|Title||The Tao of IETF - A Novice's Guide to the Internet Engineering Task
Network Working Group S. Harris
Request for Comments: 3160 Merit Network
FYI: 17 August 2001
The Tao of IETF - A Novice's Guide to the Internet Engineering
Status of this Memo
This memo provides information for the Internet community. It does
not specify an Internet standard of any kind. Distribution of this
memo is unlimited.
Copyright (C) The Internet Society (2001). All Rights Reserved.
This document describes the inner workings of IETF meetings and
Working Groups, discusses organizations related to the IETF, and
introduces the standards process.
Table of Contents
Introduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3
Acknowledgements. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 3
1. What Is the IETF? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4
1.1 Humble Beginnings. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5
1.2 The Hierarchy . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5
1.2.1 ISOC . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 5
1.2.2 IESG . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6
1.2.3 IAB. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7
1.2.4 IANA . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8
1.2.5 RFC Editor . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8
1.2.6 IETF Secretariat . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9
1.3 IETF Mailing Lists. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9
2. IETF Meetings . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10
2.1 Registration . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11
2.2 Newcomers' Orientation. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12
2.3 Dress Code. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12
2.4 Seeing Spots Before Your Eyes . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13
2.5 Terminal Room . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13
2.6 Meals and Other Delights. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14
2.7 Social Event. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14
2.8 Agenda. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14
2.9 Where Do I Fit In?. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15
2.9.1 IS Managers. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15
2.9.2 Network Operators and ISPs . . . . . . . . . . . 15
2.9.3 Networking Hardware and Software Vendors . . . . 15
2.9.4 Academics . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 16
2.9.5 Computer Trade Press . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 16
2.10 Proceedings. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 16
2.11 Other General Things . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 17
3. Working Groups. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 18
3.1 Working Group Chairs . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .18
3.2 Getting Things Done in a Working Group. . . . . . . . . 19
3.3 Preparing for Working Group Meetings . . . . . . . . 19
3.4 Working Group Mailing Lists . . . . . . . . . . . . . 20
3.5 Interim Working Group Meetings . . . . . . . . . . . . 21
4. BOFs. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 21
5. New to the IETF? STOP HERE! (Temporarily). . . . . . . . . 22
6. RFCs and Internet Drafts . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 22
6.1 Getting a Standard Published . . . . . . . . . . . . . 22
6.2 Letting Go Gracefully . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 24
6.3 Internet Drafts . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 24
6.3.1 Recommended Reading for Writers . . . . . . . . . 25
6.3.2 Filenames and Other Matters . . . . . . . . . . . 26
6.4 Standards-Track RFCs . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 26
6.4.1 Telling It Like It Is -- Using MUST and
SHOULD and MAY. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 27
6.4.2 Normative References in Standards . . . . . . . . 28
6.4.3 IANA Considerations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 29
6.4.4 Security Considerations . . . . . . . . . . . . . 29
6.4.5 Patents in IETF Standards . . . . . . . . . . . . 30
6.5 Informational and Experimental RFCs . . . . . . . . . . 31
7. How to Contribute to the IETF -- What You Can Do . . . . . . 31
7.1 What Your Company Can Do . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 32
8. IETF and the Outside World . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 33
8.1 IETF and Other Standards Groups . . . . . . . . . . . . 33
8.2 Press Coverage of the IETF. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 33
9. References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 35
9.1 Tao . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 35
9.2 Useful E-mail Addresses . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 35
9.3 Useful Documents and Files. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 35
9.4 Acronyms and Abbreviations Used in the Tao . . . . . . 36
9.5 Documents Cited in the Tao . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 36
Security Considerations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 37
Editor's Address . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 37
Full Copyright Statement . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 38
Over the last several years, attendance at Internet Engineering Task
Force (IETF) face-to-face meetings has grown phenomenally. Many of
the attendees are new to the IETF at each meeting, and many of those
go on to become regular attendees. When the meetings were smaller,
it was relatively easy for a newcomer to get into the swing of
things. Today, however, a newcomer meets many more new people, some
previously known only as the authors of documents or thought-
provoking e-mail messages.
This document describes many aspects of the IETF, with the goal of
explaining to newcomers how the IETF works. This will give them a
warm, fuzzy feeling and enable them to make the meeting and the
Working Group discussions more productive for everyone.
Of course, it's true that many IETF participants don't go to the
face-to-face meetings at all. Instead, they're active on the mailing
list of various IETF Working Groups. Since the inner workings of
Working Groups can be hard for newcomers to understand, this FYI
provides the mundane bits of information that newcomers will need in
order to become active participants.
Many types of IETF documentation are mentioned in the Tao, from BCPs
to RFCs and FYIs. (BCPs make recommendations for Best Current
Practices in the Internet; RFCs are the IETF's main technical
documentation series, politely known as "Requests for Comments;" and
FYIs provide topical and technical overviews that are introductory or
appeal to a broad audience. See Section 6 for more information.)
The acronyms and abbreviations used in this document are usually
expanded in place, and are explained fully in Section 9.
The original version of this document, published in 1994, was written
by Gary Malkin. His knowledge of the IETF, insights, and unmatched
writing style set the standard for this later revision, and his
contributions to the current draft are also much appreciated. Paul
Hoffman wrote significant portions of this revision and provided
encouragement, expertise, and much-needed guidance. Other
contributors include Scott Bradner, Michael Patton, Donald E.
Eastlake III, the IETF Secretariat, and members of the User Services
1. What Is the IETF?
The Internet Engineering Task Force is a loosely self-organized group
of people who contribute to the engineering and evolution of Internet
technologies. It is the principal body engaged in the development of
new Internet standard specifications. The IETF is unusual in that it
exists as a collection of happenings, but is not a corporation and
has no board of directors, no members, and no dues.
Its mission includes:
- Identifying, and proposing solutions to, pressing operational and
technical problems in the Internet;
- Specifying the development or usage of protocols and the near-term
architecture to solve such technical problems for the Internet;
- Making recommendations to the Internet Engineering Steering Group
(IESG) regarding the standardization of protocols and protocol
usage in the Internet;
- Facilitating technology transfer from the Internet Research Task
Force (IRTF) to the wider Internet community; and
- Providing a forum for the exchange of information within the
Internet community between vendors, users, researchers, agency
contractors, and network managers.
The IETF meeting is not a conference, although there are technical
presentations. The IETF is not a traditional standards organization,
although many specifications are produced that become standards. The
IETF is made up of volunteers, many of whom meet three times a year
to fulfill the IETF mission.
There is no membership in the IETF. Anyone may register for and
attend any meeting. The closest thing there is to being an IETF
member is being on the IETF or Working Group mailing lists (see
Section 1.3). This is where the best information about current IETF
activities and focus can be found.
Of course, no organization can be as successful as the IETF is
without having some sort of structure. In the IETF's case, that
structure is provided by other organizations, as described in BCP 11,
"The Organizations Involved in the IETF Standards Process." If you
participate in the IETF and only read one BCP, this is the one you
1.1 Humble Beginnings
The first IETF meeting was held in January, 1986, at Linkabit in San
Diego, with 21 attendees. The 4th IETF, held at SRI in Menlo Park in
October, 1986, was the first that non-government vendors attended.
The concept of Working Groups was introduced at the 5th IETF meeting
at the NASA Ames Research Center in California in February, 1987.
The 7th IETF, held at MITRE in McLean, Virginia in July, 1987, was
the first meeting with over 100 attendees.
The 14th IETF meeting was held at Stanford University in July 1989.
It marked a major change in the structure of the IETF universe. The
IAB (then Internet Activities Board, now Internet Architecture
Board), which until that time oversaw many "task forces," changed its
structure to leave only two: the IETF and the IRTF. The IRTF is
tasked to consider long-term research problems in the Internet. The
IETF also changed at that time.
After the Internet Society (ISOC) was formed in January, 1992, the
IAB proposed to ISOC that the IAB's activities should take place
under the auspices of the Internet Society. During INET92 in Kobe,
Japan, the ISOC Trustees approved a new charter for the IAB to
reflect the proposed relationship.
The IETF met in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, in July 1993. This was
the first IETF meeting held in Europe, and the US/non-US attendee
split was nearly 50/50. One in five IETF meetings are now held in
Europe or Asia, and the number of non-US attendees continues to be
high -- about 50%, even at meetings held in the US.
1.2 The Hierarchy
1.2.1 ISOC (Internet Society)
The Internet Society is an international, non-profit, membership
organization that fosters the expansion of the Internet. One of the
ways that ISOC does this is through financial and legal support of
the other "I" groups described here, particularly the IETF. ISOC's
oversight of the IETF is remarkably hands-off, so many IETF
participants don't even know about it. ISOC provides insurance
coverage for many of the people in the IETF process, and acts as a
public relations channel for the times that one of the "I" groups
wants to say something to the press. The ISOC is one of the major
unsung (and under-funded) heroes of the Internet.
1.2.2 IESG (Internet Engineering Steering Group)
The IESG is responsible for technical management of IETF activities
and the Internet standards process. It administers the process
according to the rules and procedures that have been ratified by the
ISOC Trustees. However, the IESG doesn't do much direct leadership,
such as the kind you will find in many other standards organizations.
The IESG ratifies or corrects the output from the IETF's Working
Groups, gets WGs started and finished, and makes sure that non-WG
drafts that are about to become RFCs are correct.
The IESG consists of the Area Directors ("ADs"), who are selected by
the Nominations Committee (which is usually called "Nomcom") and are
appointed for two years. The process for choosing the members of the
IESG is detailed in BCP 10, "IAB and IESG Selection, Confirmation,
and Recall Process: Operation of the Nominating and Recall
The current areas and abbreviations are:
- Applications (APP) Protocols seen by user programs, such as
e-mail and the Web
- General (GEN) Catch-all for WGs that don't fit in other
areas (which is very few)
- Internet (INT) Different ways of moving IP packets and DNS
- Operations and Operational aspects, network monitoring,
Management (OPS) and configuration
- Routing (RTG) Getting packets to their destinations
- Security (SEC) Authentication and privacy
- Transport (TSV) Special services for special packets
- User Services (USV) Support for end users and user support
Because the IESG has a great deal of influence on whether Internet
Drafts become RFCs, many people look at the ADs as somewhat godlike
creatures. IETF participants sometimes reverently ask an Area
Director for their opinion on a particular subject. However, most
ADs are nearly indistinguishable from mere mortals and rarely speak
from mountaintops. In fact, when asked for specific technical
comments, the ADs may often defer to members at large whom they feel
have more knowledge than they do in that area.
The ADs for a particular area are expected to know more about the
combined work of the WGs in that area than anyone else. On the other
hand, the entire IESG discusses each Internet Draft that is proposed
to become an RFC. At least two IESG members must express concerns
before a draft can be blocked from moving forward. These checks help
ensure that an AD's "pet project" doesn't make it onto the standards
track if it will have a negative effect on the rest of the IETF
This is not to say that the IESG never wields power. When the IESG
sees a Working Group veering from its charter, or when a WG asks the
IESG to make the WG's badly designed protocol a standard, the IESG
will act. In fact, because of its high workload, the IESG usually
moves in a reactive fashion. It approves most WG requests for
Internet Drafts to become RFCs, and usually only steps in when
something has gone very wrong. Another way to think about this is
that the ADs are selected to think, not to just run the process. The
quality of the IETF standards comes both from the review they get in
the Working Groups and the review that the WG review gets from the
The IETF is run by rough consensus, and it is the IESG that decides
if a WG has come up with a result that has a real consensus. Because
of this, one of the main reasons that the IESG might block something
that was produced in a WG is that the result did not really gain
consensus in the IETF as a whole, that is, among all of the Working
Groups in all areas. For instance, the result of one WG might clash
with a technology developed in a different Working Group. An
important job of the IESG is to watch over the output of all the WGs
to help prevent IETF protocols that are at odds with each other.
This is why ADs are supposed to review the drafts coming out of areas
other than their own.
1.2.3 IAB (Internet Architecture Board)
The IAB is responsible for keeping an eye on the "big picture" of the
Internet, and focuses on long-range planning and coordination among
the various areas of IETF activity. The IAB stays informed about
important long-term issues in the Internet, and brings these topics
to the attention of people they think should know about them.
IAB members pay special attention to emerging activities in the IETF.
When a new IETF working group is proposed, the IAB reviews its
charter for architectural consistency and integrity. Even before the
group is chartered, the IAB members are more than willing to discuss
new ideas with the people proposing them.
The IAB also sponsors and organizes the Internet Research Task Force,
and convenes invitational workshops that provide in-depth reviews of
specific Internet architectural issues. Typically, the workshop
reports make recommendations to the IETF community and to the IESG.
The IAB also:
- Approves Nomcom's IESG nominations
- Acts as the appeals board for appeals against IESG actions
- Appoints and oversees the RFC Editor
- Approves the appointment of the IANA
- Acts as an advisory body to the ISOC
- Oversees IETF liaisons with other standards bodies
Like the IESG, the IAB members are selected for multi-year positions
by the Nomcom, and are approved by the Board of Trustees of the ISOC.
1.2.4 IANA (Internet Assigned Numbers Authority)
The core registrar for the IETF's activities is the IANA. Many
Internet protocols require that someone keep track of protocol items
that were added after the protocol came out. Typical examples of the
kinds of registries needed are for TCP port numbers and MIME types.
The IAB has designated the IANA organization to perform these tasks,
and the IANA's activities are financially supported by ICANN, the
Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.
Five years ago, no one would have expected to ever see the IANA
mentioned on the front page of a newspaper. IANA's role had always
been very low key. The fact that IANA was also the keeper of the
root of the domain name system forced it to become a much more public
entity, one which was badly maligned by a variety of people who never
looked at what its role was. Nowadays the IETF is generally no
longer involved in the IANA's domain name and IP address assignment
functions, which are overseen by ICANN.
Even though being a registrar may not sound interesting, many IETF
participants will testify to how important IANA has been for the
Internet. Having a stable, long-term repository run by careful and
conservative operators makes it much easier for people to experiment
without worrying about messing things up. IANA's founder, Jon
Postel, was heavily relied upon to keep things in order while the
Internet kept growing by leaps and bounds, and he did a fine job of
it until his untimely death in 1998.
1.2.5 RFC Editor
The RFC Editor edits, formats, and publishes Internet Drafts as RFCs,
working in conjunction with the IESG. An important secondary role is
to provide one definitive repository for all RFCs (see
http://www.rfc-editor.org). Once an RFC is published, it is never
revised. If the standard it describes changes, the standard will be
re-published in another RFC that "obsoletes" the first.
One of the most popular misconceptions in the IETF community is that
the role of the RFC Editor is performed by IANA. In fact, the RFC
Editor is a separate job, although both the RFC Editor and IANA
involved the same people for many years. The IAB approves the
organization that will act as RFC Editor and the RFC Editor's general
policy. The RFC Editor is funded by ISOC and can be contacted by e-
mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1.2.6 IETF Secretariat
There are, in fact, a few people who are paid to maintain the IETF.
The IETF Secretariat provides day-to-day logistical support, which
mainly means coordinating face-to-face meetings and running the
IETF-specific mailing lists (not the WG mailing lists). The
Secretariat is also responsible for keeping the official Internet
Drafts directory up to date and orderly, maintaining the IETF Web
site, and for helping the IESG do its work. The IETF Secretariat is
financially supported by the fees of the face-to-face meetings.
1.3 IETF Mailing Lists
Anyone who plans to attend an IETF meeting should join the IETF
announcement mailing list, "email@example.com". This is where
all of the meeting information, Internet Draft and RFC announcements,
and IESG Protocol Actions and Last Calls are posted. People who
would like to "get technical" may also join the IETF discussion list,
"firstname.lastname@example.org". This is where discussions of cosmic significance
are held (Working Groups have their own mailing lists for discussions
related to their work).
Subscriptions to these and other IETF mailing lists are handled by a
program called Majordomo. Majordomo tends to be somewhat finicky
about the format of subscription messages, and interacts poorly with
email programs that make all email messages into HTML files.
Majordomo will treat you well, however, if you format your messages
just the way it likes. To join the IETF announcement list, for
example, send email to:
Enter the word 'subscribe' (without the quotes) in the Subject line
of the message and in the message body. To join the IETF discussion
list, send email to:
and enter the word 'subscribe' as explained above. If you decide to
withdraw from either list, use the word 'unsubscribe.' Your messages
to Majordomo should have nothing other than the commands 'subscribe'
or 'unsubscribe' in them.
Both lists are archived on the IETF web site:
Do not, ever, under any circumstances, for any reason, send a request
to join a list to the list itself! The thousands of people on the
list don't need, or want, to know when a new person joins.
Similarly, when changing e-mail addresses or leaving a list, send
your request only to the "-request" address, not to the main list.
This means you!!
The IETF discussion list is unmoderated. This means that anyone can
express their opinions about issues affecting the Internet. However,
it is not a place for companies or individuals to solicit or
advertise, as noted in "IETF Discussion List Charter," RFC 3005. It
is a good idea to read the whole RFC (it's short!) before posting to
the IETF discussion list.
Only the Secretariat can send messages to the announcement list.
Even though the IETF mailing lists "represent" the IETF membership at
large, it is important to note that attending an IETF meeting does
not mean you'll be automatically added to either mailing list.
2. IETF Meetings
The computer industry is rife with conferences, seminars,
expositions, and all manner of other kinds of meetings. IETF face-
to-face meetings are nothing like these. The meetings, held three
times a year, are week-long dweebfests whose primary goal is to
reinvigorate the WGs to get their tasks done, and whose secondary
goal is to promote a fair amount of mixing between the WGs and the
areas. The cost of the meetings is paid by the people attending and
by the corporate host for each meeting, although ISOC kicks in
additional funds for things like the multicast simulcast of some
Working Group sessions.
For many people, IETF meetings are a breath of fresh air when
compared to the standard computer industry conferences. There is no
exposition hall, few tutorials, and no big-name industry pundits.
Instead, there is lots of work, as well as a fair amount of time for
socializing. IETF meetings are of little interest to sales and
marketing folks, but of high interest to engineers and developers.
Most IETF meetings are held in North America, because that's where
most of the participants are from; however, meetings are held on
other continents about once every year or two. The past few meetings
have had about 2,500 attendees. There have been over 50 IETF
meetings so far, and a list of upcoming meetings is available on the
IETF web pages, http://www.ietf.org/meetings/0mtg-sites.txt.
Newcomers to IETF face-to-face meetings are often in a bit of shock.
They expect them to be like other standards bodies, or like computer
conferences. Fortunately, the shock wears off after a day or two,
and many new attendees get quite animated about how much fun they are
having. One particularly jarring feature of recent IETF meetings is
the use of wireless Internet connections throughout the meeting
space. It is common to see half the people in a WG meeting reading
e-mail or perusing the web during presentations they find
To attend an IETF meeting you have to register and you have to pay
the registration fee. The meeting site and advance registration are
announced about two months ahead of the meeting -- earlier if
possible. An announcement goes out via e-mail to the IETF-announce
mailing list, and information is posted on the IETF web site,
http://www.ietf.org, that same day.
To pre-register, you must submit your registration on the Web. You
may pre-register and pre-pay, pre-register and return to the Web site
later to pay with a credit card, pre-register and pay on-site at the
meeting, or register and pay on-site. To get a lower registration
fee, you must pay by the early registration deadline (about one week
before the meeting). The registration fee covers all of the week's
meetings, the Sunday evening reception (cash bar), daily continental
breakfasts, and afternoon coffee breaks.
Credit card payments on the web are encrypted and secure, or, if you
prefer, you can use PGP to send your payment information to the
Registration is open throughout the week of the meeting. However,
the Secretariat highly recommends that attendees arrive for early
registration, beginning at noon on Sunday and continuing throughout
the 5:00 Sunday evening reception. The reception is a popular event
where you can get a bite to eat and socialize with other early
Registered attendees (and there aren't any other kind) receive a
registration packet. It contains much useful information, including
a general orientation sheet, the most recent agenda, and a name tag.
Attendees who pre-paid will also find their receipt in their packet.
It's worth noting that neither attendee names and addresses or IETF
mailing lists are ever offered for sale.
2.2 Newcomers' Orientation
Newcomers are encouraged to attend the Newcomers' Orientation, which
is especially designed for first-time attendees. The orientation is
organized and conducted by the IETF Secretariat, and is intended to
provide useful introductory information. The orientation is
typically about 30 minutes long and covers what's in the attendee
packets, what all the dots on name tags mean, the structure of the
IETF, and many other essential and enlightening topics for new
Immediately following the Newcomers' Orientation is the IETF
Standards Process Orientation. This session demystifies much of the
standards process by explaining what stages a document has to pass
through on its way to becoming a standard, and what has to be done to
advance to the next stage. The Standards Process Orientation also
lasts about 30 minutes.
There is ample time at the end for questions. The Secretariat also
provides handouts that include an overview of the IETF, a list of
important files available online, and hard copies of the slides of
the "IETF Structure and Internet Standards Process" presentation.
These very useful slides are also available online at www.ietf.org
under "Additional Information".
The orientation is held on Sunday afternoon before the 5:00 p.m.
reception (check the agenda for exact time and location). Be advised
that attending the orientation does NOT mean you can go to the
2.3 Dress Code
Since attendees must wear their name tags, they must also wear shirts
or blouses. Pants or skirts are also highly recommended. Seriously
though, many newcomers are often embarrassed when they show up Monday
morning in suits, to discover that everybody else is wearing t-
shirts, jeans (shorts, if weather permits) and sandals. There are
those in the IETF who refuse to wear anything other than suits.
Fortunately, they are well known (for other reasons) so they are
forgiven this particular idiosyncrasy. The general rule is "dress
for the weather" (unless you plan to work so hard that you won't go
outside, in which case, "dress for comfort" is the rule!).
2.4 Seeing Spots Before Your Eyes
Some of the people at the IETF will have a little colored dot on
their name tag. A few people have more than one. These dots
identify people who are silly enough to volunteer to do a lot of
extra work. The colors have the following meanings:
blue - Working Group/BOF chair
green - Host group
red - IAB member
yellow - IESG member
orange - Nominating Committee member
(Members of the press wear orange-tinted badges.)
Local hosts are the people who can answer questions about the
terminal room, restaurants, and points of interest in the area.
It is important that newcomers to the IETF not be afraid to strike up
conversations with people who wear these dots. If the IAB and IESG
members and Working Group and BOF chairs didn't want to talk to
anybody, they wouldn't be wearing the dots in the first place.
2.5 Terminal Room
One of the most important (depending on your point of view) things
the host does is provide Internet access for the meeting attendees.
In general, wired and wireless connectivity is excellent. This is
entirely due to the Olympian efforts of the local hosts, and their
ability to beg, borrow and steal. The people and companies who
donate their equipment, services and time are to be heartily
congratulated and thanked.
While preparation far in advance of the meeting is encouraged, there
may be some unavoidable "last minute" things that can be accomplished
in the terminal room. It may also be useful to people who need to
make trip reports or status reports while things are still fresh in
their minds. The terminal room provides workstations, one or two
printers, and ports for laptops.
2.6 Meals and Other Delights
Marshall Rose once remarked that the IETF was a place to go for "many
fine lunches and dinners." While it is true that some people eat
very well at the IETF, they find the food on their own; lunches and
dinners are not included in the registration fee. The Secretariat
does provide appetizers at the Sunday evening reception (not meant to
be a replacement for dinner), continental breakfast every morning,
and (best of all) cookies, brownies and other yummies during
If you prefer to get out of the hotel for meals, the local host
usually provides a list of places to eat within easy reach of the
2.7 Social Event
Another of the most important things organized and managed by the
host is the IETF social event. Sometimes, the social event is a
computer or high-tech related event. At the Boston IETF, for
example, the social was dinner at the Computer Museum. Other times,
the social might be a dinner cruise or a trip to an art gallery.
Newcomers to the IETF are encouraged to attend the social event.
Everyone is encouraged to wear their name tags and leave their
laptops behind. The social event is designed to give people a chance
to meet on a social, rather than technical, level.
The agenda for the IETF meetings is a very fluid thing. It is sent,
updated, to the IETF announcement list three times prior to the
meeting, and is also available on the web. The agenda for the 50th
IETF, for example, is at http://www.ietf.org/meetings/agenda_50.html.
The final agenda is included in the registration packets. Of course,
"final" in the IETF doesn't mean the same thing as it does elsewhere
in the world. The final agenda is simply the version that went to
the printer. The Secretariat will post agenda changes on the
bulletin board near the IETF registration desk (not the hotel
Assignments for breakout rooms (where the Working Groups and BOFs
meet) and a map showing the room locations are also shown on the
agenda. Room assignments can change as the agenda changes. Some
Working Groups meet multiple times during a meeting and every attempt
is made to have a Working Group meet in the same room for each
2.9 Where Do I Fit In?
The IETF is different things to different people. There are many
people who have been very active in the IETF who have never attended
an IETF meeting. You should not feel obligated to come to an IETF
meeting just to get a feel for the IETF. The following guidelines
(based on stereotypes of people in various industries) might help you
decide whether you actually want to come and, if so, what might be
the best use of your time at your first meeting.
2.9.1 IS Managers
As discussed throughout this document, an IETF meeting is nothing
like any trade show you have attended. IETF meetings are singularly
bad places to go if your intention is to find out what will be hot in
the Internet industry next year. You can safely assume that going to
Working Group meetings will confuse you more than it will help you
understand what is happening, or will be happening, in the industry.
This is not to say that no one from industry should go to IETF
meetings. As an IS manager, you might want to consider sending
specific people who are responsible for technologies that are under
development in the IETF. As these people read the current Internet
Drafts and the traffic on the relevant Working Group lists, they will
get a sense of whether or not their presence would be worthwhile for
your company or for the Working Groups.
2.9.2 Network Operators and ISPs
Running a network is hard enough without having to grapple with new
protocols or new versions of the protocols with which you are already
dealing. If you work for the type of network that is always using
the very latest hardware and software, and you are following the
relevant Working Groups in your copious free time, you might find
attending the IETF meeting valuable. The closer you are to the
bleeding edge of networking, particularly in the areas of routing and
switching, the more likely it is that you will be able to learn and
contribute at an IETF meeting.
2.9.3 Networking Hardware and Software Vendors
The image of the IETF being mostly ivory tower academics may have
been true in the past, but the jobs of typical attendees are now in
industry. In most areas of the IETF, employees of vendors are the
ones writing the protocols and leading the Working Groups, so it's
completely appropriate for vendors to attend. If you create Internet
hardware or software, and no one from your company has ever attended
an IETF meeting, it behooves you to come to a meeting if for no other
reason than to tell the others how relevant the meeting was or was
not to your business.
This is not to say that companies should close up shop during IETF
meeting weeks so everyone can go to the meeting. Marketing folks,
even technical marketing folks, are usually safe in staying away from
the IETF as long as some of the technical people from the company are
at the meeting. Similarly, it isn't required, or likely useful, for
everyone from a technical department to go, particularly if they are
not all reading the Internet Drafts and following the Working Group
mailing lists. Many companies have just a few designated meeting
attendees who are chosen for their ability to do complete and useful
IETF meetings are often excellent places for computer science folk to
find out what is happening in the way of soon-to-be-deployed
protocols. Professors and grad students (and sometimes overachieving
undergrads) who are doing research in networking or communications
can get a wealth of information by following Working Groups in their
specific fields of interest. Wandering into different Working Group
meetings can have the same effect as going to symposia and seminars
in your department.
2.9.5 Computer Trade Press
If you're a member of the press and are considering attending IETF,
we've prepared a special section of the Tao just for you -- please
see Section 8.2.
IETF proceedings are compiled in the two months following each
meeting, and are available on the web, on CD, and in print. Be sure
to look through a copy -- the proceedings are filled with information
about IETF that you're not likely to find anywhere else. For
example, you'll find snapshots of most WG charters at the time of the
meeting, giving you a better understanding of the evolution of any
The proceedings usually start with an informative (and highly
entertaining) message from Steve Coya, the Executive Director of the
IETF. Each volume of contains the final (hindsight) agenda, an IETF
overview, area and Working Group reports, and slides from the
protocol and technical presentations. The Working Group reports and
presentations are sometimes incomplete, if the materials haven't been
turned in to the Secretariat in time for publication.
An attendee list is also included, and contains names, affiliations,
work and fax phone numbers, and e-mail addresses as provided on the
registration form. For information about obtaining copies of the
proceedings, see the Web listing at
2.11 Other General Things
The IETF Secretariat, and IETFers in general, are very approachable.
Never be afraid to approach someone and introduce yourself. Also,
don't be afraid to ask questions, especially when it comes to jargon
Hallway conversations are very important. A lot of very good work
gets done by people who talk together between meetings and over
lunches and dinners. Every minute of the IETF can be considered work
time (much to some people's dismay).
A "bar BOF" is an unofficial get-together, usually in the late
evening, during which a lot of work gets done over drinks. Bar BOFs
spring up in many different places around an IETF meeting, such as
restaurants, coffee shops, and (if we are so lucky) pools.
It's unwise to get between a hungry IETFer (and there isn't any other
kind) and coffee break brownies and cookies, no matter how
interesting a hallway conversation is.
IETFers are fiercely independent. It's safe to question opinions and
offer alternatives, but don't expect an IETFer to follow orders.
The IETF, and the plenary session in particular, are not places for
vendors to try to sell their wares. People can certainly answer
questions about their company and its products, but bear in mind that
the IETF is not a trade show. This does not preclude people from
recouping costs for IETF-related t-shirts, buttons and pocket
There is always a "materials distribution table" near the
registration desk. This desk is used to make appropriate information
available to the attendees (e.g., copies of something discussed in a
Working Group session, descriptions of online IETF-related
information, etc.). Please check with the Secretariat before placing
materials on the desk; the Secretariat has the right to remove
material that they feel is not appropriate.
3.0 Working Groups
The vast majority of the IETF's work is done in many "Working
Groups;" at the time of this writing, there are about 115 different
WGs. (The term "Working Group" is often seen capitalized, but
probably not for a very good reason.) BCP 25, "IETF Working Group
Guidelines and Procedures," is an excellent resource for anyone
participating in WG discussions.
A WG is really just a mailing list with a bit of adult supervision.
You "join" the WG by subscribing to the mailing list; all mailing
lists are open to anyone. Some IETF WG mailing lists only let
subscribers to the mailing list post to the mailing list, while
others let anyone post. Each Working Group has one or two chairs.
More importantly, each WG has a charter that the WG is supposed to
follow. The charter states the scope of discussion for the Working
Group, as well as its goals. The WG's mailing list and face-to-face
meetings are supposed to focus on just what is in the charter, and
not to wander off on other "interesting" topics. Of course, looking
a bit outside the scope of the WG is occasionally useful, but the
large majority of the discussion should be on the topics listed in
the charter. In fact, some WG charters actually specify what the WG
will not do, particularly if there were some attractive but nebulous
topics brought up during the drafting of the charter. The list of
all WG charters makes interesting reading for folks who want to know
what the different Working Groups are supposed to be doing.
3.1 Working Group Chairs
The role of the WG chairs is described in both BCP 11 and BCP 25.
Basically, their job is to keep the discussion moving forward towards
the milestones in the WG charter -- usually publication of one or
more RFCs. They are not meant to be taskmasters, but are responsible
for assuring positive forward motion and preventing random wandering.
As you can imagine, some Working Group chairs are much better at
their jobs than others. When a WG has fulfilled its charter, it is
supposed to cease operations. (Most WG mailing lists continue on
after a WG is closed, still discussing the same topics as the Working
Group did.) In the IETF, it is a mark of success that the WG closes
up because it fulfilled its charter. This is one of the aspects of
the IETF that newcomers who have experience with other standards
bodies have a hard time understanding. However, some WG chairs never
manage to get their WG to finish, or keep adding new tasks to the
charter so that the Working Group drags on for many years. The
output of these aging WGs is often not nearly as useful as the
earlier products, and the messy results are sometimes called
"degenerative Working Group syndrome."
One important role of the chair is to decide which Internet Drafts
get published as "official" Working Group drafts, and which don't.
In practice, there is actually not much procedural difference between
WG drafts and independent drafts; for example, many WG mailing lists
also discuss independent drafts (at the discretion of the WG chair).
Procedures for Internet Drafts are covered in much more detail later
in this document.
WG chairs are strongly advised to go to the new chairs' training
lunch the first day of the IETF meeting. If you're interested in
what they hear there, take a look at the slides at
3.2 Getting Things Done in a Working Group
One fact that confuses many novices is that the face-to-face WG
meetings are much less important in the IETF than they are in most
other organizations. Any decision made at a face-to-face meeting
must also gain consensus on the WG mailing list. There are numerous
examples of important decisions made in WG meetings that are later
overturned on the mailing list, often because someone who couldn't
attend the meeting pointed out a serious flaw in the logic used to
come to the decision.
Another aspect of Working Groups that confounds many people is the
fact that there is no formal voting. The general rule on disputed
topics is that the Working Group has to come to "rough consensus,"
meaning that a very large majority of those who care must agree. The
exact method of determining rough consensus varies from Working Group
to Working Group. The lack of voting has caused some very long
delays for some proposals, but most IETF participants who have
witnessed rough consensus after acrimonious debates feel that the
delays often result in better protocols. (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?)
3.3 Preparing for Working Group Meetings
The most important thing that everyone (newcomers and seasoned
experts) should do before coming to a face-to-face meeting is to read
the Internet Drafts and RFCs beforehand. WG meetings are explicitly
not for education: they are for developing the group's documents.
Even if you do not plan to say anything in the meeting, you should
read the group's documents before attending so you can understand
what is being said.
It's up to the WG chair to set the meeting agenda, usually a few
weeks in advance. If you want something discussed at the meeting, be
sure to let the chair know about it. The agendas for all the WG
meetings are available in advance (see
http://www.ietf.org/meetings/wg_agenda_xx.html, where 'xx' is the
meeting number), but many WG chairs are lax (if not totally
negligent) about turning them in.
The Secretariat only schedules WG meetings a few weeks in advance,
and the schedule often changes as little as a week before the first
day. If you are only coming for one WG meeting, you may have a hard
time booking your flight with such little notice, particularly if the
Working Group's meeting changes schedule. Be sure to keep track of
the current agenda so you can schedule flights and hotels. But, when
it comes down to it, you probably shouldn't be coming for just one WG
meeting. It's likely that your knowledge could be valuable in a few
WGs, assuming that you've read the drafts and RFCs for those groups.
If you're giving a presentation at a face-to-face meeting, you should
probably come with a few slides prepared. Projectors for laptop-
based presentations are available in all the meeting rooms. And
here's a tip for your slides: don't put your company's logo on every
one, even though it's common practice outside the IETF. The IETF
frowns on this kind of corporate advertising, and most presenters
don't even put their logo on their opening slide. The IETF is about
technical content, not company boosterism.
3.4 Working Group Mailing Lists
As we mentioned earlier, the IETF announcement and discussion mailing
lists are the central mailing lists for IETF activities. However,
there are many other mailing lists related to IETF work. For
example, every Working Group has its own discussion list. In
addition, there are some long-term technical debates that have been
moved off of the IETF list onto lists created specifically for those
topics. It is highly recommended that everybody follow the
discussions on the mailing lists of the Working Groups that they wish
to attend. The more work that is done on the mailing lists, the less
work that will need to be done at the meeting, leaving time for cross
pollination (i.e., attending Working Groups outside one's primary
area of interest in order to broaden one's perspective).
The mailing lists also provide a forum for those who wish to follow,
or contribute to, the Working Groups' efforts, but can't attend the
Most IETF discussion lists use Majordomo and have a "-request"
address which handles the administrative details of joining and
leaving the list. (See Section 1.3 for more information on
Majordomo.) It is generally frowned upon when such administrivia
appears on the discussion mailing list.
Most IETF discussion lists are archived. That is, all of the
messages sent to the list are automatically stored on a host for
anonymous FTP access. Many such archives are listed online at
ftp://ftp.ietf.org/ietf-mail-archive/. If you don't find the list
you're looking for, send a message to the list's "-request" address
(not to the list itself!).
3.5 Interim Working Group Meetings
Working groups sometimes hold interim meetings between IETFs.
Interim meetings aren't a substitute for IETF meetings, however -- a
group can't decide to skip a meeting in a location they're not fond
of and meet in Cancun three weeks later, for example. Interim
meetings require AD approval, and need to be announced at least one
month in advance. Location and timing need to allow fair access for
all participants. Like regular IETF meetings, someone needs to take
notes and send them to email@example.com, and the group needs to take
In order to form a Working Group, you need a charter and someone who
is able to be chair. In order to get those things, you need to get
people interested so that they can help focus the charter and
convince an Area Director that the project is worthwhile. A face-
to-face meeting is useful for this. In fact, very few WGs get
started by an Area Director; most start after a face-to-face BOF
because attendees have expressed interest in the topic.
A BOF meeting has to be approved by the Area Director in the relevant
area before it can be scheduled. If you think you really need a new
WG, approach an AD informally with your proposal and see what they
think. The next step is to request a meeting slot at the next face-
to-face meeting. Of course, you don't need to wait for that meeting
to get some work done, such as setting up a mailing list and starting
to discuss a charter.
BOF meetings have a very different tone than WG meetings. The
purpose of a BOF is to make sure that a good charter with good
milestones can be created, and that there are enough people willing
to do the work needed in order to create standards. Some BOFs have
Internet Drafts already in process, while others start from scratch.
An advantage of having a draft before the BOF is to help focus the
discussion. On the other hand, having a draft might tend to limit
what the other folks in the BOF want to do in the charter. It's
important to remember that most BOFs are held in order to get support
for an eventual Working Group, not to get support for a particular
Many BOFs don't turn into WGs for a variety of reasons. A common
problem is that not enough people can agree on a focus for the work.
Another typical reason is that the work wouldn't end up being a
standard -- if, for example, the document authors don't really want
to relinquish change control to a WG. (We'll discuss change control
later in this document.) Only two meetings of a BOF can be scheduled
on a particular subject; either a WG has to form, or the topic should
5. ** New to the IETF? STOP HERE! (Temporarily) **
If you're new to the IETF and this is the only reference you plan to
read before coming to the meeting, stop here -- at least temporarily.
Then, on your flight home, read the rest of the Tao. By that time
you'll be ready to get actively involved in the Working Groups that
interested you at the meeting, and the Tao will get you started on
6. RFCs and Internet Drafts
If you're a new IETF participant and are looking for a particular RFC
or Internet Draft, go to the RFC Editor's Web pages, http://www.rfc-
editor.org/rfc.html. That site also has links to other RFC
collections, many with search capabilities. If you know the number
of the RFC you're looking for, go to the IETF RFC pages,
http://www.ietf.org/rfc.html. For Internet Drafts, the best resource
is the IETF web site, http://www.ietf.org/ID.html, where you can
search by title and keyword.
6.1 Getting a Standard Published
One of the most common questions seasoned IETFers hear from newcomers
is, "How do I get an IETF standard published?" A much better
question is, "Should I write an IETF standard?" since the answer is
not always "yes." If you do decide to try to write a document that
becomes an IETF standard, be warned that the overall process may be
arduous, even if the individual steps are fairly straightforward.
Lots of people get through the process unscathed, though, and there's
plenty of written guidance that helps authors emerge with their ego
more or less intact.
Every IETF standard is published as an RFC (a "Request For Comments,"
but everyone just calls them RFCs), and every RFC starts out as an
Internet Draft (often called an "I-D"). The basic steps for getting
something published as an IETF standard are:
1. Publish the document as an Internet Draft
2. Receive comments on the draft
3. Edit your draft based on the comments
4. Repeat steps 1 through 3 a few times
5. Ask an Area Director to take the draft to the IESG (if it's an
individual submission). If the draft is an official Working
Group product, the WG chair asks the AD to take it to the IESG.
6. Make any changes deemed necessary by the IESG (this might
include giving up on becoming a standard)
7. Wait for the document to be published by the RFC Editor
A much more complete explanation of these steps is contained in BCP
9, "The Internet Standards Process." Anyone who writes a draft that
they hope will become an IETF standard must read BCP 9 so that they
can follow the path of their document through the process. BCP 9
goes into great detail on a topic that is very often misunderstood,
even by seasoned IETF participants: different types of RFCs go
through different processes and have different rankings. There are
six kinds of RFCs:
- Proposed standards
- Draft standards
- Internet standards (sometimes called "full standards")
- Experimental protocols
- Informational documents
- Historic standards
Only the first three (proposed, draft, and full) are standards within
the IETF. A good summary of this can be found in the aptly titled
RFC 1796, "Not All RFCs are Standards."
There are also three sub-series of RFCs, known as FYIs, BCPs, and
STDs. The For Your Information RFC sub-series was created to
document overviews and topics which are introductory or appeal to a
broad audience. Frequently, FYIs are created by groups within the
IETF User Services Area. Best Current Practice documents describe
the application of various technologies in the Internet. The STD RFC
sub-series was created to identify RFCs that do in fact specify
Internet standards. Some STDs are actually sets of more than one
RFC, and the "standard" designation applies to the whole set of
6.2 Letting Go Gracefully
The biggest reason some people do not want their documents put on the
IETF standards track is that they must give up change control of the
protocol. That is, as soon as you propose that your protocol become
an IETF standard, you must fully relinquish control of the protocol.
If there is general agreement, parts of the protocol can be
completely changed, whole sections can be ripped out, new things can
be added, and the name can be changed.
Some authors find it very hard to give up control of their pet
protocol. If you are one of those people, don't even think about
trying to get your protocol to become an IETF standard. On the other
hand, if your goal is the best standard possible with the widest
implementation, then you might find the IETF process to your liking.
Incidentally, the change control on Internet standards doesn't end
when the protocol is put on the standards track. The protocol itself
can be changed later for a number of reasons, the most common of
which is that implementors discover a problem as they implement the
standard. These later changes are also under the control of the
IETF, not the editors of the standards document.
IETF standards exist so that people will use them to write Internet
programs that interoperate. They don't exist to document the
(possibly wonderful) ideas of their authors, nor do they exist so
that a company can say "we have an IETF standard." If a standards-
track RFC only has one implementation (whereas two are required for
it to advance on the standards track), it was probably a mistake to
put it on the standards track in the first place.
6.3 Internet Drafts
First things first. Every document that ends up in the RFC
repository starts life as an Internet Draft. Internet Drafts are
tentative documents -- they're meant for readers to comment on, so
authors can mull over those comments and decide which ones to
incorporate in the draft. In order to remind folks of their
tentativeness, Internet Drafts are automatically removed from the
online directories after six months. They are most definitely not
standards or even specifications. As BCP 9 says:
An Internet Draft is NOT a means of "publishing" a specification;
specifications are published through the RFC mechanism ...
Internet Drafts have no formal status, and are subject to change
or removal at any time. Under no circumstances should an Internet
Draft be referenced by any paper, report, or Request-for-Proposal,
nor should a vendor claim compliance with an Internet Draft.
You can always tell a person who doesn't understand the IETF (or is
intentionally trying to fool people) when they brag about having
published an Internet Draft; it takes no significant effort.
An I-D should have approximately the same format as an RFC. Contrary
to many people's beliefs, an I-D does not need to look exactly like
an RFC, but if you can use the same formatting procedures used by the
RFC Editor when you create your I-Ds, it will simplify the RFC
Editor's work when your draft is published as an RFC. RFC 2223,
"Instructions to RFC Authors," describes the nroff formatting used by
the RFC Editor.
An Internet Draft can be either a Working Group draft or an
individual submission. Working Group drafts are usually reviewed by
the chair before being accepted as a WG item.
6.3.1 Recommended Reading for Writers
Before you create the first draft of your Internet Draft, you should
read four documents:
- More important than just explaining formatting, RFC 2223 also
explains what needs to be in an Internet Draft before it can
become an RFC. This document describes all the sections and
notices that will need to be in your document, and it's good to
have them there from the beginning so that readers aren't
surprised when you put them in later versions.
- BCP 22, "Guide for Internet Standards Writers," provides tips
that will help you write a standard that leads to
interoperability. For instance, it explains how to choose the
right number of protocol options, how to respond to out-of-spec
behavior, and how to show state diagrams.
- The online "Guidelines to Authors of Internet Drafts,"
http://www.ietf.org/ietf/1id-guidelines.txt, has up-to-date
information about the process for turning in Internet Drafts, as
well as the most current boilerplate information that has to be
included in each Internet Draft.
- When you think you are finished with the draft process and are
ready to request that the draft become an RFC, you should
definitely read "Considerations for Internet Drafts,"
http://www.ietf.org/ID-nits.html, a list of common "nits" that
have been known to stop documents in the IESG. In fact, you
should probably read that document well before you are finished,
so that you don't have to make a bunch of last-minute changes.
6.3.2 Filenames and Other Matters
When you're ready to turn in your Internet Draft, send it to the
Internet Drafts editor at firstname.lastname@example.org. There is a real
person at the other end of this mail address -- their job is to make
sure you've included the minimum items you need for the Internet
Draft to be published. When you submit the first version of the
draft, the draft editor supplies the filename for the draft. If the
draft is an official Working Group product, the name will start with
"draft-ietf-" followed by the designation of the WG, followed by a
descriptive word or two, followed by "00.txt".
For example, a draft in the S/MIME WG about creating keys might be
named "draft-ietf-smime-keying-00.txt". If it's not the product of a
Working Group, the name will start with "draft-" and the last name of
one of the authors followed by a descriptive word or two, followed by
"00.txt". For example, a draft that someone named Smith wrote might
be named "draft-smith-keying-00.txt". If a draft is an individual
submission but relates to a particular working group, the author
sometimes follows their name with the name of the working group, such
as "draft-smith-smime-keying-00.txt". You are welcome to suggest
names; however, it is up to the Internet Drafts editor (and, if it is
an official WG draft, the WG chair) to come up with the filename.
After the first edition of a draft, the number in the filename is
incremented; for instance, the second edition of the S/MIME draft
named above would be "draft-ietf-smime-keying-01.txt". Note that
there are cases where the filename changes after the first version,
such as when a personal effort is pulled into a Working Group.
6.4 Standards-Track RFCs
The procedure for creating and advancing a standard is described in
BCP 9. After an Internet Draft has been sufficiently discussed and
there is rough consensus that what it says would be a useful
standard, it is presented to the IESG for consideration. If the
draft is an official WG draft, the WG chair sends it to the
appropriate Area Director after it has gone through Working Group
last call. If the draft is an individual submission, the draft's
author or editor submits it to the appropriate Area Director. BCP 9
also describes the appeals process for people who feel that a Working
Group chair, an AD, or the IESG has made the wrong decision in
considering the creation or advancement of a standard.
After it is submitted to the IESG, the IESG announces an IETF-wide
last call. This helps get the attention of people who weren't
following the progress of the draft, and can sometimes cause further
changes to the draft. It is also a time when people in the WG who
feel that they weren't heard can make their comments to everyone.
The IETF last call is two weeks for drafts coming from WGs and four
weeks for individual submissions.
If the IESG approves the draft to become an Internet Standard, they
ask the RFC Editor to publish it as a Proposed Standard. After it
has been a Proposed Standard for at least six months, the RFC's
author (or the appropriate WG chair) can ask for it to become a Draft
Standard. Before that happens, however, someone needs to convince
the appropriate Area Director that there are at least two
independent, interoperable implementations of each part of the
standard. This is a good test of the usefulness of the standard as a
whole, as well as an excellent way to check if the standard was
A few things typically happen at this point. First, it's common to
find that some of the specifications in the standard need to be
reworded because one implementor thought they meant one thing while
another implementor thought they meant something else. Another
common occurrence is that none of the implementations actually tried
to implement a few of the features of the standard; these features
get removed not just because no one tested them, but also because
they weren't needed.
Don't be surprised if a particular standard doesn't progress from
Proposed to Draft. In fact, most of the standards in common use are
Proposed Standards and never move forward. This may be because no
one took the time to try to get them to Draft, or some of the
normative references in the standard are still at Proposed Standard,
or it may be that everyone found more important things to do.
A few years after a document has been a Draft Standard, it can become
an Internet Standard, also known as "full standard." This doesn't
happen often, and is usually reserved for protocols that are
absolutely required for the Internet to function. The IESG goes over
the document with a fine-tooth comb before making a Draft Standard an
6.4.1 Telling It Like It Is -- Using MUST and SHOULD and MAY
Writing specifications that get implemented the way you want is a bit
of an art. You can keep the specification very short, with just a
list of requirements, but that tends to cause implementors to take
too much leeway. If you instead make the specification very wordy
with lots of suggestions, implementors tend to miss the requirements
(and often disagree with your suggestions anyway). An optimal
specification is somewhere in between.
One way to make it more likely that developers will create
interoperable implementations of standards is to be clear about
what's being mandated in a specification. Early RFCs used all kinds
of expressions to explain what was needed, so implementors didn't
always know which parts were suggestions and which were requirements.
As a result, standards writers in the IETF generally agreed to limit
their wording to a few specific words with a few specific meanings.
RFC 1123, "Requirements for Internet Hosts -- Application and
Support," written way back in 1989, had a short list of words that
had appeared to be useful, namely "must", "should", and "may". These
definitions were updated and further refined in BCP 14, "Key words
for use in RFCs to Indicate Requirement Levels," which is widely
referenced in current Internet standards. BCP 14 also specifically
defines "must not" and "should not", and lists a few synonyms for the
In a standard, in order to make it clear that you're using the
definitions from BCP 14, you should do two things. First, refer to
BCP 14 (although most people refer to it as RFC 2119, because that's
what BCP 14 tells you to do), so that the reader knows how you're
defining your words. Second, you should point out which instances of
the words you are using come from BCP 14. The accepted practice for
this is to capitalize the words. That is why you see "MUST" and
"SHOULD" capitalized in IETF standards.
BCP 14 is a short document, and should be read by everyone who is
reading or writing IETF standards. Although the definitions of
"must" and "must not" are fairly clear, the definitions of "should"
and "should not" cause a great deal of discussion in many WGs. When
reviewing an Internet Draft, the question is often raised, "should
that sentence have a MUST or a SHOULD in it?" This is, indeed, a
very good question, because specifications shouldn't have gratuitous
MUSTs, but also should not have SHOULDs where a MUST is needed for
interoperability. This goes to the crux of the question of over-
specifying and under-specifying requirements in standards.
6.4.2 Normative References in Standards
One aspect of writing IETF standards that trips up many novices (and
quite a few long-time IETF folk) is the rule about how to make
"normative references" to non-IETF documents or to other RFCs in a
standard. A normative reference is a reference to a document that
must be followed in order to implement the standard. A non-normative
reference is one that is helpful to an implementor but is not needed.
As we noted above, a "MUST" specification would certainly be
normative, so any reference needed to implement the "MUST" would be
normative. A "SHOULD" or "MAY" specification is not necessarily
normative, but it could be normative based on what is being required.
There is definitely room for debate here!
An IETF standard may make a normative reference to any other
standards-track RFC that is at the same standards level or higher, or
to any "open standard" that has been developed outside the IETF. The
"same level or higher" rule means that before a standard can move
from Proposed to Draft, all of the RFCs for which there is a
normative reference must also be at Draft or Internet Standard. This
rule gives implementors assurance that everything in a Draft Standard
or Internet Standard is quite stable, even the things referenced
outside the standard. This can also delay the publication of the
Draft or Internet Standard by many months (sometimes even years)
while the other documents catch up.
There is no hard and fast rule about what is an "open standard," but
generally this means a stable standard that anyone can get a copy of
(although they might have to pay for it) and that was made by a
generally recognized standards group. If the external standard
changes, you have to reference the particular instantiation of that
standard in your specification, as with a designation of the date of
the standard. Some external standards bodies don't make old
standards available, which is a problem for IETF standards that need
to be used in the future. When in doubt, a draft author should ask
the WG chair or appropriate Area Director if a particular external
standard can be used in an IETF standard.
6.4.3 IANA Considerations
More and more IETF standards require the registration of various
protocol parameters, such as named options in the protocol. As we
noted in Section 1.2.4, the main registry for all IETF standards has
long been IANA. Because of the large and diverse kinds of registries
that standards require, IANA needs to have specific information about
how to register parameters, what not to register, who (if anyone)
will decide what is to be registered, and so on.
Anyone writing an Internet standard that may need an IANA registry
needs to read BCP 26, "Guidelines for Writing an IANA Considerations
Section in RFCs," which describes how RFC authors should properly ask
for IANA to start or take over a registry. IANA also maintains
registries that were started long before BCP 26 was produced.
6.4.4 Security Considerations
One thing that's required in every RFC is a "Security Considerations"
section. This section should describe any known vulnerabilities of
the protocol, possible threats, and mechanisms or strategies to
address them. Don't gloss over this section -- in particular, don't
say "here's our protocol, if you want security, just use IPSEC".
This won't do at all, because it doesn't answer the question of how
IPSEC interacts with your protocol, and vice versa. Be sure to check
with your Working Group chair if you're not sure how to handle this
section in your draft.
6.4.5 Patents in IETF Standards
The problems of intellectual property have cropped up more and more
often in the past few years, particularly with respect to patents.
The goal of the IETF is to have its standards widely used and
validated in the marketplace. If creating a product that uses a
standard requires getting a license for a patent, people are less
likely to implement the standard. Not surprisingly, then, the
general rule has been "use good non-patented technology where
Of course, this isn't always possible. Sometimes patents appear
after a standard has been established. Sometimes there's a patent on
something that is so valuable that there isn't a non-patented
equivalent. Sometimes, the patent holder is generous and promises to
give all implementors of a standard a royalty-free license to the
patent, thereby making it almost as easy to implement as it would
have been if no patent existed.
The IETF's methods for dealing with patents in standards are a
subject of much debate. You can read about the official rules in BCP
9, but you should assume that the application of those rules is
flexible and depends on the type of patent, the patent holder, and
the availability of alternate technologies that are not encumbered by
Patent holders who freely allow their patents to be used by people
implementing IETF standards often get a great deal of good will from
the folks in the IETF. Such generosity is more common than you might
think. For example, RFC 1822 is a license from IBM for one of its
security patents, and the security community has responded very
favorably to IBM for this (whereas a number of other companies have
made themselves pariahs for their intractability on their security
If you are writing an Internet Draft and you know of a patent that
applies to the technology you're writing about, don't list the patent
in the document. Instead, send a note to the IETF Secretariat
(email@example.com) about the patent or other intellectual
property rights. The note will be published on the IETF IPR web page
(http://www.ietf.org/ipr.html). Intellectual property rights aren't
mentioned in RFCs because RFCs never change after they are published,
but knowledge of IPR can change at any time. Therefore, an IPR list
in a RFC could be incomplete and mislead the reader. BCP 9 provides
specific text that should be added to RFCs where the author knows of
6.5 Informational and Experimental RFCs
As we noted earlier, not all RFCs are standards. In fact, plenty of
important RFCs are not on the standards track at all. Currently,
there are two designations for RFCs that are not meant to be
standards: Informational, like the Tao, and Experimental. (There is
actually a third designation, Historical, but that is reserved for
documents that were on the standards track and have been removed due
to lack of current use, or that more recent thinking indicates the
technology is actually harmful to the Internet.)
The role of Informational RFCs is often debated in the IETF. Many
people like having them, particularly for specifications that were
created outside the IETF but are referenced by IETF documents. They
are also useful for specifications that are the precursors for work
being done by IETF Working Groups. On the other hand, some people
refer to Informational RFCs as "standards" even though the RFCs are
not standards, usually to fool the gullible public about something
that the person is selling or supporting. When this happens, the
debate about Informational RFCs is renewed.
Experimental RFCs are for specifications that may be interesting, but
for which it is unclear if there will be much interest in
implementing them. That is, a specification might solve a problem,
but if it is not clear many people think that the problem is
important, or think that they will bother fixing the problem with the
specification, the specification might be labeled an Experimental
RFC. If, later, the specification becomes popular, it can be re-
issued as a standards-track RFC. Experimental RFCs are also used to
get people to experiment with a technology that looks like it might
be standards track material, but for which there are still unanswered
7. How to Contribute to the IETF -- What You Can Do
Read -- Review the Internet Drafts in your area of expertise,
and comment on them in the Working Groups.
Participate in the discussion in a friendly, helpful
fashion, with the goal being the best Internet
standards possible. Listen much more than you speak.
Implement -- Write programs that use the current Internet
standards. The standards aren't worth much unless
they are available to Internet users. Implement even
the "minor" standards, since they will become less
minor if they appear in more software. Report any
problems you find with the standards to the
appropriate Working Group so that the standard can be
clarified in later revisions. One of the oft-quoted
tenets of the IETF is "running code wins," so you can
help support the standards you want to become more
widespread by creating more running code.
Write -- Edit or co-author Internet Drafts in your area of
expertise. Do this for the benefit of the Internet
community, not to get your name (or, even worse, your
company's name) on a document. Draft authors are
subject to all kinds of technical (and sometimes
personal) criticism; receive it with equanimity and
use it to improve your draft in order to produce the
best and most interoperable standard.
7.1 What Your Company Can Do
Share -- Avoid proprietary standards. If you are an
implementor, exhibit a strong preference for IETF
standards. If the IETF standards aren't as good as
the proprietary standards, work to make the IETF
standards better. If you're a purchaser, avoid
products that use proprietary standards that compete
with the open standards of the IETF, and tell the
companies you buy from that you are doing so.
Open Up -- If your company controls a patent that is used in an
IETF standard, convince them to make the patent
available at no cost to everyone who is implementing
the standard. In the past few years, patents have
caused a lot of serious problems for Internet
standards because they prevent some companies from
being able to freely implement the standards.
Fortunately, many companies have generously offered
unlimited licenses for particular patents in order to
help the IETF standards flourish. These companies are
usually rewarded with positive publicity for the fact
that they are not as greedy or short-sighted as other
Join -- Become a member of ISOC. More importantly, urge any
company that has benefited from the Internet to become
a corporate member of ISOC, since this has the
greatest financial benefit for the group. It will, of
course, also benefit the Internet as a whole.
8. IETF and the Outside World
8.1 IETF and Other Standards Groups
As much as many IETF participants would like to think otherwise, the
IETF does not exist in a standards vacuum. There are many (perhaps
too many) other standards organizations whose decisions affect the
Internet. There are also a fair number of standards bodies who
ignored the Internet for a long time and now want to get a piece of
In general, the IETF tries to have cordial relationships with other
significant standards bodies. This isn't always easy, since many
other bodies have very different structures than the IETF, and the
IETF is mostly run by volunteers who would probably prefer to write
standards rather than meet with representatives from other bodies.
Even so, some other standards bodies make a great effort to interact
well with the IETF despite the obvious cultural differences.
At the time of this writing, the IESG has some liaisons with large
standards bodies, including the ITU (International Telecommunication
Union), the W3C, the Unicode Consortium, the ATM Forum, and ISO-
IEC/JTC1 (The Joint Technical Committee of the International
Organization for Standardization and International Electrotechnical
Commission). The list of IETF liaisons, www.ietf.org/ietf/1iesg-
liaisons.txt, shows that there are many different liaisons to ISO-
8.2 Press Coverage of the IETF
Given that the IETF is one of the best-known bodies that is helping
move the Internet forward, it's natural for the computer press (and
even the trade press) to want to cover its actions. In recent years,
a small number of magazines have assigned reporters and editors to
cover the IETF in depth over a long period of time. These reporters
have ample scars from articles that they got wrong, incorrect
statements about the status of Internet Drafts, quotes from people
who are unrelated to the IETF work, and so on.
Major press errors fall into two categories: saying that the IETF is
considering something when in fact there is just an Internet Draft in
a Working Group, and saying that the IETF approved something when all
that happened was that an Informational RFC was published. In both
cases, the press is not fully to blame for the problem, since they
are usually alerted to the story by a company trying to get publicity
for a protocol that they developed or at least support. Of course, a
bit of research by the reporter would probably get them in contact
with someone who could straighten them out, such as a WG chair or an
Area Director. The official press contact for the IETF is the IETF
The fact that those reporters who've gotten it wrong once come back
to IETF meetings shows that it is possible to get it right
eventually. However, IETF meetings are definitely not for reporters
who are naive about the IETF process (although if you are a reporter
the fact that you are reading this document is a very good sign!).
Further, if you think that you'll get a hot story from attending an
IETF meeting, you are likely to be disappointed.
Considering all this, it's not surprising that some IETFers would
prefer to have the press stay as far away from meetings as possible.
Having a bit of press publicity for protocols that are almost near
completion and will become significant in the industry in the next
year can be a good thing. However, it is the rare reporter who can
resist over-hyping a nascent protocol as the next savior for the
Internet. Such stories do much more harm than good, both for the
readers of the article and for the IETF.
The main reason why a reporter might want to attend an IETF meeting
is not to cover hot technologies (since that can be done in the
comfort of your office by reading the mailing lists), but to meet
people face to face. Unfortunately, the most interesting people are
the ones who are also the busiest during the IETF meeting, and some
folks have a tendency to run away when they see a press badge.
However, IETF meetings are excellent places to meet and speak with
document authors and Working Group chairs; this can be quite valuable
for reporters who are covering the progress of protocols.
Reporters who want to find out about "what the IETF is doing" on a
particular topic would be well-advised to talk to more than one
person who is active on that topic in the IETF, and should probably
try to talk to the WG chair in any case. It's impossible to
determine what will happen with a draft by looking at the draft or
talking to the draft's author. Fortunately, all WGs have archives
that a reporter can look through for recent indications about what
the progress of a draft is; unfortunately, few reporters have the
time or inclination to do this kind of research. Because the IETF
doesn't have a press liaison, a magazine or newspaper that runs a
story with errors won't hear directly from the IETF and therefore
often won't know what they did wrong, so they might easily do it
Pronounced "dow", Tao is the basic principle behind the teachings of
Lao-tse, a Chinese master. Its familiar symbol is the black and
white Yin-Yang circle. Taoism conceives the universe as a single
organism, and human beings as interdependent parts of a cosmic whole.
Tao is sometimes translated "the way," but according to Taoist
philosophy the true meaning of the word cannot be expressed in words.
9.2 Useful E-mail Addresses
firstname.lastname@example.org Requests for agenda slots at IETF
email@example.com General questions about the IETF
firstname.lastname@example.org Questions about registration, meeting
locations, and fees
email@example.com Requests to join/leave IETF lists
firstname.lastname@example.org Questions for the Secretariat
email@example.com Web questions/comments
firstname.lastname@example.org Internet Draft submissions and queries
email@example.com Where to send Working Group minutes
firstname.lastname@example.org IETF Proceedings Coordinator
email@example.com Internet Assigned Numbers Authority
firstname.lastname@example.org RFC Editor
9.3 Useful Documents and Files
The IETF web site, http://www.ietf.org, is the best source for
information about meetings, Working Groups, Internet Drafts, RFCs,
IETF e-mail addresses, and much more. Click on "Additional
Information" to find a variety of helpful links. Internet Drafts and
other documents are also available in the "ietf" directory on
anonymous FTP sites worldwide. For a listing of these sites, see:
Check the IESG web pages, http://www.ietf.org/iesg.html, to find
up-to-date information about drafts processed, RFCs published, and
documents in Last Call, as well as the monthly IETF status reports.
9.4 Acronyms and Abbreviations Used in the Tao
AD Area Director
BCP Best Current Practice
BOF Birds Of a Feather
FAQ Frequently Asked Question(s)
FYI For Your Information (RFC)
IAB Internet Architecture Board
IANA Internet Assigned Numbers Authority
ICANN Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers,
I-D Internet Draft
IESG Internet Engineering Steering Group,
IETF Internet Engineering Task Force, http://www.ietf.org/
INET Internet Society Conference,
IRTF Internet Research Task Force, http://www.irtf.org/
ISO International Organization for Standardization,
Joint Technical Committee of the International
Organization for Standardization and International
Electrotechnical Commission, http://www.jtc1.org/
ISOC Internet Society, http://www.isoc.org
ITU International Telecommunication Union, http://www.itu.int
RFC Request For Comments
STD Standard (RFC)
W3C World Wide Web Consortium, http://www.w3.org/
WG Working Group
9.5 Documents Cited in the Tao
BCP 9 "The Internet Standards Process"
BCP 10 "IAB and IESG Selection, Confirmation, and Recall Process:
Operation of the Nominating and Recall Committees"
BCP 11 "The Organizations Involved in the IETF Standards Process"
BCP 14 "Key words for use in RFCs to Indicate Requirement Levels"
BCP 22 "Guide for Internet Standards Writers"
BCP 25 "IETF Working Group Guidelines and Procedures"
BCP 26 "Guidelines for Writing an IANA Considerations Section
RFC 1123 "Requirements for Internet Hosts -- Application and
RFC 1796 "Not All RFCs are Standards"
RFC 2223 "Instructions to RFC Authors"
"Considerations for Internet Drafts,"
"Guidelines to Authors of Internet-Drafts,"
Section 6.4.5 explains why each RFC is required to have a Security
Considerations section, and gives some idea of what it should and
should not contain. Other than that information, this document does
not touch on Internet security.
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