Happy 30th Birthday to the IETF! Thumbnail
Technology 15 January 2016

Happy 30th Birthday to the IETF!

By Olaf KolkmanPrincipal - Internet Technology, Policy, and Advocacy

30 years ago, on the 16th and the 17th of January 1986, a meeting of the so-called DoD Gateway Algorithms Task Force took place in San Diego, California. During that meeting a charter for an Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) was proposed. It defined the following mission:

“The mission of this task force is to identify and resolve engineering issues in the near-term planning and operation of the DoD Internet. The goal of the effort is to improve and expand the service for operational users, including the gateway system and various networks operated (on behalf of all users such as Arpanet and Milnet). […]”.

The approval of that charter marks the birth of the world’s premier Internet Standards Organization. Jari Arkko, the current chair of the IETF, wrote about his thoughts on the 30th anniversary over on the IETF Blog at https://www.ietf.org/blog/30-years-engineering-internet/.

In the spirit of an anniversary celebration, let me share a few thoughts.

No Internet without the IETF

In the past 30 years the IETF has played a major role in defining the technical specifications that are the at the Internet’s foundation. It developed and maintains the standards for:

  • The Domain Name System: The system that allows humans to name the various resources on the Internet.
  • The Internet Addressing and Routing Systems: The systems that allow us to address all machines attached to the Internet and make information packets flow between them across the Internet.
  • Real-Time Application Protocols: Technologies that changed the way we communicate through voice, video, and messaging.
  • Various Security Mechanisms: Protocols that allow encrypted, secure, and privacy-sensitive exchange of information in email, web-browsing, Internet telephony, etc.

It is safe to say that the IETF plays a seminal, albeit not exclusive, role in the technical development of the Internet. It does so by providing building blocks in the form of high quality, freely available technical specifications that allow vendors to build interoperable products, equipment, and services. It is that interoperability and ‘building block’ nature that allowed the Internet to grow to where it is now; when you use the Internet you’ve got the IETF to thank for it.


Over its 30 years the IETF has evolved; it has grown from about two dozen participants to several thousand participants from all over the world. It stopped being a US DoD activity and became an organized activity of the Internet Society in the early 90s. It grew more global; it will have its first meeting in Latin America in April of this year. And, a little over 15 years ago, it updated its mission to recognize that the Internet impacts people:

The mission of the IETF is to make the Internet work better by producing high quality, relevant technical documents that influence the way people design, use, and manage the Internet.

Its work methods continue to evolve too. That is why it continues to attract engineers in its 139 working groups to improve how networks are managed, to improve the security and privacy of the Internet itself, and to provide building blocks for the Internet of People and Things.

I have no doubt that as the Internet continues to evolve the IETF will continue to evolve. It will attract new generations of engineers and will define building blocks for new technologies that are currently unthought-of.


That said, and not to spoil the party, there are of course challenges for each mature organization. To name one:

With the growth of the Internet, various development models have come up: standardization through specification is at tension with standardization through the distribution of collaboratively developed open source software. That tension is a point of attention and the IETF is looking at ways to increase the speed, agility, and quality of its work by firming up the good old Running Code in “Rough Consensus and Running Code.” The recently introduced hackathons are one approach to that and so is a project called Code Match that we hope to see launched in 2016.

Open Standards

The IETF demonstrated that it is possible to develop globally relevant standards through bottom-up consensus. Its participation and decision making processes make it accessible for individuals, small and medium sized business, and enterprises. The principles by which it operates, captured in Open Stand, help to enhance an open, secure, and innovative Internet for all. The IETF is not unique in operating according to those principles but can again be called premier.

The Internet Society and the IETF

The relation between the IETF and the Internet Society is a symbiotic one. The Internet Society serves as the organizational home of the IETF and we work to support the IETF in such ways that its participants can focus on what they do best: Make the Internet Better. We do that through financial support, substantive collaboration, and participation in some of the work of the IETF. At the same time the IETF works to support the type of Internet that we at the Internet Society envision – an Internet of global reach, based on collaboration, that allows for permissionless innovation, that is accessible, and brings opportunities to the people that use it.

We see the IETF as exemplary of the type of collaboration and approach that allowed the Internet to flourish. Keep up the good work!

Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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