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IETF leaders urge detente with rivals

By , Network World
March 14, 2005 12:08 AM ET

Network World - MINNEAPOLIS - The IETF is scrambling to retain its position as the Internet's premier standards setting body in the face of declining participation, increased competition from other standards bodies and overall network industry consolidation.

Last week at a meeting in Minneapolis, the IETF installed a new leader who vowed to improve the group's outreach to other organizations, including the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), two rivals that are sometimes ridiculed by IETF participants.

Brian Carpenter, a distinguished engineer with IBM , who has taken over as IETF chair, told the group at a plenary session that it must cooperate with other standards bodies to remain relevant.

"If we listen carefully and politely to each other and strive to play a win-win game, we can progress together," he said. "It's more difficult than it ever has been for us to ignore input from outside sources. We need to take notice of what other people think of what we do."

Carpenter's remarks, which were received positively by the audience, could signal big changes ahead for the fiercely independent IETF. If the IETF becomes a more efficient standards body, that would be good news for corporate network managers, who prefer to buy standards-based products to ensure interoperability.

For nearly 20 years, the IETF has boasted the leading developers of Internet technology among its participants. This quirky band of network engineers has developed many of the key standards that make the Internet work, including DNS, Internet Message Access Protocol and Lightweight Directory Access Protocol.

With individual rather than corporate participants, the IETF is an egalitarian, all-volunteer group. At the IETF's thrice-yearly meetings, winners of prestigious computer science awards rub shoulders with grad students. In IETF tradition, the best technical ideas are chosen regardless of who suggests them, and standards aren't published without working prototypes.

However, the group that prides itself on rough consensus and running code is facing challenges such as financial difficulties and declining attendance. These challenges are forcing the group to change.

The IETF leadership has spent much of the past two years focused on restructuring its administrative and financial processes. This restructuring effort is nearing completion with the establishment of a new administrative oversight committee and plans to hire a full-time administrative director.

Meanwhile, attendance at IETF meetings continues to shrink from more than 3,000 at the peak of the Internet bubble to just more than 1,000 last week. The IETF can't afford to lose money on its meetings because it doesn't charge membership fees.

"The fact that attendance is down is a big concern," acknowledged Allison Mankin, a Shinkuro engineer who serves as one of the directors of the IETF's Transport Area . Mankin said the IETF's seven areas - Applications, General, Internet, Operations, Routing, Security and Transport - are trying to re-invigorate the work that each is tackling.

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