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Common Standards

In 1969, when the ARPANET eventually connected computers at Stanford, UCLA, UC-Santa Barbara, and the University of Utah, it was a significant step toward realizing the vision of the computer as an extender of human capabilities. But, four connected computers did not constitute a "galactic" network. How ARPANET created the foundation upon which today's true "galactic" network, the Internet, is built is a story about using common standards and protocols to implement vision.

One historian of the Internet says, "In the beginning was - chaos." And so it often is when people are trying something so new that many can't even find words to describe it. But, while chaos can bring great energy and excitement, differing techniques, media, and protocols have to give way to common approaches if a build-up of chaotic energy is to result in something other than an explosion.

Excerpts from Request for Comments (RFC) 100 (August 1987) give a peek into how the original ARPANET team harnessed the energy of their new creation. These insights also show that, from its very beginning, today's Internet was conceived and established as a peer-to-peer network:

"At this point we knew only that the network was coming, but the precise details weren't known. That first meeting was seminal. We had lots of questions....No one had any answers, we did come to one conclusion: We ought to meet again. The first few meetings were quite tenuous. We had no official charter. Most of us were graduate students and we expected that a professional crew would show up eventually to take over the problems we were dealing with....later...it became clear to us that we had better start writing down our discussions....I remember having great fear that we would offend whomever the official protocol designers were...(so we labeled our decisions) "Request for Comments" or RFC's.

internet puzzle

"Over the spring and summer of 1969 we grappled with the detailed problems of protocol design. Although we had a vision of the vast potential for intercomputer communication, designing usable protocols was another matter.... It was clear we needed to support remote login for interactive use -- later known as Telnet -- and we needed to move files from machine to machine. We also knew that we needed a more fundamental point of view for building a larger array of protocols. With the pressure to get something working and the general confusion as to how to achieve the high generality we all aspired to, we punted and defined the first set of protocols to include only Telnet and FTP functions. In December 1969, we met with Larry Roberts in Utah, and suffered our first direct experience with "redirection". Larry made it abundantly clear that our first step was not big enough, and we went back to the drawing board. Over the next few months we designed a symmetric host-host protocol, and we defined an abstract implementation of the protocol known as the Network Control Program. ("NCP" later came to be used as the name for the protocol, but it originally meant the program within the operating system that managed connections. The protocol itself was known blandly only as the host-host protocol.) Along with the basic host-host protocol, we also envisioned a hierarchy of protocols, with Telnet, FTP and some splinter protocols as the first examples.

"The initial experiment had been declared an immediate success and the network continued to grow. More and more people started coming to meetings, and the Network Working Group began to take shape. Working Group meetings started to have 50 and 100 people in attendance instead of the half dozen we had had in 1968 and early 1969....In October 1971 we all convened at MIT for a major protocol "fly-off." Where will it end? The network has exceeded all estimates of its growth. It has been transformed, extended, cloned, renamed and reimplemented. But the RFCs march on."

Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) logo

Indeed they do. Today there are nearly 4000 RFC's and they are just one of several mechanisms used to propose and decide on standards for the Internet – a network of networks that learned from the ARPANET but had to be created and developed on its own terms. Because of the increasing complexity the Internet’s TCP/IP protocols represented when compared to ARPANET’s NCP protocol – simply put, the difference between creating one national network versus linking multiple, world-wide networks - several additional methods and organizations were established in the 1980s and 1990s to deal with protocol and standards. First among these was the 1986 establishment of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). The IETF took over responsibility for short-to-medium term Internet engineering issues, which had previously been handled by the Internet Activities Board. The Internet Society (ISOC), begun in 1992, provides an organizational home for the IETF and the Internet Architecture Board (IAB) (previously IAB stood for the Internet Activities Board).


Another organization, the ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) -- established in 1998, is a public-private partnership that is "responsible for managing and coordinating the Domain Name System (DNS) to ensure that every address is unique and that all users of the Internet can find all valid addresses. It does this by overseeing the distribution of unique IP addresses and domain names. It also ensures that each domain name maps to the correct IP address."

These, and other, organizations employ a variety of working groups, task forces, and committees to work through a multi-stage process of suggesting, reviewing, accepting, and issuing standards for the Internet. When a specification reaches the point that it "is characterized by a high degree of technical maturity and by a generally held belief that the specified protocol or service provides significant benefit to the Internet community" it is released as an Internet Standard. Today there are 63 Internet Standards.

By making common standards a routine practice from the beginning, ARPANET began pouring a strong foundation. In fact, ARPANET was so dedicated to common standards that RFC 1 was issued on April 7, 1969, six months before the first network connection was made. By 1982, when ARPANET transitioned to the use of the TCP/IP inter-networking protocols, the foundational footings had fully settled and the way was open for broader public involvement.

May 1974 Article: 'A Protocol for Packet Network Intercommunication'  - Click to display a larger version...

In 1987, the National Science Foundation (NSF) took over the funding and responsibility for the civilian nodes of the ARPANET. In addition, NSF had built their own T1 backbone for the purpose of hooking the Nation's five supercomputers together. While the slower ARPANET nodes continued in operation, the faster T1 backbone of the NSFnet, increasingly called the Internet, began to get lots of attention from private enterprises. Officially sanctioned civilian demands upon the NSFnet/Internet included:

  • MCI Mail and CompuServe, first formally sanctioned commercial email carriers connected to the Internet, 1988 and 1989; and
    MCI Mail LogoCompuServe Logo

  • The World Comes On Line, first public dial-up Internet Service Provider, 1989.
    At The World Logo

By the time the ARPANET was formally decommissioned in 1990, the NSFnet/Internet was poised for explosive growth. When the NSF lifted all restrictions on commercial use of its network backbone in 1991, today's Internet was begun.

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last reviewed/updated on 11/21/05 

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