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IETF hums along at 20

Standards body has had its quirky moments.

By , Network World
January 16, 2006 12:09 AM ET

Network World - From a notorious striptease by Internet pioneer Vint Cerf to a fist-pumping, table-jumping brawl about cryptography policy, the Internet's premier standards-setting body has had its share of big moments.

This week, the IETF celebrates another one when it turns 20.

The IETF is an egalitarian, all-volunteer group consisting of network engineers from Cisco, IBM, Microsoft, AT&T and other leading vendors. It has created many of the underlying standards that make the Internet work, including fundamental routing, e-mail, directory services and telephony protocols.

IETF leaders say the group's greatest accomplishment is that the protocols it developed let the Internet function in spite of dramatic growth and the introduction of new services.

"Despite all kinds of centrifugal forces, the Internet's technology has stayed reasonably unified and coherent during the tremendous growth of the last 20 years, the enormous changes in underlying transmission technology and the era of telecommunications liberalization,'' says Brian Carpenter, chair of the IETF and a distinguished engineer with IBM.

"The [IETF's] real achievement has been keeping focus on the unifying ideas, such as the end-to-end principle,'' Carpenter adds. "The IETF didn't invent those unifying ideas, but it's used them in its protocol development work, blended with pragmatism.''

Despite the group's many engineering triumphs, the IETF is best known for its openness and individualistic approach to standards development. It also differs from other staid standards bodies because of its quirky traditions, which include registering approval by humming rather than raising hands.

"The biggest strength of the IETF is its openness,'' says Harald Alvestrand, a Cisco fellow who led the group from 2001 to 2005. "We are able to take input from the whole world, and we arrive at our decisions through a process that you are welcome to watch and participate in.''

Alvestrand says the IETF's openness coupled with the expertise of its participants result in higher-quality standards.

The IETF held its first meeting Jan. 16-17, 1986 in San Diego with 21 attendees. In March, the group will hold its 65th meeting in Dallas, and more than 1,000 attendees are expected. It will publicly recognize its 20th birthday at the meeting.

The IETF meets three times per year, but most of the group's decision making is done via e-mail posted on its Web site,

The group has created many important network industry standards, including Border Gateway Protocol and Open Shortest Path First for routing; Post Office Protocol and Internet Message Access Protocol for e-mail; Session Initiation Protocol for Internet telephony; and Lightweight Directory Access Protocol for directory services.

Other well-known IETF technologies include MPLS for traffic engineering, the IPSec security protocol used in VPNs and the next-generation Internet protocol known as IPv6.

"What we do is architect the Internet, and the Internet is still a pretty rollicking place,'' says Fred Baker, a Cisco fellow who served as chair of the IETF from 1996 to 2001. "We describe different functions that get done and principles by which they work, which is a different way to do architecture.''

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