Next Internet protocol tests enter new phase

Now that the Segway has fizzled, New Hampshire’s best claim to a cool techno-thing has to be IPv6.

I’ll admit that “cool” is relative: I don’t think you’ll see Diane Sawyer getting all giddy about Internet name-space expansion any time soon. But they’re fairly giddy at the InterOperability Lab at the University of New Hampshire, now that Phase II tests of Internet Protoval version 6 have been completed.

“My vision (is) this is like the next-generation Internet rollout, and we’ll be one of two primary locations for it,” said Ben Schultz, IPv6 managing engineer at the lab.

It’s not that “Courtesy of the Granite State” will be plastered on Web sites, because we’re talking about the Internet’s invisible innards. For those in the know, however, IPv6 is a big deal, largely because the Defense Department is starting to insist on it.

UNH’s connection goes back a lot further than the DoD’s interest, since the university has been testing IPv6 since 1996 at its InterOperability Lab, whose mission is to help computer hardware and software learn to play well together. Playing well is vital for IPv6, which is the latest version of the underlying basis (“protocol”) for communication between Net-connected machines.

The first two phases of testing over the past year involved pretty basic stuff: developing trustworthy routing protocols, shaping the lower levels of networks, and the like. Now it’s time “to get more application vendors on board,” using a sort of IPv6 overlay atop the Internet that folks can tap into for tests.

This next stage should continue for a while as IPv6 slowly gains traction.

This is great for UNH. The lab benefits from equipment left by companies that are happy to have help preparing for IPv6, and from expertise from telcos, including AT&T, France Telecom and Japan’s NTT, which are also are interested.

“I have been ‘pinged’ by some other universities asking, ‘What are you guys doing here?” said Schultz in a telephone interview. (If you don’t recognize the verb “to ping” as meaning “to make initial contact,” you risk being slapped with the dreaded newbie label.)

It’s all part of the evolution of the lab, he said: “What we’re also building here is a center of excellence.”

For students, IPv6 expertise holds out some hope in the not-exactly-brimming IT job market. About 100 students work in the Interoperability Lab all told, a handful of them on IPv6.

The lab’s “first mission” is the students who work in the lab, said Chris Volpe, public relations specialist for the Interoperability Laboratory. “Our second mission is to provide students with hands-on education.”

Volpe said the student “get industry exposure. It’s easy for them to get jobs. Students here are really ahead of the curve.”

Admittedly, IPv6 knowledge isn’t a major requirement in most U.S. IT departments – not yet, anyway. The big push for IPv6 is coming overseas. The main reason is that it has room for lots more distinct connections than IPv4, the Net’s 35-year-old standard, which has 4 billion unique “addresses” for Web pages, e-mail, remote devices and the like. That’s a lot, but not enough when billions of people in China and India are itching to go on line — hence IPv6, which has an “address space” of 380,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (380 billion billion billion billion) unique IDs.

Address space isn’t a problem in the United States, where we got on line early. Here the big appeal of IPv6, especially for the military, is that it provides extra room to create secure mobile connections.

“You want to not limit your warfighters by keeping them in a box, but allow them to shoot, move and communicate in a seamless fashion,” said Major Roswell Dixon of the Army’s Joint Interoperability Test Command, during a recent conference call on the topic.

Security and mobility are likely to be important selling points for non-military applications, which is why everybody expects that eventually IPv6 will be the Net norm. And when it does, there should be at least a bit of UNH lurking somewhere inside.

David Brooks writes about science and technology for the Telegraph of Nashua. His column appears monthly in New Hampshire Business Review.

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