Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF)

Fostering Continual Improvement of the Internet


The IETF Fosters Continual Improvement of the Internet

Famous theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking said of the creation of the Internet: “We are now all connected, like neurons in a giant brain,” a statement that grows truer with each passing year. Because it connects us—to information, services, entertainment, people around the world—the “giant brain” needs rules to run smoothly. That’s where the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) comes in. This vast community of network designers, operators, vendors, and researchers from all around the world works to define and evolve the Internet standards that ensure its smooth operation. It’s the brain trust for the giant brain. Officially founded in 1986, the work of setting Internet standards actually stretches back to the 1970s, before the public was even aware of the Internet.


So, how does the IETF make it work better? “The IETF creates documents that provide common technical approaches for core parts of the Internet.” says Lars Eggert, IETF Chair. For example, a bunch of the technical specifications created by the IETF define how the Domain Name System [DNS] itself works, including .ORG.” IETF specifications are voluntarily adopted and implemented by network operators, software developers, and equipment manufacturers so that the billions of elements that make up the Internet can seamlessly communicate and work with each other. 


But more important is how the specifications are created. The IETF creates a forum founded on principles of open access, technical competence, volunteerism, rough consensus and running code, and protocol ownership. Some of these principles may be challenging for the layperson to understand, but Eggert explains, “The IETF is open for anyone to participate in, and its output is freely available for anyone to use.” By bringing together a community to work toward a common good, in this case making the Internet work better for people all around the world, the IETF’s mission is similar to the overall mission of .ORG as a whole.


The work of the IETF is done completely by its all-volunteer working groups, comprising about 7000 individuals. “Everyone who participates in the IETF participates as an individual—all you need to participate is Internet access and an enthusiasm to collaborate,” says Eggert. Any idea can be brought to the IETF to be openly discussed and determined if it’s technically sound. Every significant technical issue needs to be addressed before a proposal can be published. In part because of the open process by which they are created, IETF standards are known for their technical excellence.


Of course, the ideas developed and deployed by the working groups don’t always work as expected as the Internet evolves. That’s why there’s a mechanism to report back so existing standards can be rethought and improved. DNS is a great example of that. “While the origins of the Domain Name System, including .ORG, predate the IETF, it exists because the previous way of assigning names to Internet addresses didn’t scale as the Internet continued to grow. The IETF continues to develop technologies and operational guidance to make the Internet continue to work better even as it continues to grow and change,” says Eggert.


One way the IETF is able to connect various technical threads across the many and varied issues connected with Internet technology is by gathering its 120 working groups into areas, such as Applications and Real-Time Area (ART) or Security Area (SEC). That way, there are dedicated volunteers working on specific types of problems, and at the same time the implications of related technical discussions are factored into standards. For example, Internet security has been an important area of work across every IETF area in recent years. “There has been a very big push to make it easier for users to maintain control over their information by updating protocols that are already widely used and building better privacy into new protocols,” says Eggert.


Maintaining the highest standards the IETF way is what helps the Internet operate even in times of great, worldwide challenge, such as the pandemic. “There has been an amazing amount of work by everyone who operates the networks that make up the global Internet, but the underlying technology has proven to be remarkably resilient. Some networks reported a 30% increase in Internet use in the matter of weeks when the COVID-19 pandemic began. Video conferencing providers and cloud computing were in high demand. The Internet didn’t collapse – it mostly continued to work pretty well, even under this unpredictable spike in demand” says Eggert.


The IETF is an excellent example of the many diverse mission-based organizations that use the .ORG domain. Mission-based doesn’t just mean serving a local community or helping a vulnerable population, both of which are necessary and integral to improving our world. In the case of the IETF, it means supporting a global community through the passionate pursuit of technical excellence. Many .ORGs in the technical space, including IETF, are really important to how the entire Internet works.


The IETF is funded by the support of individual participants, organizational sponsors, and through the IETF Endowment, which includes significant contributions from the Internet Society and other organizations. You can learn more on the IETF website.