(yes, I know, it’s been a while… But it’s time to get back to this series)
Up to this point in this series, we’ve been discussing the more technical aspects of how the Internet really works. Now I want to shift gears a little, and talk about some of the more political aspects — standards bodies, or SDO’s, as they’re often called. There are a couple of things you should be aware of before we dive into this topic.
First, each of these standards bodies developed in a very specific environment, and that environment shaped the way in which the standards body develops standards, etc. It’s important to recognize the “heritage” of a standards body in trying to answer the question, “how’s it go?”
Second, old standards bodies never die — instead, they find something new to work on. In fact, old standards bodies almost never scale back, much less die. There’s always some new idea to be worked on, some new expansion of scope, some way to see the world that allows the body to jump into territory ostensibly owned by another SDO. These expansions, along with the many shifting roles of technology, have created a number of clashes among the SDO’s over the years. For instance, several years back there was a major clash between the ITU and the IETF over MPLS. It has since been (mostly) ironed out through liaisons and a lot of discussion, but there are, in fact, people who are still bitter over that fight. Sometimes the competition is lively and friendly, sometimes it’s not.
Third, just because it’s a standard doesn’t mean it’s going to be deployed and used. There are a ton of “dead standards,” out there — in fact, it might be considered a bit of an embarrassment to the standards process that there are so many of these dead whales lining the beaches of our standards efforts. But often the most the standards bodies can often do is to do the work of creating the standards, and leave it to the market to decide which ones will actually be useful. The choices the market makes aren’t always obvious, either before or after the fact.
All of this said, let’s take a quick jaunt through a few standards bodies, just to get a feel for the space. I don’t intend to cover all of them — that would take a book rather than a blog post.
- The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF): As I’m going to spend a good bit of time explaining how the IETF works in separate posts, I’m not going to spend a lot of digital ink here. The IETF was originally founded to standardize the Internet Protocol suite (layer 3 and above in the OSI model, layer 2 and above in the DoD model). The IETF is all “all volunteer” organization, rather small in size, utilizing a completely open (in theory) consensus driven process to determine standards. Most of the participants are vendors who build IP based equipment, researchers, government organizations, and a small smattering of service providers.
- The Institute of Electronic and Electrical Engineers (IEEE): The IEEE is a broad ranging SDO originally founded, and primarily working, in areas outside the field of network engineering. The IEEE is a membership organization, which means companies nominate a specific number of members, who then propose and vote on technology standards. The IEEE has a series of working groups; most of the ones working in the networking field are in the 802 area. The IEEE focuses on the electrical signaling used to transmit data over any type of link. Note the IEEE also has major activities in the design of processors and computing systems adjacent to networking technologies.
- The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C): The W3C isn’t really a “networking” standards body per se, but rather operates adjacent to the networking industry proper. The W3C standardizes markup languages, specifically XML and HTML, used widely across and within networks. For instance, XML is a much considered specification for device management, and HTML is (of course) carried by HTTP, the foundational protocol of the World Wide Web and all it’s adjacent worlds. The W3C is set up similar to the IETF (intentionally), which means it’s a volunteer organization using consensus as the basis for it’s standards making process.
- The International Telecommunication Union (ITU): The ITU was formed out by the United Nations as a place where telepost and communications companies could meet to form standards that would enable global communications. We would, in more modern parlance, call these companies service providers. Since a large number of the service providers in the world are actually state owned, and the ITU falls within the United Nations, a governmental body, the organization, structure, and process of the ITU tends to be more “governmental” in nature, with national representatives, standards by vote, etc.
There are, of course a number of other standards bodies worth mentioning — for instance, ETSI has just jumped into the forefront of the news with their efforts around Network Function Virtualization, and the Open Networking Foundation (ONF) holds the OpenFlow standards. In general, though, most every standards organization has a structure similar to the IETF, or to the IEEE/ITU models — membership is through joining, with a set number of votes, or membership is voluntary, with a consensus based model for building standards.
In the next post in this series, I’ll begin looking at the IETF in more detail. As a long time IETF participant, this is the one SDO I have the most experience with, so it’s the one that I can examine in the most detail.