In classical Greek, the word protocollon (literally, "first leaf") referred to the first sheet of paper or papyrus in a scroll, which was actually glued to the wooden scroll itself. By custom, this sheet was used to describe the contents of the entire scroll. When books replaced scrolls, the protocollon continued as a table of contents page glued into the front of the book.



For a long time, the word protocol was used primarily to refer to the etiquette of diplomacy and formal arrangements of affairs of state—seating arrangements, how to address dignitaries and so on. Later, the term became a name for a type of treaty or international agreement. Perhaps the best known of those in recent memory are the Montreal and Kyoto protocols, which are environmental agreements on greenhouse gases and global warming.

But information technology has co-opted the term, as it has so many others, giving it new meaning in an entirely different context. As first applied to technology in the 1950s, protocols were rules governing communication between electronic devices such as radios and telephones.

As electronic communication grew and computers came into widespread use, computing protocols were created to control the design of and interaction among various types of networks.

IT protocols today describe any set of rules that allow different machines or pieces of software to coordinate with one another unambiguously. The use of communication and computing protocols requires a common message format and an accepted set of commands that all parties to a communications exchange will understand. Thus protocols ensure that electronic communication transactions follow predictable, logical sequences.

Ethernet's Value

A protocol is an agreed-upon set of rules typically used by network designers and developers to resolve a particular communications challenge. A protocol must be generally accepted as an industry standard before it can be widely used. A protocol becomes a standard when a standards development organization or other respected group recognizes and codifies it.

For example, Ethernet is a LAN protocol that forms the underlying transport vehicle used by several upper-level communication protocols, including TCP/IP. Originally developed by Xerox Corp., Digital Equipment Corp. and Intel Corp., Ethernet has since become a formal standard, accepted by the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers Inc. as IEEE 802.3.

A frame-based networking technology, Ethernet defines wiring and signaling for the physical layer as well as data packet formats and protocols for the data link layer as described in the International Standards Organization's seven-layer Open Systems Interconnection reference model. Ethernet specifies how data is broken up into discrete packets, how the network will be accessed and how the data is to be transmitted. The protocol also specifies how it will interact with both higher- and lower-level protocols.

Just as standards build upon one another, most protocols depend on other, related protocols to work properly in a broader context. This arrangement is often called a hierarchical protocol stack.

For example, low-level protocols such as Ethernet define electrical and physical standards, the order in which bits and bytes are interpreted and the transmission and error-detection/correction systems used in the bit stream.

Higher-level protocols deal with the way data is formatted, including the syntax of messages, dialogues between terminals and host computers, which character sets are used, how messages are properly sequenced and more. The complete protocol stack supports applications such as Web browsing or end-to-end telephone calls between voice-over-IP telephones.

Today, the Internet, the Web and other private and public networks simply couldn't function without the existence and acceptance of scores of specific protocols.


The Internet Protocol Stack

Protocols are designed to be both functionally self-contained and to interact with a variety of higher- and lower-level protocols. Perhaps the best known is the Internet Protocol stack. Each protocol specifies both its own role and how interactions are to take place with related protocols above and below it, from the physical cabling up through the application layer. The work of defining protocols is often conducted within standards groups such as the IEEE and the World Wide Web Consortium.

Although the IP stack shown on the right is monolithic, in practice the protocols used at each level are modular and can be swapped out.

For example, the Session Initiation Protocol is a fundamental application-layer building block for a VoIP stack. SIP can establish, modify or terminate multimedia sessions or Internet telephone calls and invite participants to unicast or multicast sessions. SIP works with client requests and server responses that can be sent through TCP. Or another transport protocol can be used, such as the User Datagram Protocol. At the data link layer, VoIP phones could run over Ethernet or, increasingly, Wi-Fi.

— Russell Kay

The Internet Protocol Stack

Kay is a Computerworld contributing writer in Worcester, Mass. You can reach him at

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Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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