Trends in Internet Standards Publication

The technical details that describe the operation of the Internet are defined in the RFC series of documents. This series began publication in 1969, as a set of requests for comment on the initial design ideas for the system that became the Internet. Over time, it developed into the main series of technical specifications and standards that describe how the Internet works.

As the Internet had grown from a research project to critical international infrastructure, it’s natural to ask how the underpinning standards development process has changed. In particular, one might ask how the number of Internet standards being published has changed over time, and how this relates to the development of the network.

To answer this question, we can look at how the number of new documents published in the RFC series has changed over time. The following plot shows this, graphing the number of RFCs published in each year since the start of the series:

Plot of number of RFCs published per year

There are three things to note from the plot. Firstly, from the beginning of the series in 1969 through to the mid-1970s, RFCs were published at a rapid rate during the initial development of the network. This reflects an initial period of experimentation and testing, while the basics of the network were designed and implemented in the initial prototype networks.

The rate of publication then slowed for a decade or so, reflecting a period where the relatively small Internet community was gaining real-world experience with the network, and developing the core set of applications and protocols.

Finally, with the creation of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) as an open standards body to develop Internet technologies, and the introduction of the National Science Foundation Network (NSFNET) to open up Internet access to a wider range of universities, both in the mid-1980s, the community, and the number of RFCs published, starts to expand rapidly. This is further driven by the opening of the network to commercial and public use in the mid-1990s, and continues to this day.

Over time, the IETF has divided its operations into different areas, each reflecting a different part of the technologies that form the Internet. The colours show how RFCs divide across those areas, with the baseline dark blue region showing the combination of RFCs published prior to the subdivision of IETF into areas along with documents published in the RFC series on non-IETF streams (by the Internet Research Task Force, the Internet Architecture Board, and independent submissions).

The peak in time for publication of RFCs was in the mid-2000s, as the results of the initial commercialisation of the Internet were developed into standard protocols, and as the integration of the mobile phone network into the Internet architecture proceeded in the lead-up to the release of the 3G standards. RFC publication has slowed since then, reflecting the maturing of the infrastructure, but there is still significant ongoing standards work, with hundreds of new RFCs being published each year.

To learn more about this topic, please see our paper Characterising the IETF Through the Lens of RFC Deployment, presented at the ACM Internet Measurement Conference on 2nd November 2021.