What’s wrong with the IETF. And what’s right

I have not counted the IETF’s I have attended; I only know the first RFC on which I’m listed as a co-author was published in 2000, so this must be close to 20 years of interacting with the IETF community. I’m pretty certain I’ve attended at least two meetings a year in some years, and three meetings a year in most of those years. Across that time, there has never been a time when I have not been told, at least once, “the IETF is broken.” And there has not been a single time I cannot remember agreeing with the sentiment.

My belief that the IETF is broken, however, is narrow, and offset by the many ways in which I think the IETF is still useful for the larger networking community.

So, how is the IETF broken? The trend that bothers me the most right now is the gold rush syndrome. A new technology is brought into the IETF, and if it looks like it might somehow be “important,” there is a “land rush” as people stake out new drafts, find use cases, find corner cases, and work to develop drafts and communities around those drafts. This generally results in a sort of ossification process, where there are clear insiders and outsiders, an entirely new vocabulary is developed, and the drafts fly so fast and furious there is almost no time to read them all. There are many problematic parts of this process. For instance, there is often a feeling that “this is important, no need to get the details right,” or “if you don’t understand, butt out of the conversation.”

A particularly troubling aspect of this is the wide desire to “be famous,” to chair a working group, to get your name on a draft, and ultimately on an RFC. This eventually becomes all important, carrying all practical considerations before it. The old ethos of “build small and flexible, code it, and let it grow where needed” is almost always lost in the shuffle of producing tens of drafts. Companies pay by the draft, or only pay for travel if you have a draft—both of which have a tendency to destroy the value of the community itself, and the way the community functions.

So that’s what broken. What’s right?

One night I was walking back from dinner with a couple of friends—Gonzolos and Joe—and I ran into Stewart Bryant in the hotel lobby. Soon enough, Paul Mockapetris joined the conversation. At some point, Dave Oran, Ignas B, and George Swallow joined the conversation. There are few places in the world you can get some collection of folks who had a hand in the creation of technologies like DNS, psuedowires, MPLS/TE, SMTP, IS-IS, IP fast reroute, and probably a dozen other technologies, standing around talking about “the good old days,” or even where to go for dinner. Across this week, I’ve chatted with Tony Li, Tony P, Jeff T, Alvaro Retana, Russ Housley, Fred Baker, Alia Atlas, and… more than I can remember.

If there is one that is striking about all of these people, it is that they are all more interested in solving problems than taking credit. They all live by the old IETF mantra: “it is amazing what can get done when no-one cares who gets the credit.” None of them are obsessed with getting their names on drafts, or with inventing something new that will change the world. They see problems, they develop solutions; that is all.

This, then, is what is right about the IETF. People who care about the challenges users have with networks, and have spent their lives finding solutions. So people are what’s wrong with the IETF, and people are also what’s right. The point?

You can choose to participate in the IETF. In fact, I hope to see you at a future meeting. But if you choose to participate, be a part of the solution, rather than a part of the problem. Be someone who looks on the land rush with skepticism, who doesn’t care about getting their name on a draft, who just wants to help solve a problem that has been fairly explained and defined to the community. Don’t be afraid to work on small things, and to insist that solutions be small and well scoped, even if that means your name is not put up in lights.

Even better advice: carry this into all the communities in which you live in your life. We live in an age that values name recognition far too much, that worries too much about being left out of the latest gold rush, that worries too much about our “rightly deserved” fifteen minutes of fame. This goes far beyond network engineering, the ethos of the “old way” in the IETF. It’s a lesson we can all take away from this little community of engineers who have worked so hard across the years to build something on which we all rely every day—to the very formats of the packets which carry this screed to your computer screen, your email box, or however else you are reading it.


  1. Jeff T on 22 March 2018 at 12:35 pm

    Thanks Russ, always a pleasure to see you!

    • Russ on 22 March 2018 at 6:54 pm

      And it’s always a pleasure to hang out with you, Jeff! 🙂

  2. Alia Atlas on 24 March 2018 at 6:23 pm

    Thanks Russ!

    If I were to have thought to write this, it would be that the third aspect is also a people problem – those
    who could bring the point solutions, could bring their perspectives and problems, but they haven’t figured
    out how to participate or get introduced.

    There are many of us eager to meet them and broaden the group and understand what we need to do to grow
    the Internet.

    • Russ on 24 March 2018 at 6:50 pm

      I definitely agree! More participation from a wider group of people would make the IETF a better place to work and be. Thanks for the comment — and hope to continue hanging out with you at IETF’s in the future.