Simplicity of IRC

By Susam Pal on 09 Jan 2022

During discussions with my friends and colleagues, whenever the topic of chat protocols comes up, I often remark how simple the Internet Relay Chat (IRC) protocol is and how this simplicity has fostered creativity in the lives of many young computer hobbyists growing up in the late 1990s and early 2000s. For many of us who were introduced to the Internet during that time, writing an IRC bot turned out to be one of our first few non-trivial hobby programming projects that involved network sockets, did something meaningful, and served actual users.

Simplicity

The underlying payloads that IRC servers and clients exchange during an IRC session are quite simple to read manually and understand. While implementing IRC servers still involves significant work to keep track of users, channels, and exchanging network state and messages between servers, implementing IRC clients can often be quite simple. With a convenient programming language, one can develop all kinds of fun tools and bots pretty quickly. Only creativity is the limit!

In the early days of IRC, it was quite common for someone with basic programming skills to write a simple IRC bot within a matter of hours. Such IRC bots typically responded to requests from users, answered frequently asked questions, hosted live quiz contests in a channel, etc. The simplicity of the protocol made it very enticing to write programs that could talk to IRC servers directly. In fact, many people chose to write the code to parse and create IRC payloads from scratch. Observing the TCP/IP packets with a packet analyzer such as Wireshark or Tcpdump was all one needed to learn about the various payload formats. Additionally, RFC 1459 served as a good reference to learn the IRC specification.

As a result of the simplicity of the IRC protocol, sometimes when I would find myself needing to join an IRC channel, say to seek some technical help, from a system without an IRC client installed, I could often just start a telnet, nc, or openssl connection directly to my favourite IRC network and then type out IRC protocol commands by hand to join the channel I need and talk to channel users.

Session

To illustrate how simple the IRC protocol is, here is an example of a minimal IRC session that involves joining a channel and posting a message:

$ nc irc.libera.chat 6667
:strontium.libera.chat NOTICE * :*** Checking Ident
:strontium.libera.chat NOTICE * :*** Looking up your hostname...
:strontium.libera.chat NOTICE * :*** Couldn't look up your hostname
:strontium.libera.chat NOTICE * :*** No Ident response
NICK humpty
USER humpty humpty irc.libera.chat :Humpty Dumpty
:strontium.libera.chat 001 humpty :Welcome to the Libera.Chat Internet Relay Chat Network humpty
:strontium.libera.chat 002 humpty :Your host is strontium.libera.chat[204.225.96.123/6667], running version solanum-1.0-dev
:strontium.libera.chat 003 humpty :This server was created Sat Oct 30 2021 at 17:56:22 UTC
:strontium.libera.chat 004 humpty strontium.libera.chat solanum-1.0-dev DGQRSZaghilopsuwz CFILMPQSTbcefgijklmnopqrstuvz bkloveqjfI
:strontium.libera.chat 005 humpty MONITOR=100 CALLERID=g WHOX FNC ETRACE KNOCK SAFELIST ELIST=CMNTU CHANTYPES=# EXCEPTS INVEX CHANMODES=eIbq,k,flj,CFLMPQSTcgimnprstuz :are supported by this server
:strontium.libera.chat 005 humpty CHANLIMIT=#:250 PREFIX=(ov)@+ MAXLIST=bqeI:100 MODES=4 NETWORK=Libera.Chat STATUSMSG=@+ CASEMAPPING=rfc1459 NICKLEN=16 MAXNICKLEN=16 CHANNELLEN=50 TOPICLEN=390 DEAF=D :are supported by this server
:strontium.libera.chat 005 humpty TARGMAX=NAMES:1,LIST:1,KICK:1,WHOIS:1,PRIVMSG:4,NOTICE:4,ACCEPT:,MONITOR: EXTBAN=$,ajrxz :are supported by this server
:strontium.libera.chat 251 humpty :There are 66 users and 48644 invisible on 25 servers
:strontium.libera.chat 252 humpty 35 :IRC Operators online
:strontium.libera.chat 253 humpty 11 :unknown connection(s)
:strontium.libera.chat 254 humpty 21561 :channels formed
:strontium.libera.chat 255 humpty :I have 3117 clients and 1 servers
:strontium.libera.chat 265 humpty 3117 4559 :Current local users 3117, max 4559
:strontium.libera.chat 266 humpty 48710 50463 :Current global users 48710, max 50463
:strontium.libera.chat 250 humpty :Highest connection count: 4560 (4559 clients) (301752 connections received)
:strontium.libera.chat 375 humpty :- strontium.libera.chat Message of the Day -
:strontium.libera.chat 372 humpty :- Welcome to Libera Chat, the IRC network for
:strontium.libera.chat 372 humpty :- free & open-source software and peer directed projects.
:strontium.libera.chat 372 humpty :-
:strontium.libera.chat 372 humpty :- Use of Libera Chat is governed by our network policies.
:strontium.libera.chat 372 humpty :-
:strontium.libera.chat 372 humpty :- To reduce network abuses we perform open proxy checks
:strontium.libera.chat 372 humpty :- on hosts at connection time.
:strontium.libera.chat 372 humpty :-
:strontium.libera.chat 372 humpty :- Please visit us in #libera for questions and support.
:strontium.libera.chat 372 humpty :-
:strontium.libera.chat 372 humpty :- Website and documentation:  https://libera.chat
:strontium.libera.chat 372 humpty :- Webchat:                    https://web.libera.chat
:strontium.libera.chat 372 humpty :- Network policies:           https://libera.chat/policies
:strontium.libera.chat 372 humpty :- Email:                      support@libera.chat
:strontium.libera.chat 376 humpty :End of /MOTD command.
:humpty MODE humpty :+iw
JOIN #test
:humpty!~humpty@49.207.204.32 JOIN #test
:strontium.libera.chat 353 humpty = #test :humpty susam coolnickname ptl-tab edcragg
:strontium.libera.chat 366 humpty #test :End of /NAMES list.
PRIVMSG #test :Hello, World!
:susam!~susam@user/susam PRIVMSG #test :Hello, Humpty!
PART #test
:humpty!~humpty@49.207.204.32 PART #test
QUIT
:humpty!~humpty@49.207.204.32 QUIT :Client Quit
ERROR :Closing Link: 49.207.204.32 (Client Quit)

In the above session, the user connects to the Libera IRC network with the nickname humpty, joins a channel named #test, and posts a message.

Note that the above session is not encrypted. By convention, IRC port 6667 is used for cleartext connections. A separate port, such as port 6697, is available for encrypted connections. Here is an example of an encrypted IRC session established with the OpenSSL command line tool:

$ openssl s_client -quiet -connect irc.libera.chat:6697 2> /dev/null
:strontium.libera.chat NOTICE * :*** Checking Ident
:strontium.libera.chat NOTICE * :*** Looking up your hostname...
:strontium.libera.chat NOTICE * :*** Couldn't look up your hostname
:strontium.libera.chat NOTICE * :*** No Ident response
NICK humpty
USER humpty humpty irc.libera.chat :Humpty Dumpty
:strontium.libera.chat 001 humpty :Welcome to the Libera.Chat Internet Relay Chat Network humpty
...

The ellipsis denotes lines omitted for the sake of brevity. The remainder of the session is quite similar to the first example in this post.

It is worth noting here that although the payload format of IRC protocol is quite simple, as one starts writing IRC clients, one would stumble upon several tiny details about the protocol that needs to be taken care of, e.g., authenticating to the network, responding to PING messages from the server to avoid ping timeouts, splitting messages into shorter messages so that the overall payload does not exceed the message length limit of 512 characters, etc. For a serious IRC client, relying on a suitable library that already solves these problems and implements the IRC specification accurately is of course going to be useful. But for a hobbyist who wants to understand the protocol and write some tools for fun, the textual nature of the IRC protocol and its simplicity offers a fertile ground for experimentation and creativity.

Join

In case you have never used IRC but this post has piqued your interest and you want to try it out, you probably don't want to be typing out IRC payloads by hand. You probably want a good IRC client instead. Let me share some convenient ways to connect to the Libera IRC network. Say, you want to join the #python channel on Libera IRC network. Here are some ways to do it:

There are numerous other ways to join IRC networks. There are GUI desktop clients, web browser plugins, Emacs plugins, web-based services, bouncers, etc. that let users connect to IRC networks in various ways. On Libera Chat, there are various channels for open source projects (#emacs, #linux, etc.), communities around specific subjects (##math, #physics, etc.), programming languages (#c, #c++, #commonlisp, etc.). Type the /join command followed by a space and the channel name to join a channel and start posting and reading messages there. It is also possible to search for channels by channel names. For example, on Libera Chat, to search for all channels with "club" in its name, enter the IRC command: /msg alis list club.

Although I have used Libera Chat in the examples above, there are plenty of other IRC networks too such as EFNet, DALNet, OFTC, etc. Libera Chat happens to be one of the very popular and active networks for open source projects and topic based communities. I use it everyday, so I chose it for the examples here. There are many tight-knit communities on Libera Chat. Some of my favourite ones are #commonlisp, #emacs, #python, etc. All of these have very nice and active communities with great attitudes towards beginners.

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