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IETF Chair Baker examines his legacy

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After five years at the helm of the Internet Engineering Task Force, Fred Baker steps down from the volunteer chair position this month. Baker, a Cisco fellow, spoke recently with Network World Senior Editor Carolyn Duffy Marsan about how the IETF has changed during his tenure and what challenges lie ahead for the Internet's premier standards body.

When did you first attend an IETF meeting and what brought you there?

My first meeting with the IETF was at Stanford [University] in 1989. I was working on designing my own routing protocol, and I'd heard that I ought to look into this group. I haven't missed an IETF meeting since then.

What percentage of your time do you spend on IETF-related work?

The intention is 50/50, but it's about 60% IETF and 40% Cisco. With the IETF, I spend most of my time writing and reviewing documents and participating in teleconferences. I've also been invited to conferences to speak as the IETF chair - to Beijing to talk to the information industry, to Germany to be involved in privacy efforts. I'm frequently talking to governments as the IETF chair.

How many IETF protocol documents have you authored or edited?

Sixty-one.

How has the IETF changed during your tenure as chair?

In 1996, when I became the IETF chair, the Internet was really just becoming commercial. The IETF was doing a lot things then that we'd almost think of as research now. It still had a very strong academic flavor, though vendors were increasingly involved. Then the IETF was still having fun. Now it's pretty much gotten down to business.

What do you see as your greatest accomplishment as IETF chair?

The IETF chair is a senior management position. For the most part, I was successful at creating an environment where a large number of people are able to work productively. But that's not just my effort. A lot of people worked to make that happen.

What were the biggest challenges you faced as IETF chair?

One of them is dealing with the entire area of intellectual property. We had to work out a framework in which people who had intellectual property could work with the IETF. Another challenge is our relationship to other standards bodies. The IETF and the [International Telecommunication Union] didn't get along for a long period of time. The IETF has now figured out that other standards bodies exist. We may not be like them, but we do use their output and they use ours.

How do you feel about leaving the IETF chair position?

Mixed. It's been an interesting job and an interesting ride, and there's nothing quite like being at the center of the action. On the other hand, if you've ever been in an earthquake, there's nothing quite like being at the center of the action. It's somebody else's turn.

What news is there on your replacement?

It's Harald Alvastrand. He's a particularly good choice for a number of reasons. He's a very clueful guy, and I respect him a lot. Plus, the IETF is viewed in many parts of the world as this creature of the U.S. Having a chair that's not from the U.S. is a good thing. Harald lives in Norway and works for Cisco.

What role will you continue to play in the IETF?

I will be a member of the [Internet Architecture Board].

What are the key issues facing the next IETF chair?

One of the biggest issues is the question of size. We don't really fit in hotels anymore. We could go to convention centers but that will drive up the cost. The IETF is kind of a victim of its own success. We're also increasingly dealing with governments on issues like privacy, security and providing a high-quality Internet. The IETF is trying to figure out how to have the right discussions with governments.

From a broader perspective, what do you see as the biggest challenges facing the Internet?

When I got involved in the Internet, it was really the Wild West. Nothing worked, and that was OK. Now we're at the point where my mom, who is pushing 80, sends e-mail to her grandchildren. In the U.S., the Internet is very stable and the general public is using it. But it hasn't reached public utility status. When you walk into a room, you assume that when you hit a light switch it will work. The Internet, instead, is something that you assume you will have trouble with. The Internet needs to get to the point where it is a public utility. To do that, attitudes are going to have to change and products are going to have to change.

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