The IETF is scrambling to retain its position as the Internet's premier standards setting body in the face of declining participation, increased competition from other standards bodies and overall network industry consolidation.
Last week at a meeting in Minneapolis, the IETF installed a new leader who vowed to improve the group's outreach to other organizations, including the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), two rivals that are sometimes ridiculed by IETF participants.
Brian Carpenter, a distinguished engineer with IBM , who has taken over as IETF chair, told the group at a plenary session that it must cooperate with other standards bodies to remain relevant.
"If we listen carefully and politely to each other and strive to play a win-win game, we can progress together," he said. "It's more difficult than it ever has been for us to ignore input from outside sources. We need to take notice of what other people think of what we do."
Carpenter's remarks, which were received positively by the audience, could signal big changes ahead for the fiercely independent IETF. If the IETF becomes a more efficient standards body, that would be good news for corporate network managers, who prefer to buy standards-based products to ensure interoperability.
For nearly 20 years, the IETF has boasted the leading developers of Internet technology among its participants. This quirky band of network engineers has developed many of the key standards that make the Internet work, including DNS, Internet Message Access Protocol and Lightweight Directory Access Protocol.
With individual rather than corporate participants, the IETF is an egalitarian, all-volunteer group. At the IETF's thrice-yearly meetings, winners of prestigious computer science awards rub shoulders with grad students. In IETF tradition, the best technical ideas are chosen regardless of who suggests them, and standards aren't published without working prototypes.
However, the group that prides itself on rough consensus and running code is facing challenges such as financial difficulties and declining attendance. These challenges are forcing the group to change.
The IETF leadership has spent much of the past two years focused on restructuring its administrative and financial processes. This restructuring effort is nearing completion with the establishment of a new administrative oversight committee and plans to hire a full-time administrative director.
Meanwhile, attendance at IETF meetings continues to shrink from more than 3,000 at the peak of the Internet bubble to just more than 1,000 last week. The IETF can't afford to lose money on its meetings because it doesn't charge membership fees.
"The fact that attendance is down is a big concern," acknowledged Allison Mankin, a Shinkuro engineer who serves as one of the directors of the IETF's Transport Area . Mankin said the IETF's seven areas - Applications, General, Internet, Operations, Routing, Security and Transport - are trying to re-invigorate the work that each is tackling.
"All of the IETF areas are developing strategic plans not so much for bringing in attendance but for looking to the future of our areas," Mankin explained. "There are certain kinds of work that we can do for the benefit of the Internet that could also cause some very interesting people to show up at our meetings."
Some IETF participants say that the most interesting Internet engineering is going on at competing standards bodies. This is particularly true in the IETF's Applications Area , where rivals such as the W3C, Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards, the Liberty Alliance Project and others are conducting cutting-edge development.
"The IETF has to fight the perception that our process is too slow and that we are less attractive because we don't have industry representatives," said Scott Hollenbeck, a VeriSign engineer and one of the directors of the IETF's Applications Area. "We see a lot of the cool new stuff going to other groups."
Carpenter acknowledged that the Applications Area needs to re-think its direction. "It's clear that one of the things we need to do is understand the scope of what we do in the Applications Area," he said.
But he denied that there is tension between the IETF and other groups such as the W3C on standards development in emerging areas such as Web services .
"Everyone agrees that the IETF is the maintenance body for HTTP, while everything that runs on HTTP is at W3C," he said. "There's some virtue in specialization for the standards bodies."
Still, Carpenter said improving relations with other standards bodies is among his top priorities.
"I just happen to be based in Geneva," Carpenter said. "It's a 2-minute walk from my office at IBM to the ITU headquarters."
Some IETF leaders say they are working behind the scenes with other standards bodies, including the Open Mobile Alliance (OMA), Third Generation Partnership Project and 3GPP2 .
"We've had monthly meetings for quite some time with these groups," Mankin said. "We've been working well with other groups, but we haven't been as good at telling the rest of the IETF about it."
Signs of the IETF being more cooperative in its standards work abound. Last Wednesday, the IETF held what participants called a "breakthrough" meeting with the OMA. And on Thursday, the IETF for the first time hosted a panel about VoIP developments that was broadcast live over the Internet to the Spring 2005 VON Conference in San Jose.
In addition, the IETF is planning a joint workshop in May with the ITU on next-generation Internet architecture that will allow for sharing of technical directions and specifications.
Another challenge for the IETF is the ongoing consolidation among ISPs. Long-distance carriers such as AT&T and MCI usually send many participants to IETF meetings, while the former Baby Bells, including SBC, Verizon and Qwest, do not. Now that SBC has bought AT&T and either Verizon or Qwest is expected to buy MCI, it's unclear whether the new merged carriers will be as active in the IETF's working groups.
Whether ISP consolidation will hurt the IETF is "a hard question," Carpenter said. "Larger companies tend to move more slowly to new technology, but when they move they really throw their weight around. The question is when these carriers will need to upgrade."
Carpenter and other IETF leaders said they hope SBC, Verizon, Qwest and other smaller carriers will become more innovative after their mergers. "Once the acquisitions shake down, I can't see how they won't be interested in new technologies," he said.
Despite all these challenges, Carpenter and other IETF leaders assert that the IETF is and will remain the premier standards body for the infrastructure of the Internet.
"For layers three and four, we're the leaders," Carpenter said. "I don't believe that's in doubt."