Trends in Internet Standards Publication
2 November 2021
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:
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
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.