The IETF is the Internet's longest-established technical standardization body, and its open, decentralized structure derives from the Internet's early history. The IETF is more a community than a hierarchical organization. Its roots go back to the late 1960s, when academics and researchers gathered informally to create interconnection standards that are the groundwork of the modern Internet.
As the Internet grew, these informal gatherings became larger, and their areas of activity expanded to cover a wide array of standardization and protocol work. With time, an informal structure of activity emerged, and in January 1986, collaborators assembled in San Diego, California, for the first-ever meeting of the IETF.
The standards developed by the IETF are the product of extended collaboration by Working Groups. The IETF currently has around 130 WGs (the number varies as projects are started, completed, merged, separated, or abandoned) working in eight different topic areas. A large part of the WGs' work takes place online through e-mail discussion lists.
The IETF holds in-person meetings three times a year. As the IETF's own introductory overview document (RFC 3160: The Tao of IETF) describes them:
"The meetings are week-long dweebfests whose primary goal is to reinvigorate the WGs to get their tasks done, and whose secondary goal is to promote a fair amount of mixing between the WGs and the areas."
All work in the WGs is based on the concept of "rough consensus." WGs do not have formal voting to approve standards; instead, all documents endorsed by a WG -- from early "requirements" drafts to proposed standards themselves -- must be supported by a rough consensus of the working group, meaning that "a very large majority of those who care must agree." Although this means that some disputes can take a very long time to resolve, general feeling in the IETF is that the extra discussion time leads to better, more widely-accepted standards.
Unlike most standards-setting organizations, IETF does not have any formal membership. Its activities are all open to the public. Anyone able to make the necessary commitments of time and technical ability can get involved and have their comments considered equally with all others.
The level of expertise and commitment among IETF participants is high, however, as are the expectations laid on new participants. Participants can sometimes be impatient with novices who ask questions or make suggestions without reviewing past discussions or recognizing technical realities. At the same time, no participant's opinions are viewed as inherently better than any other's. Many in the IETF view this openness as an integral component of the organization's success in creating innovative, technically excellent standards for a network that serves millions.
Formal IETF documents are published in the "Request For Comments" (RFC) series. There are many forms of RFCs: some document Internet standards, others document "best practices" for network administrators, and still others are purely informational.
All RFCs must be approved by the IESG (see below) prior to publication. RFCs typically start out in draft form in documents known as Internet Drafts (I-Ds). Anyone can write and circulate an I-D, and I-Ds commonly go through a large number of revisions before gaining the support necessary to become RFCs. By definition, I-Ds are only considered to be current for a six-month period, and drafts will be deleted if they are not superceded by subsequent versions or otherwise advanced through the formal standards process. All Internet Drafts and RFCs are available on the IETF web page, http://www.ietf.org/.
The authoritative (and much more complete) description of the IETF standards process can be found in RFC 2620: The Internet Standards Process.
The IETF's work is supported by the Internet Society (ISOC), a membership society of Internet experts and professionals. Technical coordination and overall responsibility for the standards process comes from the Internet Engineering Steering Group (IESG). IESG members are nominated by IETF participants and approved by the ISOC Board of Trustees. Members of the IESG are responsible for coordinating each of the IETF's eight areas of activities, and for providing top-level guidance to the Working Groups in each area. The IESG also comments on and approves all RFCs prior to publication. The IESG is also responsible for chartering and closing Working Groups. However, the IESG does little direct leadership.
The IESG receives architectural coordination from the Internet Architecture Board (IAB), an advisory body that focuses on broad issues of network architecture. IAB is selected in a manner similar to the IESG. Both the IESG and the IAB exist to provide coordination and guidance to the IETF process.