Internet Engineering Task Force

IETF logo. Source: Accessed 2017-03-28.
IETF logo. Source: Accessed 2017-03-28.

The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) can be described "as a large open international community of network designers, operators, vendors, and researchers concerned with the evolution of the Internet architecture and the smooth operation of the Internet." Equivalently, "IETF is a loosely self-organized group of people who contribute to the engineering and evolution of Internet technologies. It is the principal body engaged in the development of new Internet standard specifications. The IETF is unusual in that it exists as a collection of happenings, but is not a corporation and has no board of directors, no members, and no dues."

IETF is driven by individuals, not companies or governments. Although IETF produces standards (and non-standards documents), it's not called a standards body. IETF has been successful due to the openness in its processes.


  • Why do we need IETF?

    The Internet is complex: diversity of applications, variety of protocols, multiple vendors, different implementations, massive scale of deployment, worldwide reach across geographies, and so on. If two endpoints on the Internet have to communicate and be understood, they need to talk the same language. IETF fulfils the role of standardizing architecture and protocols for the Internet. This enables things to work together despite the diversity of vendors, implementations and protocols.

    The goal of IETF is to make the Internet work better. It does this by making relevant protocol standards, best current practices and informational documents.

  • What are cardinal principles that guide IETF?

    To fulfil its mission, IETF follows these principles:

    • Open process: All activities of IETF are open for public participation. All published documents are openly accessible.
    • Technical competence: Quality is ensured by staying within domains where members have technical competence.
    • Volunteer core: Work is done on voluntary basis by those who believe in IETF's mission.
    • Protocol ownership: When IETF takes ownership of a protocol it also becomes responsible for it.
  • What does openness mean for IETF?

    Openness within IETF takes three forms:

    • Open standards: Anyone can join mailing lists, Working Groups and attend meetings. Anyone can create and upload a new document. Anyone can suggest modifications to proposals. The process of standardization is open to all without fees or formal membership.
    • Open documents: All documents are easily and freely accessible on the Internet.
    • Open source: Working implementations and proven interoperability are important before a proposal becomes a standard. Such implementations are open sourced.

    While other organizations or standards bodies may be open in terms of publication and ownership, IETF adopts the most open approach that includes development and participation.

  • Why has IETF been successful so far?
    Comparison of OSI model and Internet TCP/IP model. Source: Khabat 2015.
    Comparison of OSI model and Internet TCP/IP model. Source: Khabat 2015.

    When Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) standards were all in rage in the mid-1980s, the Internet and its protocols were part of a government-funded research project. The Internet of the 1980s did not carry much commercial or for-profit traffic. Yet by early 1990s, the Internet model, not the OSI model, became the de facto architecture for the Internet. This, and the Internet's continued success, can be attributed to the open working model and organization of IETF.

    Besides openness, IETF takes a bottom-up approach. In other words, people get together to create Working Groups. Neither IAB or IESG create WGs on their own. IETF does not require unanimity. Typically a consensus is achieved if 80-90% of people agree to a proposal. There's no voting but a show of hands may be used. Working implementations that interoperate prove that the proposal works in practice. This forces WGs to simplify protocols and even take out stuff that doesn't work.

    Dr. David C. Clark of MIT summed it up nicely,

    We reject kings, presidents, and voting. We believe in rough consensus and running code.
  • Do authors have copyright over the documents they produce?

    All IETF are publicly available on the Internet. They can be downloaded free of cost by anyone. IETF gets a limited copyright to publish and derive from the documents. Once published on IETF, authors cannot withdraw the documents at a later point. All other rights are with authors.

  • What's the organizational structure within IETF?
    IETF organizational structure. Source: White 2015.
    IETF organizational structure. Source: White 2015.

    Closely associated with IETF are the following:

    • Internet Society (ISOC) : IETF by itself is not a legal entity. It can be seen as an organized activity of the Internet Society (ISOC). ISOC provides the legal umbrella for IETF and funds its activities.
    • Internet Research Task Force (IRTF) : While IETF focuses on near term objectives and making standards, its sister organization IRTF looks at longer term research. It's activities are managed by the Internet Research Steering Group (IRSG).
    • Internet Architecture Board (IAB) : IETF and IRTF are overseen by the IAB. IAB focuses on architectural issues and procedural issues. It also manages all external relations. IAB was previously called the Internet Activities Board. It is chartered by ISOC.
    • Independent Submissions Editorial Board (ISEB) : Led by the Independent Submissions Editor (ISE), this board reviews and publishes documents relevant to the Internet but outside the scope of IETF/IRTF/IAB.
    • Internet Engineering Steering Group (IESG) : IESG manages IETF activities and processes. It approves the standards produced by IETF. IAB advises IESG.
    • Nominating Committee (NomCom) : NomCom nominates suitable candidates to serve on IESG and IAB.
  • Which external organizations are associated with IETF?

    IETF works with other standards bodies because its work often builds upon or interfaces with other standards. For example, IETF cooperates with IANA (Internet numbers), IEEE (Ethernet), ETSI (Cellular Radio), ITU-T (PHY layer standards), ISO/IEC (UTF-16, mime types), W3C (HTML), and more.

  • How to become a member of IETF?

    IETF has no formal membership. Anyone who joins a mailing list or attends an IETF meeting can be called a member.

  • What are types of documents produced by IETF?
    IETF document types and their transitions. Source:
    IETF document types and their transitions. Source:

    Broadly, documents can be either Internet-Drafts (I-Ds) or RFCs. Internet-Drafts are temporary documents that are valid for six months. Because of their temporary nature, they are not to be cited. Anyone can start such a draft even without a Working Group. They have no formal status until they become adopted by a WG or becomes an RFC.

    RFC originally stood for Request for Comments but today (March 2017) a published RFC cannot be modified. An RFC could be supplemented by errata. In fact, Internet-Drafts are more in the spirit of documents requesting comments.

    When Internet-Drafts become RFCs, they fall into one of these categories:

    • Non-standards documents: Informational, Historic, Experimental.
    • Standards documents: Proposed Standard or Internet Standard. An intermediate Draft Standard has been discontinued since 2011.
    • Best Current Practices
  • What's the IETF standardization process?

    IETF work happens within Working Groups (WGs) that are part of a topical Area. As of March 2017, there were 7 Areas and 100+ WGs. Each Area has a couple of Area Directors (ADs). Each WG will have its set of deliverables clearly defined plus any liaison with other WGs. Except for the annual meetings, WGs do all their work via mailing lists. Documents produced by WGs are reviewed by IESG. RFC Editor publishes the final document.

    Internet-Drafts can become Proposed Standard RFCs, where they will remain for at least six months. Interoperatiblity of multiple implementations must be proven at this stage. A last call for comments is put out. Finally, it becomes an Internet Standard RFC. RFCs superseded by newer updates become Historic RFCs. Experimental RFCs are used for exploring new technology including feasibility studies. The complete process is documented as RFC 2026, BCP 9.

  • How is IETF funded?
    Funding of IETF 2008-2016. Source: IETF Endowment 2016.
    Funding of IETF 2008-2016. Source: IETF Endowment 2016.

    From the time of its inception till 1997, IETF was funded by the US government, notably ARPA, NSF, NASA and DOE. From 1998, ISOC is the main funding body for IETF. However, ISOC did fund IETF prior to this. For example, US$225K was given in 1993. Since March 1991, IETF also charges meeting fees for attendees. These are used to cover meeting expenses plus secretariat expenses.

    As of 2016, IETF operated on an annual budget of US$6million, of which about US$2million comes from ISOC In July 2016, some companies and organizations donated US$3million towards a fund called IETF Endowment. This fund's purpose is to "provide long-term stability and increased diversity for funding IETF activities and operations."

    Volunteers themselves may be self-funded or sponsored by either their employers or other sponsors.



First meeting of IETF is held with attendees from agencies funded by the US government. ARPANET's Network Working Group may be regarded as its precursor.


Fourth meeting of IETF is held for which the public is invited to attend. Since then, all meetings are open to the public.


Concept of Working Groups (WGs) is introduced.


From 1991, meetings are held thrice a year. Previously, meetings were quarterly events.


The relationship and responsibilities between IAB and IETF come under scrutiny and clarification.


ISOC is formed. ISOC is an international, membership-based non-profit organization. It also provides the legal umbrella for IETF, which IETF accepted in 1996.


IETF moves from being a US government-funded activity to one funded by Internet Society (ISOC).


US government stops direct funding to IETF. From 1998, ISOC becomes the main funding channel for IETF.


IETF Trust is established to manage copyrights.


  1. Alvestrand, H. 2004. "A Mission Statement for the IETF." RFC 3935. BCP 95. October. Accessed 2017-03-28.
  2. Borsook, Paulina. 1995. "How Anarchy Works." Wired. January 10. Accessed 2017-03-28.
  3. Bradner, S. 1996. "The Internet Standards Process -- Revision 3." RFC 2026. BCP 9. October. Accessed 2017-03-28.
  4. Bradner, Scott. 1999. "The Internet Engineering Task Force." Open Sources: Voices from the Open Source Revolution. 1st Edition, January. Accessed 2017-03-28.
  5. Cerf, Vint. 1995. "IETF and the Internet Society." Internet Society. July 18. Accessed 2017-03-28.
  6. Crocker, D. 1993. "Making Standards the IETF Way." Reprinted from StandardView, vol. 1, no. 1. Accessed 2017-03-28.
  7. Hoffman, Paul. 2012. "The Tao of IETF: A Novice's Guide to the Internet Engineering Task Force." IETF. November 2. Accessed 2017-03-28.
  8. Housley, R., D. Crocker, and E. Burger. 2011. "Reducing the Standards Track to Two Maturity Levels." RFC 6410. BCP 9. October. Accessed 2017-03-28.
  9. IETF. 2016a. "IETF History." YouTube. February 1. Accessed 2017-03-28.
  10. IETF. 2017a. "About the IETF." Accessed 2017-03-28.
  11. IETF. 2017b. "The IESG." Accessed 2017-03-28.
  12. IETF. 2017c. "IETF NomCom." Accessed 2017-03-28.
  13. IETF. 2017d. "Internet-Drafts (I-Ds)." Accessed 2017-03-28.
  14. IETF. 2017e. "Request for Comments (RFC)." Accessed 2017-03-28.
  15. IETF Datatracker. 2017. "Active IETF working groups." Accessed 2017-03-28.
  16. IETF Endowment. 2016. "Frequently Asked Questions." Accessed 2017-03-28.
  17. Internet Society. 2016. "Leading Companies and Organizations Commit over US$3M to Internet Engineering Task Force Endowment." July 20. Accessed 2017-03-28.
  18. Khabat. 2015. "Networking Model." Memrise. Accessed 2017-03-28.
  19. RFC Editor. 2017. "Independent Submissions." Accessed 2017-03-28.
  20. Russell, Andrew L. 2013. "OSI: The Internet That Wasn't." IEEE Spectrum. July 30. Accessed 2017-03-28.
  21. White, Russ. 2015. "HTIRW: IETF Organizational Structure." Packet Pushers. January 7. Accessed 2017-03-28.
  22. Wikipedia. 2016. "Internet Engineering Task Force." November 30. Accessed 2017-03-28.

Further Reading

  1. Borsook, Paulina. 1995. "How Anarchy Works." Wired. January 10. Accessed 2017-03-28.
  2. Van Beijnum, Iljitsch. 2011. "25 years of IETF: setting standards without kings or votes." Ars Technica. January 18. Accessed 2017-03-28.
  3. Arkko, Jari. 2017. "Document Statistics." Accessed 2017-03-28.
  4. Hoffman, Paul. 2012. "The Tao of IETF: A Novice's Guide to the Internet Engineering Task Force." IETF. November 2. Accessed 2017-03-28.
  5. IETF. 2016b. "IETF Newcomers Presentation." YouTube. February 1. Accessed 2017-03-28.

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Devopedia. 2022. "Internet Engineering Task Force." Version 11, February 15. Accessed 2023-11-12.
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Last updated on
2022-02-15 11:48:55
  • Internet Protocol Suite
  • OSI Reference Model