UKNOF is 20…what next ?

The 20th meeting of the UK Network Operators’ Forum will take place on Tuesday 6th September, hosted by Hewlett Packard at HP Labs in Bristol, and also sponsored by Arbor Networks.

Our talk line-up this time includes presentations by ISC on Passive DNS and our new Knowledge Base, World IPv6 Day retrospectives, the BufferBloat project, IOS-XR experiences, BT’s LTE trial, NOC services, PGP keysigning, and the RIPE arbitration process.

Twenty meetings in, it’s worth pausing to look back at UKNOF’s origins, and where we are headed in the future…

It is about a decade since I had the idea that the British Internet Provider and Network Operator community had become a bit fragmented, and was losing out two ways: from too much information only being shared behind closed doors, and from not enough “clue” about international best practice being absorbed from operators in other countries.

I decided the solution was a national version of forums like NANOG, but scaled down to UK size. Indeed, groups like SwiNOG had already been set up elsewhere in Europe and were doing well. We came up with a Charter for the UK Network Operators’ Forum, which stated its purpose as:

  "To act as an open forum for operational, technical and engineering information exchange, 
    co-operation and co-ordination between Internet, Ethernet and other public telecommunications 
    network operators within the United Kingdom."

One of the key UKNOF principles, in the Internet tradition of bodies like IETF and RIPE, is openness – anyone can attend, and all materials and proceedings are in the public domain. This seemed to me to be the best way to do co-ordination and skill-sharing, and this is how we went about our mission of “distribution of clue“.

After some obstacles and false starts, I found the time between positions to get this going in 2005, and it is great that my employer since then, ISC, supports my activity at UKNOF as part of its wider Public Benefit mission.

A key part of UKNOF’s openness remit was to have our meeting costs paid for by sponsors and hence keep the cost of attendance free to all. In an industry that was still reeling from the post-dotcom bust, and where relevant training is scarce and expensive, this proved invaluable.

Six years and twenty successful meetings later, UKNOF is now fully financially self-supporting for its direct costs, and attendance at UKNOF meetings has been steady at nearly a hundred people for some time. Going back to a comparison with NANOG, we have roughly the same ratio of meeting attendees to geographic territory population, so must be doing something right :-) There’s also our extended community of webcast viewers, nearly 800 UKNOF mailing list members, and our LinkedIn and Facebook groups.

So what happens at a typical UKNOF meeting?

During each day-long event, we have a diverse slate of speakers on various topics of network engineering, operations and deployment relevance. Recurring topics include IPv6 deployment, DNS, case studies, Ethernet and optical technology, IP addressing policy, routing protocols, Internet Exchange operator updates, and network monitoring. Sometimes these will be in the format of panels, or a session of short topical “lightning talks”.

Usually we have around a dozen 30 minute talks during the one-day meeting, but there’s also breaks to mingle and network, and often a PGP signing session to build the community’s cryptographic “web of trust”.

We always try and get world-class speakers from outside the UK to share their international experiences, particularly for those UK ISPs who maybe don’t have the budget to attend overseas events. It’s also important to have the meetings in different locations around the country to share what’s going on in the diverse regions, and not always be centered in London just because there’s a lot of infrastructure there.

Our speakers are the life-blood of UKNOF meetings, and our programme could not happen without them preparing and attending on their own time and expense. We are always looking for new speakers, presentations and ideas, if you have any please submit them to the Programme Committee at pc@uknof.org.uk

We’re conscious of UKNOF being an on-ramp for newcomers in the industry, where they can, without any barriers to entry, test the waters, get to know people, learn, and most importantly become the industry’s next generation of fresh talent and ideas. One thing that helps with this is having social events around the meetings, including of course beer and the now-institutional pre-meeting curry (blame the hungry ex-pat !). This is always subject to sponsor generousity, and while an essential icebreaker, we take care to not let the social tail wag the technical event dog.

UKNOF is run on a volunteer not-for-profit basis, and would not have got as far as it has today without the support of many many people. This includes but is not limited to our speakers, our dedicated teams of Programme Committee members and meeting volunteers; various non-profit organisations including in particular LINX, LONAP, Nominet, ISC, RIPE NCC, BBC, and UKIF; as well as Bogons, Jump Networks & Portfast; and our many commercial sponsors and meeting hosts. I’d like to thank them here for all their efforts and contributions. As with HP, our sponsors often come back to support repeat meetings, and new sponsors are always welcome.

Even with committed supporters, growth and success does not just happen, it requires active care and feeding to avoid “success disasters”, and now is a good time to look at how we ensure that UKNOF’s success remains stable and sustainable into the future.

At UKNOF18, I presented a proposal for evolving UKNOF’s governance structure into something a little more formal. While on the one hand our informal arrangements have worked well to date, on the other the financial and time commitments for supporting UKNOF have grown over the years. The idea is to put things on a more stable footing with appropriate oversight, while at the same time not burdening a body, which essentially exists mainly to just run meetings, with too much overhead and complexity.

So far, UKNOF’s finances and secretariat functions have been handled by UKIF Ltd (a public company limited by guarantee), originally set up as an ISP trade association. Over time, supporting UKNOF has dominated UKIF activities, and the proposal is to do a “reverse takeover” of the UKIF legal entity so that to all intents it embodies UKNOF.

Public Companies Limited by Guarantee have members rather than shareholders, and it is proposed that UKNOF have those UK Non-Profit Internet co-ordinating bodies that have helped nurture it as its members. The initial member invitations would be made by UKIF’s existing members who are currently its 3 Directors (which includes myself), and the list could be extended by approval of the existing members in future. All of UKIF’s financial and other assets would become those of UKNOF.

In turn, UKNOF’s members would select a Board of Directors, who would perform fiduciary oversight of its activities, appoint Programme Committee members, and ensure that its finances were conducted appropriately. The Member organisations would in turn be accountable to the community through the diverse stakeholders that support their activities.

To get this process going, it is proposed to have a UKNOF Open Governance meeting to approve the transition plan and confirm the initial slate of Member organisations. This is planned for the afternoon of Thursday 8th September at the BBC in White City, London. If you are interested in UKNOF’s future and would like to attend or volunteer to help, please contact me at keith@uknof.org.uk.

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