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IETF Routing Director Resigns

Routing expert hits a wall, as humming and other geeky antics prevail in IETF standards meetings

November 27, 2001

5 Min Read
IETF Routing Director Resigns

The routing group at the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), a major Internet standards body, is now in need of next-generation leadership.

Citing fundamental issues with the way the standards body goes about its business, the director of the routing group within the IETF resigned on Monday.

Rob Coltun, a consulting engineer for Movaz Networks Inc., resigned as the IETF's Routing Area Director in part because he feels a once simple process has become far too politically driven, as business agendas have overtaken what's best for the Internet's growth.

In the IETF, which is made up of academic and industry volunteers the world over, Area Directors are appointed for two-year terms by a nominations committee. The Area Directors in a particular working group are generally expected to know more about the combined work of the working groups in that area than anyone else. In the Routing Area, for example, an Area Director would be expected to have a broad knowledge of Inter-Domain Routing, Border Gateway Multicast Protocol, and several other specific routing technologies being discussed by the various working groups there.

Coltun resigned his post as Routing Area Director just four months prior to the end of his term and just a couple of weeks before the IETF's 52nd meeting, to be held December 9 to 14, 2001, in Salt Lake City, Utah. But what was most surprising about his resignation was the somewhat barbed critique he wrote to colleagues.

"Over the last couple of years I have found it exceedingly difficult to work within the IESG [Internet Engineering Steering Group, the group of Area Directors that is responsible for technical management of IETF activities and the Internet standards process]," Coltun wrote in a memo emailed to several IETF members.

He tells Light Reading that he was thinking of resigning earlier in the year, but stayed on in support of his co-chair, Abha Abuja, who died on October 21. Coltun says it was Abuja who encouraged him to air out his views publicly.

In his memo, Coltun praises his colleagues in the IESG as "well-meaning" and "intelligent," but he worries that the IESG has "lost the big picture." His memo says his enthusiasm for the IESG has dampened over the years as the IETF's meetings have ballooned in size and have become weighed down with corporate politics. "The 'just do the right thing' principal that seemed to be there for so long is hard to come by," he writes.

"In my opinion, part of the problem is that the IESG's model of 'management by body' worked when a few hundred people showed up for IETF meetings and the scope and quantity of our work was much less, but this model is now antiquated.

"IETF meetings must be smaller to be more productive. One suggestion is to formalize the private meetings that happen between authors [of proposed technical standards] and co-chairs and provide tutorials and updates for the masses.

"The conversations of whether or not particular work should be taken on by the IETF are very important but should last at most a few months, not years.

"It is no coincidence that as the factors that are driving the current phase of the evolution of the Internet change, restructuring of the management of the IETF becomes inevitable."

Coltun, of course, is not the first person to complain about how large in size and loosely ordered many IETF working groups have become. Since the working groups don't take a vote to decide issues, the group has to come to what seems to be a general consensus, without any way of actually measuring that consensus.

This medieval structure has led to some carefully crafted proposals, but mostly to excessive delays on deciding whether some ideas will go on to be accepted practice amongst router makers and other equipment vendors (see MPLS: Keeping it Real).

In fact, stories abound of some working groups determining consensus by how loud people are humming in protest to a proposal. "It's usually not a very loud hum," says Coltun.

Some vendors have been known to throw off the informal working group consensus by crowding a meeting with their own staff in order to slow or stop a proposal by out-humming their rivals.

"It's so childish it's unbelievable," says one senior engineer at a European telecom equipment company. "You're not chosen for your technical knowledge. You're chosen for your singing voice."

The IETF's own informational guide acknowledges the problem that comes with its openness: "And, if you think about it, how could you have 'voting' in a group that anyone can join, and when it's impossible to count the participants?"

IETF meetings used to be based on developing technical ways to accomodate the Internet's growth. Some say the process is now clouded by the growing markets for Internet technology. Millions of dollars are spent implementing a standard once it's adopted because no vendor can afford to have a product that doesn't work well with anything else in a network.

"Frankly, I give the IETF a lot of credit for the standards they've put in place over the years," says an IETF member who works for a Massachusetts-based optical networking startup. "Now the situation has become such that if a vendor lobbies and successfully gets a certain standard adopted, it could make millions of dollars. Very early on in the Internet's development, the IETF was just what was needed. But times have changed."

"There are a lot of conversations going on in the IESG about how it should reconstitute itself," says Coltun, who is taking time away from standards work to help Movaz develop products. "Unfortunately, they tend to be more procedural than anything addressing the big picture."

A call to IETF Executive Director Steve Coya was not returned by press time.

- Phil Harvey, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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