Australia’s defence department leads the way with IPv6

Compatibility with allies and pushing the new standard go hand-in-hand

Supporting the local IT industry is one of the key drivers behind the Australian Defence Force’s migration to IPv6, according to its director general of information policy, David Richards.

The Defence Force plans to migrate to IPv6 by 2013, so as to remain inter-operable with allied nations in an increasingly IP-enabled world, which will also foster the IT industry, Richards said at Australia’s first IPv6 summit held in Canberra recently.

“The Department of Defence is a strong supporter of IPv6, and we also support the Australian IT industry,” he says.

“Defence expects that the early adoption of IPv6 will assist the Australian IT industry in its business case for investing in IPv6. The department is a major buyer of IT services and hardware, so by transitioning to IPv6, we hope to stimulate interest in the new protocol within the Australian industry and thereby increase the range of solutions that will be available here.”

The three other drivers are future-proofing (meeting future needs such as network-centric warfare), interoperability with the US and other allied forces, and also, simply, that IPv6 is inevitable.

“Therefore, rather than wait for the emergence of uncontrolled islands of IPv6, we intend to take the initiative and carefully manage the introduction of the new protocol,” Richards says.

Overall, the large address space, in-built security and mobility functions of IPv6 will be an important enabler of information sharing and offer new capabilities not possible with IPv4, he says.

“The network data space of the not-too-distant future will enable real-time information sharing and communication across large distances using an array of different devices and types of connectivity,” he says.

“It’s foreseeable that some time after 2008 the US Defense forces will stop supporting IPv4. If the Australian department continued to rely solely upon IPv4, the integration of equipment sourced from the US will be increasingly complex and costly.”

It would also make interoperability and communication near impossible as most of this is IP-based, he says.

The transition from IPv4 to IPv6 does not come without challenges.

A migration date of 2013 was set after an extensive review, balancing the drivers against the possible risks and extra costs incurred in transitioning too early.

“Many of the risks that Defence faces in transitioning will be managed by incorporating the lessons learnt by the US in its transition to IPv6, which should be completed by 2008,” Richards says.

By transitioning incrementally over eight years, Richards hopes to minimise costs and exposure to potential risk.

“By 2013, we expect most of our hardware and software to be replaced as part of our normal refresh cycle, so we actually expect a great deal of our information environment will be IPv6-ready well before 2013 as it would not be cost-effective or feasible to continue running IPv4 in many areas,” he says.

There will be some applications and hardware that have replacement cycles extending beyond 2013, but will be IPv6 enabled when they are replaced.

Richards says one of the main challenges faced is ensuring that communication between IPv4 and IPv6 domains continues to work seamlessly and that security is maintained during the transition period.

“We plan to commence a study of the many devices that will enable the two protocols to inter-operate on single network architecture as each has its own unique pros and cons,” he says.

Another challenge, according to Richards, is selling the IPv6 concept as it is relatively unknown, even within the IT community.

“When the CIO mandated the transition the responses internally ranged from jubilation to despair. Like most technology professionals, Defence’s IT staff are busy and some viewed the transition as being for change’s sake alone, which is not the case,” he says.

Defence plans to hold a number of educational programmes internally to educate staff about the advantages and the potential problems of IPv6, although the department is also trying to “sell” the technology to external stakeholders.

“These include our suppliers, other government departments and our allied nations. By attending this summit and several other forums, Defence hopes to spread the message that IPv6 will enable new capabilities in information sharing.”

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