US government IPv6 testing must go on

US government IPv6 testing must go on

Among the pressing matters in one of several testing labs at DISA is testing of Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6), the next generation of protocol that allows computers to communicate over the Internet.

Normally, August in the Washington, D.C., area is a time for many workers to take vacation and escape the near-tropical conditions. But the parking lot outside a Northern Virginia facility operated by the U.S. Department of Defense's Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) was filled last Wednesday. The work of DISA, with the job of creating, acquiring and testing technology equipment for the Defense Department, must continue through the sweltering August weather. In one of the DISA building's lab areas, more than a dozen Defense Department contractors were subjecting hardware products to a variety of tests.

Among the pressing matters in one of several testing labs at DISA was testing of Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6), the next generation of protocol that allows computers to communicate over the Internet. The Defense Department has set 2008 as a target for making its computer systems compatible with IPv6, although the agency had formerly mandated IPv6 compatibility by then. Even though the target is no longer a mandate, testing IPv6 remains an important priority.

John Mealey III, a systems engineer with DISA contractor Spirent Federal, was overseeing a number of tests Wednesday, including an IPv6 router conformance test. Spirent’s IPv6 products also test performance and functionality and validate interoperability of dual IPv4/IPv6 devices and networks.

"Our equipment tests and verifies what the manufacturer says it does," Mealey said. "We're just trying to see if the equipment works as advertised."

The DISA lab where IPv6 is tested includes rows and rows of server racks, filled servers, firewall appliances, telecommunications switches and other equipment. Boxes of loose networking cable sit in corners, on one desk sat more than a half-dozen used phones. The lab, with about US$70 million worth of hardware in it, was packed with equipment, including Dell Inc. servers and Sun Microsystems Inc. workstations. In one section of the lab, a worker had a PC set up on a large networking cable spool.

Spirent Federal, a spin-off of a U.K. performance testing vendor, announced in October 2003 it would be the only test equipment vendor to help the Defense Department test the first phase of its IPv6 roll-out. DISA uses a variety of Spirent testing equipment in its labs, including its Adtech AX/4000 appliance, which runs a suite of IPv6 tests.

Spirent Federal, formed four years ago, focuses on the U.S. defense and intelligence agencies, said Steve Naylor, director of Broadband East for the spin-off. "That's mission critical networking," he added. "If their networks don't work, people die."

Backers of IPv6 say it has a number of advantages over the widely used IPv4. IPv6, by changing the way Internet addresses are handled, fixes a growing IPv4 problem of limited addresses available to new machines being added to the Internet. IPv6 introduces new security features not available in v4, and it includes autoconfiguration functionality, automatically recognizing neighbor computers. That allows for groups of computers, handhelds and other devices with wireless connections to set up ad hoc networks on the fly, a feature particularly attractive to military units fighting wars or conducting field operations.

In addition to the Defense Department target, the White House Office of Management and Budget announced in June that U.S. government agencies must be IPv6 compatible by June 2008.

The transition to IPv6 faces several challenges, said Charles Lynch, technical director of the Defense Department's IPv6 Transition Office. Among the issues requiring testing: IPv6 uses 128-bit addresses, instead of v4's 32-bit addresses, meaning v6 demands more device memory.

Another major focus of testing is device compatibility for both IPv4 and v6, because v4 could hang around for many years, Lynch said. While Windows XP, recent versions of Solaris and Linux can run IPv6, older versions of the Windows operating system are not. Many computer users, particularly those in developing nations using older technology, may take years to convert, and until recent government mandates, there's been little incentive for U.S. IT vendors to push IPv6 products, Lynch said.

Lynch expects the Defense Department to fully transition to IPv6 by 2010 or 2012, but other users may be slower to shift. "I would expect [computer users] will still be using v4 for 50 years, to some extent," he said. "The onus is on the IPv6 leaders to describe why they should use v6." -- IDG News Service

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