I'm Matt Bidewell
A software engineer in London 👨💻
RFCs and the importance of building a greater technical understanding
I first came across RFCs (Request for Comments) when in university, specifically in my Networking lectures (shout out to Networking Bob @ Hertfordshire University) where we evaluated the RFC 791 which is the IPv4 specification. It was a great way to understand the history of the internet and how it came to be. It was also a great way to understand the technical details of how the Internet works.
At first, they seemed like a bit of a chore, but as I've grown as an engineer I've come to appreciate them more and more. They are a great way to build a greater technical understanding of a system. Let's explore why and provide some examples, but first, what is an RFC?
What is an RFC?
An RFC (Request for Comments) is a document that describes a technical specification. It's a way for engineers to collaborate and discuss technical specifications. It's a way to build a greater technical understanding of a system.
Initially, I thought RFCs are used by only the elite engineers, the top 1% or the top 1%, those who created the very bare metal infrastructure we take for granted. It wasn't until my role at GDS that I was introduced to RFCs again but on a much smaller scale. This time, however, they were conceptually restricted to the engineering team and what we were building, rather than the entire internet. They were a great way for me to build a greater technical understanding of a system as a new engineer in the team.
Inside the RFC you will usually find the following sections or at least a variation of them:
- Author - The author(s).
- Background - A brief description of the problem and why it needs to be solved.
- Propsals - A description of the proposed solution(s).
- Implementation - A description of how the solution will be implemented.
- Security considerations - A description of the security considerations involved with the solution.
Why would you use an RFC?
- They provide a way to build a greater technical understanding of a system.
- They provide a timeline on the overall state of a system.
- They're a method of collecting feedback on a proposed solution.
- They're great for onboarding new engineers/teams.
- Most importantly they're self documenting!
Time and time again I join an engineering team or chat with engineers who all have a problem with the same thing. They don't fully understand the system they're working on. Hours are then spent trawling the code, watching pre-recorded out-of-date meetings. This is a huge waste of time and effort. It's also a huge waste of money. RFCs are a great way to solve this problem.
RFCs are effectively a self-documenting way to clearly describe the process, events and decisions that resulted in the system to date.
They're great for gaining a historical understanding of a system.
By keeping a uniform structure, they end up reading like a story. For example, We have X problem and we need to solve it. We have Y solution and we need to implement it. We have Z risks and we need to mitigate them.
From an engineering perspective, it's also a great way to collect feedback on a proposed solution. The concept of them is to get feedback before implementation.
From a managerial perspective, you want new engineers to be onboarded quickly. RFCs are a powerful way to do this. They allow newer engineers to get into the mindset needed to understand the system, the problem and the currently used solutions. This will help empower them to be able to make decisions and contribute to the system.
When to use an RFC
However, not everything needs to be an RFC. For example, you're not going to write an RFC for a small bug fix. You're not going to write an RFC for a small feature. Instead, you'll write for a large feature or a large change to the system.
It's generally encouraged to write an RFC for any major change such as, but not limited to:
- Addition of any major new feature of the subsystem
- Changes that impact existing systems used by other teams
Usually, you'll follow a basic template when writing an RFC. Here's an example:
# Title of RFC | Status | (Proposed / Accepted / Implemented / Obsolete) | :-------------- |:---------------------------------------------------- | | **RFC #** | [NNN] | **Author(s)** | My Name (email@example.com), AN Other (firstname.lastname@example.org) | | **Updated** | YYYY-MM-DD | | **Obsoletes** | TF-RFC it replaces, else remove this header | ## Objective What are we doing and why? What problem will this solve? What are the goals and non-goals? This is your executive summary; keep it short, and elaborate below. ## Background Why this is a valuable problem to solve? What background information is needed to show how this design addresses the problem? Which users are affected by the problem? Why is it a problem? What data supports this? What related work exists? ## Proposals This is the meat of the document, where you explain your proposal. If you have multiple alternatives, be sure to use sub-sections for better separation of the idea, and list the pros/cons of each approach. If there are alternatives that you have eliminated, you should also list those here, and explain why you believe your chosen approach is superior. ### Implementation Write in a high-level view of the implementation. Enough that a reader or engineer can implement it. Pseudo-code and system diagrams are fine. ### Security considerations Write up the security considerations involved with the implementation. What could be exploited? What could be abused? What could be leaked?