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IETF: Not a teenager anymore


By Scott Bradner


By the time you read this the 65th Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) ( meeting in Dallas TX will be over.  This meeting represents a milestone, the IETF is now over 20 years old. The IETF has been the major player in almost all important, and rather many not so important, Internet and IP network technologies for the past two decades.  Not bad for an activity that has never had any legal existence.


The first IETF meeting was held January 16 and 17th 1986 in San Diego, California(  There were 21 attendees at that meeting, 4 of whom are still very active in the IETF.  The meeting focused on some topics that are also being discussed by 1200 or so people during the Dallas meeting ( including routing and quality of service.


The Internet has come a long way since that first IETF meeting.  In 1986 the Internet did not exist for most of the population of the earth.  What made up the Internet the time were two mostly US research backbone networks, the then 17 year old ARPANET and the then recently created NSFNet along with a handful of regional research networks created along with the NSFNet. For the most part access to these networks was limited to researchers receiving federal funds. The number of Internet hosts would not pass 10,000 for another year.


Today there are thousands of Internet service providers and there are IP networks in millions of enterprises and residences around the world.  Today there are over 350 million Internet hosts and close to a billion Internet users.


Since 1986 the IETF has developed or maintained all of the core Internet protocols that run 'above the wire and below the application' (in the words of an old description of the IETF's role in the world). 


The attendees at the first IETF meetings were mostly from academic and research institutions.  The attendees in Dallas will be mostly from corporations involved in Internet and IP networking equipment or services. 


All this time the IETF has been an activity not a separate corporation.  Since the mid 1990s the IETF has been operating under the legal and financial umbrella of the Internet Society (


For at least the last decade some pundits have been saying that the best days of the IETF are over and that the important new standardization activity will take place in one or another other place.  So far these predictions of irrelevancy have proven false as the IETF continues to develop technologies which become widely adopted in IP networks everywhere.  Important technologies developed during the past decade have included MPLS, MIME, SIP, iSCSI, ENUM, iCAL, IPv6 and many others.   There are many new protocols under development as can be seen from the Dallas agenda (  Not all of these will wind up being accepted by the marketplace but I expect many of them will be.


There are a few key features that have made the IETF as important as it has been over the years.  One key feature is its mode of operating mostly on mailing lists, ano ther is its openness.  Anyone can participate in the IETF standardization process by joining a mailing list.  There is no fee or membership agreement.  Join, read the documents, which are open to all on the web, and start participating.  You do not have to spend money attending the face-to face-meetings in order to effectively participate in the development of standards.


Time will tell if the IETF will be supplanted by other groups in the Internet standards biz but there is currently no specific contender for the role.


disclaimer:  Some pundits have claimed Harvard's best days are behind it -- I did not ask the University for an opinion on that idea or on the IETF so the above birthday report is mine alone.