Announced yesterday afternoon: I've been appointed to the Internet Architecture Board for a two-year term starting this month. The IAB is a twelve-member group that does technical leadership and oversight of the Internet Engineering Task Force, the organization that's developed many of the standards that are critical to the operation of the Internet.
I thank the Nominating Committee for giving me the opportunity to be of service.
And I'd like to explain, for my readers who don't know, what the IETF and other standards organizations do (the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the Open Mobile Alliance (OMA), the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), as well as other organizations, develop standards as part of their missions), and why it's important.
Consider your toaster.
No, really; bear with me here, and let's assume we're all in North America for now. You can buy a toaster at any store, from any manufacturer. You can plug it into any power socket in your house, or in mine, or at the office, or over at the diner. You can stick bread in it and turn it on, and it will toast the bread. The controls may differ, from toaster to toaster, the toasters themselves may look different (perhaps very different, as a popup toaster vs a toaster-oven), they may accomodate different shapes and sizes of bread. But there's a lot of compatibility here.
Moreover, you can also buy a blender and plug it into the same power socket. It will perform an entirely different function, but it, too, will work — the plug will fit into the socket, and it will accept the same electric power.
And that all works because of standards. There's a standard for the size and shape of the power plug and socket. There's a standard for the voltage and cycle frequency of the power. These and other standards allow us to produce similar devices that are compatible with the same infrastructure. That there are standards means that you don't have to buy all your appliances from the same company. We have standards for telephones (the size and shape of the plug, what each wire is used for, the way rings and audio are sent, the tones used to make calls), for radio and television (the way the signals are transmitted, the definitions of the channels and broadcast frequencies), and for many other things.
Now let's no longer pretend we're all in North America. The power plugs are different in the UK, in mainland Europe, in Japan. The power system is different too, with different voltages and different cycle frequencies. Radio signals are broadcast on different frequencies, television signals have different formats (PAL vs NTSC). There are still standards, but they're regional, and a television bought in France won't work in the US.
Computer networking standards are a similar concept, but they're worldwide, with little or no regional variation (but there are some tricky issues dealing with the many languages and character sets). The standards operate at many layers. When you plug your computer's ethernet cable into a network router, the physical plug and wire operate using one set of standards. The basic electrical communication uses another, turning that electrical communication into packets of information uses another, getting that information to the right computer at the other end uses another, determining the meaning of the information uses another, and so on. When you visit gmail.com in your web browser and use it to send email to me, you and Gmail are actually using the following standards and more:
- 802.3, the set of IEEE standards for wired ethernet
- TCP, Transmission Control Protocol
- IP, Internet Protocol
- DNS, Domain Name Services
- URL, Uniform Resource Locators
- HTTP, HyperText Transfer Protocol
- HTML, HyperText Markup Language
- SMTP, Simple Mail Transfer Protocol
- RFC2822, Internet Message Format
- MIME, Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions
That list comprises standards from IETF, IEEE, and W3C. Together, they allow us and our service providers to buy computers, networking devices, and software from many sources, and to be confident that they'll interoperate. And they're all created by a bunch of techies who experiment, prototype, discuss, and refine the protocols and formats so that they meet a reasonable set of needs and work together to let us put together the Internet as you know it.
We spend much of our time discussing the standards on mailing lists, and we meet in person periodically for some higher-bandwidth discussion. The IETF meets three times each year — the next of which is the week of 18 March in Prague — for a week that can be intensely busy when you're involved in several working groups, working on several standards (and which just got busier for me, with the IAB commitment).
We do it because we're excited about what this technology can do, and we know that it works best when it's standardized.