Why You Need to Know About Communications Protocols

  • Security, Communication

We’ve spent the last few weeks discussing how various elements of communication—from etiquette and style, to grammar and the language itself, continue to morph and mold our digital world.

Now let’s dig down deeper into what’s behind our ability to communicate fluently through our tech tools, from collaboration tools used in office productivity suites like WPS Office to the Internet and social media. To do so, we need to look at some communications protocols, which are rules that computers use to talk to each other.

Protocols—which are established by international agreement—allow for standard methods of transferring and processing information. Without protocols telling computers about what format to exchange information in and exactly how to exchange it, they would be isolated units unable to be networked and communicate with other electronic devices.



When you see a string of different types of protocols written out, they look like alphabet soup: HTTP, IP, FTP, IMAP, and POP3 are a few of the more common protocols. Let’s make some sense of them by seeing what these acronyms entail:

  • HTTP and HTTPS: These are the basic protocols that allow for Internet data transfer. The first acronym stands for Hypertext Transfer Protocol, and the second for Hypertext Transfer Protocol Secure (which facilitates a secure network communication). These protocols allow scripting languages including HTML and CSS to travel from a server to a browser. Technically speaking, when you use HTTPS, you’re including an additional protocol called SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) on top of standard HTTP.
  • IP: The Internet Protocol is the oldest and most well-known protocol, which takes care of basic networking. It uses Internet addresses to communicate, which is why all computers on standard TCP/IP networks must contain a numeric address.
  • FTP: Created back in the early 1970s, File Transfer Protocol is another longstanding basic protocol—really the standard network protocol. It can be used for file transfer from one computer or operating system to another over a TCP/IP network and to upload files to a website. It’s an older protocol though and less frequently used today, particularly since there are some security issues when it’s left at default settings. Alternatively, a more secure protocol is FTPS.
  • IMAP: Short for Internet Message Access Protocol, the IMAP helps with accessing email on remote servers, and is in fact one of the most commonly used protocols for email retrieval, alongside POP3 (see below). Most well known email clients including Outlook Express and MS Outlook support both IMAP and POP3. The protocol works with email messages stored on email servers where users can access them via their email application of choice or a web browser. Often used in large networks, IMAP’s forte is allowing users to quickly and easily retrieve their messages right on their own systems.
  • POP3: As mentioned above, most email apps use the Post Office Protocol (POP3). Almost all users of Internet service providers rely on POP3 to retrieve their emails. IMAP and POP3 don’t work together though, so users must choose one or the other to help manage their email program.

There are plenty of other communication protocols as well. These include DHCP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol) that network computers use to obtain IP addresses and other settings from the DHCP server, and UDP (User Datagram Protocol), which is a fast, lightweight protocol that common network apps like online games use to send short messages called datagram.

While these protocols may seem obscure and removed from your daily life, rest assured that the Internet as we know it today wouldn’t exist without these standards to guide communication between computers and other electronic devices. Take a minute to let that sink in, and then give a moment of thanks for these rules that allow us all to experience fast and secure data transmission between our various communication tools.