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IETF's quest to be quicker moves slowly

By , Network World
November 17, 2003 12:05 AM ET

Network World - MINNEAPOLIS - Eighteen months after acknowledging pervasive organizational and productivity problems, the Internet Engineering Task Force continues to search for remedies designed to bring important network standards to market sooner.

A pivotal debate at last week's IETF meeting in Minneapolis failed to provide any magic bullet, but it did produce a new sense of urgency and resolve to get the problems fixed in the year ahead.

In the past 18 months, the IETF has created several committees to look at reorganization, standards tracks and administrative structures. These groups are publishing final documents that outline the IETF's consensus on what its problems are in each of these areas.Having come to agreement on what the group's problems are, the IETF will now try to gather the consensus of its 2,000-plus participants around the steps required to fix these problems. The debates from last week will continue on the group's e-mail mailing list for several months. The IETF will host a follow-up discussion on possible solutions at the group's next meeting in February in Seoul, Korea.

Founded in 1986, the IETF has created many of the communications protocols that power the Internet - from behind-the-scenes routing techniques to the e-mail infrastructure to the ubiquitous DNS. The IETF is known for its brilliant but idiosyncratic participants, who clash publicly and vehemently over the engineering trade-offs required to create industry standards.

In recent years, the IETF's all-volunteer leadership has been burdened with the volume of protocol proposals it receives as well as with the informal structure of the organization that was created when the Internet was more of a research project than a production network. Several of the group's area directors have resigned citing overload.

Meanwhile, standards development work has slowed to the point that it often takes more than five years to finalize specifications that network hardware and software vendors are looking to deploy.

"We need to move away from being stuck and get back to producing quality output for the Internet community,'' says IETF Chair Harald Alvestrand, an engineer at Cisco. "Producing bad standards quickly is not the goal.''

A tougher challenge for the IETF - and one that's largely outside the restructuring debate - is how to change the group's divisive culture and reduce the infighting among its participants, who often don't read the documents they argue against. Many working groups have gotten so mired in philosophical debates that they miss their deadlines, produce poor-quality documents or fail to produce any documents at all.

"For a standards body, an engineering body, to have this level of debate about issues from people that have no knowledge of these issues is the most serious problem,'' says John Klensin, a former Internet Architecture Board (IAB) chair whose involvement with Internet engineering dates to the original ARPANET. "If people are commenting with great vehemence on documents they haven't read, that's going to kill the group. Nothing else really matters.''

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