There are IRC servers, yes, but sometimes that's just not enough to handle what is going on. IRC servers catch a lot of traffic. A lot of traffic. So much that irc servers have banded together into cooperatives, into networks, in which each server on a given network shares everything that happens, transmits the occurances of each channel to each other server, and agrees to the actions of other servers' o:lined opers. Most networks are democratically run a la USENET.

This banding together results in the horrors of netsplits and netbursts and lag and something called sendq when the servers don't keep quite in sync, but allows truly mind-boggling numbers of people from all over the world to communicate without having to consiously be aware different servers exist-- in a way that a single server could never in a million years handle. Besides, most people like their communication lines to be a bit decentralized. Central points of failure are bad, especially given that IRC networks are such heavy targets for denial of service attacks.

A little metanode can be found below. If you see problems with my comments, or i missed someone, or have suggestions as to what kind of extra info should be provided, or you want to fix some of my extra info, msg me and i will add your notes and credit you. Some IRC networks, by the way, have one big central "server" that isn't actually a server-- attempting to connect to it will just randomly redirect you to another server on the network, hopefully an open one. If i am aware of such a server for a network i have listed it below.

The Big Four

  • Efnet - (irc.efnet.org.The l33test of them all. Alternates between hax0rs doing bot wars and the most helpful people you're likely to find anywhere on any network. Often hard to find an open server. 9-char nick limit. Incredibly decentralized and anarchic/democratic. No serv of any kind-- channels controlled by the laws of nature. Oh, you crazy efnetters..)
  • Undernet - (irc.undernet.org. (See also cservice.org, the central controllers of x and w.) Calm, almost dignified, usually interesting but usually unhelpful and at times dull. Semifrequent lag/netsplit problems. My home. Unlike the other networks, servers have a heirarchal location-based naming convention they MUST be accessable by-- for example, austin.tx.us.undernet.org. 9-char nick limit. Chanserv'd using X and W, two massive-scale in-channel bots.)
  • DALNet - (OH D00D!!! DALNET!! A/S/L... has chanserv, and is the largest network i know of with that odd thing they call nickserv. Whopping 30-char nick limit.)
  • the OpenProjects network - (irc.linux.com. Not physically "big" but has some channels and people *very* influential in the open-source world. An odd little oasis, mostly empty but containing of a few small gems that each happen to contain 80 or so of the most helpful people you've ever seen. Home to #debian, the only linux channel i've ever seen where it is not painful to get help. Chanserv. 20-char nick limit.)

Everybody else

While your attention is grabbed, you should maybe read IRC, Common IRC Commands and #everything. Or read /map if you want to see an interesting little snapshot of what an irc network looks like.

In the beginning, there was one IRC network. As more servers, users, abusers, and disagreeing operators were added, it turned out that the IRC client/multiserver architecture doesn't scale to arbitrary size. So new networks were formed: DALnet and Undernet. The main network remained intact - increasingly unstable - until 1993, when a group of mainly USA-based admins split off to form EFnet; the mainly European remainder was named IRCnet.

These original networks are still around, and a number of other general-purpose networks have gained popularity as well.

Before commercial spamming existed you would continually be spanned with advertisements for new IRC networks: "Come and visit Lusernet, it's so fast and so stable! We are the operators, and we have 4 servers already!' Right, no wonder it's fast when all you can see is 4 users and their dog. The point of IRC is being able to talk to the whole world!

On the large networks, the issues with stability (mainly due to abuse and sabotage) continue, and small, community-based networks such as slashnet are much more significant now.

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