What is a Request for Comments?

A Request for Comments is the proper name for a memo issued by the Internet Engineering Task Force (EITF). This group oversees the standards and protocols related to Internet use and access. A Request for Comments details information related to any number of different Internet-based activities and technologies. Even though the name is specific to the EITF, the Internet Architecture Board (IAB) will also issue a Request for Comments, as will prominent Internet researchers.

These documents were originally actual requests for input from early Internet researchers. They were informal documents that asked for help on problems, input as to directions and methods and bragging points on technological innovations. In many cases, one Request for Comments would lead directly into the next, as problems from one were addressed in another. These messages were often sent as letters and mass mailings since e-mail was yet to be invented.

When these early researchers completed the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), the predecessor to the Internet, the document began to change. The original documents were very informal and were considered far from official documents of any kind. The ability to send information electronically and collaborate as a group over long distances began to formalize the process. The documents began to be official declarations of the Network Working Group, a loosely organized group of researchers.

Over the years, the ownership of the official Request for Comments documents has changed. As ARPANET gave way to the Internet and networking groups came and went, the EITF eventually took over the document. While other organizations and individuals may publish a document under the same name, the ones published directly by the EITF are the only ones considered official.

Even as document ownership changed hands, the actual methods used in a Request for Comments have stayed the same. Each document, since the very first sent over ARPANET, is numbered and edited by the Network Working Group, even though that group doesn’t officially exist. The numbers are continuous; no document is ever removed from the listing. Each document is submitted and stored in plain text, and the entire document series is publicly available on the Internet. Together, they form a history of the technology and many of the people that created it.

Several document statuses make up the divisions of standard Request for Comment documents. An Informational document is one of the least defined; it can literally be anything from simple information to a fully realized standards change. Experimental documents define ideas that are theoretical at the time due to technological or monetary constraints, and a Best Current Practice document discusses standards and ideas related to the Internet, but not ones that the EIFT directly oversees. Historic documents have been made obsolete by later documents. Lastly, Unknown documents are considered oddballs that don’t fit anywhere else, including most of the original documents.