Today we’re going to look at what it really means to be a standard on the Internet and the IETF, the governing body that sets those standards.
When you open a web browser and visit a page on the Internet, there are rules that govern how that page is interpreted. When traffic sent from your computer over the Internet gets broken into packets and encapsulated, other brands of devices can interpret the traffic and react, provided that the device is compliant in how it handles the protocol being used. Those rules are set in what are known as RFCs. It’s a wild concept. You write rules down and then everyone follows them. Well, in theory. It doesn’t always work out that way but by and large the industry that sprang up around the Internet has been pretty good at following the guidelines defined in RFCs.
The Requests for Comments gives the Internet industry an opportunity to collaborate in a non-competitive environment. Us engineers often compete on engineering topics like what’s more efficient or stable and so we’re just as likely to disagree with people at your own organization as we are to disagree with people at another company. But if we can all meet and hash out our differences, we’re able to get emerging or maturing technology standards defined in great detail, leaving as small a room for error in implementing the tech as possible. This standardization process can be lengthy and slows down innovation, but it ends up creating more innovation and adoption once processes and technologies become standardized.
The concept of standardizing advancements in technologies is nothing new. Alexander Graham Bell saw this when he started The American Institute of Electrical Engineers in 1884 to help standardize the new electrical inventions coming out of Bell labs and others. That would merge with the Institute of Radio Engineers in 1963 and now boasts half a million members spread throughout nearly every company in the world. And the International Organization for Standardization was founded in 1947. It was as a merger of sorts between the International Federation of the National Standardizing Associations, which had been founded in 1928 and the newly formed United Nations Standards Coordinating Committee. Based in Geneva, they’ve now set over 20,000 standards across a number of industries.
I’ll over-simplify this next piece and revisit it in a dedicated episode. The Internet began life as a number of US government funded research projects inspired by JCR Licklider around 1962, out of ARPAs Information Processing Techniques Office, or IPTO. The packet switching network would evolve into ARPANET based on a number of projects he and his successor Bob Taylor at IPTO would fund straight out of the pentagon. It took a few years, but eventually they brought in Larry Roberts, and by late 1968 they’d awarded an RFQ to a company called Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN) to build Interface Message Processors, or IMPs, to connect a number of sites and route traffic. The first one went online at UCLA in 1969 with additional sites coming on frequently over the next few years.
Given that UCLA was the first site to come online, Steve Crocker started organizing notes about protocols in what they called RFCs, or Request for Comments. That series of notes would then be managed by Jon Postel until his death 28 years later.
They were also funding a number of projects to build tools to enable the sharing of data, like file sharing and by 1971 we also had email. Bob Kahn was brought in, in 1972, and he would team up with Vinton Cerf from Stanford who came up with encapsulation and so they would define TCP/IP. By 1976, ARPA became DARPA and by 1982, TCP/IP became the standard for the US DOD and in 1983, ARPANET moved over to TCP/IP. NSFNet would be launched by the National Science Foundation in 1986.
And so it was in 1986 when The Internet Engineering Task Force, or IETF, was formed to do something similar to what the IEEE and ISO had done before them. By now, the inventors, coders, engineers, computer scientists, and thinkers had seen other standards organizations - they were able to take much of what worked and what didn’t, and they were able to start defining standards.
They wanted an open architecture. The first meeting was attended by 21 researchers who were all funded by the US government. By the fourth meeting later that year they were inviting people from outside the hollowed halls of the research community. And it grew, with 4 meetings a year that continue on to today, open to anyone.
Because of the rigor practiced by Postel and early Internet pioneers, you can still read those notes from the working groups and RFCs from the 60s, 70s, and on. The RFCs were funded by DARPA grants until 1998 and then moved to the Internet Society, who runs the IETF and the RFCs are discussed and sometimes ratified at those IETF meetings. You can dig into those RFCs and find the origins and specs for NTP, SMTP, POP, IMAP, TCP/IP, DNS, BGP, CardDAV and pretty much anything you can think of that’s become an Internet Standard. A lot of companies claim to the “the” standard in something. And if they wrote the RFC, I might agree with them.
At those first dozen IETF meetings, we got up to about 120 people showing up. It grew with the advancements in routing, application protocols, other networks, file standards, peaking in Y2K with 2,810 attendees. Now, it averages around 1,200. It’s also now split into a number of working groups with steering committees, While the IETF was initially funded by the US government, it’s now funded by the Public Interest Registry, or PIR, which was sold to Ethos Capital in November of 2019.
Here’s the thing about the Internet Society and the IETF. They’re mostly researchers. They have stayed true to the mission since they took over from Pentagon, a de-centralized Internet. The IETF is full of super-smart people who are always trying to be independent and non-partisan. That independence and non-partisanship is the true Internet, the reason that we can type www.google.com and have a page load, and work, no matter the browser. The reason mail can flow if you know an email address. The reason the Internet continues to grow and prosper and for better or worse, take over our lives. The RFCs they maintain, the standards they set, and everything else they do is not easy work. They iterate and often don’t get credit individually for their work other than a first initial and a last name as the authors of papers.
And so thank you to the IETF and the men and women who put themselves out there through the lens of the standards they write. Without you, none of this would work nearly as well as it all does. And thank you, listeners, for tuning in for this episode of the History of Computing Podcast. We are so lucky to have you.
Months before the first node of ARPANET went online, the intrepid easy engineers were just starting to discuss the technical underpinnings of what would evolve into the Internet some day. Here, we hear how hosts would communicate to the IMPs, or early routing devices (although maybe more like a Paleolithic version of what's in a standard network interface today).
It's nerdy. There's discussion of packets and what bits might do what and later Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn would redo most of this early work as the protocols evolved towards TCP/IP. But reading their technical notes and being able to trace those through thousands of RFCs that show the evolution into the Internet we know today is an amazing look into the history of computing.