New Year’s Thoughts: Read The Packet Classics


One good way to round yourself out as a network engineer is to read books about networking. There are many weighty tomes on the market, often several hundred pages long. Networking books tend to tackle a specific technology, explain it, then deep-dive on how it’s being used in the world today. I’ve read many of these books over the years, although my methodology varies. Some books I see as references. I don’t read reference books end-to-end; I read the sections that are most pertinent to my specific networking challenges. Other books work as a system, and are meant to be read as a whole, at least in my estimation. Each chapter builds on the other with an endgame the author(s) had in mind for the reader.

Another excellent source of information about networking is the free library of RFCs and other published networking or telecommunications standards. Well-written RFCs are generally agreed upon standards that, when adhered to, guarantee a baseline of interoperability between vendors using the protocol or process defined in the RFC. Unfortunately, not all RFCs are well-written, in that they leave enough ambiguity that there’s room for misinterpretation. Therefore, vendor interoperability is not assured merely because of RFC compliance. But the larger point is that well-known standards like OSFP, BGP, spanning-tree, MPLS, and many others have RFCs behind them that you can read to understand what the technology is about. Frankly, reading the RFC is often better than an author’s explanation of the related technology in a book. RFCs aren’t all that bad to digest.


I’ve collected a number of paper books as well as Kindle & PDF books over the years. Although I’m familiar with the objection some folks have to ebooks, they are an important part of my library. I read using tablets as well as laptops, and find the experience okay for the most part. I have only two objections to technical ebooks. One is that diagrams are often hard to take in, as the screen real-estate might be insufficient, requiring zooming and orienting to make sense of the diagram. The other objection is that code block formatting on the Kindle particularly suffers. Indentation is usually lost, rendering a code block less comprehensible than the author intended. Still, those are minor complaints overall, and a tablet is much more portable when traveling than a 900-page hardcover. So, to each his own.

Looking at my bookshelf, I have a number of what I use as references as well as a number of what I’m calling “systems,” i.e. books I feel are meant to be read in their entirety. Some of them are getting older, but are still useful.

Some system books.

Some reference books.

Some books that fall in between for me.

There are many, many other networking books worth reading. This is hardly a comprehensive list. I mostly wanted to point out that even those some of these books are old or have updated editions, they are still valuable. Networking tends to move more slowly than the rest of IT. Don’t dismiss an older book just because the publication date is 5 or 6 years in the past.

RFCs & Standards

I’m not going to print you off a list of my favorite RFCs here, because I don’t especially have any. I simply want to encourage folks to go to the RFC library and not just to books when in need of a reference. Networking books are very often written by authors who work for a specific vendor, and therefore the viewpoint of the book reflects the viewpoint of the vendor. Not always mind you, but often. RFCs tend to be written by committees made up of folks working for a variety of vendors. The viewpoint espoused is usually vendor neutral, although arguably not always, depending on just how loudly a given vendor yells while the standard is being composed.

Internet Engineering Task Force’s (IETF) Request for Comments (RFC) Pages.

Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) 802 Standards. Note that most IEEE standards are behind a paywall, but many of the networking standards in the 802 hierarchy can be downloaded at no charge.

Open Networking Foundation (ONF) – OpenFlow specifications.

European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) Standards.

New Year’s Thought

Networking is changing. Yet, networking is much the same as it’s ever been. Don’t dismiss a book or RFC simply because it has a few years on it. While some networking technology can and does go stale, you can still learn a lot surveying the way things used to be. The parallels to the way things are or will be are immense. Everything old is new again.

About the author

Ethan Banks

Most people know me because I write & podcast about IT on the Packet Pushers network. I also co-authored "Computer Networks Problems & Solutions" with Russ White.

Find out more on my about page.



Most people know me because I write & podcast about IT on the Packet Pushers network. I also co-authored "Computer Networks Problems & Solutions" with Russ White.

Find out more on my about page.

Subscribe via Email

Receive complete, ad-free posts in your inbox as I publish them here.