Happy 30th birthday, IETF: The engineers who made the 'net happen

We speak to key techies, men and women, who shaped our online world

31 Reg comments Got Tips?


Taking a less downbeat and more pragmatic approach however is Suzanne Woolf, another accomplished and highly regarded engineer. "I think of the IETF more as a way to get certain things done than as a specific institution," she notes. "As co-chair of a working group that tries to be useful to operators and implementers in applying a widely-used standard, I think of it as a way for vendors, operators, and other interested participants to work out how to interoperate. I don't regard it as a failure when people develop technology elsewhere, or when we document things that are widely used even if not widely loved. I'd like to think we publish stuff that helps operators and implementers make the internet work better."

As for competing standards, she notes that there is "a persistent tension" between open source and proprietary technology and that "one of the ways the IETF can be useful is in providing processes for addressing those tensions".

IETF going forward

While the IETF may not be the one-stop-shop for everything internet, it has started recognizing its value to the internet of 2016 through to 2046.

For one, it has started correcting its cultural issues. Having been led at the start and for its first 10 years by white American men, last month it published an RFC called "An IETF with Much Diversity and Professional Conduct" in an effort to expand its appeal and open out to different ways of working.

The heavy representation of "well-funded, American, white male technicians" has created a "distinctive group dynamic" the RFC notes where "aggressive and even hostile discussion behavior is quite common".

As one of the authors and an ISOC Trustee, Narelle Clark, told The Register: "A number of women got sick of being passed over in positions of leadership in the IETF" and carried out an experiment where they put forward a large number of highly qualified women for positions. None of them made it through. "It's become clear that there are systemic issues," she stated.

Despite its problems, the body of work that the IETF has produced will keep it relevant for some considerable time. "RFC 5218 is a brilliant piece of work," says Mark Townsley from Cisco referring to the text "What Makes For a Successful Protocol?"

Says Townsley: "It has stood up to dozens of projects by my students. We use it as a taxonomy for comparing current and past protocol battles, and sometimes even predicting the future."


And then there was the IETF's response to the Edward Snowden revelations not only of the NSA trying to undermine security protocols within the IETF but broader mass surveillance efforts across the internet.

The IETF's response was strong, clear and firm: "Pervasive Monitoring Is an Attack" is the title of RFC 7528 which calls on internet engineers to put security and privacy at the top of their checklist in future and promises to revise all old and existing protocols to make them harder to subvert. Snowden even popped up at a recent meeting to encourage their efforts.

The stance has resulted in improvements and new protocols and constant efforts to improve security across the entire internet.

So what of the IETF going forward?

Just as its chair noted earlier this week, it's hard to know. The internet is, and remains, exceptionally difficult to predict.

There are risks for the IETF's future. Difficulties in its approach and culture have slowly reduced its day-to-day importance in the evolution of the internet.

There is also the fact that as it moves away slowly from its US-centric position, it will be subject to more influence from people who do not possess the same fierce independent streak that helped set the internet on its initial path.

Plus of course there is the reality that many of the early pioneers who imbued the IETF with its culture are retiring or leaving this existence altogether. One of the IETF's biggest names, the author of many RFCs, including those that developed the ubiquitous FTP and POP protocols, and a former IETF area director, Joyce Reynolds passed on just last month.

Will the IETF become a valuable repository of the past and a largely academic institution focused on the evolution of the internet?

Or will it become the go-to place for companies to resolve their competing standards and protocols, relying on the wisdom of those that went before to divine a solution?

Or will it be reinvigorated by a new generation let in thanks to the exit of the old guard and once more take the pilot controls of the internet?

Who knows? But for now, happy birthday, IETF. ®

A big thank you to Jari Arkko, Vint Cerf, Dave Crocker, Patrik Fältström, Ole Jacobsen, Seth Johnson, Tim McGinnis, Martin Levy, Bill Manning, Jonne Soininen, Mark Townsley, Suzanne Woolf and Dan York for their thoughts and observations.


Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2020