The Alan Sondheim Mail Archive

July 31, 2009

Today's Topics:

    1. Stephen Crocker: How the Internet Got Its Rules (on	'RFCs')

Original to The New York Times:

How the Internet Got Its Rules

Published: April 6, 2009

     "How refreshing it is to remember there were once people who did
something for reasons other than money."

- Bill Appledorf, San Francisco

TODAY is an important date in the history of the Internet: the 40th
anniversary of what is known as the Request for Comments. Outside the
technical community, not many people know about the R.F.C.?s, but these
humble documents shape the Internet?s inner workings and have played a
significant role in its success.

When the R.F.C.?s were born, there wasn?t a World Wide Web. Even by the
end of 1969, there was just a rudimentary network linking four computers
at four research centers: the University of California, Los Angeles; the
Stanford Research Institute; the University of California, Santa Barbara;
and the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. The government financed the
network and the hundred or fewer computer scientists who used it. It was
such a small community that we all got to know one another.

A great deal of deliberation and planning had gone into the network?s
underlying technology, but no one had given a lot of thought to what we
would actually do with it. So, in August 1968, a handful of graduate
students and staff members from the four sites began meeting
intermittently, in person, to try to figure it out. (I was lucky enough to
be one of the U.C.L.A. students included in these wide-ranging
discussions.) It wasn?t until the next spring that we realized we should
start writing down our thoughts. We thought maybe we?d put together a few
temporary, informal memos on network protocols, the rules by which
computers exchange information. I offered to organize our early notes.

What was supposed to be a simple chore turned out to be a nerve-racking
project. Our intent was only to encourage others to chime in, but I
worried we might sound as though we were making official decisions or
asserting authority. In my mind, I was inciting the wrath of some
prestigious professor at some phantom East Coast establishment. I was
actually losing sleep over the whole thing, and when I finally tackled my
first memo, which dealt with basic communication between two computers, it
was in the wee hours of the morning. I had to work in a bathroom so as not
to disturb the friends I was staying with, who were all asleep.

Still fearful of sounding presumptuous, I labeled the note a ?Request for
Comments.? R.F.C. 1, written 40 years ago today, left many questions
unanswered, and soon became obsolete. But the R.F.C.?s themselves took
root and flourished. They became the formal method of publishing Internet
protocol standards, and today there are more than 5,000, all readily
available online.

But we started writing these notes before we had e-mail, or even before
the network was really working, so we wrote our visions for the future on
paper and sent them around via the postal service. We?d mail each research
group one printout and they?d have to photocopy more themselves.

The early R.F.C.?s ranged from grand visions to mundane details, although
the latter quickly became the most common. Less important than the content
of those first documents was that they were available free of charge and
anyone could write one. Instead of authority-based decision-making, we
relied on a process we called ?rough consensus and running code.? Everyone
was welcome to propose ideas, and if enough people liked it and used it,
the design became a standard.

After all, everyone understood there was a practical value in choosing to
do the same task in the same way. For example, if we wanted to move a file
from one machine to another, and if you were to design the process one
way, and I was to design it another, then anyone who wanted to talk to
both of us would have to employ two distinct ways of doing the same thing.
So there was plenty of natural pressure to avoid such hassles. It probably
helped that in those days we avoided patents and other restrictions;
without any financial incentive to control the protocols, it was much
easier to reach agreement.

This was the ultimate in openness in technical design and that culture of
open processes was essential in enabling the Internet to grow and evolve
as spectacularly as it has. In fact, we probably wouldn?t have the Web
without it. When CERN physicists wanted to publish a lot of information in
a way that people could easily get to it and add to it, they simply built
and tested their ideas. Because of the groundwork we?d laid in the
R.F.C.?s, they did not have to ask permission, or make any changes to the
core operations of the Internet. Others soon copied them ? hundreds of
thousands of computer users, then hundreds of millions, creating and
sharing content and technology. That?s the Web.

Put another way, we always tried to design each new protocol to be both
useful in its own right and a building block available to others. We did
not think of protocols as finished products, and we deliberately exposed
the internal architecture to make it easy for others to gain a foothold.
This was the antithesis of the attitude of the old telephone networks,
which actively discouraged any additions or uses they had not sanctioned.

Of course, the process for both publishing ideas and for choosing
standards eventually became more formal. Our loose, unnamed meetings grew
larger and semi-organized into what we called the Network Working Group.
In the four decades since, that group evolved and transformed a couple of
times and is now the Internet Engineering Task Force. It has some
hierarchy and formality but not much, and it remains free and accessible
to anyone.

The R.F.C.?s have grown up, too. They really aren?t requests for comments
anymore because they are published only after a lot of vetting. But the
culture that was built up in the beginning has continued to play a strong
role in keeping things more open than they might have been. Ideas are
accepted and sorted on their merits, with as many ideas rejected by peers
as are accepted.

As we rebuild our economy, I do hope we keep in mind the value of
openness, especially in industries that have rarely had it. Whether it?s
in health care reform or energy innovation, the largest payoffs will come
not from what the stimulus package pays for directly, but from the huge
vistas we open up for others to explore.

I was reminded of the power and vitality of the R.F.C.?s when I made my
first trip to Bangalore, India, 15 years ago. I was invited to give a talk
at the Indian Institute of Science, and as part of the visit I was
introduced to a student who had built a fairly complex software system.
Impressed, I asked where he had learned to do so much. He simply said, ?I
downloaded the R.F.C.?s and read them.?

Stephen D. Crocker is the chief executive of a company that develops
information-sharing technology.

(A version of this article appeared in print on April 7, 2009, on page A29
of the New York edition.)


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