Taking the IETF to the people

By on 11 Oct 2019

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IIESoc (India Internet Engineering Society) is a non-profit entity that brings together different stakeholders from the computer networking community across industry, academia, service providers and government. It exists to further the adoption of IETF standards and increase awareness & participation in the IETF process.

Next month, the Internet standards community will converge on Singapore for the 106th Internet Engineer Task Force (IETF) meeting – the 11th to be held in the Asia Pacific region.

Held three times a year, these meetings have grown in participation and scope since the first meeting — attended by 21 US Federal Government-funded researchers in 1986 — now welcoming more than 1,000 individuals from around the world who contribute their technical expertise to make the Internet work better.

For many, the IETF has always seemed like an Internet bastion. A place for only those who have had a significant contribution to the development of the Internet, whose wisdom and experience have entitled them to setting the standards of the Internet.

Having attended two IETF meetings in the past 18 months, I can say, as an Internet luddite, this is definitely far from the case. However, like most legends, this long held belief is hard to set straight, which is a great shame given that the ongoing success of the Internet, and the standards that keep it on track, can be attributed to the diversity of its community.

Luckily, there are small groups of IETF ‘missionaries’ who understand the need for diversity of views and, in the process, recruit new talent from less represented parts of the world to share their exceptional experiences to further improve the Internet.

Meanwhile, 2,900kms north of Singapore

In the week leading up to IETF 106, one of these groups, the India Internet Engineering Society (IIESoc), is holding its annual pre-Asia IETF meeting, IIESoc Connections 2019, in Kolkata, India. It’s the third year that this two-day conference has been held, the purpose of which has been to build awareness of and participation in the IETF among the Indian networking community.

“There’s been a small group of us [Indian engineers] attending IETF meetings regularly for a number of years,” says Dhruv Dhody, who is the group’s Secretary. He has been attending IETF meetings for more than 10 years, in which time he has contributed several RFC Drafts and chairs a Working Group.

Read: PCE, SDN, and their entanglement: A personal journey!

“A few years ago, a comment was raised at one meeting as to how few Indian community members attended and participated in the IETF, given its vast population and burgeoning tech industry. It was a question that we really hadn’t given much thought to but one that we knew needed to be acted upon.”

With this motivation, Dhruv and his Indian colleagues, with guidance from those abroad, started to brainstorm ideas as to how to improve participation.

The first idea was to organize a social gathering over lunch or dinner for Indian attendees during IETF meetings.

“It gave us the opportunity to set aside time at the IETF meeting to discuss some of our [local] challenges and interests and how we could help each other,” says Dhruv. “It’s also been a useful means to welcome newcomers from India who are attending the IETF for the first time.”

The second idea was to establish a cooperative society to organize IETF-themed events in India — the IIESoc.

The IIESoc Connections conferences were the first and the largest of the event series the group has organized in the past three years. They have been organized as precursor events, held in the weeks leading up to the last three IETF meetings that have happened in Asia (IETF 100, Singapore; IETF 103, Bangkok; IETF 106, Singapore).

According to Dhruv, the benefits of hosting it at this time are to:

  • Attract IETF community members and attendees, including those serving in leadership roles from other parts of the world who can transit via India and share their knowledge with the Indian community, as well as learn about the challenges that the Indian community faces with implementing standards.
  • Build awareness of the key issues to be discussed at the upcoming IETF meeting, providing in-person and virtual attendees with context to help them prepare.
  • Discuss key technical work being done in India.
  • Prepare newcomers and future newcomers for IETF meetings.

“The topics we usually cover are related to IPv6, the Internet of Things (IoT), security, routing and Software Defined Networking,” says Dhruv. “It’s about getting people involved who can bring a different perspective — India has many different challenges that are not as apparent in other parts of the world, so it’s good to get these views to strengthen the standards.”

“Last year we did a deployment track that involved having several operators come in and discuss the successes and challenges of recent deployment projects. We invited folk from Reliance Jio to attend to share their IPv6 story so we could learn from them and they could contribute to discussions about IPv6 standards, which are continually evolving.

Read: Reliance Jio boosts India past 20% IPv6 capability

“We try to run the events in a similar way as IETF WG sessions are held, with microphone lines and discussions. It’s all about getting people comfortable with the processes the IETF uses, which can seem intimidating at first.”

Get attendees talking

Another event the group has had success with is its ‘RFCs We Love’ get-togethers. Initially these half-day events started as open forums for attendees to discuss RFCs they’ve been involved with drafting/discussing; RFCs they had implemented and the challenges and issues they may have faced with implementing them, and ideas for potential RFCs.

“The main focus of the first get-togethers was to get attendees talking; that’s often the hardest part of any event in India,” explains Dhruv. “Since then we’ve started to make each of them theme-based — we’ve had ones focused on standards related to IoT, data centres, routing, security and applications.

“From all the events, what we’ve found is that there are a lot of people — not only those in telecommunications but also those working for software developers, vendors and in academia — tracking and applying standards in their everyday work. They are aware of the standards, but they are not as aware of how to participate in the discussion.”

Dhruv explains that in many businesses in India, there are people who discuss standards within their ‘global’ organization but do not directly participate in the IETF process, or do so via ‘standards representatives’.

“Breaking this hierarchical barrier is difficult. However, there are ways that developers and engineers can demonstrate the benefits of their direct involvement and attendance at IETF events,” says Dhruv.

“The mailing list and virtual attendance are two of the easiest ways to join the conversation — the IETF is really receptive to contributions, especially from implementers, and I, like other authors, want my drafts to be extensively critiqued and reviewed — so you’re doing us a service.

“The Hackathon is also a great way to justify why you should attend an IETF event — it’s a technical workshop, generally held on the weekend before the IETF meeting, and even though you might not get to stay for the entire meeting, you get the chance to network with a large number of the community,” he says.

“The other added advantage of the events has been the social and networking aspect. Participants have enjoyed connecting with other attendees and continuing discussions through the WhatsApp and LinkedIn groups we’ve created, and the IETF mailing lists for the Indian community. Again, it’s about breaking the perception that the IETF and standards are not for them to discuss, and developing and strengthening the sense of community.”

Expanding to include new communities

Although it’s still early days, Dhruv and his fellow IIESoc governing council and advisor board members have been pleased with participation in the local events, which have predominantly been held in India’s IT capital, Bangalore.

Following the great turn out they received in Kolkata for an ‘RFCs we Love’ get-together, held earlier this year, they are now taking Connections 2019 to Kolkata where they hope to attract a host of new members, including those from neighbouring Bangladesh.

“There is a lot of research going on in Kolkata so we intend to include a research track, similar to IRTF [Internet Research Task Force], in the upcoming Connections conference,” Dhruv says.

“Being close to Dhaka, we’re hoping that we’ll also attract some curious community members from Bangladesh too, as well as Nepal and Bhutan; it would be great if we can make this a sub-regional event similar to SANOG.

“Ultimately, it’s about trying to spread the word to as many people who consume (use) standards in their work and getting them involved in the process and the community.”

IIESoc Connections 2019 is happening from 13 to 14 November in Kolkata, India. Register now.

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The views expressed by the authors of this blog are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of APNIC. Please note a Code of Conduct applies to this blog.

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