• United States

Why the IETF needs to be concerned

Mar 31, 20033 mins
Enterprise Applications

Fellow columnist Scott Bradner recently did a nice job highlighting the accomplishments of the Internet Engineering Task Force. In his column, this long-time IETF leader also relayed my comment about the organization’s ability (or lack thereof) to function effectively as a standards-making body.

I’ll cheerfully confess to yanking Bradner’s chain a little, but there’s an element of truth to that remark. I’m concerned that the IETF might be on the verge of losing its relevance. I hope that doesn’t happen, because as Bradner pointed out, the IETF is pretty much the primary standards body driving networking technology.

You might be wondering why all this “inside baseball” matters. Why should telecom and IT executives care about the politics of standards bodies?

In a nutshell, it’s because what happens inside those standards bodies affects the services and offerings that you’ll be able to purchase from carriers and vendors.

My concern is an ongoing problem with the IETF and has been the lack of structured input from end users. In the early days this wasn’t a big deal – the folks implementing the standards simply needed to demonstrate that technology would work.

“Rough consensus and running code” was the IETF’s unofficial motto, and it made perfect sense when the primary end users of the technology were scientists and engineers. If you’re a particle physicist downloading files from a remote machine – as I was in those early days – you’re just happy to have the ability to do so.

You might have noticed that those days are long gone. These days, it’s no longer a question of just implementing the technology – it’s ensuring it can be managed, secured, and billed for effectively and cost-effectively. And last but not least, making sure the technology does what users need done.

Part of the problem is that figuring out what end users want is generally left up to the marketing arms of the vendors and service providers whose engineers participate in the IETF. That sounds reasonable on the surface, but the net effect is to greatly increase the political “noise” level and reduce the effective standards-making ability.

Let’s say that Nortel has decided to do X based on its internal marketing efforts. Either it a) puts pressure on the IETF to standardize X; or b) decides it’s going to do X regardless. Users end up with a political compromise or a proprietary solution that doesn’t extend to other vendors. Clearly, neither is optimal.

The solution is to get involved. You might not have the time, money or bandwidth to attend the meetings, but find out who’s working on areas that might affect you and engage them in constructive dialogue.

Two of the great things you’ll find about folks involved in the IETF is that they’re very open to new ideas, and they’re almost always committed to finding the best technical solution.

The more the IETF knows about user requirements, the more effective and relevant its standards will be – and the happier you’ll be with them.