Bloated, slow and self-perpetuating: Cisco slams standards groups

Open source meritocracy would avoid ITU power grab and IETF mission creep, says Borg

Cisco's chief architect and CTO for engineering David Ward has blasted standards development organisations (SDOs), asking whether they are “relevant in a rapidly expanding environment of Open Source Software (OSS) projects.”

Ward's post on the subject is pointedly timed: he's released it on the even of the Internet Engineering Task Force's (IETF's) 91st gabfest. His post offers this criticism of standards bodies' operations:

“Globally, the multiple extant SDOs appear incapable of defining and maintaining their boundaries and new technology study groups are exploding across them. Every organization is potentially (and dangerously) self-perpetuating and few SDOs have a life-cycle plan that bounds their authority and scope (applied to new technologies).”

The core of Ward's argument is that open source projects move faster than SDOs. That speed means open source projects “can create a market-based consensus to fill a standards void.” He goes on to argue that it may not be a bad thing of open sourcerers do so, but also acknowledges the pitfalls of allowing by-default standards to emerge without governance. Overlapping efforts from camps with different opinions on appropriate technology, or vendors cynically open-sourcing software, both get a mention as undesirable practices.

Ward's alternative proposal is groups that operate like the Open Daylight Foundation (ODF), a software-defined networking (SDN) effort he says “envisioned the SDN architecture as not only polyglot in protocol but also one whose efficacy was bound to open APIs and a modular framework.” By setting a standard that allowed multiple contributions, Ward argues the ODF – and also the likes of the Linux Foundation, the Apache Foundation and the OpenStack Foundation – offer a framework that allows developers to go fast and work within rules, rather than having to wait for a SDO to hand down carven tablets spelling out standards.

He concludes by offering two laws he thinks should govern future development of future standards:

Law of OpenSource: quality and strength of the project is 100% dependent on the interests, energy and capability of the developer community

Law of OpenStandards: importance, validity and timeliness of relevant specification is 100% dependent on interests, energy and compromises of the individuals who have been empowered to manage, organize and complete the work effort of the SDO

Ward's post isn't malicious. He starts by “about [SDOs'] role going forward in enabling innovation. He concludes by writing “We need to set a new trajectory, move faster and focus on a building a bigger and better Internet.”

If we're going to hook a few tens of billions of connected devices to the internet in the next few years, as is suggested is bound to happen, Ward's conclusion is hard to dispute. Whether those who work in standards bodies will agree is another matter, not least because Cisco has form of playing nicely in standards groups but also bringing products to market before standards are done, a ploy that helps to freeze standards.

It's therefore possible to perceive Ward's post as Cisco throwing its weight around, the better to get SDOs behaving in ways that suit Cisco, not just the internet of the future. One imagines there may be some terse moments at IETF 91 as a result. ®

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