Volume II, Issue 2: October 2009

A matter of protocol

by Kathryn Bold / University Communications

Roy Fielding
Hoang Xuan Pham and Daniel A. Anderson / University Communications
Alumnus Roy Fielding was a principal author of the now-familiar HTTP that guides the flow of information over the Internet.

Among doctoral students, it's known as "Phase II drift," that window of time after they've completed qualifying exams but before they've chosen dissertation topics. While some cast about for research ideas and others were lured from academia to business, Roy Fielding '88, M.S. '93, Ph.D. '00 used that time at UC Irvine for a higher purpose.

In the early 1990s, the software researcher at the Donald Bren School of Information & Computer Sciences (then the ICS department) helped put a vast virtual world at the fingertips of computer users everywhere. The familiar HTTP acronym at the start of Web addresses is the standard — or protocol — for transferring documents. Fielding became a principal author of the version still in use today. And that was before he settled on his dissertation topic.

"I was just having fun, but I knew the research was important," Fielding says. "I knew the Web would be the printing press of the Internet age. It's changing society and the way people think. It's nice to be a part of that."

Prior to HTTP, or Hypertext Transfer Protocol, computer users would type the word "get" and a Web address when they wanted information. Fielding belonged to a small Web community that revised the standard into an e-mail-like format, allowing users to send and receive hypertext documents. By clicking on hyperlinks, they could browse through Web pages containing graphics, sounds, video and other multimedia. Suddenly, everyone was surfing the Net.

I did not invent the Internet - which some people joke about - and I didn't invent HTTP. But I did create many aspects of what we now call HTTP.

"I did not invent the Internet — which some people joke about — and I didn't invent HTTP," Fielding says. "But I did create many aspects of what we now call HTTP. I wrote most of the text that defines it, and I was the primary architect of the current version, HTTP/1.1."

His dissertation on Web architecture, published in 2000, was a natural extension of his pioneering Web work.

"Of all the early Web developers, I was the only one who had the freedom to do what I wanted, because I was a grad student at UCI. A lot of my friends went to work for software companies and got rich on IPO stocks. I got a dissertation. But it's one of the most referenced dissertations on the Web," Fielding says.

People not only read his dissertation, they adopted its notions as a guiding framework for Web applications.

"Roy's numerous innovations kept the Web from collapsing under its own weight," says his then-adviser Richard Taylor, ICS professor and director of UCI's Institute for Software Research. "The architectural principles behind his work, now known as Representational State Transfer, or REST, provide the basis for the Web we enjoy today."

Roy has always been fascinated by games, especially card and board games. He knew the rules and when to apply them, and he usually won.

Fielding made some of his greatest discoveries while a student at UCI, but his ties to the campus began much earlier: His father, Professor Emeritus Gordon "Pete" Fielding, was a founding faculty member in social sciences and an urban transportation specialist.

"I was born in 1965, the week classes started at UCI, so you could say the campus and I grew up together," he says. "I would visit my dad's office in Social Sciences, explore the stacks in the huge Langson Library, and meet faculty members when they had dinner at our house."

"Roy has always been fascinated by games, especially card and board games," his father recalls. "He knew the rules and when to apply them, and he usually won. I see an echo of these skills applied to software designed to minimize congestion of the World Wide Web."

In 1995, Fielding and seven Web masters started the Apache Group to redesign and maintain the public domain HTTP server developed by Rob McCool at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications. Four years later, the group formed the nonprofit Apache Software Foundation, with Fielding as its first chairman. (He's still on the board.) Its mission: to develop quality, freely available "open source" software that any user can run, share, modify and improve — to keep the Web a level playing field. Today, Apache has more than 65 software projects and its server is still the most popular in the world, powering more than 100 million Web sites.

Fielding is currently chief scientist at Day Software in Newport Beach, where he's working on a new version of HTTP. He's also developing a future Web protocol called "waka" that would replace HTTP.

"I work on that in my spare time," he jokes. "If you can make it easier for people to make connections, it increases the pace of innovation."