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The end-to-end principle has guided the development of the Internet since at least 1981. That's when Jerome Saltzer, David Reed and David Clark wrote "End-to-end Arguments in System Design," the paper that defined the thinking that drove the evolution of the architecture of the Internet to where it is today. Security seems to be an area where technologies based on the end-to-end principle often fail, however. The Internet Engineering Task Force, (IETF) the organization that writes the standards that define the operation of the Internet, should accept this reality.

The end-to-end principle

It's often convenient to divide communication systems into the network itself and the endpoints that attach to the network. This provides the framework for thinking about the end-to-end principle, which tells us that operations should take place as close to the endpoints as possible instead of being implemented in the network.

Conventional wisdom tells us that the closer we follow the end-to-end principle, the easier it is to create reliable systems. This is certainly true in many cases, but there may also have been another reason for adopting the end-to-end principle as a guiding philosophy for the architecture of the Internet, and this was to differentiate the Internet from competing networking technologies.

The early architects of the Internet emphasized the differences between their network and the telephone networks, and used the lower complexity of their network as a way to do this. The telephone networks needed the ability to communicate between switches, databases and signal processing systems. The complexity that this required was acceptable because it allowed the phone companies to sell additional services, but providing the ability to do this also required adding a significant amount of intelligence to the network that violated the end-to-end principle.

The use of the end-to-end principle to get lower complexity provided an easy way to differentiate the Internet from telephone networks. With the success of the Internet, this principle evolved into something that's enforced too rigorously by the IETF, even in cases where it doesn't make sense. This means that many important technologies that violate the end-to-end principle are unlikely to ever become Internet standards. Many of these relate to information security.


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