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New IETF Chair Lars Eggert looks to support volunteer spirit during pandemic realities

15 Mar 2021

The IETF Blog recently chatted with incoming chair Lars Eggert about his views of where the IETF is now and what the path ahead looks like. This is an edited version of that conversation.

Lars Eggert, who took the reins as IETF Chair during the IETF 110 meeting last week, is a long-time participant in the organization. Lars has previously been a member of the Internet Engineering Steering Group (IESG) and the Internet Architecture Board (IAB), and he has chaired the Internet Research Task Force (IRTF). Recently, he chaired the QUIC working group, focused on designing a major new Internet transport protocol. Outside of the IETF, Lars is technical director for networking at NetApp, based near Helsinki, Finland.

IETF Blog: What motivated you to take on the chair role now?

Eggert: I’ve been involved in the IETF for a long time, since I was getting my PhD at the University of Southern California [in the early 2000s]. The chair position doesn’t turn over very often, and NetApp saw an opportunity in letting me be more visible and taking a stronger leadership role in standards.

IETF Blog: What are some challenges or opportunities for the IETF going forward?

Eggert: The IETF is at a bit of a watershed moment, because many participants expect us to become a more professional organization. Another significant part of the community is worried that might mean we’d no longer be a volunteer-led organization, building on the energy of volunteers and empowering them to step up and do work. We’ll have to figure out how we’re going to merge the desire for more professionalism with the IETF’s core nature of a volunteer organization.

Another challenge is to expand the IETF’s funding base. We have a new fundraising effort for both the IETF and the IETF Endowment. The IETF has always had very generous contributions, but they came from a small number of companies and organizations, including the Internet Society. We’re trying to figure out how we can broaden the support beyond the same few organizations that regularly make large donations.

IETF Blog: How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the IETF?

Eggert: We’ve haven’t been able to meet in person, but the good news is that the ongoing chartered work doesn’t seem to have been affected very much. Working groups have been able to make progress using virtual meetings, for example.

One problem area is that new work might be struggling. The rate of new I-D [Internet-Draft] submissions has gone down in 2020, and I also have the feeling that we’re struggling with starting new working groups, especially at the birds of a feather stage. The BoF stage depends a lot on interpersonal and non-verbal interactions in the room. You lose a lot of that in virtual meetings because you can’t observe the room—you don’t see the reactions of your peers in the audience, whether they’re engaged or reading email, you can’t observe who is having discussions in the corners of the room, or who’s walking out. Worse, there’s no hallway where discussions happen.

Collective consensus building is not only happening during a meeting, much of it happens in between the actual meetings when people are talking to each other one on one or in smaller groups.

That’s what I worry about the most. If we’re going to be meeting only virtually for much longer, we’re going to struggle with maintaining a healthy pipeline of new work.

IETF Blog: Where do you see the IETF and open standards going in the future?

Eggert: The open standards model has basically won in much of the global industry, and has strong synergies with how open-source software is being developed. In open source, you have a common code base that everybody can use, with some limits depending on the open-source license. Open standards allow anyone to generate an interoperable implementation under whatever license they wish. With both open source and open standards, everybody wins if you have a technology that everybody can use relatively freely.

The IETF has been hosting a very successful series of hackathons that take advantage of these synergies between open source and open standards, trying to help transition emerging standards activities into open source. These IETF Hackathons are also a great way for implementers and developers that are unfamiliar with the IETF to get started, getting direct but gradual exposure to those parts of our organization that matter most to them.

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