “Remember that Y2K only affected a subset of systems; IPv6 will affect almost all current systems.”

Lockheed Martin, given its many government customers, began looking at IPv6 seven years ago in its labs. The company is in the midst of a pilot program to convert part of its Global Vision Network to IPv6. So far the program is progressing well, Cuccias says.

“We realize that if our customers are going transition to IPv6, we need to be out in front of the technology,” Cuccias says. The company launched the pilot “to illustrate to our customers that it’s not as simple as buying new IPv6 hardware and turning it on,” he says.

Government agencies are among the earliest adopters of IPv6, largely because of the mandate. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) completed an inventory of its hardware and software, and assessed which were not IPv6-compliant, says CIO Joseph Kraus.

The agency also conducted a network assessment of how IPv6 traffic is transmitted from the Internet and GAO’s private network. “As part of a planned upgrade of our network infrastructure [scheduled for 2008], we included IPv6 compatibility in our specifications,” Kraus says.

During its prep work, the agency learned that its network service providers weren’t able to transmit IPv6 packets and needed to upgrade their infrastructure.

Another potential IPv6 challenge is developing network engineering expertise, says Korn/Ferry’s Demeter. “While IPv6 presents several advantages over IPv4, it requires the engineering and systems operations talent to design, build, and maintain the network to maximize its potential and to justify the investment,” Demeter says. “We have the talent in-house, but we need the time to build the expertise in this new area.”

What’s the bottom line for CIOs outside the government sphere right now? Despite the gradual depletion of IPv4 address space, Gartner’s Willis sees no urgency to adopt IPv6. “There is no real driver besides the IP address shortage,” he says. “What this means is that we’ll be living in a mixed IPv4/IPv6 environment until well past 2013. Fortunately, coexistence of both protocols is easy, although it will drive support costs up while we are in this mixed environment.”

Bob Violino is a New York-based freelance writer. E-mail feedback to letters@cio.com.

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