Bradner's column: Why can't we all get along?

I'm writing this column in a bright pink hotel near Walt Disney World on the Sunday between the 43rd Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) meeting and the International Telecommunication Union technical standards group's (ITU-T) IP Telecom meeting.

In the spirit of cooperation, the ITU-T scheduled its meeting for the week after the IETF event and held it in the same hotel so people could attend both meetings. Cooperation between the growing number of standards bodies dealing with different aspects of the Internet protocol suite was one of the topics of conversation at the IETF meeting and promised to be a big issue at the ITU-T gathering.

Just about all the work done by the IETF and World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is Internet-related and has been for years.

For other groups, the Internet has been a sometimes important issue but often a peripheral one. Among these groups are the ITU-T, which has been working on H.323 and other IP telephony standards for the past few years, and the International Standards Organisation (ISO), which has been working on Internet routing standards.

With so many people focused on the convergence of voice, data and video traffic onto IP networks, cooperation between standards bodies has become an ever more important concern.

At one level, cooperation between standards bodies can be easy. As the W3C's Jim Getties put it during the IETF plenary when the issue of cooperation came up: "Them is us." In other words, many IETF attendees regularly participate in other standards groups.

But many standards groups are nervous about such cooperation. That's because it can be hard to tell if an opinion or proposal represents another standards body's official stand or is just the opinion of an individual. The IETF has issues with receiving official communication from other standards groups, because we at the IETF treat everything as if it comes from individuals and give no additional weight to official statements.

The IETF has come a long way in the last five years on the cooperation front.

Fred Baker, the IETF chairman, received one of the biggest rounds of applause during the recent meeting's plenary session when he mentioned how well the IETF and ITU have been working together. Cooperation can be a good thing if both sides understand how to do it, which the ITU does. For example, the ITU and IETF were able to agree on a single Internet fax standard. However, working together is not a panacea. There are times when the underlying architectural assumptions of the two groups are so different there is no way to agree on a single approach. In these cases, the marketplace must be the final arbitrator.

I do not expect that working out the balance between turf and cooperation will be easy, but it is important, and it will be an ongoing issue and occasionally will become quite a bitter one.

Disclaimer: Harvard, like many universities, has been defined as a turf battle over parking spaces being fought under a common name. But the above battle has nothing to do with Harvard.

Bradner is a consultant with Harvard University's University Information Systems. He can be reached at sob@harvard.edu.

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