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IETF: the challenges ahead

On 29th February 2016, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) published a memo titled IETF Trends and Observations, written by Jari Arkko (Ericsson), Avri Doria (APC), Tobias Gondrom (Huawei), Olaf Kolkman (Internet Society), Steve Olshansky (Internet Society), Benson Schliesser (Brocade Communications), Robert Sparks (Oracle) and Russ White (LinkedIn).

The memo aimed at launching a discussion on the challenges faced by the organisation in terms of its operating environment and working culture. One of the key trends the memo identified is the “growing importance of the move towards the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS)” movement and increased use of tools such as the collaborative online software development system, GitHub. According to the authors, in order to maintain its significance in standard setting, the IETF has to adapt to the new environment, intensify interactions with the FOSS community and increase benefits from the utilisation of the new collaboration platforms for code development. Another major challenge for the IETF is reported to be the uncertainty over the evolution of its funding mechanism. The rising costs of on-site participation and the increase of the remote mode of participation has started to affect the income revenues of the organisation and led to fragmentation of the technical community. The latter has resulted in “less opportunities for all participants to engage in in-person interactions and ad hoc “hallway conversations” which are among the most valuable aspects of the meetings for many participants.”

As the aim of the memo was to canvass the future trajectory of the organisation’s operating environment, rather than provide answers, the document surfaced many questions. In this respect, addressing the long-existing problematic of companies bringing technologies and seeking endorsement for standards that they have developed outside the IETF, the authors asked for inputs on how to “engage people to bring their problem sets to the IETF earlier in the process”. As reported, inefficiencies in the organisation’s dynamics can result in unprecedented outcomes - notably the failure to establish backwards compatibility of the IPv6 protocol, crucial for tackling the IP address exhaustion of its preceding IPv4 standard.

To counter the perception of being beholden by some companies (vendors), the authors have suggested expanding participation to include not just developers but also the actual users of the technologies. However, any potential contribution of the latter to the decision-making on standards can be effectively undermined by what one of the authors, Avri Doria, notes elsewhere: “The biggest change I have seen over the years [in IETF] is the move from a pure technological focus to one that was very much directed by business and what businesses were willing, or wanting, to do with technology”.

Overall, such IETF memos raise a number of questions about the evolution of the organisation and the standard setting process in general. Some have predicted that once “a jewel” of standard development, work has started to move from the IETF towards other organisations. What seems clear is that the politics of internet standard development will continue to increase their salience and arguably take precedence over the engineering part.