What Does the IAB Do, Anyway?
The “Internet Architecture Board” (IAB) sounds as if it is something rather grand, perhaps consisting of a group of people in formal business clothes, sitting around an impressive oak table, under the watchful eyes of an oil painting of The Founder of the Internet. The reality is rather different, and this article is intended to give a feeling for what the IAB really is, what it does, and equally important what it cannot do.
First, the formalities
The IAB was originally called the Internet Activities Board, and it was set up in 1983, chaired by Dave Clark, back in the days when the Internet was still largely a research activity of the US Government. The early history of the IAB is hard to trace in detail from the public record, for a reason expressed clearly in the minutes of its meeting in January 1990: “The IAB decided that IAB meeting minutes will be published to the Internet community.” The earlier minutes are not on the public record. A good snapshot of the IAB in 1990, and a short history, are given in RFC 1160, written by Vint Cerf who was the second IAB Chair. He was followed in this post by Lyman Chapin and Christian Huitema. In any case, the 1980s are pre-history as far as the Internet is concerned, and this article concentrates on the present.
Today, the IAB consists of thirteen members. Of these, six are nominated each year by a nominating committee drawn from the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) for a two year term. This process is described in RFC 2727. The slate of nominees is then approved by the Board of Trustees of the Internet Society. The thirteenth member of the IAB is the IETF Chair. The Internet Research Task Force (IRTF) chair serves as an ex-officio member but cannot vote. Finally, the IAB has a volunteer Executive Director.
In addition, IAB meetings are attended by a representative of the Internet Society (ISOC) and of the RFC Editor, and by a liaison with the Internet Engineering Steering Group (IESG). The IAB elects its own Chair from among its twelve IETF-nominated members.
Now, what are the meetings really like?
Currently, the IAB holds two 90-minute business meetings via telephone conference each month. These meetings are the first and third Wednesday of each month, in the morning on the US West Coast. In addition, the IAB has a monthly two-hour technical chat at a similar time on the fourth Wednesday of the month. The time slots are periodically adjusted to be as convenient as possible for IAB members in the face of varying schedules and time zones.
In addition to conference calls, the IAB meets in person at the thrice-yearly IETF meetings. Typically, the IAB will meet Sunday from lunch through the afternoon and then Monday through Friday each morning for breakfast. Finally, the IAB holds a plenary sesssion, at each IETF meeting, either alone or jointly with the IESG. During the plenary, any member of the IETF can address the IAB.
To understand what the IAB really does in its meetings, it is necessary to know that the detailed work of driving the Internet standards process is done by the IESG. Not only must individual members of the IESG, known as IETF Area Directors, oversee the work of all the working groups in their area, but the IESG as a group must approve all formal standards actions. This means approving the conversion of Internet Drafts into Proposed Standards, and subsequent steps towards full standardisation. Since the last set of reforms of IETF process, in 1992-93, the IAB itself does not have to approve individual standards actions.
The IESG consists of a set of specialists in various technical areas, and IESG positions are filled from the IETF by looking for specialists. In contrast, the IAB members are not appointed as specialists, but rather as generalists with a good understanding all aspects of the Internet architecture. In a typical meeting, apart from routine business such as reviewing the IAB action list, we will try to discuss one or two strategic issues in some depth. The intention is to reach conclusions that can be passed on as guidance to the IESG, or turned into published statements, or simply passed directly to the relevant IETF working group.
To give some examples, some issues that have been discussed in recent IAB meetings were:
- The future of Internet addressing
- Partial checksums for UDP traffic
- Network management
- Service identifiers and filtering
In general, the IAB does not aim to produce complete technical proposals. Instead, IAB documents are usually intended to describe general technical principles which are believed to be necessary to the proper functioning of the Internet and its protocols. Another type of action that the IAB can trigger is the setting up of a workshop or ad hoc panel, outside the standards process, to develop ideas in a particular area. For example, the IAB held a 2-day workshop on Network Management in June of 2002. The IAB is ultimately responsible for the research activities conducted by the IRTF. To do so, the IAB appoints the IRTF chair, who participates in IAB activities in order to apprise the IAB of relevant IRTF activities, obtain guidance from the IAB, and develop an understanding of the need for new IRTF research efforts as they arise. These are expected to have a longer existence than panels or workshops, but do not normally produce standards-track documents.
And in between meetings?
IAB members try to track the e-mail activity on the main IETF list and on the lists of whichever IETF Working Groups interest them. They can of course intervene as individuals in these discussions whenever they want, but do not speak in the name of the IAB unless there is a clear consensus within the IAB.
The IAB Chair and the nominated IAB Liaison to the IESG, take part in two-weekly IESG telephone conferences and track the e-mail activity of the IESG. While these liaisons do not have a formal vote in IESG decisions, they can offer advice on any issue discussed by the IESG and of course refer back to the IAB if necessary. The IAB tends to get involved with IESG discussion at 4 critical junctures in the life of an IETF working group:
- When a new working group is chartered, the IAB may comment on the draft charter before it is approved.
- When documents reach the last call prior to an IESG ballot, IAB members tend to sit up, pay attention, and stick their oar in.
- When a working group gets into a difficult situation, or tension arises between the WG and the relevant IESG Area Director, IAB members try to help individually or collectively to resolve the situation.
- The IAB is the second stage in the IETF appeals process. If an IESG decision is appealed and the appellant is not satisfied with the IESG’s response he or she can appeal to the IAB.
Other Organizational Responsibilities
According to its charter (RFC 2850), the IAB has a number of responsibilities for the management of the IETF process and operations.
- The IAB is the confirming body for the IESG and the IETF chair. The process, defined in RFC 2727, requires the nominating committee to submit a slate of candidates to the IAB for confirmation.
- The IAB provides oversight of the architecture for the protocols and procedures used by the Internet. The IAB has often discussed exactly what this part of its charter means and how to implement it. The activities described above are the practical realisation of this job.
- The IAB provides oversight of the process used to create Internet Standards. As noted before, The IAB serves as an appeal board for complaints of improper execution of the standards process. Appeals to the IAB can be based on either procedural or technical grounds.
- The IAB is responsible for editorial management and publication of the Request for Comments (RFC) document series, and for administration of the various Internet assigned numbers. In practice, these responsibilities are delegated to the RFC Editor and the IANA respectively, with the IAB acting in a supervisory capacity.
- The IAB acts as a source of advice and guidance to the Board of Trustees and Officers of the Internet Society concerning technical, architectural, procedural and (where appropriate) policy matters pertaining to the Internet and its enabling technologies. It must be said that this channel has been little used, and a more regular contact between the IAB and the Internet Society is highly desirable.
The IAB also has a role in external representation and formal liaison. The IETF is far from alone in the world of information technology standards. When the IETF establishes liasons to other bodies, the IAB is responsible for selecting the liasons. The real technical liaison of course takes place at WG level. More generally, IAB members find themselves contacted by a wide variety of other organizations in search of information, technical contacts, conference speakers, and the like.
What we do not do
The IETF is a standards body and the IAB is drawn from the IETF in order to help it achieve its goals of better standardisation. For this reason, the IAB has no official role in operational or commercial matters and only a minor role in policy matters. As an example, the IAB could decide to stimulate work on a standard for automatic labeling of e-mail describing how to build munitions, but could not make policy on whether such messages should be forbidden on international routes.
The IAB does not manage the IESG. Although the IAB confirms nominees for the IESG and is in the IETF appeal chain, the IAB does not have direct authority over IESG actions.
Another fuzzy boundary is “how far up or down do we go?” In the past 10 years, the Internet has grown to encompass nearly all wide area computer to computer networks. Does this mean that every information handling protocol must be developed by the IETF? Certainly not! So there will be a boundary between the IETF standards and other information handling standards, and this will not be a completely clear boundary. Similarly, the boundary between IETF standardisation and hardware transmission standardisation can never be rigid. This is particularly apparent in the case of XML, which is defined by the W3C. The IAB helps define the limits of the IETF and coordinating those limits with other standards bodies.
The IAB exists to serve and help the IETF, attempting to strike a balance between action and reaction. IAB members are part-time volunteers (as indeed are IESG members) serving the IETF community with no particular expectation of reward. Of the 12 nominated IAB members at the time of writing, eight are based in the USA, with one each in Australia, Sweden, Britain, and Japan. Eight of us work for computing and telecommunications companies, one for a research institute, one for a university, and two are consultants. Any IETF member can volunteer for the Nominating Committee, in order to influence the future membership of the IAB.
More information is available on the IAB and the IETF. A good starting place for the IETF is RFC 3160 (“A Novice’s Guide to the IETF”).
About this text
This version has been updated from the originally published version. Permission to use the material is granted, providing the following statement is included verbatim:
Reprinted with permission from ConneXions, Volume 10 No. 2, February 1996
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