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Beyond Open Standards

The Register recently published a long piece on the 30th anniversary of the founding of the Internet Engineering Task Force. It's an interesting read; the author interviewed a number of key people who've been in the IETF since the beginning (I only started attending IETF meetings in the late 1990's, so I'm still considered "new blood" in IETF terms). The writer ends the article by posing some key questions about the future of the IETF:

"Will the IETF become a valuable repository of the past and a largely academic institution focused on the evolution of the Internet? Or will it become the go-to place for companies to resolve their competing standards and protocols, relying on the wisdom of those that went before to divine a solution? Or will it be reinvigorated by a new generation let in thanks to the exit of the old guard and once more take the pilot controls of the Internet?"

That covers one of the two most common questions I encounter when encouraging engineers to participate in the IETF: What is the long-term value proposition of the IETF? Or rather, in a larger sense: What is the future of open standards? The open source movement poses one set of challenges to the future of open standards; this is a topic I discussed in a blog series last fall. Disaggregation, or the separation of network software from hardware, raises a related set of questions. For instance, the New IP Agency, which is dedicated to forming consensus around network functions virtualization (NFV), states on its website:

"Our industry's answer to this complexity has traditionally been to develop standards. Today, however, the standards process that is supposed to create order is instead adding uncertainty."

Traditionally, open standards organizations (particularly the IETF) have been populated by vendors selling software embedded in hardware. What happens to open standards when the software is separated from the software through a trend like NFV? Does this mean the end of open standards? As we are currently moving towards disaggregation at LinkedIn, the relationship between open standards and the disaggregation process has become for me a matter that requires some serious thought.

The need for collaboration

But I’m not certain the NIP has it quite right in pinning the problem of increased uncertainty on open standards organizations. Of course the IETF has issues to resolve, and there is competition between the standards bodies, but is the IETF a source of uncertainty or is it simply reacting to uncertainty that is already there? Abandoning open standards isn’t going to solve the problem of finding new ways to build networks that are more economical and adaptable to the real world. To put it another way, abandoning open standards isn’t going to reduce the uncertainty, and open standards actually can be a vehicle to help control and manage it.

As with open source, the effort to split software and hardware into two different realms requires a foundation of open standards. Without open standards, we will end up with fragmented and overlapping technologies, which are ultimately bad for the Internet, and bad for business. On the other hand, the simple truth is that open standards aren't enough any longer. To put it in terms better suited for one of my philosophy classes, they're necessary, but not sufficient, to creating and building a healthy networking technology industry.

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The problem seems to be that we've moved beyond the day when we could simplify things by just pitching an open standard at the vendors, and placing it in RFPs. We're at the point now where we need more than a standard -- and this is where the open source community, and the commercialization of open source software, comes in.

The IETF, then, doesn't just need to work with the open source folks (which the IETF already does to a large degree). Instead, the IETF, and all the standards bodies, need to learn to work within an ecosystem that contains open standards, but also  open source, disaggregation groups, and others. All of these different groups need to work together to make the Internet what it needs to be, as well as feeding the technology that every operator, from the smallest to the largest, needs to bring networking technologies to bear on human-scale problems.

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