Fifty Years of RFCs

April 7, 2019 marks the fiftieth anniversary for the RFC Series, which began in April 1969 with the publication of “Host Software” by Steve Crocker.

While the Series itself predates the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) by eighteen years, today the IETF is the single largest source of RFCs. It’s an interesting question – did the existence of a growing community that published technical documents like RFCs result in forming the IETF? Further, is the IETF the reason RFCs are still published today? The Series includes documents originating in other ways, including from the Internet Research Task Force (IRTF), the Internet Architecture Board (IAB), and contributions via the Independent Submissions stream; they are a small, and important, percentage of the whole.

The early RFCs were, in fact, requests for comments on ideas and proposals; the goal was to start conversations rather than to create an archival record of a standard or best practice. This goal changed over time, as the formality of the publication process evolved, and the community consuming the material grew. Today, more than 8500 RFCs have been published, ranging across best practice information, experimental protocols, informational material, and, of course, Internet standards. Ultimately, the goal of the RFC Series is to provide a canonical source for the material published by the RFC Editor, and to support the preservation of that material in perpetuity.

The RFC Editor oversees the series, ensuring the editorial quality of RFCs and maintaining the archival record of what has been published. Jon Postel, the first RFC Editor, defined the role by his actions and later by defining the initial processes surrounding the publication of RFCs. The RFC Series and the Editor role have evolved over time, but the focus on high quality documents has remained constant.

First, we saw the distribution method used for RFCs change from postal mail to FTP and email. From there, we saw increased guidance for authors on how to write an RFC. The editorial staff went from one person, Jon Postel, to a team of five to seven. The actual editing and publishing work split from the service for registration of protocol code points. The whole RFC Editor structure was reviewed [RFC4844] and refined [RFC5620] and refined again [RFC6635]. And, in the last few years, we have started the process to change the format of the RFC documents themselves.

There is more to the history of the RFC Series than can be covered here. Readers interested in earlier perspectives may by interested in the following RFCs, which focus on the enormous contributions of Jon Postel, Czar of Socket Numbers [RFC433]:

[RFC2441] “Working with Jon, Tribute delivered at UCLA”

[RFC2555] “30 Years of RFCs”

[RFC5540] “40 Years of RFCs”

And, at the moment, I am working with others to continue the once-per-decade tradition of reviewing the state of the RFC Series. We expect to publish “50 Years of RFCs” soon, as an RFC of course.

As the Internet evolves, expectations and possibilities evolve, too. Current work and discussions include evolving the RFC format, and ensuring RFCs are preserved so they continue to be available even as technologies, industry, and society change. As Steve Crocker has noted, the Series began with a goal of communication over formality, openness over structure. While the informality has given way to increased structure, the openness and solid foundation that the Series provides must continue. The tension in balancing those needs rests on the RFC Editor and the community to resolve. We will not run short of challenges.

— by Heather Flanagan, RFC Series Editor