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The Basics of IRC

If you are already an experienced user of IRC chat then this section may not be of much new interest to you. However you may still wish to mark it as a site worthy of refering others to. If however, you are new to chat, or want to be sure you have the basics correct this section should help.

There is a lot of information to cover. Even though this is a brief guide to IRC chat it has to be thorough enough to answer at least the basic questions. In order to do that I have divided this section into two seperate tutorials: The Terms of IRC, and Using IRC.

The Terms of IRC will explain what IRC is. It will tell you about IRC servers, 'lag' and 'net-splits'. The terminology of IRC can seem confusing at first. So here I will attempt to explain the terms for you, and remove any uncertainty about the nature and events of IRC.

Using IRC is simply about what you can do in IRC. It covers the basics of what using chat is about. Explaining what channels are about, the difference between a private message chat and a DCC chat, etc. Between the two tutorials you will understand what is involved in IRC chat.

More about the IRC protocol itself can be found in the RFC (Request For Comment) document (RFC1459) which details the actual specifications for IRC. It's quite a long and technical document, but provides a lot of information. Documents like this exist for most if not all protocols and are numbered. The IRC RFC is number 1459.

The Terms of IRC

IRC (Internet Relay Chat) was designed as a way for people far apart to share knowledge, ideas and news. For scientists and academics in different Universities, States or even Countries it proved very useful. Since then IRC, like the rest of the internet, has become accessible to all.

IRC is basically a protocol (like http used for web servers and FTP for file servers) which means it is a set of rules by which computers pass information to each other across the net, and have the information passed to the computer users in an understandable form.

An IRC server is a computer (or just a portion of a computer) that has the rules of the IRC protocol programmed in, serves as the central processing point for all clients who connect to it, and gives wouldbe IRC users a place to connect to together.

An IRC client is the software you use to exchange information with an IRC server. MIRC is an IRC client, and a good one, but it is far from the only one available. MS Chat, also called Comic Chat, is another wide-spread client due to its inclusion with Internet Explorer and other MS packages.

Most IRC users look down on MS Chat however since although it adds the innovative graphical element, it falls short of some of the more useful basics of the IRC protocol. Many feel that if Comic Chat were not given away free with the world's most supported browser suite, it would never be downloaded or used at all.

The 'big names' in the IRC client world are mIRC and PiRCH, both of which give all the basics of IRC and extend them with colours and DDE support to allow for speech to text software, video cameras, and other external extras to be added in.

Thats enough about software and hardware however. What I want to explain to you here is the phenomenon of IRC chat itself. How to use it, what channels and private chats are about, what a channel operator does and so on.

Click here for Channels information

Operators (Ops)

Sometimes employees of the company running the IRC server will be online. They are called server operators, sysops, or sometimes IRCops. A true server op or sysop has a significant degree of control over the IRC server itself. They have the power to disconnect people from the server, and even permanently ban them from connecting if they feel that the person in question is abusing their access.

Other Kinds of Operators, called Channel Ops, or hosts are often found in the channels. Most servers allow people who are not employees of the server to create and maintain channels. A channel op cannot disconnect a user from the server, but can eject and ban that user from that channel.

Channel Ops are not paid. They simply volunteer to host a channel on the server and undertake to abide by the server rules. Some channels impose additional rules and guidlines designed to better suit the kind of users they wish to appeal to.

Servers

Many IRC Chat servers work together to form a group. This effectively forms a single IRC Chat network that comprises several seperate servers. Often the servers are far apart geographically. Having multiple servers allows the chat network to have far more users without slowing down the processing too much.

Chat networks suffer from a phenomenon called Net-splits however. This happens when a lag builds up between two or more servers in the group. Lag is the time-delay effect between the sending of information and its receipt at the target.

The time-lag is caused simply by the fact that the communication lines are having to send information to several different places at once, sharing its lines over several connections. Also, small imperfections on the line, like crackle or faintness on a telephone line, can cause bursts of information to lose data, requiring a repeat send.

This all slows down the transmission of information, and thus slows down the service to each of the other connections queued up waiting for their burst of information to be sent or be ready for receipt. Don't panic, that's as technical as I'm going to get.

Anyone who has browsed the net will have noticed that sometimes small pages take ages longer to be displayed than normal. That happens when the server those pages are on becomes lagged, either by too many connections it must share its time amoungst, or by poor lines making much data need repeating.

When an IRC server becomes lagged you will notice that people take longer to reply than is usual. You may find that the chat room seems to stand still. If the server lag becomes really bad the connection between two or more of the group of servers might 'time-out'. If this happens the connection between the servers is temporarily broken - A net-split.

Everyone connected to the network via the server that disconnects will seem to quit all at once. This will not just include the users on that server, but also on any server that connects through the one that split.

Servers are quite independant in some ways too, and so the servers on either side of the disconnection will each continue to run what they can see of the IRC network. In general, the connection between servers is re-established within a few minutes. However, sometimes the cause of the lag can remain, and cause further splits for some time.

Net-splits are a major annoyance, but are just one of the facts of IRC life. The only way you can guarantee to be free of net-splits is to use chat servers that are not part of a group, but are instead all on one server. Lag is just unavoidable with current computer and communication technology.

CTCP

CTCP is the abbreviation for Client To Client Protocol, a way that your client program may exchange information with others. To a large extent, the use of CTCP messages will not be apparent to you even when in use. As mentioned briefly in the MIRC Options pages, ctcp messages are used to initiate dcc file transfers and to exchange sound requests.

CTCPs are also used to initiate DCC connections. The request of one client for a direct link to the other is made in a ctcp request. CTCPs can be created for other purposes too. One of the most useful CTCP types is a ping. A CTCP ping is used to find the return journey time of a signal from one client to another and then back. This will measure the lag between two clients.

It is quite simple to create new ping types, and script reactions to them, in order to add new functions to mIRC or other clients that support scripting. Scripting is the subject of later tutorials however.


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