29 October 2021 | 3 min read

What Is IETF and What Does It Do?

The Internet Engineering Task Force creates and supports the internet, but do you know how IETF works and how it is structured? Keep reading to learn more.

what is IETF

The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) is a non-profit open standards organization that develops internet standards. It’s an international community of network designers, operators, vendors and researchers cooperating in a wide variety of working groups.

This essential body aims to develop open technical standards for the global internet using open processes. To ensure transparency and accessibility to the information, IETF publishes all the Request for Comments (RFC) documentation publicly. 

The Internet Engineering Task Force deals primarily with TCP/IP standards, or the Transmission Control Protocol and Internet Protocols. These protocols are the best-known standards of the internet suite that help improve interconnectivity. TCP sends data in the form of an unstructured flow of bytes, while IP addresses allow networks to communicate with each other.

Fundamentally, the task force oversees the internet architecture and the implementation of internet protocols. It has helped build the internet as we know it today.

What Is IETF’s mission? 

In the most simple terms, the primary work of the IETF is to ensure that the internet works better. The organization does this by creating relevant and high-quality technical documents that can change how everyone uses, designs and manages the internet. 

It’s important to note that IETF has specific cardinal principles it adheres to:

  • Technical competence
  • Volunteer core
  • Open process
  • Rough consensus
  • Ownership of protocols
A list of IETF principles, including volunteer core and rough consensus.
IETF principles

How IETF operates

Although IETF doesn’t have formal members, it is a large open international community that focuses on the evolution of the internet architecture and the running of the internet overall.

Two organizations assist IETF in its technical work:

  • The Internet Architecture Board (IAB)
  • The Internet Research Task Force (IRTF)

IAB – Internet Architecture Board – is responsible for providing architectural oversight and long-range technical direction that helps IETF in its internet development efforts. The Internet Research Task Force promotes research concerned with the evolution of the internet. 

Undoubtedly, IETF and its services are vital for the smooth operation of the internet. The open standards it works on are one of the most important cornerstones of the web. They enable devices, applications and services to cooperate using numerous networks.

Tree graph representing the structure of the Internet Society.
The Internet Society structure

History of IETF

The Internet Engineering Task Force was founded in San Francisco in 1986. It was first sponsored by the federal government of the US. In 1993, the organization became part of the Internet Society. This non-profit organization operates with the mission to improve and evolve the global internet for the benefit of humankind. 

In 2018, the Internet Society created the IETF Administration LLC, a new IETF LLC that would administer the Internet Engineering Task Force. 

The first chair of IETF was Mike Corrigan. In March 2021, Eggert Lars became the current chair. The organization’s Nominating Committee is responsible for picking new chairs for a term of 2 years.

IETF meetings

IETF started holding public meetings every quarter soon after its founding but moved to a new format in 1991. Now, IETF holds meetings three times a year

The initial forums only had a dozen or so people, but the attendance grew in scope throughout the years. The highest number of participants was 2,810 attendees in December 2000. The attendance dropped afterward and now attains around 1,200 participants.

Over time, the main operations of the organization changed considerably. However, all processes are open for debate. All attendees can make propositions for reviews and tests. All approved internet standards become public.

Flow chart demonstrating the IETF publication process.
The process of IETF publication

IETF’s working groups

IETF is a large open international community of network designers, vendors, researchers, operators and other contributors. When it comes to the technical work they have to do, they are divided into Working Groups. WGs are the central bodies developing technical standards, IETF specifications and guidelines. 

Each WG serves under a charter that describes the several areas it needs to deal with. For example, these areas may be focused on security, privacy or routing. There are around 100 Working Groups at any given moment, and each has an appointed chairperson and several co-chairs, when necessary.

The role of Area Director in IETF

According to their subject matter, all IETF Working Groups are organized into specific areas, and area directors (ADs) oversee each area. Other members are part of the body as well, including liaisons from the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, the central coordinator of Internet resources. ADs also participate in the appointment of the chairs. 

All area directors are part of the Internet Engineering Steering Group (IESG) that oversees the day-to-day management of IETF and completes the final review of all proposed standards. The General Area Director of the IESG is also the chair of the IETF.

The meetings of these groups are always open, and they can take place in real-world locations or via mailing lists. All IETF standards proposed here are passed through an informal voting procedure that’s not set in stone. Once the work is completed, the WGs disband.