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rfc:bcp:bcp178

Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) P. Saint-Andre Request for Comments: 6648 Cisco Systems, Inc. BCP: 178 D. Crocker Category: Best Current Practice Brandenburg InternetWorking ISSN: 2070-1721 M. Nottingham

                                                             Rackspace
                                                             June 2012
         Deprecating the "X-" Prefix and Similar Constructs
                      in Application Protocols

Abstract

 Historically, designers and implementers of application protocols
 have often distinguished between standardized and unstandardized
 parameters by prefixing the names of unstandardized parameters with
 the string "X-" or similar constructs.  In practice, that convention
 causes more problems than it solves.  Therefore, this document
 deprecates the convention for newly defined parameters with textual
 (as opposed to numerical) names in application protocols.

Status of This Memo

 This memo documents an Internet Best Current Practice.
 This document is a product of the Internet Engineering Task Force
 (IETF).  It represents the consensus of the IETF community.  It has
 received public review and has been approved for publication by the
 Internet Engineering Steering Group (IESG).  Further information on
 BCPs is available in Section 2 of RFC 5741.
 Information about the current status of this document, any errata,
 and how to provide feedback on it may be obtained at
 http://www.rfc-editor.org/info/rfc6648.

Saint-Andre, et al. Best Current Practice [Page 1] RFC 6648 Deprecating "X-" June 2012

Copyright Notice

 Copyright (c) 2012 IETF Trust and the persons identified as the
 document authors.  All rights reserved.
 This document is subject to BCP 78 and the IETF Trust's Legal
 Provisions Relating to IETF Documents
 (http://trustee.ietf.org/license-info) in effect on the date of
 publication of this document.  Please review these documents
 carefully, as they describe your rights and restrictions with respect
 to this document.  Code Components extracted from this document must
 include Simplified BSD License text as described in Section 4.e of
 the Trust Legal Provisions and are provided without warranty as
 described in the Simplified BSD License.

Table of Contents

 1. Introduction ....................................................2
 2. Recommendations for Implementers of Application Protocols .......4
 3. Recommendations for Creators of New Parameters ..................4
 4. Recommendations for Protocol Designers ..........................4
 5. Security Considerations .........................................5
 6. IANA Considerations .............................................5
 7. Acknowledgements ................................................5
 Appendix A.  Background ............................................6
 Appendix B.  Analysis ..............................................7
 References ........................................................10
    Normative References ...........................................10
    Informative References .........................................10

1. Introduction

 Many application protocols use parameters with textual (as opposed to
 numerical) names to identify data (media types, header fields in
 Internet mail messages and HTTP requests, vCard parameters and
 properties, etc.).  Historically, designers and implementers of
 application protocols have often distinguished between standardized
 and unstandardized parameters by prefixing the names of
 unstandardized parameters with the string "X-" or similar constructs
 (e.g., "x."), where the "X" is commonly understood to stand for
 "eXperimental" or "eXtension".
 Under this convention, the name of a parameter not only identified
 the data, but also embedded the status of the parameter into the name
 itself: a parameter defined in a specification produced by a
 recognized standards development organization (or registered
 according to processes defined in such a specification) did not start

Saint-Andre, et al. Best Current Practice [Page 2] RFC 6648 Deprecating "X-" June 2012

 with "X-" or similar constructs, whereas a parameter defined outside
 such a specification or process started with "X-" or similar
 constructs.
 As explained more fully under Appendix A, this convention was
 encouraged for many years in application protocols such as file
 transfer, email, and the World Wide Web.  In particular, it was
 codified for email by [RFC822] (via the distinction between
 "Extension-fields" and "user-defined-fields"), but then removed by
 [RFC2822] based on implementation and deployment experience.  A
 similar progression occurred for SIP technologies with regard to the
 "P-" header, as explained in [RFC5727].  The reasoning behind those
 changes is explored under Appendix B.
 In short, although in theory the "X-" convention was a good way to
 avoid collisions (and attendant interoperability problems) between
 standardized parameters and unstandardized parameters, in practice
 the benefits have been outweighed by the costs associated with the
 leakage of unstandardized parameters into the standards space.
 This document generalizes from the experience of the email and SIP
 communities by doing the following:
 1.  Deprecates the "X-" convention for newly defined parameters in
     application protocols, including new parameters for established
     protocols.  This change applies even where the "X-" convention
     was only implicit, and not explicitly provided, such as was done
     for email in [RFC822].
 2.  Makes specific recommendations about how to proceed in a world
     without the distinction between standardized and unstandardized
     parameters (although only for parameters with textual names, not
     parameters that are expressed as numbers, which are out of the
     scope of this document).
 3.  Does not recommend against the practice of private, local,
     preliminary, experimental, or implementation-specific parameters,
     only against the use of "X-" and similar constructs in the names
     of such parameters.
 4.  Makes no recommendation as to whether existing "X-" parameters
     ought to remain in use or be migrated to a format without the
     "X-"; this is a matter for the creators or maintainers of those
     parameters.

Saint-Andre, et al. Best Current Practice [Page 3] RFC 6648 Deprecating "X-" June 2012

 5.  Does not override existing specifications that legislate the use
     of "X-" for particular application protocols (e.g., the "x-name"
     token in [RFC5545]); this is a matter for the designers of those
     protocols.
 The key words "MUST", "MUST NOT", "REQUIRED", "SHALL", "SHALL NOT",
 "SHOULD", "SHOULD NOT", "RECOMMENDED", "NOT RECOMMENDED", "MAY", and
 "OPTIONAL" in this document are to be interpreted as described in
 [RFC2119].

2. Recommendations for Implementers of Application Protocols

 Implementations of application protocols MUST NOT make any
 assumptions about the status of a parameter, nor take automatic
 action regarding a parameter, based solely on the presence or absence
 of "X-" or a similar construct in the parameter's name.

3. Recommendations for Creators of New Parameters

 Creators of new parameters to be used in the context of application
 protocols:
 1.  SHOULD assume that all parameters they create might become
     standardized, public, commonly deployed, or usable across
     multiple implementations.
 2.  SHOULD employ meaningful parameter names that they have reason to
     believe are currently unused.
 3.  SHOULD NOT prefix their parameter names with "X-" or similar
     constructs.
 Note: If the relevant parameter name space has conventions about
 associating parameter names with those who create them, a parameter
 name could incorporate the organization's name or primary domain name
 (see Appendix B for examples).

4. Recommendations for Protocol Designers

 Designers of new application protocols that allow extensions using
 parameters:
 1.  SHOULD establish registries with potentially unlimited value-
     spaces, defining both permanent and provisional registries if
     appropriate.
 2.  SHOULD define simple, clear registration procedures.

Saint-Andre, et al. Best Current Practice [Page 4] RFC 6648 Deprecating "X-" June 2012

 3.  SHOULD mandate registration of all non-private parameters,
     independent of the form of the parameter names.
 4.  SHOULD NOT prohibit parameters with an "X-" prefix or similar
     constructs from being registered.
 5.  MUST NOT stipulate that a parameter with an "X-" prefix or
     similar constructs needs to be understood as unstandardized.
 6.  MUST NOT stipulate that a parameter without an "X-" prefix or
     similar constructs needs to be understood as standardized.

5. Security Considerations

 Interoperability and migration issues with security-critical
 parameters can result in unnecessary vulnerabilities (see Appendix B
 for further discussion).
 As a corollary to the recommendation provided under Section 2,
 implementations MUST NOT assume that standardized parameters are
 "secure" whereas unstandardized parameters are "insecure", based
 solely on the names of such parameters.

6. IANA Considerations

 This document does not modify registration procedures currently in
 force for various application protocols.  However, such procedures
 might be updated in the future to incorporate the best practices
 defined in this document.

7. Acknowledgements

 Thanks to Claudio Allocchio, Adam Barth, Nathaniel Borenstein, Eric
 Burger, Stuart Cheshire, Al Constanzo, Dave Cridland, Ralph Droms,
 Martin Duerst, Frank Ellermann, J.D. Falk, Ned Freed, Tony Finch,
 Randall Gellens, Tony Hansen, Ted Hardie, Joe Hildebrand, Alfred
 Hoenes, Paul Hoffman, Eric Johnson, Scott Kelly, Scott Kitterman,
 John Klensin, Graham Klyne, Murray Kucherawy, Eliot Lear, John
 Levine, Bill McQuillan, Alexey Melnikov, Subramanian Moonesamy, Keith
 Moore, Ben Niven-Jenkins, Zoltan Ordogh, Tim Petch, Dirk Pranke,
 Randy Presuhn, Julian Reschke, Dan Romascanu, Doug Royer, Andrew
 Sullivan, Henry Thompson, Martin Thomson, Matthew Wild, Nicolas
 Williams, Tim Williams, Mykyta Yevstifeyev, and Kurt Zeilenga for
 their feedback.

Saint-Andre, et al. Best Current Practice [Page 5] RFC 6648 Deprecating "X-" June 2012

Appendix A. Background

 The beginnings of the "X-" convention can be found in a suggestion
 made by Brian Harvey in 1975 with regard to FTP parameters [RFC691]:
    Thus, FTP servers which care about the distinction between Telnet
    print and non-print could implement SRVR N and SRVR T.  Ideally
    the SRVR parameters should be registered with Jon Postel to avoid
    conflicts, although it is not a disaster if two sites use the same
    parameter for different things.  I suggest that parameters be
    allowed to be more than one letter, and that an initial letter X
    be used for really local idiosyncracies [sic].
 This "X" prefix was subsequently used in [RFC737], [RFC743], and
 [RFC775].  This usage was noted in [RFC1123]:
    FTP allows "experimental" commands, whose names begin with "X".
    If these commands are subsequently adopted as standards, there may
    still be existing implementations using the "X" form....  All FTP
    implementations SHOULD recognize both forms of these commands, by
    simply equating them with extra entries in the command lookup
    table.
 The "X-" convention has been used for email header fields since at
 least the publication of [RFC822] in 1982, which distinguished
 between "Extension-fields" and "user-defined-fields" as follows:
    The prefatory string "X-" will never be used in the names of
    Extension-fields.  This provides user-defined fields with a
    protected set of names.
 That rule was restated by [RFC1154] as follows:
    Keywords beginning with "X-" are permanently reserved to
    implementation-specific use.  No standard registered encoding
    keyword will ever begin with "X-".
 This convention continued with various specifications for media types
 ([RFC2045], [RFC2046], [RFC2047]), HTTP headers ([RFC2068],
 [RFC2616]), vCard parameters and properties ([RFC2426]), Uniform
 Resource Names ([RFC3406]), Lightweight Directory Access Protocol
 (LDAP) field names ([RFC4512]), and other application technologies.
 However, use of the "X-" prefix in email headers was effectively
 deprecated between the publication of [RFC822] in 1982 and the
 publication of [RFC2822] in 2001 by removing the distinction between
 the "extension-field" construct and the "user-defined-field"

Saint-Andre, et al. Best Current Practice [Page 6] RFC 6648 Deprecating "X-" June 2012

 construct (a similar change happened with regard to Session
 Initiation Protocol "P-" headers when [RFC3427] was obsoleted by
 [RFC5727]).
 Despite the fact that parameters containing the "X-" string have been
 effectively deprecated in email headers, they continue to be used in
 a wide variety of application protocols.  The two primary situations
 motivating such use are:
 1.  Experiments that are intended to possibly be standardized in the
     future, if they are successful.
 2.  Extensions that are intended to never be standardized because
     they are intended only for implementation-specific use or for
     local use on private networks.
 Use of this naming convention is not mandated by the Internet
 Standards Process [BCP9] or IANA registration rules [BCP26].  Rather,
 it is an individual choice by each specification that references the
 convention or each administrative process that chooses to use it.  In
 particular, some Standards Track RFCs have interpreted the convention
 in a normative way (e.g., [RFC822] and [RFC5451]).

Appendix B. Analysis

 The primary problem with the "X-" convention is that unstandardized
 parameters have a tendency to leak into the protected space of
 standardized parameters, thus introducing the need for migration from
 the "X-" name to a standardized name.  Migration, in turn, introduces
 interoperability issues (and sometimes security issues) because older
 implementations will support only the "X-" name and newer
 implementations might support only the standardized name.  To
 preserve interoperability, newer implementations simply support the
 "X-" name forever, which means that the unstandardized name has
 become a de facto standard (thus obviating the need for segregation
 of the name space into standardized and unstandardized areas in the
 first place).
 We have already seen this phenomenon at work with regard to FTP in
 the quote from [RFC1123] in Appendix A.  The HTTP community had the
 same experience with the "x-gzip" and "x-compress" media types, as
 noted in [RFC2068]:
    For compatibility with previous implementations of HTTP,
    applications should consider "x-gzip" and "x-compress" to be
    equivalent to "gzip" and "compress" respectively.

Saint-Andre, et al. Best Current Practice [Page 7] RFC 6648 Deprecating "X-" June 2012

 A similar example can be found in [RFC5064], which defined the
 "Archived-At" message header field but also found it necessary to
 define and register the "X-Archived-At" field:
    For backwards compatibility, this document also describes the
    X-Archived-At header field, a precursor of the Archived-At header
    field.  The X-Archived-At header field MAY also be parsed, but
    SHOULD NOT be generated.
 One of the original reasons for segregation of name spaces into
 standardized and unstandardized areas was the perceived difficulty of
 registering names.  However, the solution to that problem has been
 simpler registration rules, such as those provided by [RFC3864] and
 [RFC4288].  As explained in [RFC4288]:
    [W]ith the simplified registration procedures described above for
    vendor and personal trees, it should rarely, if ever, be necessary
    to use unregistered experimental types.  Therefore, use of both
    "x-" and "x." forms is discouraged.
 For some name spaces, another helpful practice has been the
 establishment of separate registries for permanent names and
 provisional names, as in [RFC4395].
 Furthermore, often standardization of a unstandardized parameter
 leads to subtly different behavior (e.g., the standardized version
 might have different security properties as a result of security
 review provided during the standardization process).  If implementers
 treat the old, unstandardized parameter and the new, standardized
 parameter as equivalent, interoperability and security problems can
 ensue.  Analysis of unstandardized parameters to detect and correct
 flaws is, in general, a good thing and is not intended to be
 discouraged by the lack of distinction in element names.  If an
 originally unstandardized parameter or protocol element is
 standardized and the new form has differences that affect
 interoperability or security properties, it would be inappropriate
 for implementations to treat the old form as identical to the new
 form.
 For similar considerations with regard to the "P-" convention in the
 Session Initiation Protocol, see [RFC5727].

Saint-Andre, et al. Best Current Practice [Page 8] RFC 6648 Deprecating "X-" June 2012

 In some situations, segregating the parameter name space used in a
 given application protocol can be justified:
 1.  When it is extremely unlikely that some parameters will ever be
     standardized.  In this case, implementation-specific and private-
     use parameters could at least incorporate the organization's name
     (e.g., "ExampleInc-foo" or, consistent with [RFC4288],
     "VND.ExampleInc.foo") or primary domain name (e.g.,
     "com.example.foo" or a Uniform Resource Identifier [RFC3986] such
     as "http://example.com/foo").  In rare cases, truly experimental
     parameters could be given meaningless names such as nonsense
     words, the output of a hash function, or Universally Unique
     Identifiers (UUIDs) [RFC4122].
 2.  When parameter names might have significant meaning.  This case
     too is rare, since implementers can almost always find a synonym
     for an existing term (e.g., "urgency" instead of "priority") or
     simply invent a more creative name (e.g., "get-it-there-fast").
     The existence of multiple similarly named parameters can be
     confusing, but this is true regardless if there is an attempt to
     segregate standardized and unstandardized parameters (e.g.,
     "X-Priority" can be confused with "Urgency").
 3.  When parameter names need to be very short (e.g., as in [RFC5646]
     for language tags).  In this case, it can be more efficient to
     assign numbers instead of human-readable names (e.g., as in
     [RFC2939] for DHCP options) and to leave a certain numeric range
     for implementation-specific extensions or private use (e.g., as
     with the codec numbers used with the Session Description Protocol
     [RFC4566]).
 There are three primary objections to deprecating the "X-" convention
 as a best practice for application protocols:
 1.  Implementers might mistake one parameter for another parameter
     that has a similar name; a rigid distinction such as an "X-"
     prefix can make this clear.  However, in practice, implementers
     are forced to blur the distinction (e.g., by treating "X-foo" as
     a de facto standard), so it inevitably becomes meaningless.
 2.  Collisions are undesirable, and it would be bad for both a
     standardized parameter "foo" and a unstandardized parameter "foo"
     to exist simultaneously.  However, names are almost always cheap,
     so an experimental, implementation-specific, or private-use name
     of "foo" does not prevent a standards development organization
     from issuing a similarly creative name such as "bar".

Saint-Andre, et al. Best Current Practice [Page 9] RFC 6648 Deprecating "X-" June 2012

 3.  [BCP82] is entitled "Assigning Experimental and Testing Numbers
     Considered Useful" and therefore implies that the "X-" prefix is
     also useful for experimental parameters.  However, BCP 82
     addresses the need for protocol numbers when the pool of such
     numbers is strictly limited (e.g., DHCP options) or when a number
     is absolutely required even for purely experimental purposes
     (e.g., the Protocol field of the IP header).  In almost all
     application protocols that make use of protocol parameters
     (including email headers, media types, HTTP headers, vCard
     parameters and properties, URNs, and LDAP field names), the name
     space is not limited or constrained in any way, so there is no
     need to assign a block of names for private use or experimental
     purposes (see also [BCP26]).
 Therefore, it appears that segregating the parameter space into a
 standardized area and a unstandardized area has few, if any, benefits
 and has at least one significant cost in terms of interoperability.

References

Normative References

 [RFC2119]  Bradner, S., "Key words for use in RFCs to Indicate
            Requirement Levels", BCP 14, RFC 2119, March 1997.

Informative References

 [BCP9]     Bradner, S., "The Internet Standards Process -- Revision
            3", BCP 9, RFC 2026, October 1996.
 [BCP26]    Narten, T. and H. Alvestrand, "Guidelines for Writing an
            IANA Considerations Section in RFCs", BCP 26, RFC 5226,
            May 2008.
 [BCP82]    Narten, T., "Assigning Experimental and Testing Numbers
            Considered Useful", BCP 82, RFC 3692, January 2004.
 [RFC691]   Harvey, B., "One more try on the FTP", RFC 691, June 1975.
 [RFC737]   Harrenstien, K., "FTP extension: XSEN", RFC 737,
            October 1977.
 [RFC743]   Harrenstien, K., "FTP extension: XRSQ/XRCP", RFC 743,
            December 1977.
 [RFC775]   Mankins, D., Franklin, D., and A. Owen, "Directory
            oriented FTP commands", RFC 775, December 1980.

Saint-Andre, et al. Best Current Practice [Page 10] RFC 6648 Deprecating "X-" June 2012

 [RFC822]   Crocker, D., "Standard for the format of ARPA Internet
            text messages", STD 11, RFC 822, August 1982.
 [RFC1123]  Braden, R., "Requirements for Internet Hosts - Application
            and Support", STD 3, RFC 1123, October 1989.
 [RFC1154]  Robinson, D. and R. Ullmann, "Encoding header field for
            internet messages", RFC 1154, April 1990.
 [RFC2045]  Freed, N. and N. Borenstein, "Multipurpose Internet Mail
            Extensions (MIME) Part One: Format of Internet Message
            Bodies", RFC 2045, November 1996.
 [RFC2046]  Freed, N. and N. Borenstein, "Multipurpose Internet Mail
            Extensions (MIME) Part Two: Media Types", RFC 2046,
            November 1996.
 [RFC2047]  Moore, K., "MIME (Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions)
            Part Three: Message Header Extensions for Non-ASCII Text",
            RFC 2047, November 1996.
 [RFC2068]  Fielding, R., Gettys, J., Mogul, J., Nielsen, H., and T.
            Berners-Lee, "Hypertext Transfer Protocol -- HTTP/1.1",
            RFC 2068, January 1997.
 [RFC2426]  Dawson, F. and T. Howes, "vCard MIME Directory Profile",
            RFC 2426, September 1998.
 [RFC2616]  Fielding, R., Gettys, J., Mogul, J., Frystyk, H.,
            Masinter, L., Leach, P., and T. Berners-Lee, "Hypertext
            Transfer Protocol -- HTTP/1.1", RFC 2616, June 1999.
 [RFC2822]  Resnick, P., "Internet Message Format", RFC 2822,
            April 2001.
 [RFC2939]  Droms, R., "Procedures and IANA Guidelines for Definition
            of New DHCP Options and Message Types", BCP 43, RFC 2939,
            September 2000.
 [RFC3406]  Daigle, L., van Gulik, D., Iannella, R., and P. Faltstrom,
            "Uniform Resource Names (URN) Namespace Definition
            Mechanisms", BCP 66, RFC 3406, October 2002.
 [RFC3427]  Mankin, A., Bradner, S., Mahy, R., Willis, D., Ott, J.,
            and B. Rosen, "Change Process for the Session Initiation
            Protocol (SIP)", RFC 3427, December 2002.

Saint-Andre, et al. Best Current Practice [Page 11] RFC 6648 Deprecating "X-" June 2012

 [RFC3864]  Klyne, G., Nottingham, M., and J. Mogul, "Registration
            Procedures for Message Header Fields", BCP 90, RFC 3864,
            September 2004.
 [RFC3986]  Berners-Lee, T., Fielding, R., and L. Masinter, "Uniform
            Resource Identifier (URI): Generic Syntax", STD 66,
            RFC 3986, January 2005.
 [RFC4122]  Leach, P., Mealling, M., and R. Salz, "A Universally
            Unique IDentifier (UUID) URN Namespace", RFC 4122,
            July 2005.
 [RFC4288]  Freed, N. and J. Klensin, "Media Type Specifications and
            Registration Procedures", BCP 13, RFC 4288, December 2005.
 [RFC4395]  Hansen, T., Hardie, T., and L. Masinter, "Guidelines and
            Registration Procedures for New URI Schemes", BCP 35,
            RFC 4395, February 2006.
 [RFC4512]  Zeilenga, K., "Lightweight Directory Access Protocol
            (LDAP): Directory Information Models", RFC 4512,
            June 2006.
 [RFC4566]  Handley, M., Jacobson, V., and C. Perkins, "SDP: Session
            Description Protocol", RFC 4566, July 2006.
 [RFC5064]  Duerst, M., "The Archived-At Message Header Field",
            RFC 5064, December 2007.
 [RFC5451]  Kucherawy, M., "Message Header Field for Indicating
            Message Authentication Status", RFC 5451, April 2009.
 [RFC5545]  Desruisseaux, B., "Internet Calendaring and Scheduling
            Core Object Specification (iCalendar)", RFC 5545,
            September 2009.
 [RFC5646]  Phillips, A. and M. Davis, "Tags for Identifying
            Languages", BCP 47, RFC 5646, September 2009.
 [RFC5727]  Peterson, J., Jennings, C., and R. Sparks, "Change Process
            for the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) and the Real-
            time Applications and Infrastructure Area", BCP 67,
            RFC 5727, March 2010.

Saint-Andre, et al. Best Current Practice [Page 12] RFC 6648 Deprecating "X-" June 2012

Authors' Addresses

 Peter Saint-Andre
 Cisco Systems, Inc.
 1899 Wynkoop Street, Suite 600
 Denver, CO  80202
 USA
 Phone: +1-303-308-3282
 EMail: psaintan@cisco.com
 Dave Crocker
 Brandenburg InternetWorking
 675 Spruce Dr.
 Sunnyvale, CA
 USA
 Phone: +1.408.246.8253
 EMail: dcrocker@bbiw.net
 URI:   http://bbiw.net
 Mark Nottingham
 Rackspace
 EMail: mnot@mnot.net
 URI:   http://www.mnot.net

Saint-Andre, et al. Best Current Practice [Page 13]

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