RFC-3

by Darius Kazemi, Jan 3 2019

In 2019 I'm reading one RFC a day in chronological order starting from the very first one. More on this project here.

Buckle up, it's about to get meta

RFC-3 is the first RFC that attempts to describe, well, what an RFC is. Steve Crocker, author of RFC 1, is back in the saddle, and we are instantly hit with his sardonic writing style. Titled “DOCUMENTATION CONVENTIONS”, it opens with the classic confusion of a loosely-defined interdisciplinary research project:

The Network Working Group seems to consist of Steve Carr of Utah, Jeff Rulifson and Bill Duvall at SRI, and Steve Crocker and Gerard Deloche at UCLA. Membership is not closed.

It “seems to consist”! I say this is classic confusion because remember, these are people at completely different institutions working with each other at great distances and by the way they are INVENTING THE INTERNET so it's not like they can all share a Trello board and Google Drive to stay in sync. In fact, Crocker himself has said “I remember having great fear that we would offend whoever the official protocol designers were” (quoted in Katie Hafner's Where the Wizards Stay Up Late). They just assumed that the official designers were sitting at BB&N or some other east coast defense contractor, when really their own group was about as close to anything official as existed at the time.

The technical content

This RFC is really short and non-technical so I'm just going to include the full text here and comment as we go.

The content of a NWG note may be any thought, suggestion, etc. related to the HOST software or other aspect of the network. Notes are encouraged to be timely rather than polished. Philosophical positions without examples or other specifics, specific suggestions or implementation techniques without introductory or background explication, and explicit questions without any attempted answers are all acceptable.

So right away the content scope is left extremely broad as long as it's related to the network they are trying to build. These “NWG notes” (which will eventually be coded as RFCs) are basically like a very slow email listserv uhhh two years before the invention of email. This basically says “anything goes but keep it on topic.”

Also they recommend notes be “timely rather than polished”. The reason these notes exist is to synchronize ideas early and iterate as rapidly as possible across these great geographical and institutional distances.

The minimum length for a NWG note is one sentence.

Can you imagine typing a single sentence and having it duplicated on paper and manually mailed to universities, defense contractors, and military bases and everyone basically has to read it? Someone really ought to invent a system for doing this remotely via computer...

These standards (or lack of them) are stated explicitly for two reasons. First, there is a tendency to view a written statement as ipso facto authoritative, and we hope to promote the exchange and discussion of considerably less than authoritative ideas. Second, there is a natural hesitancy to publish something unpolished, and we hope to ease this inhibition.

More Crocker wisecrack asides. I love this guy. And they are basically saying “please don't be a perfectionist about early ideas, you will stifle the development of the project if you do.” These are very wise rules to abide by when you are embarking on any creative endeavor, technical or otherwise. And in hindsight it seemed to work pretty well for them.

Every NWG note should bear the following information:

        1.  "Network Working Group"
            "Request for Comments:" x
            where x is a serial number.
            Serial numbers are assigned by Bill Duvall at SRI

        2.  Author and affiliation

        3.  Date

        4.  Title.  The title need not be unique.

Just laying out what should be in the header for these things. This is the exact header format used until RFC-5742 in December 2009 when they decided to organize RFCs by “streams” based on which organizations were publishing a given RFC. At that point they retired “Network Working Group” and started labeling things “Internet Engineering Task Force”, “Internet Architecture Board”, “Independent”, etc.

Also I laughed at “the title need not be unique”, which I guess was immediately demonstrated by RFC-1 and RFC-2 having the same title.

One copy only will be sent from the author's site to"

        1.  Bob Kahn, BB&N
        2.  Larry Roberts, ARPA
        3.  Steve Carr, UCLA
        4.  Jeff Rulifson, UTAH
        5.  Ron Stoughton, UCSB
        6.  Steve Crocker, UCLA

Reproduction if desired may be handled locally.

Okay so these RFCs are being sent to 6 facilities. BB&N, the New England defense contractor. ARPA, the government funding body. And then three western US research universities. It's weird to me that Stanford Research Institute isn't on this list?

Also note the trailing " in the first line. RFCs are not corrected after they are published, though I don't think this convention was formalized until later. Modern RFCs go through an extensive draft process before publishing because these things are meant to last forever unchanged.

And finally, sadly, Larry Roberts, second on that list, known as a “father of ARPANET”, died very recently on December 26, 2018. My internet went down as I attempted to look this up, which I choose to interpret as the network's equivalent of a moment of silence.

How to follow this blog

You can subscribe to its RSS feed or if you're on a federated ActivityPub social network like Mastodon or Pleroma you can search for the user “@365-rfcs@write.as” and follow it there.

About me

I'm Darius Kazemi. I'm a Mozilla Fellow and I do a lot of work on the decentralized web with both ActivityPub and the Dat Project.