Date: March 6, 2015
When Fred Baker attended his first IETF meeting in 1989, it comprised 150 people who were mostly researchers, operators, and vendors from the United States. At IETF 91 in Honolulu, Baker mingled with more than 1,000 attendees, including a Nigerian ccTLD operator. In a wide-ranging interview, Baker reminisced about how the IETF has changed during the past 25 years. Following are excerpts from that conversation.
Question: How was your first IETF meeting?
Fred Baker: My first IETF meeting was IETF 14 at Stanford University in June 1989. I worked for Vitalink, which made what today we might call a remote ethernet switch. I had started working on a router product. I was designing a proprietary SPF-based protocol, and an employee suggested I look into the IETF’s protocol. About that time, I got a long flame from a government customer who told me in no uncertain terms that the IETF and IETF protocols including OSPF [Open Shortest Path First] and PPP [Point-to-Point Protocol] needed to be on my roadmap. I had an employee and a customer saying the IETF was important, so I showed up. IETF 14 had maybe 150 people. It was located in the basement of one of Stanford’s buildings, and I think the first meeting fee was $25.
Q: What were some of the key differences between then and now?
FB: At IETF 15 in Honolulu, I tried to walk into the Open Systems Routing Working Group meeting. I was met at the door by a woman who I assumed was the chair. She told me I wasn’t welcome, that it was an invitation-only meeting. That was a wake-up call for me, and it colored my participation in the IETF for a while. I was very aware of being on the outside looking in, the disliked competitor to all who sat in the room. One key difference between then and now is the openness of the process.
I dropped in on two meetings, one a BoF [Birds of a Feather] regarding the SNMP MIB [Simple Network Management Protocol Management Information Base] and one on PPP. I came home from IETF 15 with two writing assignments. So there was also acceptance based on willingness to work.
Back then, there was far more willingness to shoot from the hip. People would write up an Internet Draft, implement it, and then put it in a network. Sometimes really bad things would happen, but improvements often happened rapidly. In my opinion, now it takes far too long to publish an RFC [Request for Comments]. What we really want is a happy medium.
Q: How did you go from being an outsider to chair?
FB: By November 1990, I was working at ACC, a company that built IP [Internet Protocol] routers. After that, I don’t recall the strong feeling of being an outsider. Dave Crocker asked me to chair the 802.1d Bridge MIB Working Group, which was contentious. I chaired several working groups: ISDN [Integrated Services Digital Network] MIB; DS1/DS3 MIB and PPP Extensions. Someone figured out that I could chair a working group that was contentious and get results. In 1993, I chaired the Nomcom. Truth be told, in that, we were making it up as we went along. I was, of course, also doing technical work. I published 14 RFCs between 1989 and 1996.
In 1995, the Nomcom asked me to consider being the chair of the IETF. I was working at Cisco by then. Cisco told me that they would give me the leeway and financial support to do that and would back me up on my technical work. They asked only one thing: wherever my travels took me, they wanted me to be willing to talk with a customer. It seemed like a fair deal. I served in that capacity for five years. One thing I concluded is that term limits are a good thing. I was exhausted and more than willing to hand the role to the next person, whom I had been mentoring. I stayed on the IAB [Internet Architecture Board] until March 2002.
Q: What were the highlights of your tenure as IETF chair?
FB: In 1996, the IETF was pretty much the Wild West. In a certain sense, it still is. One big thing that was happening during that interval was the IETF coming of age. When I first showed up, it was 150 people, largely US researchers, but also people in uniform, a few operators, and a few vendors. By December 2000, we had almost 3,000 people in San Diego, California, including college kids, the press, and drop-ins.
We also were starting to get on the radar at the White House. I remember meeting with a guy who worked at the equivalent of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Our November 1999 meeting in Washington, DC, culminated in a huge discussion about wiretapping that had gone on for about a year and a half. Only about 40 percent of the messages on the Raven mailing list were from IETF people.
Another change is that we were starting to have meetings outside the United States. The first one was a happy accident. Microsoft planned to host a meeting in August 1990 in Redmond, Washington, that fell through. The University of British Columbia said they would host it, so we went 80 miles north. The next meeting outside the United States was in Amsterdam in 1993. Then we went to Stockholm in 1995, Montreal in 1996, Munich in 1997, Oslo in 1999, and Adelaide, Australia, in 2000. I thought internationalization and the willingness to go Down Under were a question of fairness to the people doing the work of the IETF.
Q: How have you been involved with the IETF since your term ended as chair?
FB: In large part, it has been technical work. I have published 54 RFCs and have 11 drafts in the mill. Organizationally, I served on the Internet Society Board from 2002 to 2008, the first four years of which I was chair. The Internet Society was changing dramatically as well. By 2002, it had organizational members that provided money and held power, chapter members who often felt disenfranchised by the Internet Society’s financial woes, and individual members like myself who had little or no voice. I presided over the middle stages of change, and the recent reorganization of the Internet Society bylaws finalized it. I think the Internet Society has largely become what it needs to be, but still has some work ahead in terms of its consultation process.
I served on the IAOC [IETF Administrative Oversight Committee]—essentially the finance department of the IETF—at the request of the IETF from 2005 to 2010. I’m still on the IAOC’s meetings committee. I cochaired two working groups: IEPrep and v6ops, and chaired the RSOC [RFC Series Oversight Committee], which was tasked with finding a new RFC Editor.
I have been involved with the IETF policy and technical fellowship programs from the beginning. They serve important roles in connecting the great wide world and the IETF. We have been able to provide education for regulators, which is important, and improve relationships with the operators and regulators who have participated. At the recent IETF in Honolulu, I talked with a woman from Nigeria and put her in contact with a person from the US Federal Bureau of Investigation who is familiar with Boko Haram and some of the issues in her country. Helping her understand the processes in the Internet was important to her job.
Q: What are some of the lessons you learned from your experiences with the IETF?
FB: If there is one thing that I have observed about the IETF from 1989 until now, it is that a lot of people seem to be willing to think the worst of each other, or at least make statements to that effect. But I have found few who actually deserve that. Personal integrity goes a long way, and the people who serve in the IETF are usually examples of that kind of integrity, regardless of their quirks.
The IETF needs to think about its tone. It’s not that I feel we shouldn’t have knock-down, drag-out arguments if we need to have them. But we need to be a little more respectful. People need to be more accepting of each other’s differences.
I do consider our open process and the accessibility of our documents—working and RFCs—to be the gold standard. But that gold doesn’t shine as brightly as it needs to. In 1990, I chafed that it might take as many as six months to move a document from an Internet Draft to an RFC. Right now, I have a document in the mill that hasn’t seriously changed since 2013 and is now languishing in the area director’s in-basket. If we want to remain the gold standard, we need to deliver working documents with supporting prototype reference code in a finite and predictable period of time.
I also think the IETF needs to have a better working relationship with the Internet Society, which has a history of putting the IETF first, even when it was within a couple weeks of bankruptcy. The IETF has very much been a beneficiary of the Internet Society.