Changes afoot at the IETF

The Internet Engineering Task Force enters the post-Internet-bubble era with a new leader, an evolving set of protocol development projects and a shrinking pool of attendees. These shifts in the Internet’s premier standards-setting body were evident at a meeting late last month in Minneapolis.

Harald Alvestrand, a Cisco Systems Inc. engineer and a long-time IETF participant, officially takes the reins of the IETF today. A Norwegian, Alvestrand is the first non-American to hold the volunteer post. He replaces another Cisco engineer, Fred Baker, who held the IETF chair position for the past five years.

Alvestrand will lead the IETF at an interesting point in the group’s 15-year history. Once a close-knit community of American academics, the IETF is now an international body representing the world’s leading network equipment, software and telecom companies.

In recent years, the IETF has become a victim of its own success. Meetings have attracted too many participants, which slowed down the consensus-building process that is the group’s hallmark. At the same time, the group’s workload swelled as corporate users demand open, Internet-based protocols for emerging network applications and technologies.

Participation at the IETF’s meetings, which are held three times a year, peaked at 3,000 during a December 2000 confab in San Diego. Last month’s meeting, which was held in a colder climate, attracted 2,000 attendees.

Many IETF participants believe the drop in attendance is caused by the financial woes of leading Internet vendors. The companies that employ the largest number of IETF participants – Cisco, Nortel Networks, Lucent, AT&T and MCI WorldCom – are suffering from lowered earnings, sliding stock prices and layoffs.

“The attendance decline is definitely due to cutbacks in corporate travel,” Alvestrand said. “I know for sure that it was harder for people from Cisco Europe to tell their managers that they had to go to the IETF meeting.”

However, Alvestrand said fewer attendees may be a good thing, as the group was getting too big to function well. “When there are 200 people in the room, some people don’t feel as good about speaking up,” Alvestrand said.

Indeed, IETF leaders are confident that their companies will continue to invest time and money in the group’s work, regardless of how bad the overall economic situation gets.

“The layoffs are in manufacturing and support jobs for products currently being sold,” said John Klensin, head of the IETF’s Internet Architecture Board and an AT&T executive. “If companies start laying off people that are developing what they’ll be selling tomorrow, that would be suicide. If I gave out stock market advice – which I don’t – I’d look for companies still investing in Internet development.”

Engineers who participate in the IETF are finding a new emphasis on internationalization. One of the group’s most significant projects involves creating a way for the Internet’s domain name system to support languages other than English. The IETF is weighing two technical solutions for this complex problem: either converting foreign language characters into Unicode, a computer industry standard, and then encoding them in ASCII for transmission over the Internet; or creating a directory layer on top of the DNS to perform this translation function.

Either way, the IETF will need to re-write all of the Internet’s most popular applications – including e-mail and Web browsing – to support multilingual domain names.

“We want to work on internationalization in everything that we do,” said Patrik Faltstrom, co-chair of the IETF’s Applications Area. “We have to look at all the date formats and e-mail headers. We need to update all the old reliable protocols including HTTP [for Web browsing], SMTP and IMAP [for e-mail].”