Will Feds Commit to Another IPv6 Mandate?

Will the Obama Administration issue a deadline for all federal agencies to support IPv6 on its public-facing Web sites?

That's the next milestone that Internet industry officials expect from the U.S. government as it attempts to spur the adoption of next-generation Internet services in the United States.

At long last, Obama highlights IPv6 issue

Some observers are hoping the Obama Administration will make this commitment Tuesday, at an IPv6 workshop being held in Washington, D.C. The workshop, sponsored by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), represents the first time the Obama Administration has spoken out on the issue of IPv6.

"I'm glad that the Obama Administration is finally paying attention to something that is clearly an important technical topic," said Ram Mohan, executive vice president of Afilias, which operates .info and a dozen other top-level domains. "I'd like to see them set a mandate for federal agencies to adopt IPv6 on their Web sites…Having them be able to use IPv6 live is going to be very important. The deadline is the single biggest thing they can do to provide an impetus to get their act together on IPv6. So many American citizens depend on federal Web sites. I think it will be a big spur."

Mohan, who is speaking at the NTIA IPv6 workshop Tuesday, says the federal government should encourage state governments to support IPv6 on their Web sites, too.

"This issue is not a political issue," Mohan adds. "It's about the next generation of technology and having America, which has been a leader in Internet technologies for a long time, be ready."

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 the American Registry for Internet Numbers, (ARIN), which delegates blocks of IPv4 and IPv6 addresses to carriers and enterprises in North America. Experts say IPv4 addresses could run out as early as December but will certainly be gone by the end of 2011

By next year, a small but growing number of U.S. citizens -- likely broadband customers of Comcast and mobile customers of Verizon  -- will have IPv6-based access to the Internet.

These citizens might want to access information about U.S. government services: check the status of their Social Security accounts at www.ssa.gov, file their taxes electronically at www.irs.gov, or apply for a federal grant at www.grants.gov. In order for these citizens to interact with government electronically, federal Web sites must support IPv6.

That's why policymakers and industry officials are encouraging the U.S. government to IPv6-enable their public facing Web sites by Jan. 1, 2012, when all IPv4 addresses are expected to be distributed.

The government's role "is to enable their Web sites with IPv6," says John Curran, president and CEO of ARIN  and another speaker at the NTIA IPv6 workshop. "We can't use IPv6 alone to connect customers to the Internet. We will need transition technology beside it until the vast amount of Internet content is available over IPv6 and IPv4."

Curran says agencies need to provide access to IPv6 content with the same speed and reliability as they are currently serving up IPv4 content. That means using a dual-stack architecture with IPv4 and IPv6 running side-by-side rather than translation mechanisms  that worsen end users' experience. Otherwise, agencies may disenfranchise end users with lower-quality service, and they will be able to gather less information about their Web site visitors.

"To the extent that agencies have their Web sites on IPv4 and IPv6, they will provide the same experience to their viewers as they have today. The end users will have the end-to-end experience, and they will know where the end users are coming from as long as they have a unique address and no translation devices in the middle," Curran says. But if they don't adopt IPv6 directly, agencies "won't have access to the end user's information, which will impact advertising, locating users for geo-specific content, and profiling end users for security," he adds.

Danny McPherson, vice president for research and development at .com and .net operator VeriSign, is urging Web site operators including federal agencies to adopt a dual-stack architecture. McPherson is providing an overview of IP addressing to the attendees at the NTIA IPv6 workshop Tuesday.

"The sooner people deploy IPv6 and the better prepared they are for the transition, the better people will be able to handle IPv4 depletion," McPherson says. "Transitional co-existence of IPv4 and IPv6 is going to happen for a long, long time. A lot of IPv4 devices are never going to support IPv6…IPv6 readiness planning is imperative, and it needs to happen within your current budgeting and operational deployment cycles."

McPherson says that if federal agencies set a deadline for IPv6-enabling their Web sites, "it would be great because they'd be setting an example. It's a way for the government to show that we think this is important because we're putting these dollars behind it."

By being an early adopter of IPv6, the U.S. federal government can encourage IT vendors to improve the IPv6 features and interoperability of their products, says Nabil Bitar, a principal member of the technical staff for packet network technology at Verizon. Bitar is another panelist at NTIA's IPv6 workshop."The government is a consumer of products and equipment from the same vendors that we get our equipment from," Bitar says. "By the federal government trying to procure equipment that is IPv6 capable and passing that message to the vendors, that will help put products in the marketplace that are truly field-ready for IPv6."

Bitar says the federal government also can push IPv6 adoption when it leads by example.

"They can drive the message across industry that IPv6 is important for the growth of the economy," he says. "The government is a major player in this space. They have Web sites and portals that could be made available via IPv6. If they put out a commitment, it will be yet another service that will be acceptable via IPv6. It does help the ecosystem to evolve. It does help the momentum of IPv6."

If the Obama Administration were to set a deadline for agencies to support IPv6 on its public-facing Web sites, it would be the second time that the U.S. federal government has committed to an IPv6 mandate. Back in 2005, the Bush Administration set and later met a deadline of June 2008 for all federal agencies to demonstrate IPv6 connectivity over their backbone networks.

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