Network Working Group D. Bernstein
Request for Comments: 1143 NYU
The Q Method of Implementing TELNET Option Negotiation
Status of This Memo
This is RFC discusses an implementation approach to option
negotiation in the Telnet protocol (RFC 854). It does not propose
any changes to the TELNET protocol. Rather, it discusses the
implementation of the protocol of one feature, only. This is not a
protocol specification. This is an experimental method of
implementing a protocol. This memo is not a recommendation of the
Telnet Working Group of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).
This RFC is Copyright 1990, Daniel J. Bernstein. However,
distribution of this memo in original form is unlimited.
This RFC amplifies, supplements, and extends the RFC 854  option
negotiation rules and guidelines, which are insufficient to prevent
all option negotiation loops. This RFC also presents an example of
The two items in this RFC of the most interest to implementors are
1. the examples of option negotiation loops given below; and 2. the
example of a TELNET state machine preventing loops.
1. Implementors of TELNET should read the examples of option
negotiation loops and beware that preventing such loops is a
2. Section 7 of this RFC shows by example a working method
of avoiding loops. It prescribes the state information that
you must keep about each side of each option; it shows what
to do in each state when you receive WILL/WONT/DO/DONT from
the network, and when the user or process requests that an
option be enabled or disabled. An implementor who uses the
procedures given in that example need not worry about
compliance with this RFC or with a large chunk of RFC 854.
In short, all implementors should be familiar with TELNET loops, and
some implementors may wish to use the pre-written example here in
writing a new TELNET implementation.
NOTE: Reading This Document
A TELNET implementation is not compliant with this RFC if it fails
to satisfy all rules marked MUST. It is compliant if it satisfies
all rules marked MUST. If it is compliant, it is unconditionally
compliant if it also satisfies all rules marked SHOULD and
conditionally compliant otherwise. Rules marked MAY are optional.
Options are in almost all cases negotiated separately for each
side of the connection. The option on one side is separate from
the option on the other side. In this document, "the" option
referred to by a DONT/WONT or DO/WILL is really two options,
combined only for semantic convenience. Each sentence could be
split into two, one with the words before the slash and one with
the words after the slash.
An implementor should be able to determine whether or not an
implementation complies with this RFC without reading any text
marked DISCUSSION. An implementor should be able to implement
option negotiation machinery compliant with both this RFC and RFC
854 using just the information in Section 7.
2. RFC 854 Option Negotiation Requirements
As specified by RFC 854: A TELNET implementation MUST obey a refusal
to enable an option; i.e., if it receives a DONT/WONT in response to
a WILL/DO, it MUST NOT enable the option.
Where RFC 854 implies that the other side may reject a request to
enable an option, it means that you must accept such a rejection.
It MUST therefore remember that it is negotiating a WILL/DO, and this
negotiation state MUST be separate from the enabled state and from
the disabled state. During the negotiation state, any effects of
having the option enabled MUST NOT be used.
If it receives WONT/DONT and the option is enabled, it MUST respond
DONT/WONT repectively and disable the option. It MUST NOT initiate a
DO/WILL negotiation for an already enabled option or a DONT/WONT
negotiation for a disabled option. It MUST NOT respond to receipt of
such a negotiation. It MUST respond to receipt of a negotiation that
does propose to change the status quo.
Many existing implementations respond to rejection by confirming
the rejection; i.e., if they send WILL and receive DONT, they send
WONT. This has been construed as acceptable behavior under a
certain (strained) interpretation of RFC 854. However, to allow
this possibility severely complicates later rules; there seems to
be no use for the wasted bandwidth and processing. Note that an
implementation compliant with this RFC will simply ignore the
extra WONT if the other side sends it.
The implementation MUST NOT automatically respond to the rejection of
a request by submitting a new request. As a rule of thumb, new
requests should be sent either at the beginning of a connection or in
response to an external stimulus, i.e., input from the human user or
from the process behind the server.
A TELNET implementation MUST refuse (DONT/WONT) a request to enable
an option for which it does not comply with the appropriate protocol
This is not stated as strongly in RFC 854. However, any other
action would be counterproductive. This rule appears in
Requirements for Internet Hosts [6, Section 3.2.2]; it appears
here for completeness.
3. Rule: Remember DONT/WONT requests
A TELNET implementation MUST remember starting a DONT/WONT
It is not clear from RFC 854 whether or not TELNET must remember
beginning a DONT/WONT negotiation. There seem to be no reasons to
remember starting a DONT/WONT negotiation: 1. The argument for
remembering a DO/WILL negotiation (viz., the state of negotiating
for enabling means different things for the data stream than the
state of having the option enabled) does not apply. 2. There is
no choice for the other side in responding to a DONT/WONT; the
option is going to end up disabled. 3. If we simply disable the
option immediately and forget negotiating, we will ignore the
WONT/DONT response since the option is disabled.
Unfortunately, that conclusion is wrong. Consider the following
TELNET conversation between two parties, "us" and "him". (The
reader of this RFC may want to sort the steps into chronological
order for a different view.)
LOOP EXAMPLE 1
Both sides know that the option is on.
On his side:
1 He decides to disable. He sends DONT and disables the option.
2 He decides to reenable. He sends DO and remembers he is
5 He receives WONT and gives up on negotiation.
6 He decides to try once again to reenable. He sends DO and
remembers he is negotiating.
7 He receives WONT and gives up on negotiation.
For whatever reason, he decides to agree with future requests.
10 He receives WILL and agrees. He responds DO and enables the
11 He receives WONT and sighs. He responds DONT and disables the
(repeat 10 and then 11, forever)
On our side:
3 We receive DONT and sigh. We respond WONT and disable the
4 We receive DO but disagree. We respond WONT.
8 We receive DO and decide to agree. We respond WILL and enable
9 We decide to disable. We send WONT and disable the option.
For whatever reason, we decide to agree with future requests.
12 We receive DO and agree. We send WILL and enable the option.
13 We receive DONT and sigh. We send WONT and disable the option.
(repeat 12 and then 13, forever)
Both sides have followed RFC 854; but we end in an option
negotiation loop, as DONT DO DO and then DO DONT forever travel
through the network one way, and WONT WONT followed by WILL WONT
forever travel through the network the other way. The behavior in
steps 1 and 9 is responsible for this loop. Hence this section's
rule. In Section 6 below is discussion of whether separate states
are needed for "negotiate for disable" and "negotiate for enable"
or whether a single "negotiate" state suffices.
4. Rule: Prohibit new requests before completing old negotiation
A TELNET implementation MUST NOT initiate a new WILL/WONT/DO/DONT
request about an option that is under negotiation, i.e., for which it
has already made such a request and not yet received a response.
It is unclear from RFC 854 whether or not a TELNET implementation
may allow new requests about an option that is currently under
negotiation; it certainly seems limiting to prohibit "option
typeahead". Unfortunately, consider the following:
LOOP EXAMPLE 2
Suppose an option is disabled, and we decide in quick
succession to enable it, disable it, and reenable it. We send
WILL WONT WILL and at the end remember that we are negotiating.
The other side agrees with DO DONT DO. We receive the first DO,
enable the option, and forget we have negotiated. Now DONT DO
are coming through the network and both sides have forgotten
they are negotiating; consequently we loop.
(All possible TELNET loops eventually degenerate into the same
form, where WILL WONT [or WONT WILL, or WILL WONT WILL WONT, etc.]
go through the network while both sides think negotiation is over;
the response is DO DONT and we loop forever. TELNET implementors
are encouraged to implement any option that can detect such a loop
and cut it off; e.g., a method of explicitly differentiating
requests from acknowledgments would be sufficient. No such option
exists as of February 1990.)
This particular case is of considerable practical importance: most
combinations of existing user-server TELNET implementations do
enter an infinite loop when asked quickly a few times to enable
and then disable an option. This has taken on an even greater
importance with the advent of LINEMODE , because LINEMODE is
the first option that tends to generate such rapidly changing
requests in the normal course of communication. It is clear that
a new rule is needed.
One might try to prevent the several-alternating-requests problem
by maintaining a more elaborate state than YES/NO/WANTwhatever,
e.g., a state that records all outstanding requests. Dave Borman
has proposed an apparently working scheme  that won't blow up
if both sides initiate several requests at once, and that seems to
prevent option negotiation loops; complete analysis of his
solution is somewhat difficult since it means that TELNET can no
longer be a finite-state automaton. He has implemented his
solution in the latest BSD telnet version ; as of May 1989, he
does not intend to publish it for others to use .
Here the author decided to preserve TELNET's finite-state
property, for robustness and because the result can be easily
proven to work. Hence the above rule.
A more restrictive solution would be to buffer all data and do
absolutely nothing until the response comes back. There is no
apparent reason for this, though some existing TELNET
implementations do so anyway at the beginning of a connection,
when most options are negotiated.
5. How to reallow the request queue
The above rule prevents queueing of more than one request through
the network. However, it is possible to queue new requests within
the TELNET implementation, so that "option typeahead" is
An obvious possibility is to maintain a list of requests that have
been made but not yet sent, so that when one negotiation finishes,
the next can be started immediately. So while negotiating for a
WILL, TELNET could buffer the user's requests for WONT, then WILL
again, then WONT, then WILL, then WONT, as far as desired.
This requires a dynamic and potentially unmanageable buffer.
However, the restrictions upon possible requests guarantee that
the list of requests must simply alternate between WONT and WILL.
It is wasteful to enable an option and then disable it, just to
enable it again; we might as well just enable it in the first
place. The few possible exceptions to this rule do not outweigh
the immense simplification afforded by remembering only the last
few entries on the queue.
To be more precise, during a WILL negotiation, the only sensible
queues are WONT and WONT WILL, and similarly during a WONT
negotiation. In the interest of simplicity, the Q method does not
allow the WONT WILL possibility.
We are now left with a queue consisting of either nothing or the
opposite of the current negotiation. When we receive a reply to
the negotiation, if the queue indicates that the option should be
changed, we send the opposite request immediately and empty the
queue. Note that this does not conflict with the RFC 854 rule
about automatic regeneration of requests, as these new requests
are simply the delayed effects of user or process commands.
An implementation SHOULD support the queue, where support is defined
by the rules following.
If it does support the queue, and if an option is currently under
negotiation, it MUST NOT handle a new request from the user or
process to switch the state of that option by sending a new request
through the network. Instead, it MUST remember internally that the
new request was made.
If the user or process makes a second new request, for switching back
again, while the original negotiation is still incomplete, the
implementation SHOULD handle the request simply by forgetting the
previous one. The third request SHOULD be treated like the first,
etc. In any case, these further requests MUST NOT generate immediate
requests through the network.
When the option negotiation completes, if the implementation is
remembering a request internally, and that request is for the
opposite state to the result of the completed negotiation, then the
implementation MUST act as if that request had been made after the
completion of the negotiation. It SHOULD thus immediately generate a
new request through the network.
The implementation MAY provide a method by which support for the
queue may be turned off and back on. In this case, it MUST default
to having the support turned on. Furthermore, when support is turned
off, if the implementation is remembering a new request for an
outstanding negotiation, it SHOULD continue remembering and then deal
with it at the close of the outstanding negotiation, as if support
were still turned on through that point.
It is intended (and it is the author's belief) that this queue
system restores the full functionality of TELNET. Dave Borman has
provided some informal analysis of this issue ; the most
important possible problem of note is that certain options which
may require buffering could be slowed by the queue. The author
believes that network delays caused by buffering are independent
of the implementation method used, and that the Q Method does not
cause any problems; this is borne out by examples.
6. Rule: Separate WANTNO and WANTYES
Implementations SHOULD separate any states of negotiating WILL/DO
from any states of negotiating WONT/DONT.
It is possible to maintain a working TELNET implementation if the
NO/YES/WANTNO/WANTYES states are simplified to NO/YES/WANT.
However, in a hostile environment this is a bad idea, as it means
that handling a DO/WILL response to a WONT/DONT cannot be done
correctly. It does not greatly simplify code; and the simplicity
gained is lost in the extra complexity needed to maintain the
7. Example of Correct Implementation
To ease the task of writing TELNET implementations, the author
presents here a precise example of the response that a compliant
TELNET implementation could give in each possible situation. All
TELNET implementations compliant with this RFC SHOULD follow the
procedures shown here.
EXAMPLE STATE MACHINE
FOR THE Q METHOD OF IMPLEMENTING TELNET OPTION NEGOTIATION
There are two sides, we (us) and he (him). We keep four
us: state of option on our side (NO/WANTNO/WANTYES/YES)
usq: a queue bit (EMPTY/OPPOSITE) if us is WANTNO or WANTYES
him: state of option on his side
himq: a queue bit if him is WANTNO or WANTYES
An option is enabled if and only if its state is YES. Note that
us/usq and him/himq could be combined into two six-choice states.
"Error" below means that producing diagnostic information may be a
good idea, though it isn't required.
Upon receipt of WILL, we choose based upon him and himq:
NO If we agree that he should enable, him=YES, send
DO; otherwise, send DONT.
WANTNO EMPTY Error: DONT answered by WILL. him=NO.
OPPOSITE Error: DONT answered by WILL. him=YES*,
WANTYES EMPTY him=YES.
OPPOSITE him=WANTNO, himq=EMPTY, send DONT.
* This behavior is debatable; DONT will never be answered by WILL
over a reliable connection between TELNETs compliant with this
RFC, so this was chosen (1) not to generate further messages,
because if we know we're dealing with a noncompliant TELNET we
shouldn't trust it to be sensible; (2) to empty the queue
Upon receipt of WONT, we choose based upon him and himq:
YES him=NO, send DONT.
WANTNO EMPTY him=NO.
OPPOSITE him=WANTYES, himq=NONE, send DO.
WANTYES EMPTY him=NO.*
OPPOSITE him=NO, himq=NONE.**
* Here is the only spot a length-two queue could be useful; after
a WILL negotiation was refused, a queue of WONT WILL would mean
to request the option again. This seems of too little utility
and too much potential waste; there is little chance that the
other side will change its mind immediately.
** Here we don't have to generate another request because we've
been "refused into" the correct state anyway.
If we decide to ask him to enable:
NO him=WANTYES, send DO.
YES Error: Already enabled.
WANTNO EMPTY If we are queueing requests, himq=OPPOSITE;
otherwise, Error: Cannot initiate new request
in the middle of negotiation.
OPPOSITE Error: Already queued an enable request.
WANTYES EMPTY Error: Already negotiating for enable.
If we decide to ask him to disable:
NO Error: Already disabled.
YES him=WANTNO, send DONT.
WANTNO EMPTY Error: Already negotiating for disable.
WANTYES EMPTY If we are queueing requests, himq=OPPOSITE;
otherwise, Error: Cannot initiate new request
in the middle of negotiation.
OPPOSITE Error: Already queued a disable request.
We handle the option on our side by the same procedures, with DO-
WILL, DONT-WONT, him-us, himq-usq swapped.
 Borman, D., private communication, April 1989.
 Borman, D., private communication, May 1989.
 Borman, D., private communication, May 1989.
 Borman, D., Editor, "Telnet Linemode Option", RFC 1116, Cray
Research, August 1989.
 Borman, D., BSD Telnet Source, November 1989.
 Braden, R., Editor, "Requirements for Internet Hosts --
Application and Support", RFC 1123, USC/Information Sciences
Institute, October 1989.
 Postel, J., and J. Reynolds, "Telnet Protocol Specification", RFC
854, USC/Information Sciences Institute, May 1983.
Thanks to Dave Borman, email@example.com, for his helpful comments.
Daniel J. Bernstein
5 Brewster Lane
Bellport, NY 11713