The Internet Engineering Task Force is 20 years old today.

From a notorious striptease by Internet pioneer Vint Cerf to a fist-pumping, table-jumping brawl about cryptography policy, the Internet's premier standards-setting body has had its share of big moments.

As an egalitarian, all-volunteer group consisting of network engineers from, among others, Cisco, IBM and Microsoft, it has created many of the underlying standards that make the Internet work, including fundamental routing, e-mail, directory services and telephony protocols.

IETF leaders say the group's greatest accomplishment is that the protocols it developed let the Internet function in spite of dramatic growth and the introduction of new services.

"Despite all kinds of centrifugal forces, the Internet's technology has stayed reasonably unified and coherent during the tremendous growth of the last 20 years, the enormous changes in underlying transmission technology and the era of telecommunications liberalization,'' said Brian Carpenter, chair of the IETF and an IBM engineer.

"The IETF's real achievement has been keeping focus on the unifying ideas, such as the end-to-end principle,'' Carpenter added. "The IETF didn't invent those unifying ideas, but it's used them in its protocol development work, blended with pragmatism.''

Despite the group's many engineering triumphs, the IETF is best known for its openness and individualistic approach to standards development. It also differs from other standards bodies because of its quirky traditions, which include registering approval by humming rather than raising hands.

"The biggest strength of the IETF is its openness,'' said Harald Alvestrand, a Cisco fellow who led the group from 2001 to 2005. "We are able to take input from the whole world, and we arrive at our decisions through a process that you are welcome to watch and participate in.''

Alvestrand says the IETF's openness coupled with the expertise of its participants result in higher-quality standards.

The IETF held its first meeting on 16 January 1986 in San Diego with 21 attendees. In March, the group will hold its 65th meeting in Dallas, and more than 1,000 attendees are expected. It will publicly recognise its 20th birthday at the meeting.

The IETF meets three times per year, but most of the group's decision making is done via e-mail posted on its website.

The group has created many important network industry standards, including Border Gateway Protocol and Open Shortest Path First for routing; Post Office Protocol and Internet Message Access Protocol for e-mail; Session Initiation Protocol for Internet telephony; and Lightweight Directory Access Protocol for directory services.

Other well-known IETF technologies include MPLS for traffic engineering, the IPSec security protocol used in VPNs and the next-generation Internet protocol known as IPv6.

"What we do is architect the Internet, and the Internet is still a pretty rollicking place,'' said Fred Baker, a Cisco fellow who served as chair of the IETF from 1996 to 2001. "We describe different functions that get done and principles by which they work, which is a different way to do architecture.''

Scott Bradner, a senior technical consultant with Harvard University who held leadership positions with the IETF from 1993 to 2003 said the result of the IETF's non-governmental approach is that the group doesn't focus on protecting existing industries or companies. The ITU and other standards bodies "tend to create standards that will not necessarily disrupt incumbent companies like carriers, but the IETF doesn't have that formal sensitivity,'' he explained.

Another key difference is that the IETF makes decisions based on rough consensus rather than unanimity. The IETF leadership will approve a protocol document even if 10 percent of the group's participants disagree, while other standards bodies make changes or additions to a document so all participants support it.

Its biggest challenge is "continued relevance,'' Bradner said. "Finding new things to do or old things to work on which are relevant to the needs of the networking world going forward is key.''