Consider the possibilities that new applications present for the public sector. Mobile devices could help emergency personnel automatically triage and track the status of large numbers of disaster victims. Wireless sensors could help transportation agencies monitor the condition of bridges, highways and other critical infrastructure. And empowered by machine-to-machine technologies, physicians could remotely monitor the condition of elderly citizens, allowing them to safely remain in their own homes longer.

Sounds like science fiction? Not even close. These developments are already happening today. Look at how smart meter adoption has completely reinvented the way some parking authorities work.

Technology is playing an increasingly important role in government operations. With the explosion of machine-to-machine communications and mobile applications, public-sector employees are changing roles and taking on new tasks. And now technology has brought yet another challenge: We’ve run out of Internet protocol addresses to support the rapid mobile growth and must implement a new IP system.

The Need for IPv6

IP addresses are the numeric identifiers that are assigned to every device connected to the Internet. When IPv4, the current Internet protocol technology, was introduced in 1981, no one imagined the vast number of addresses that would be consumed as various devices were created. The need for IP addresses will only continue to grow as we mobilize and connect devices.

As our mobile work force becomes stronger because of customized marketing, unified communications, machine-to-machine technology, and management apps and tools, the new devices will require their own unique Internet addresses.

The scope of this growth is enormous, and IPv4, with only about 4 billion addresses, can’t support this demand. In February the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) announced that it had distributed the last five blocks of IPv4 address space — each with around 16.7 million addresses — to businesses, universities and governments around the world. The allocated IPv4 addresses are expected to be exhausted by the end of this year.

To address this issue, a new IP technology, IPv6, has been created. IPv6 has a new packet header with a virtually inexhaustible number of addresses. With significantly larger address space, new fields, and standard packet header options, IPv6 enables new network-based capabilities that previously had been difficult or impossible with IPv4, including push applications, peer-to-peer based applications and cloud computing.

Although there are some short-term solutions, such as Network Address Translation, to support interoperability between IPv4 and IPv6, the two versions cannot be merged, and therefore must run parallel.

At first there will be a migratory period when IPv4 and IPv6 coexist for some time because all IPv4 addresses won’t be obsolete by the end of the year, and government agencies must cater to those still using a v4 address. There are ways the two networks can coexist. But eventually those agencies that push back the transition will be left behind, keeping some people from accessing their websites.

There is an immediate call to action for states to adopt the new technology; it begins with planning and education.

IPv6 transition planning is comprehensive and potentially time consuming. It is best addressed with a focused approach that starts sooner rather than later.

Language 101

A migration plan to the new protocol is necessary, yet two extreme viewpoints have emerged on the topic — the alarmists and those who ignore the approaching change — and neither is conducive to a smooth transition.

So how should agencies and organizations respond? The first steps an agency should take are making time to learn about the issue, conducting a thorough assessment of its IPv6 compatibility, choosing an approach and beginning to lay out a migration plan. Organizations can capitalize on available resources, such as consulting services, to begin building their road maps.

Different approaches to adoption exist to accommodate varying needs. Agencies must assess what devices they currently use and determine whether they are IPv6-ready. Virtually every device — printer, fax machine, phones, elevators, intercoms — has an IP address. Some of these may already be compatible to run on both protocols, some may need software upgrades and others may need to be replaced. IPv6 also impacts routers, Internet servers, load balancers, wide area networks, domain name systems, Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol, Lightweight Directory Access Protocol, and management tools and applications. IPv6 compatibility must also be considered in all purchasing decisions.

This can be a hefty investment — one that can potentially blindside an organization without a systemic plan in place.

Organizations that require contiguous blocks of addresses or are planning on large allocations of addresses to support future services will need to transition to IPv6 much sooner than others. By taking the right steps, it’s feasible to manage the cost associated with compressed conversion times that can significantly increase the overall costs of migration. 

Careful planning also ensures access to the right resources. It is anticipated that, much like Y2K, there will be a shortage of experienced resources capable of assisting in IPv6 deployment, and that organizations providing engineering resources at crunch time will charge a premium for work that could have beeen done in-house with proper planning.

Dual stack is among the various mechanisms for transition. It is a network stack that simultaneously supports both IPv4 and IPv6. This technology enables an organization to be “bilingual,” allowing the two protocols to coexist in the same devices and networks.

By opening up an avenue to communicate both ways, organizations can selectively deploy new applications that use sensor networks without rewriting all of the existing systems.

There is no limit as to how long an organization can remain on both protocols, and the timing will vary from a cost-management standpoint.

While some organizations may find it favorable to remain in an IPv4 and IPv6 “bilingual” phase for an extended period of time, others might migrate to a solely IPv6 environment in a shorter time frame.

Motivators for Full Adoption

As websites with heavy traffic make the change, users will also begin to operate on IPv6. The scales will begin to tip, and organizations that have not taken proactive measures to transition run the risk of being sidelined. This movement is currently under way in the global marketplace — many European- and Asian-based enterprises already are in transition.

Several factors will drive full adoption of IPv6, if not to reduce the cost of maintaining both networks. Another driving force will be the next “killer app,” such as the need to adopt voice over Internet protocol on long-term evolution networks. Additionally without end-to-end connectivity, organizations can’t take advantage of IPv6’s scale to support peer-to-peer networking, spanning mobility and wireline networks. IPv6 also has streamlined packet routing and forwarding, while still providing the flexibility needed for endpoint differentiation.

Tom Siracusa is an executive director at AT&T Laboratories with more than 23 years of experience in data network design and performance analysis at AT&T. Siracusa works on AT&T’s VPN Strategy with an emphasis on enterprise customer design and strategy. He focuses on cloud computing, IPv6, MPLS and class-of-service/quality-of-service issues that allow for the support voice, video, data and cloud services.

Tom Siracusa  |  Contributing Writer

Tom Siracusa is an executive director at AT&T Laboratories with more than 23 years of experience in data network design and performance analysis at AT&T. Siracusa works on AT&T’s VPN Strategy with an emphasis on enterprise customer design and strategy. He focuses on cloud computing, IPv6, MPLS and class-of-service/quality-of-service issues that allow for the support voice, video, data and cloud services.