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W3C and IETF: Collision dead ahead

Chris KoehnckeChris Koehncke

fuseWhile we all are enjoying the banter arguments about SDP within the rtcweb IETF working group, there’s a bigger storm brewing as WebRTC takes hold.

There was a period of time when the voice and data guys were attacking each other and big surprise the voice guys lost, however, the data victory may be short lived as the application quickly became the important topic. It was a happy period, the application rode on the network and was mostly unaware of things happening below the fold deep inside the IP core. But that period is changing again as applications not only become network aware, but in fact tell the network what to do (networks hate being told what to do). Witness the growth of SDN and Openflow. WebRTC as part of the HTML5 activities, ride right in the middle, bridging the browser to the network.

Administrating standards is the W3C (the ‘web’ as we know it) and the IETF (the ‘IP’ core). These two organizations could not function any more differently.

The IETF is a hippie type organization, peace, love and not war – let’s all work for the good of mankind. IETF has a loose membership and it’s a place where often the great ideas bubble to the top (and crazy items just get discussed). IETF really doesn’t set standards (at least not my familiar Germanic way). A work group chair takes a temperature read of his fold of members and when enough of them are all equally annoyed, decrees that the cake is baked and issues what is known as an RFC-xxxx. An RFC looks a lot like a standard, but the name stands for “Request for Comment” , which doesn’t sound very standardized but close enough. If things change, they don’t mod the existing RFC but issue another one. The cool thing with RFC’s you’re free to ignore or adopt them at your peril.

Just about anyone with a good idea is welcome to participate in the IEFT, there are no fees and you don’t join so much as simply start helping out.

The W3C is more Germanic in that eins-zwei-drei sorta of way. There are rules, process and procedures. W3C members have formal meetings in conference rooms with PowerPoints and little cookies. W3C sets standards and there must be 100% agreement before anything moves forward. Like Washington, there is a lot of backroom politics that goes on to get HTML standards moving. Members often use their power of veto to snuff out things they don’t like.

W3C is a members only club, $2,250 to be a junior (sit in the back and be quiet) participant. Cushion seat members pay a lot more.

WebRTC is patrolling along and it’s fundamentals are baked into the browser. But it’s heavy interaction with “the” network (if there is such a thing in the future) and the “browser” put it on a collision course with the two very different perceptions of what exactly a ‘standard’ is. The W3C website pointedly addresses the question of whether they would merge with the IEFT (ISOC) and big surprise the answer was — no (but thanks for asking).

As we move into the future, the old rules of engagement may no longer apply. In fact, we may be entering a new era of incompatibility as titans and innovators alike opt for speed and market share over patience and compliance. WebRTC may well be the fuse that sets this charge off.