Channel Greets IPv6 Day With Skeptical Eye

The coming transition to IPv6 is creating plenty of hype and a lot of discussion among vendors, channel partners and their enterprise customers, especially as World IPv6 Day takes place Wednesday.

But overall, enterprise interest in IPv6 has been sluggish, and few solution providers are reaping big upgrade and services rewards such a major IT transition would seem to warrant. The opportunity is there, VARs and integrators say, it's just slow to develop, and the vast majority of customers are taking a wait-and-see approach to IPv6 infrastructure upgrades.

"It's just not a primary focus at this point," said Greg Stemberger, principal network engineer at Force 3, a Crofton, Md.-based solution provider. "A lot of people are in the exploratory stage, and some are saying, 'Maybe let's look at setting up a pilot or a lab environment and look at it further.' I expect it to pick up more."

Stemberger's assessment was in line with the opinions of a number of solution providers, vendor representatives and IPv6 experts interviewed by CRN over the past few weeks. While service providers began the delicate transition to IPv6 some time ago, and government customers are in many cases mandated to do so, most enterprise and midsized businesses are just beginning to scratch the service -- creating a nascent, if not yet fully defined opportunity for the channel.

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The move to IPv6, or Internet Protocol Version 6, has been forecast for decades, and work by researchers on how to make the transition successful has been going on almost as long.

In a nutshell, the problem is scarcity. IPv4 has been the standard for formatting Internet addresses since 1981, but the IPv4 format enables 32-bit Internet addresses, meaning that there is a limit on the supply of IPv4 addresses for addressable devices -- approximately 4.3 billion -- that is fast approaching. IPv4 address exhaustion technically happened already; the last blocks of IPv4 addresses were allocated to the world's Regional Internet Registries (RIR) in early February, and the Asia Pacific Network Information Center released the last addresses available in its pool in April.

The move to IPv6 -- addresses that are eight sets of four-digit hexadecimal numbers -- means preserving the IP address future, because the 128-bit address format yields enough theoretical addresses that exhaustion won't be an issue.

Many service providers have had a transition plan in place for some time, but IPv6 urgency is just beginning to creep into the enterprise, and according to a recent survey from Infoblox, enterprises by and large aren't anywhere near ready for the transition.

The survey, which drew on responses from 2,400 enterprise IT managers, found that 80 percent of respondents didn't feel educated enough to tackle an IPv6 migration element, and half didn't know which of their network elements supported IPv6 at present. That's similar to a number of industry surveys making the rounds in recent weeks. An analysis by Ipswitch Inc., which polled 600 respondents from its network management division, suggested that 88 percent of businesses were not fully ready for the change, with more than two thirds saying their networks were less than 20 percent ready for the changeover.

The Infoblox survey also found that 41 percent of respondents still track IP addresses manually using spreadsheets, and 70 percent are concerned about performing a successful IPv6 deployment. Most respondents, according to Infoblox, would describe themselves as being in the "learning" stage when it comes to IPv6, and only 24 percent have dedicated resources to manage the migration from IPv4 to IPv6.

"It seems to me that there is a real opportunity for the channel to advise customers on what to do, because there is a lot of uncertainty," said Cricket Liu, vice president of architecture and technology at Infoblox and a regular speaker and consultant on IPv6 topics. "People aren't really sure what to make of all the press coverage, and there is a certain amount of it that's hype. But it is difficult for these companies to separate the wheat from the chaff and understand what they need to do today."

Liu said that solution providers who educate themselves and add IPv6 assessment to their professional services offerings will benefit, even if their enterprise customers aren't yet actively making upgrades.

"People are asking for help, at least, and they are asking, who should I approach about this," Liu said. "The interest has gone up, I would say tenfold, in the past year. We don't see an RFP for our gear at the moment that doesn't include functional requirements around IPv6."

Next: Vendors FIne-Tune Their IPv6 Products And Services

A number of vendors have taken up the mantle of providing IPv6 readiness -- Infoblox, for example, offers a whitepaper called "Seven Deadly IPv6 Transition Traps" -- and many of the industry's most visible networking and infrastructure players, even those not actively participating in World IPv6 Day, offer a range of resources.

Cisco, in late May, launched a series of new products and services to address the transition. Those included USGv6-compliant support, specifically IPsec v3, for IPv6 virtual private networks on Cisco's ISR G2 router platform, to transition to dual-stack IP environments, and location/ID separation protocol (LISP) offered on Cisco's routing and switching platforms for simplifying dual-stack configuration. Other offerings included the Cisco Network Optimization Service, and the addition of analytics for doing IPv6 device-readiness assessment.

Cisco's research on enterprise readiness for IPv6 is a bit more encouraging than other sources'. According to Wenceslao Lada, vice president of worldwide channels for Borderless Networks at Cisco, 78 percent of companies Cisco interviewed during the last two years said they were at least considering the transition, and 55 percent of that 78 percent group said they needed help in understanding the capabilities.

"Enterprises are much more ready than we thought, and they recognize they need some help to get there," Lada told CRN. "Partners are the ones to fulfill that transition."

With so many enterprises embracing mobility solutions, the transition to IPv6 in enterprises and in service providers -- who provide the connectivity service in a lot of those solutions -- has to happen smoothly. Where Cisco partners can help, Lada said, is performing assessments from an infrastructure and a line-of-business perspective to see what business processes are going to be affected and what the expectations of an enterprise customer are for their mobile workforce.

"It can be difficult to aggregate all of [these functions] under a single practice," Lada said. "So the flexibility and benefit of having a professional services organization to run all these types of designs, or assess the business of the network and provide that consulting to aggregate all the different elements, is appropriate."

Many devices support IPv6 already, and/or are prepared for dual stack IPv4 and IPv6 solutions. Juniper Networks routers, for example, have supported IPv6 since 2001, according to Alain Durand, director of software engineering, IPG/CTO Group, at Juniper.

Durand, a globally recognized IPv6 expert and the inventor of the Dual Stack-Lite (DS-Lite) network address translation (NAT) solution for carrier networks, said it isn't so much the equipment upgrades that are going to cause problems for customers as it is the IPv6 readiness of applications.

"If you're looking at a big infrastructure, a lot of the routers support V6 now," he said. "That's not really the issue. It's an application issue, not an equipment issue."

Only about 0.15 to 0.4 percent of Web sites, Durand said, are IPv6-ready, and a big reason for World IPv6 Day is so participating companies can test IPv6 versions of Web sites and see what happens. A lot of the bugs and potential security issues will need to be worked out later on, Durand said.

Next: What Solution Providers Can Do Now

Stemberger said that Force 3 is performing hardware and software assessments, and has provided IPv6 path assessments and compliance planning.

Most of Stemberger's work is for Force 3's federal government customers, where IPv6 work has been going on for years.

The federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB) began mandating federal agencies' move to IPv6 backbones back in 2005, insisting IPv6-compliant infrastructure be in place by July 2008. Last fall, Federal CIO Vivek Kundra unveiled the next OMB mandate for IPv6 compliance: enable the use of native IPv6 on external servers by October 2012.

According to a late September 2010 memo from Kundra's team, all federal agencies need to upgrade public/external facing services to native IPv6 by the end of the 2012 fiscal year, as well as upgrade internal client applications that communicate with public Internet servers and supporting enterprise networks to operationally use native IPv6 by the end of the 2014 fiscal year. Government agencies also need to have designated an IPv6 Transition Manager, and ensure that all agency procurements of networked IT comply with the requirements for use of USGv6 Profile and Test Program for evaluating IPv6 readiness.

Long story short, the government is required to make the move. In the enterprise, things are a lot slower. But according to Stemberger, customer awareness is at least picking up.

"When customers are looking at purchasing new equipment, they're starting to ask very detailed new questions about what is the roadmap and the specific capabilities around a platform," he said. "It's still not much action, but more forward thinking definitely."

It will take some time before true business adoption happens. If the enterprise is sluggishly preparing, said Tom McCafferty, director of marketing for open source networking vendor Vyatta, interest in the midmarket and down into the SMB is barely a blip.

"It's just not there," McCafferty said. "We do see some V6 transition, but next to never right now in the U.S. It's really still a check box for people, versus a true implementation. It's a lot of, 'When the day comes, you help me get there.'"

One thing VARs can do, McCafferty said, is to pay attention to the regions they do business in and where their customers are based, and identify who the regional service providers are. How quickly those service providers are changing over to IPv6 is one way to gauge how enterprise and SMB customers who rely on the service will start to get up to speed on transitioning their infrastructure.

"If you know your regional providers, you have a feeling for the immediacy of their changeover," he said. "The regional or local ISPs, that's probably the most important relationship right now, and they need to be paying attention."

Regardless of the level of interest, however, most IPv6 channel observers see a future business. Above all, the IPv6 changeover isn't an option.

"I think it'll hit home with IT managers and IT directors regardless of the mandates," Force 3's Stemberger said. "IPv6 is your future, whether you like it or not, and that's going to be true sooner rather than later."