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Prepping customers for IPv6 transition: Step by step

VARs that prepare their customers for the IPv6 transition now will become trusted advisors and be in a better position to sell them applications and technology later.

The need for IPv6 adoption has been hotly debated for years. Yet while the next generation of Internet protocol still faces a few skeptics, the networking industry has slowly moved past the passionate discourse and focused instead on a hard reality: Global IP addressing resources are likely to be exhausted by 2012, so IPv6 integration is inevitable.

IPv6 as a protocol is inevitable because at this point there is simply no time left to develop, standardize, productize, test and deploy an alternative solution before lack of IP addresses significantly affects growth. With that knowledge, many organizations seek guidance to prepare for future growth strategies even in troubled economic times. The question is: Who will help them cross the IPv6 chasm?

Preparation now, sales later

If you are a VAR or a consultant, IPv6 represents a unique strategic opportunity to build a long-term relationship with your customers to prepare them for transition. But the initial goal is building a partnership, not selling an explicit technology. That will take patience on the part of solution providers.

More on IPv6 transition
Introduction to IPv6, part 1

Introduction to IPv6, part 2  

When to choose IPv6  

Security and IPv6

At this point, providers should not focus on making the case for or against immediate IPv6 adoption. For one, this is a controversial topic full of challenges and risks. Unlike selling a specific technology that provides a clearly quantifiable solution, such as NAC, pushing IPv6 is more difficult because it is very hard to define an immediate ROI from the transition. To this day, the IPv6 killer app remains elusive, so an argument pro or con immediate adoption will face an equal number of skeptics and supporters, each armed with sufficient industry articles to support their case.

Instead, VARs must educate customers to understand the technology and its latest developments. VARS must also gather the information needed to build a solid business case for transition. That means helping customers become ready to switch their applications and services to IPv6 in a short period, with minimal impact and at the lowest possible cost.

Step 1: Educating your customer: A how-to

In preparing for an IPv6 transition, customers will have to upgrade network infrastructure and applications, adjust operating models and tools, and acquire IPv6-ready services from their service providers. They must also develop IPv6 deployment plans and implement IP-version-agnostic policies. Integrators will guide customers through each of these steps.

The first step for VARs should be writing reference handouts or offering short overview sessions for customers. In a first take, highlight the similarities between IPv4 and IPv6 to build a certain level of comfort. But in the second take, discuss the subtle differences that can lead to new design and service opportunities.

Education need not be limited to the IP protocol stack. In fact, it can be related to OS behavior by discussing, for example, whether the IPv6 stack negatively affects operation. It's also important to help customers consider applications dependencies. Customers should consider whether IP addresses are hard-coded or if the lengths of the IP-address variables are fixed at 32 bits. VARs and their customers should also consider back-end systems implications. For instance, can the back-end systems handle both global and link-local addresses?

Ultimately, this process provides the opportunity to review with customers their long-term business vision and to detail IT's role in supporting that vision. While this discussion will probably be IP-version agnostic, it will most likely be implemented in IPv6. And this is the time to make that clear.

Step 2: Readiness assessment

Once VARs move past education and into planning, they should start customers on an IPv6 readiness assessment exercise that will cover all aspects of the environment, from Layer 2 switching and access devices to routing and IP services such as DNS, DHCP and security. This assessment will also consider applications and operations tools.

There are IPv6-specific features that need to be explicitly identified at each of these layers. The assessment must not be just an exercise of matching IPv6 features to existing IPv4 ones, and it should not focus solely on the existing capabilities at the expense of valuable features already on product roadmaps.

Let's take a look at Layer 2 devices, for example, where matching IPv4 security and QoS features are important. It is important to look at how Secure Neighbor Discovery (SeND) is handled and to look at the need to support the Router Advertisement (RA) Guard-type capabilities currently being developed by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). These are capabilities that are unique to IPv6 and will help eliminate security threats. So this analysis must be done in the context of a long-term network vision.

Step 3: Looking at long-term projects

The next step is to review all the near-term and ongoing IT projects. VARs must consider whether there are ongoing or planned fleet upgrades or projects to increase bandwidth and coverage. Also, VARs must ask whether there are plans to insert a new service and whether new branches are being deployed or data centers are being built. Ultimately, these projects must fit into the long-term IPv6 transition vision because they will need to contain an IPv6 dimension.

If done right, IPv6 alignment and planning will have minimal cost implications but will help customers get closer to IPv6 readiness. All these efforts will lead your customers to feel confident in working with you toward the ultimate IPv6 transition, whether that becomes a priority tomorrow or in 2011.

Ciprian Popoviciu, PhD, is a Technical Leader at Cisco Systems with over twelve years of experience in data and voice over IP communications technologies. For the past eight years he focused on the architecture, design and validation of large IPv6 network deployments in direct collaboration with Service Providers and Enterprises worldwide. Ciprian is an active contributor to the IETF standards and he co-authored two books: "Deploying IPv6 Networks" and "Global IPv6 Strategies".

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