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IETF Challenges

2 Mar 2013

The previous article talked about how exciting and important the work at the IETF is. And it is. But there are also challenges, both for the Internet as a whole and for us at the IETF.

NAT Sign

The Internet keeps facing both technological as well as societal challenges. The fast growth of the Internet makes scalability very important. New applications push the limits in other ways. And the enormous importance of Internet communications in our personal lives and economic activities makes the Internet also a part of legal and political interests. Retaining an open, one Internet while tackling many of these challenges is of utmost importance.

I am sure we will discuss the above at length in the future, in the IETF and elsewhere. But I wanted to focus on this article a little bit more narrowly on the IETF.

Here are some issues that need attention:

  • Addressing the needs in important technical areas, such as real-time communication, the Internet of Things, or IPv6 deployment. Our highest priority is to produce timely, relevant, and high-quality standards. As long as the industry and users adopt our solutions, then we are on the right path. On many of these areas there is plenty of work left, however, as well as opportunities to take on more work.
  • Identifying the new technical challenges that face us, such as power constraints (be it in datacenters or small devices). What are these challenges?
  • Evolving participant base. As our topics change over time, so does the set of people with expertise on those topics. For instance, in the area of emergency communications we have to find ways to interact with people from regulatory agencies. Similarly, the IETF has become very international, with document authors from 60 countries. But there is still work left to make our organisation and leadership even more international and more diverse.
  • Dealing with the age of “permissionless innovation”. Internet technology enables building applications in an easy manner, by anyone. And usually without any effect on the underlying Internet protocols – the part that IETF is about. And even where there is an impact, there is often an interesting tussle about what aspects need to be standardised. E.g., fully specified real-time communication protocols vs. frameworks such as WebRTC that can be used to build solutions. Finding the right balance between these types of approaches is important.
  • It is not always easy to start new work at the IETF for various reasons. And “the end-to-end delay”, time that it takes from proposing a BOF to having a WG and getting an RFC out is still very long. Even if we have improved how we handle specific smaller tasks, like approving an RFC, building an entirely new specification for a new problem takes a lot of time.
  • The IETF process puts more weight in the final stages, and the role of the IESG is quite central. It would be better to push more of the review work to earlier stages. At the same time, this would reduce the load on the Area Directors. It is not always easy to find Area Directors willing to devote enough time to the task of being in the IESG.
  • IETF’s process documentation is in the need of revision, in some cases even to bring documentation up to the state of currently used procedures.

We will see how these issues can be tackled. I do have an idea about some of the principles that we should employ in that, however. The first is continuous, incremental improvement. The second is transparency, keeping everyone informed about what is going on and calling for feedback. The third one is to focus. Fourth, running code and rough consensus. Code, interops, engineers. Publish and prune RFCs easily.

But enough about my thoughts. What I really want to know is what do you think. What is troubling you at the IETF or Internet technology? What new technical challenges do you believe IETF should tackle? If you have comments, send them directly to me or post to the IETF discussion list.

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