June 6, 2001

By Karen Kenworthy

IN THIS ISSUE

I'm so excited! Yesterday lovely Monica called to give me the news. Her doctor performed an ultrasound examination, and she's going to have a baby boy!

Long-time readers will remember Monica. She used to bring order out of chaos, here at the secluded Power Tools workshop. But one day she met the love of her life, a cute network administrator (is there any other kind?) named Bill. It was love at first sight, and last Fall she and her beau Bill were married.

Pick A Name

Monica and Bill haven't chosen a name for their new boy. But I'm sure they're already thinking about it. Giving a name requires a lot of work. There are family traditions to consider, and the feelings of relatives and friends. You probably want to avoid "name collisions," or giving two children the same name. :)

New parents must also take their expected family size into account. If you'll only have one child, then you'd better take care of honoring Uncle Fred, Grandpa Andrew and (dare I say it?), Aunt Karen right now. But if your plans call for a lot of kids, you can pay this family debt in installments.

Yes, naming children can hard. But suppose you were given this job: Assign a unique name to every server on the Internet. Each web site, email post office, and other publicly accessible computer must receive a name. And whenever possible, the name should reflect the computer's purpose, owner, and the services it offers.

This very assignment landed in the lap of the developers of the Internet, not so many years ago. From the beginning, all computers connected to the Internet have been assigned unique 32-bit binary numbers. Known as an IP (Internet Protocol) addresses, they allow computers to recognize one another, and to connect and communicate in whatever ways they choose.

But believe it or not, the people who used the Internet for its first six to seven years of existence used these IP address too! Imagine trying to remember whether your Mother's email address is mom@3353972810, or mom@3353972801. It took a while, but by 1983 the folks in charge of the Internet realized that this way of identifying computers had become too unwieldy. For humans, anyway.

So in November of 1983 the developers of the Internet decreed that computers could have names. Closely-related groups of computers, what the Internet calls "domains", could have names too. Finally, the Internet would use identifiers that humans find familiar, easy to remember, and not easily confused.

Top-Level Domains

The Internet developers first created six computer "families", or Top- Level Domains (TLDs). Each organization that owned computers connected to the Internet was then assigned to one of these families.

Businesses were placed in what has become the best known of these Internet families, "com". Another well-known family, "net", was originally created for organizations that provided special network services to the Internet. A third Internet founding family, "org", held organizations that didn't fit well into the other TLDs.

Over time the distinctions between these three original TLDs have faded. Today, any company, organization, or individual can be adopted by any of these three families. As a result, these three TLDs are now referred to as "generic" TLDs, or in net-speak "gTLDs".

The other three original TLDs have kept their original meaning. The "edu" family still consists of four-year, degree-granting educational institutions residing within the United States. All branches of the U.S. military occupy the "mil" TLD. And the various branches of the U.S. Federal government make up the "gov" family, or TLD.

As the Internet grew, and expanded beyond it's original home in the United States, several new TLDs were added. One of the first additions was "uk", created to hold all organizations located within the United Kingdom.

As more countries connected to the Internet, the decision was made to create several new TLDs -- one for each country on earth. These two-letter TLDs were taken from the ISO's standard two-letter country codes, the same codes we looked at last week. Each of the "country code TLDs", or "ccTLDs", is open to any organization residing within the corresponding country.

One other TLD was added during this early expansion. It's the seldom-seen "int" family, used by international organizations created by treaties. It is also used by some agencies of the United Nations, and organizations that have "observer status" at the UN.

At this point the Internet's naming system, called the DNS or Domain Name System, contained well over 200 TLDs. And you might think this would be enough. But some people were convinced that there was still a TLD shortage. And in response to their pressure, seven new, somewhat quirky, TLDs will be added soon.

One new TLD, "aero", will be open to companies and organizations in the air-transport industry. Another, "coop", will provide cooperatives a new Internet home. As you can no doubt guess, the "museum" TLD is for museums. Another TLD, "pro", is for accountants, lawyers, physicians, and members of other professions.

Another new TLD, "info", has no special purpose. Officially, it is for "unrestricted use". The "name" TLD is being created just for use by individuals. And the (hopefully) last new TLD is "biz", created to give a second chance to those companies that might otherwise have joined the original "com" family.

Second-Level Domains

OK, a TLD has been assigned or selected. What's next? To finish the computer naming procedure, each company, organization and individual must select its very own, personal, "second-level domain" name.

Many companies have chosen second-level domain names that reflect their company name. For example, the best-known second-level domain name used by Microsoft Corporation is "microsoft". Other companies have selected second-level domain names that indicate the kind of product or service they offer. For example, bookseller Barnes and Noble uses the second-level domain "books".

Organizations and individuals with computers to name must select a second- level domain name too. The names they choose may reflect their purpose, hobbies, or personal identity.

Once you have both a TLD and a second-level domain name, you're ready to start naming computers. The first step is to combine your TLD and second- level domain name, separating the two with just a period. For example, if your TLD is "com", and your second-level domain name is "microsoft", the combination of names would be "microsoft.com".

If you only have one computer, your job is done. This two-part combination can be your computer's full name. But if you have more than one computer, or want to use a fancier name, you can add a third-level domain name to the other two.

Third-level domain names can be anything you like. In many cases the third-level name indicates a particular computer's purpose. For example, a computer that hosts a World-Wide Web server might be given the third-level name "www". A computer that sends and receives email might be named "email".

But other third-level domain names are more fanciful. If you patrol the Internet long enough you'll find names such as "hercules", "camel", and "darthvader".

When a third-level domain name is used, it appears before the two higher- level domain names, separated from them by a period. The results look something like this: www.karenware.com

And you don't have to stop there. You can also add fourth-level domain names, fifth-level names, and even more. Names such as "bob.accounting.sales.la.xyz.com" are a bit ungainly. But they are perfectly legal.

Registries

To avoid "name collisions" within TLDs, each TLD has an official Registry, an organization that maintains the TLDs list of approved second-level domain names. In the case of country code TLDs, the Registry is often a government agency, though it is sometimes a university or even a local Internet Service Provider.

Most of these Registries charge a fee for their services, ranging from a few dollars, to as much as $500 for each name. Some even hold auctions, netting thousands of dollars for popular second-level domain names.

As you might expect, the U.S. government operates the Registry for the "gov" and "mil" TLDs. They also control the registration of third-level domain names within "gov.us".

For years, a company named Network Solutions was the exclusive registrar for the very popular "com", "net" and "org" generic TLDs. At $35 per year for each second-level domain name registered, this proved to be a very lucrative business.

But recently dozens of new registrars have been approved, and given the authority to registry names within the generic TLDs. Thanks to the resulting competition, names can now be registered in the generic TLDs for as little as $12 per year.

If you'd like to learn more about the Domain Name System, or even registry a name of your own, there are some places on the web you should visit. To see a list of all country code TLDs, and their registrars, visit:

http://www.iana.org/cctld/cctld-whois.htm

If you'd like to learn about the new TLDs that will become available soon, and read a warning about the "pre-registration" scam relating to those TLDS, check out:

http://www.icann.org/tlds/

And you can view a list of all approved registrars for the generic TLDs ("com", "net" and "org"), and do some comparison shopping here:

http://www.internic.net/regist.html

What's next? Right now I'm putting the finishing touches on a brand new Power Tool. It combines all we've learned about domain names, and can examine the registration database of any TLD. Thanks to this new tool we'll be able to discover who owns any Internet domain name. And in almost all cases, we'll not only learn who controls the domain, but also see their email address, mailing address, and even phone number! Spammers beware!

Until next week, take care. Don't forget to visit the Power Tools home page at https://www.karenware.com/powertools and check out the growing list of free software. And if you see me, Monica, or Bill on the 'net this week, be sure to wave and say "Hi!"