How Do Internet Standards Become Standards?

“You wrote about Internet standards. How do standards get to be standards and where do I find them?”

Great question! Lets first look at how the standards became standards. To begin the process, someone, maybe you, gets an idea. It could be for a good way to do something that hasn’t been done yet, or it may be a better way to do something we’ve done for years. For example, you may have an idea for sharing voice, data, and video on multiple screens in different places.

Like all people who have an idea that excites them, you want to share it with other people you know who will like it and get excited like you did. You may also share it with people you heard about in hopes that they will add their knowledge and experience to your growing group. If your group meets at an Internet event with other groups, it would be called a BOF or Birds Of a Feather. No, I didn’t make that up.

To be accepted by the people responsible for new standards, the Internet Engineering Steering Group (IESG), your group must create a document that explains your idea in a clear enough way for the IESG to make sense of it. We call this document an Internet Draft.

When you send this to the IESG, you could include a request to form a working group to work toward a new standard. If the IESG approves, they will publish your Internet Draft. They may also help you form the working group by providing a knowledgeable chairperson.

As the word gets out, other people will join your working group. Some will join to represent their company’s interest and others because they are interested personally. You can join any working group you choose. That may start with reading the group’s email list comments so that when you comment or ask a question, it isn’t one someone else has already written.

Once your new working group is formed, it has six months to agree on the methods and rules of this new protocol and upgrade the Internet Draft to a Request for Comments (RFC). Your working group will send the properly formatted RFC to the RFC-Editor who publishes it to the Internet community.

This will bring in the requested comments that the working group will discuss in fine-tuning the new Proposed Standard. When the working group decides it’s time, the group creates a replacement RFC and applies to the IESG to upgrade the RFC from Proposed Standard to Draft Standard before publishing it.

Next, the working group reviews and votes on the comments to its Draft Standard RFC. It also reviews any vendor responses or implementations. Then, it modifies the Draft Standard RFC and asks the IESG to grant it full standard status. When that is granted, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) publishes a replacement RFC of the new standard, and the identifying number gets added to the Internet Standards list as either recommended or required.

It’s probably good to note at this point that only some Internet Drafts do not become Proposed Standards. Some Proposed Standards stay there instead of becoming Draft Standards. Draft Standards usually become full standards, but some get stuck there without making it. The reason may be that there are other, better standards that get accepted by more vendors first or that technology has passed by that way of doing things.

All RFCs are not destined to join the Internet Standards process. In fact, the majority of RFCs start their life as an Informational RFC. Informational RFCs provide useful information on different topics without creating standards for the way to do something.

There are two major subgroups of Informational RFCs: FYIs (“For Your Information” RFCs) and BCPs (“Best Current Practices” RFCs). The FYIs act as a basic guide for different areas of Internet functionality. The BCPs are quasi-standards or strongly suggested guidelines. Though they are not official standards, many vendors treat them as such.

Experimental RFCs report the results of protocol testing experiments. Historical RFCs include all RFCs whose status is no longer current. They may have been Standards RFCs or Informational RFCs when they were current though they have now been replaced by other RFCs.

So, where can you find them? The list of all the RFCs is in a text document called RFC-Index.txt. Search on that, and you will find a list you can look through to find an RFC on whatever topic you choose. Each RFC in the list will tell you what RFC it replaces. It will also say which RFC replaces it, if any. Here is a list of sites to help you find the right RFCs.

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