The following text is copyright 1998 by Network World, permission is hearby given for reproduction, as long as attribution is given and this notice is included.

A convergence side effect

By Scott Bradner

Convergence is all the rage these days. IP is talking over the telecommunications world. Voice, video and data are all seen migrating to the Internet or at least to be carried over Internet Protocol (IP) networks. In the last few months there have been major announcements from many of the large long distance telephone companies, telephone equipment suppliers, cable TV companies as well as from Internet service providers and data networking equipment vendors about the wonderful products and services which will soon be changing our world. While not everyone subscribes to the cult of IP inevitability, it sure seems to be gaining popularity.

The telecommunications area is rich in standards organizations. Some of these organizations have been around more than a hundred years. In addition to the internationally chartered traditional standards organizations such as the International Telecommunication Union (ITU - and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO - there are a number of regional bodies such as the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI -, many nationally-based organizations such as the American National Standards Institute (ANSI - and consortiums such as the ATM Forum (

Historically, if one can assert that 10 years is a history, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF - has been the primary standards development organization for IP-related protocols but there are quite a few other organizations which are starting to think they should play a role.

Over the years the IETF has established relationships with a number of the other standards bodies including ISO, ITU and the ATM Forum. We have liaisons with the ATM Forum and with different Study Groups within ISO. The Internet Society (ISOC, the umbrella organization for the IETF, and the ITU have exchanged memberships in each other's organizations.

The relationships between the IETF and the other standards organizations has been quite congenial but have generally not been all that close over the last few years but I expect the relationships to get closer and sometimes more contentious as the convergence bandwagon gains momentum. Closer because the various organizations are getting ever more dependent on each others' technology and more contentious when two or more organizations are working on the same problem.

Cooperation between organizations can work very well as was shown in the joint IETF-ITU Internet-FAX effort earlier this year and has just been reinforced by the development of the joint IETF-ITU process document announced last week.

In the ideal case, two or more organizations agree on a single standards document, processed by one of the organizations, and referred to by the others. Unfortunately this will not always happen. There will be cases where different organizations will disagree on the problem definition or technical solution to a particular problem. The result will be competing standards, not an ideal situation, but better than technological stagnation. The marketplace will decide which solution better meets the actual user requirements.

After years of being mostly ignored by the traditional standards community and returning the favor, the IETF must now figure out how to work nicely with others without compromising the quality of its work.

disclaimer: It is rare that Harvard has the problem of being ignored but I know of no Harvard statement on the above topic.