By: Henri Wohlfarth
Date: May 7, 2006
Steve Crocker is also a Trustee on ISOC’s Board of Trustees and Chair of ICANN’s Security and Stability Advisory Committee.
It’s a pleasure to be here and to talk about the IETF on its 20th anniversary and to reflect on the IETF as an institution and the whole process of creating protocols.
My perspective is necessarily affected by having been part of the very earliest protocol design processes for the beginnings of the ARPA net. It was a deliberately unorganised process. There was no formal or official organisation to the process of designing the protocols or what the different labs would do with the network that was handed to them.
The initial organisation, we called ourselves the Network Working Group, consisted of 6 to 10 people. We then quickly grew to 30 people and then to 50 people. It was getting out of control and we had to bring some structure to it. Eventually we had to form two or three tracks, so that not everyone was working on the same thing in the same room.
That process and the creation of RFCs, all which is now embodied in the modern IETF that has started 20 years ago, is an incredible success! An unbelievable success! One can take issue whether the technical designs that emerge out of that process are the best possible, but it is far more important that they actually come into existence by a process that is open — architecturally open, politically open, that new people come in regularly, that the results are distributed free of charge around the world to everybody. The enormous power of those very simple concepts is very hard to convey to people who have not experienced them.
The Internet has become important on the world’s stage. We are having Internet Governance discussions and meetings and a very large number of people are discussing the future of the Internet who have no clue as to what the Internet is except that it is important and that they have to be involved. This is a potential danger of loosing track of the essential goodness of the processes embodied in the IETF.
Of course any structure goes through a natural aging process and is no longer the same as it was at the beginning. The same is certainly true for the IETF. It is bigger and more difficult to navigate through than it was at its beginning. I think that is one of the challenges that has to be faced by the IETF and I think we are addressing them.
When the IETF started 20 years ago, I was not paying close attention to networking issues, but shortly after that I did get involved. The first IETF meeting I attended was in Florida. Phill Gross chaired the IETF and had formed the Internet Engineering Steering Group that consisted of the various directors of the IETF areas. He had decided to start a security area. I had done a fair amount of work on security issues at that point and was asked to take on the job of the first security area director. This was a very exciting process. It was immediately clear to me that security was a cross-cutting issue, so rather than dividing the space up in parallel with each of the other areas, I wanted security cut across the areas in addition to having its own content. Therefore we formed the Security Area Advisory Group (SAAG) with the intention of providing people who understood security issues to be available to help other areas and assist other WGs.
That was in fall of 1989. Now, sixteen and a half years later, the IETF has considerably expanded and is moving along quite vibrantly, and the IETF is recognised as an important force.
Question: where do you think it is going with the network and with the IETF?
Steve: well, for the network, it is always been clear exactly where it is going (laughs). Seriously, we are in the midst of the convergence of voice and data and that is challenging the infrastructure of the telephone companies. There are huge commercial interests in the basic technology, but even more so in content delivery and control of content.
The most important thing for the IETF to do is to continue to organise and manage itself to develop the highest quality technical work and to do so in an efficient and open way that is inviting to new people. I have a very special place in my heart for the IETF. It is creating an entirely different world and some of the things that come naturally out of the IETF are fairly radical from a principle point of view: We have no membership. So, we have no way to restrict ourselves. That also means we cannot have votes. Making decisions by ‘rough consensus and running code’ turned out to be remarkably effective.
There was never a desire to restrict participation, for instance by introducing membership rules. There was never a thought about having organisations have control as opposed to individuals contribute and their contributions be judged by others by the merits of what they say as opposed by their position in an organisation or authority.
The merit of that approach was understood pretty early. I believe that this is one of the important contributions on top of the developed technology that has affected all of us and has transformed the world. This very egalitarian idea of dive right in and make your contribution.