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How Internet standards are born

January 8, 2010 - 1 Comment

I recently had the chance to catch up with Eliot Lear, a Consulting Engineer at Cisco who has been involved in the open standards movement for over 20 years. Eliot has submitted eight Requests for Comments (RFC), the documents that form the basis of Internet standards. Over my time here, I’ve come to understand how important standards efforts are to Cisco, and I wanted to find out more from one of our very own experts. Here Eliot’s answers my questions.

What impact do networking standards have on the world?
Standards help us (and our technology) talk to each other. You can’t communicate with other people if you don’t know a common language. This is a personal issue for me because I live in Switzerland.  When I first got here, I didn’t know a word of German, much less Swiss German, so I had to rely on the few people who knew English to communicate with me. Standards break down those barriers and provide a universal language. They allow for Borderless Networks.

What are the most important standards organizations that IT networking people should pay attention to?
That’s a difficult question, because there are quite a number of such organizations.  For networking, the International Engineering Task Force (IETF), Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) are clearly important, but so are many others such as the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). 

How are standards born?
The answer to this question depends, of course, on the rules of the individual standards body.  The principal Internet standards body is the Internet Engineering Task Force. Anyone can participate in the IETF, and standards coming out of this body are freely available to the public. The standards process, in a nutshell, is this: one writes an Internet Draft RFC and sends it to the IETF for review. The work can directly become a standard, but more often than not, it’s developed further by an IETF working group.  After a time, the working group then decides whether or not to approve the draft. The broader community is then given a final opportunity to comment. The Internet Engineering Steering Group makes a final judgment as to whether or not there is at least rough consensus to publish the edited document as an Internet standard.  A key factor that sways opinion within the IETF is whether or not there is running code.

Generally, the individual who originates the work will be the primary document editor. This person usually has a good deal of influence since he/she has written the initial code or works at a company which has written code. Vendors are only represented insofar as there are individuals associated with vendors involved in the deliberations.

How is Cisco involved in this process?
Standards leadership involves several aspects. On the one hand, it means sending work into standards bodies – providing the actual Internet-Drafts that become standards. In the IETF, people who work at Cisco have authored 855 RFCs out of just under 6000 total. By comparison, employees of another leading vendor have issued only 58.

Standards leadership is also about taking on significant roles in standards organizations. In the IETF, Cisco employees outnumber the combined total of employees from the next two networking vendors. We’re members of the Internet Engineering Steering Group in the IETF. We’re on the Internet Society’s Board of Trustees. We’re ITU rapporteurs and vice-rapporteurs.

What key innovations has Cisco been heavily involved in bringing to standards?
To name a few:
    MPLS – Multiprotocol Label Switching
    BGP – Border Gateway Protocol
    SIP – Session Initiation Protocol
    SNMP – Simple Network Management Protocol
    DKIM – DomainKeys Identified Mail

Cisco is also working on scaling the core of the Internet by separating Locator addresses from Identifier addresses. The name of this effort is called LISP. LISP is a new routing design where we can incrementally upgrade the core Internet routing architecture without having a “field day” to change large parts of the infrastructure. LISP brings to the Internet what Local Cell-Phone Number Portability brought to the cellular network. 

What’s driving Cisco’s commitment to standards?
We at Cisco believe that the Internet couldn’t operate without standards. As the leader in the networking space bringing our own innovations to standards, it’s really part of our culture. Our customers ultimately benefit from openness and interoperability. But it’s important to keep in mind that solutions take time to be developed and tested before they’re ready for the standards process. 

Who are the most important people in standards development?
The most important person involved in the process is the customer. Even if the customer isn’t at the meeting, we keep our focus on the customer to make sure we provide functionality that they will find helpful.

Has the process by which standards are set changed with the development of new networking technologies that help in collaborative work? 
We are seeing some gradual changes. WebEx is increasingly being used in face-to-face meetings. Many working groups use WebEx or similar technology for conference calls. Instant messaging is also popular. 

What are the consequences of non-compliance to standards?
As I alluded to earlier, the consequence of not following standards is an inability to communicate with others.  Now if only I could learn Swiss German faster!

Have any other questions on standards? Drop us a comment, or stay tuned for more to come from other Cisco standards experts.

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  1. How can one get involve with your company and netwrk.