Why I quit writing internet standards

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My seven years on the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), from 2003 to 2010, definitely taught me interesting things, including how to get a group of people to deliver when you had no control over their jobs. As co-chair of the Network-based Mobility Management (NETLMM) working group, I led one of the rather contentious working groups at the IETF. We managed to deliver relevant standards and actually brought closure to the working group so we could move on. Overall, my experience with IETF has positively contributed to my skills in leadership, consensus building, design thoroughness and seeing the big picture. It also gave me the opportunity to interact with incredibly talented people from diverse organizations and to really understand how the Internet came to be what it is today.

And yet, several years ago, when I was nominated for the Internet Architecture Board, I decided it was not for me. Not long after, I took an indefinite leave of absence from the IETF and have not returned since. There are times I feel guilty about not giving as much to the Internet anymore, and I take great pride and consider it my good fortune to have served on committees like the Security Directorate, reviewing contributions to ensure that they don’t break the security of the Internet. However, I find myself less distraught as I try to serve the Internet through other practical contributions from outside the fences of the standards organizations. (I’ve also had my share of experiences at other standards organizations like the IEEE, 3GPP and 3GPP2.)

So, why did I actually stop contributing to standards definitions? The primary one is the fact that while the pace at which standards are written hasn’t changed in many years, the pace at which the real world adopts software has become orders of magnitude faster. Standards, unfortunately, have become the playground for hashing out conflicts and carrying out silo-ed agendas and as a result, have suffered a drastic degradation.

Consider the Internet of Everything (IoE), one of the hottest topics of today. The Internet of Everything, you say? Surely, this must be built on interoperable standards! How can you possibly be talking to everything, from lightbulbs to toothbrushes to phones without interoperability? That sounds absurd!

And you would be right; there is a need for interoperability. But what is the minimum we need? Is it IP? Is it some link layer defined by IEEE, such as 802.15.4? Or Bluetooth 4.0? HTTP perhaps? It is useful to remember that none of these are fully sufficient to have IoE working in a meaningful way that is of some use to the user or the end consumer. And yet, while we wait on some inevitable PHY (physical) and MAC (link layer) protocols that must be defined by IEEE, once that is in place, we are ready to roll.

Running code and rough consensus, the motto of the IETF, used to be realizable at some point. Nowadays, it is as though Margaret Thatcher’s words, “consensus is the lack of leadership” have come to life. In the name of consensus, we debate frivolous details forever. In the name of patents, we never finish. One recent case in point is the long and painful codec battles in the WebRTC working group.

I have tremendous respect for a good number of people that participate at the IETF and other standards organizations that continue to make the Internet functional and sound. I value interoperability and hope that we will get it together for sake of IoE, because it actually is going to be hard to realize that vision without good interoperability.

But I look across the board at IEEE, IETF, SDN organizations and the like and feel that these organizations need a radical restructuring effort. They need to be shaken up, turned on their heads and revamped in order to have monumental impact on the Internet once again. For one, we all need to agree that everyone gains from the Internet being unencumbered and that interoperability only helps the Internet serve all our needs better. More critically, I believe it is time to revisit the tradeoffs between consensus and leadership; they absolutely should not be considered to be one and the same. This will be tricky and will require careful balancing of undesirable control and faster decisions. Most likely, a change like this will require a complete overhaul of the leadership selection process and structure. But, without this rather drastic shake up, I’m afraid we are widening the gap between standards and reality.

The world is marching towards fragmented islands of communication connected via fragile pathways. It is inevitable, as this is the fastest path to market. Unless these standards organizations make radical shifts towards practicality, their relevance will soon be questionable.

For now, some of the passionate people will go off and try to make real things happen elsewhere. I feel like a loser for saying “I quit writing standards”; kudos to the people that are sticking with it to make the Internet a better place. Some day, hopefully, we will all be better off because of it!

Vidya Narayanan is an engineer at Google. With a long history in mobile, she is obsessed about enabling amazing mobile experiences. She blogs at techbits.me and on Quora. Follow her on Twitter @hellovidya.

Featured image courtesy of Shutterstock user almagami

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