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Why can't we all get along?

By Scott Bradner

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 Telecommunications Union (ITU-T) IP Telccom meeting. The ITU-T scheduled their meeting in the same hotel that the IETF used and for the week after the IETF so that people could attend both meetings.

One of the recurring questions this week is that of cooperation between the growing number of standards bodies dealing with aspects of the Internet protocol suite. Just about all of the work of the IETF and World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), are Internet related and have been for a number of years. Until recently the Internet has been a sometimes important but peripheral concern for a number of other groups. In particular the ITU-T has been working on some IP telephony standards such as H.323 for the past few years and the International Standards Organization (ISO) has been working on Internet routing.

With the explosion of the assumption of the convergence of just about all of the communications in the world, from cell phones to video on demand, onto IP the question of 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 in the plenary when the question came up "them is us." Many of the IETF attendees are regular participants in the work of other standards groups. This was even more the case at this IETF meeting due to the ITU-T meeting the following week. But many standards groups are nervous about that type of cooperation since it is quite hard to tell if an opinion or proposal is coming with some flavor of authority or review from another body or is just the opinion of a single individual. In addition the IETF has structural issues with receiving this type of official communication since we 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 5 years on the issue of cooperation. One of the biggest rounds of applause during the plenary session was for Fred Baker, the IETF Chair, when he mentioned how well cooperation was going between the IETF and ITU.

Cooperation can be a good thing if both sides understand how to do it, which the ITU does, but is not a panacea. Sometimes it works very well, for example, the ITU and IETF cooperated on defining Internet FAX and were able to agree on a single standard used by both organizations. But there are also times when the underlying architectural assumptions of the two groups are different enough that there is no way to agree on a single approach and the marketplace will have to be the final arbitrator.

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

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.