Are IETF Standards Free? This is the third standards development model I am reviewing as part of my presentation at the SES (Society for Standards Professionals) Conference in Denver next week. As SDOs (Standards Developing Organizations) consider distribution options, understanding models that do not charge users for standards is important. And in my opinion, the IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) model is the only one where standards are really free!
In this discussion, I will really simplify the IETF standards process in order to make my points. But if you are interested in the organization, their mission, and their real standards development protocol, you need to take a look at two of their web pages. The first is the “Getting Started in the IETF” page for newcomers to the IETF. The second is the “The Tao of the IETF: A Novice’s Guide to the Internet Engineering Task Force.”
The IETF is not a traditional standards developing organization. It does not have dues and participation is free (except for attendance at any of the 3 annual meetings which do have a fee). Documents generated by the IETF are called RFCs (Requests for Comments). Some become standards, many don’t.
RFCs can be authored by a single individual or by a group. Usually they are proposed within the structure of one of the many IETF working group. Discussion may ensue, with commenting and revision being an essential part of the process. A draft that has been through a number of updates may then be considered for adoption as an RFC. Eventually, some RFCs are elevated to the status of BCPs (Best Current Practices) and some become Standards (STDs). To learn more about this, take a look at RFC 2026, “The Internet Standards Process – Revision 3.”
All RFCs are freely available on the Internet. Of course, there are certain quirks that you need to be aware of. An RFC that has been replaced with a newer revision will not have any indication that it is out-of-date. You need to learn how the documents are kept and where to search in order to make sure you get the latest edition of a standard.
Also, you can imagine that over the years there have been plenty of attempts to create RFCs for topics that are of low interest to the community or attempts to derail Working Group projects. So there are protocols in place to make sure that the IETF stays focused on areas where consensus is important to the development of the Internet.
There are some things to note when you look at the IETF, their publications, and their processes. Because the group deals with the Internet, technology tools that make collaboration and consensus possible at a distance have been adopted by the IETF from the very beginning. By relying heavily of open source tools and protocols, the group keeps costs to a minimum.
Also, since the work is highly technical in nature, participants really are “birds of a feather.” And since all work is done on a volunteer basis, this usually means that only those directly involved with a particular aspect of Internet technology will be part of the appropriate working group.
How does this model differ from the traditional SDO protocol? The constraints of “good standards development practices” as typlified by ANSI protocols make administration of the standards authoring process essential. The IETF model does not meet ANSI requirements. Right out of the gate, the need for due process, wide participation in authoring, and maintenance over the lifetime of the standard creates challenges the IETF does not have. Traditional standards are expected to be reviewed once every 5 years. Revision is often necessary. All these things take money.
Are IETF Standards Free? As you can see, the IETF RFC process and distribution practices are indeed without formal costs. The IETF is an unusual and unique organization in the world of standards developers. Yet this extraordinary model for consensus and documentation does offer other SDOs an opportunity to look at an entirely different way of operating. Over time, there is no doubt that some of the IETF practices will be adopted by the traditional SDO community.