Happy 25th birthday, IETF

Internet's leading standards body celebrates 25 years of "rough consensus and running code"

The Internet's leading standards body - the Internet Engineering Task Force - turns 25 on Jan. 16.

The IETF is responsible for many of the underlying standards that make the Internet work, including the Internet Protocol (IP) for data transfer, Domain Name System (DNS) for matching domain names with IP addresses, Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP) for sending e-mail, and Multi Protocol Label Switching (MPLS) for traffic engineering.

BACKGROUND: IETF hums along at 20

Over the years, the IETF has published more than 4,500 documents that describe standards for the Internet's fundamental technologies, and these documents are referenced by network operators on a daily basis.

Unlike other standards bodies that rely on corporate or government members, the IETF is known for its outspoken, individualistic participants, who have rigorous debates at their thrice-annual meetings and online chats. IETF leaders, who work on a volunteer basis, come from the world's most powerful networking companies, including Cisco, Juniper, Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia.

"The IETF is unique," says Russ Housley, an Internet security expert who got involved with the group in 1987 and has been IETF Chair since 2007. "Unlike other standards bodies, wherever possible the IETF avoids formal hierarchy, and there are no membership requirements or fees. The IETF invites all interested parties to participate in the technical evolution and work toward even greater stability of the Internet. The IETF's standards are available online, without charge, providing a platform for the continued growth and evolution of the Internet."

The majority rules at the IETF, and all proposals must have working prototypes before they are approved as standards. This has led to the group's motto of seeking "rough consensus and running code.''

Like the Internet itself, the IETF has migrated away from its roots in the U.S. Defense Department to becoming increasingly commercial and global over the years. Back in 1996, the IETF was led by Michael Corrigan, then the technical manager for the Defense Data Network program. Today, the IETF chair is Housley, who runs his own consulting shop called Vigil Security. In between, the group has been led by network engineers from the United States, Norway and Great Britain, who worked for such industry stalwarts as Cisco and IBM.

BY THE NUMBERS: The Evolution of the Internet

The IETF also has grown over the years, although it's not as big as it was during the dot-com boom years of 1999 and 2000 when its meetings held standing-room-only crowds.

The IETF held its first meeting on the afternoon of Jan. 16, 1986 in San Diego with 21 attendees. In March, the group will hold its 80th meeting in Prague, and more than 1,000 attendees are expected. The group will publicly recognize its 25th birthday at the Prague meeting.

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Going forward, the group's biggest challenges include helping the Internet community with two much-needed upgrades: to IPv6, a new version of the Internet Protocol; and to DNSSEC, which adds a layer of encryption to the DNS.

"Sometimes the IETF sees a need before the marketplace is ready to embrace it. This leads to the standards being in place before the service providers are ready to deploy. DNSSEC and IPv6 are two examples," Housley says. "So working on global deployment of these completed protocols to offer new capabilities is one challenge. Yet the capabilities offered by these protocols is necessary for the continued growth of the Internet as a trusted platform for communications and innovation used by billions of people around the world.''

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IETF hums along at 20

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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