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Mockapetris conducted the first successful test of the DNS at ISI on June 24, 1983.
By early November that same year Postel published RFC 881, announcing a preliminary
schedule for the transition to the new system. The suffix .arpa was announced as the first top
level domain. That domain was already being used by testers when the RFC was published,
but the aggressive schedule required that all existing hosts were to be placed under it in
December. This would serve as a temporary stop. Each network administrator would later
be required to re-register his or her machine using a name directly under another top level
domain, or perhaps as a subordinate to another second (or third) level administrator. But no
other top level domains were yet available.
“The original proposal,” Postel wrote later, “was to have TLDs like ARPA, NSF,
ARMY, and so on. Your computers would be named under the government agency that
‘sponsored’ your connection to the net. The idea of having the 26 single [alphabetic]
characters was discussed [also].” When Postel issued RFC 881, however, only one other
top level domain was scheduled for introduction – .ddn, for military use.
Postel scheduled a key step for May 2, 1984 – “Establish a New Top Level Domains
Only Table.” This was to be the start date for the new domains.txt file, containing the two
TLDs mentioned in RFC 881 and any others that might be added.
Mockapetris simultaneously published two RFCs – 882 and 883 – that laid out the
technical outline for the Domain Name System. The first presented conceptual issues, and
the other went into lengthy detail about specifications and implementation. His first paper
The msggroup archive was once stored at http://www.tcm.org/msggroup/. Those archives can be
found at www.archive.org.
Jon Postel,“MSGGROUP#2193 RFCs 881, 882, and 883 Now Available,” Nov 4, 1983. See
http://www.tcm.org/msggroup/msggroup.2101-2200. A partial namedroppers archive can be found at
presented three top level domains – .arpa, .ddn and .csnet, – but only, he wrote, for purposes
Postel announced those RFCs on November 4, 1983 via several electronic mail lists,
including – most importantly – the ISI-based Msggroup. It was the ARPANET’s first mailing
list, founded in 1975, and was still going strong as a focal point for the technical
community. He invited anyone interested in discussing the “day-to-day technical
development” of the planned system to join a relatively new list called Namedroppers, hosted
by the SRI-NIC.199
Though Namedroppers was created as an arena for technical discussion, policy
questions intruded frequently. There was no bright line to distinguish the place where the
rules for electrons would end and the rules for people would begin. A key problem involved
the rights and responsibilities of domain administrators.
By design, each administrator admitted into the DNS hierarchy would become a
gatekeeper for his or her subdomains. This prompted to seemingly endless rehashing about
what rules those gatekeepers should have to follow, especially at the top levels. And the rules
for admission into the hierarchy needed clarification. There was talk of not granting an entity
a listing as a second level name unless the aspiring registrant also brought in at least 50
subordinate hosts at the third level or lower. This did not become a requirement, but its
consideration reflects the extent to which the DNS architects wanted to shape the namespace
as a deep hierarchy rather than the shallow expanse it later became.
Semantics and nomenclature were even more confounding. Some of the people on
Namedroppers wanted top level domains to recapitulate the canonical structures of society.
At first glance, it may have seemed like a good idea, but nothing brings out the anal
retentiveness in humans like the chance to invent a naming scheme for the whole world. The
Jon Postel, “RFC 897: Domain Implementation Schedule,” February 1984.
list’s armchair megalomaniacs came to believe they would soon be designating the
authoritative base structures of human civilization, under the daring presumption such
structures could be known at all.
Postel was frustrated by that particular line of discussion, which he considered non-
productive. His vision of the DNS focused on the flexibility and ease of management that
would result from as structure in which registration authority was consistently delegated
down through the hierarchy. The whole point was to avoid the administrative overhead of
organizing and enforcing a universal classification scheme that would prescribe how each
host should be named. Instead, in his view, decisions about new host registrations should be
left up to administrators and sub-administrators across the Internet.
In February 1984 Postel provided a progress report with an updated schedule. He
reaffirmed the plans to launch in May, “[at which] point a few new domains may be
established, in particular the DDN domain.” When the time came, however, the deadline
was pushed back. There were still many technical issues to resolve, and the question of what
names to add was starting to bog down the discussion. The last day of April Postel sent the
Namedroppers list a draft of an RFC titled “Domain Requirements.” It focused on examples
of domain structures as administrative entities, laying out “Prototype Questions” that a
“responsible person” applying for a domain might need to answer. These included contact
information, hardware and software in use. Postel also wanted to know how many hosts the
administrator expected to include in the domain the during its first, second, third, and fifth
years of operation.
Postel’s draft also presented three TLDs as examples – he insisted they were only
examples – of how to organize domains. There was .uc (for University of California), .mit
(for Massachuset Institute of Technology), and .csnet. The first exemplified entities that
might organize their hosts at the fourth level, under regional campuses and then under local
departments, as in locus.cs.la.uc. The second and third examples were intended to portray
circumstances in which administrators might not want to make such a distinction, and would
Jon Postel,“Draft RFC on Requirements to be a Domain,” namedroppers April 4, 1984.
Mueller (2002: 79).
Personal email from Jake Feinler, November 7, 2006.
An embellished history once posted by SRI (now removed) described a meeting with Postel and
Reynolds where Feinler had shouted “Enough is enough!” insisting she would resolve the dilemma and make
the choices herself.“The SRI Alumni Association Hall of Fame,” http://www.sri.com/alumassoc/hoflist.html.
simply register all their hosts at the second level. His point in making an example of CSNET
was to stress that although the consortium was not a true, unified network like MIT, sharing
a single IP block allocation, “it does in fact, have the key property needed to form a domain;
it has a responsible administration.”201
Postel put out another draft on May 11, proposing six top level domains, .arpa, .ddn,
.gov, .edu, .cor, and .pub. The issue of which names to select continued to be, in Postel’s
words, “much discussed” on the Namedroppers list, but little was settled. At Postel’s request,
Feinler submitted a draft RFC to nail down the naming scheme, but he didn’t like it. Postel
wanted network names; she preferred generic types of organizations, such as .mil, .edu, and
.gov, plus .bus for businesses. Ken Harrenstein, a software architect at SRI, thought that
.com would be a better choice for commercial enterprises, and implemented his adaptation
of Feinler’s scheme on SRI’s servers. Since the work was approved by the DCA,
Harrenstein’s move was effectively a fait accomplis. When Postel traveled to SRI discuss
Feinler’s draft, he learned what had been done.204
Domain Requirements was ultimately released in October 1984 as RFC 920.
Presented as “an official policy statement of the IAB and DARPA,” Though it drew liberally
from Feinler’s draft, Postel and Reynolds were the only authors listed. “The purpose,” they
wrote, “is to divide the name management required of a central administration and assign it
to sub-administrations [without] geographical, topological, or technological constraints.”
There were only five top level domains named beyond .arpa, and they were not to be
put into use until the following year, 1985. These were .gov, .mil, .edu, .com, and .org. The
DDN Project Management Office was listed as the administrator of .mil. DARPA was listed
as being in charge of the others. There was no description within the RFC of why those
Robert Hobbes Zakon, “Hobbes’ Internet Timeline,” http://www.zakon.org/robert/internet/timeline/.
Phone interview with Mary Stahl, April 24, 2003.
Sean Donelan, “Timeline of events with the Domain Name System,”
particular DARPA domains were chosen or how they were to be used. Perhaps Postel
thought their purposes were self-evident. It was more likely that he didn’t want to do
anything more to fuel a new round of quibbling about semantics.
The requirements document also allowed for the inclusion of two letter codes for
country domains and codes “multiorganizations” – entities that “can not be easily classified
into one of the existing categories and [are] international in scope.” Postel insisted on one
correction to Feinler’s scheme. A seventh TLD – .net (network) for the use of ISPs and other
infrastructural facilities – was added within the year. Throughout the development period
there was little expectation that individuals would want – or would be able to afford – hosts
of their own.
In 1985, authority for central administration of the root became yet another of
Postel’s DARPA-funded duties at ISI. This put him directly in charge of screening top
level domain applicants. The considerably more cumbersome task of providing registration
and support services under the top level domains was added to Mary Stahl’s job at the DDN-
NIC, which was still funded by the Defense Communications Agency. From her perspective,
there was no specific moment when a big switch was flicked and the new system was turned
on. If anything stood out, it was the jump in registration activity that began after the TCP/IP
cutover. Things at SRI were often in flux. Like many other projects, the DNS was phased
in over a period of time, with lots of tests and experiments being performed long before it
was officially in place. The first registration in .com – symbolics.com – came on March 15,
1985. An even more important milestone – incrementation of NIC zone serial numbers to
publicly flag the availability of authoritative updates – didn’t begin until almost a year later,
February 26, 1986.207
Stephen C. Dennett, Elizabeth J. Feinler, Francine Perillo, eds. “ARPANET Information Brochure,”
December 1985, http://www.hackcanada.com/blackcrawl/telecom/arpa.txt.
Jon Postel, “politics of names - not on this list -- please !” namedroppers, November 4, 1985.
Jon Postel, “tcp-ip@sri-nic.ARPA, Naming the NIC,” August 3, 1987
The DDN-NIC now served as hostmaster for both the DDN (.mil) and DARPA TLDs
(all the others). Federal policy required that any addition or modification be certified by a
Network Change Directive. It was easy to accept the idea that parties applying for second
level names would be screened to ensure that the host machine was qualified to appear within
the requested TLD. Only colleges and universities would be allowed under .edu, for example.
Stahl occasionally worked with her liaisons over the phone to help them pick their names.
Arguments about semantics continued to take place long after the initial TLD suffixes
were selected, both on and off the Namedroppers list. The DNS naming hierarchy was in
some ways the victim of its own success. People had begun using it to guess the location of
resources. It made sense to assume the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was mit.edu.
That guess happened to work. If a resource turned out to have the “wrong” name, however,
complaints might arise, perhaps supplemented with suggestions about how to fix the
structure. For example, in mid 1987 someone looking for the Network Information Center
guessed it would be found at nic.sri.com. It was actually at sri-nic.arpa. This led to questions
regarding what might happen if ARPA removed its support of the Internet. Or what might
happen if SRI changed its corporate name or even went out of business? Why not create .nic
as a top level resource?
Postel had to intervene more than once to keep Namedroppers focused on technical
issues. On November 4, 1985, two years to the day after issuing the first official public
invitation to join Namedroppers, he put his foot down, proclaiming a new policy that sought
to ban any discussion of semantics. Thereafter, he had to patrol against any hint of a
violation, and would issue an interdiction when needed:
The namedroppers list is for discussion of the design and operation of the
domain name system, not for the discussion of what the names are or what
names would be nice.210
Jon Postel, “re: countries only at the top,” msggroup Nov. 10, 1985.
Though Postel recommended alternative locations for such discussions, the thrust of
his interventions was to interrupt them and shunt them away from the main stage of
discussion. Nevertheless, he did make at least made one major concession to popular
demand, in particular, the demands of certain users outside the United States.
By design, there was no inherent need for the DNS replicate the physical divisions
of networks in the form of IP blocks, and there was no reason to replicate geographical or
geopolitical subdivisions either. Many Americans were already beginning to hope that the
rise of the Internet presented an opportunity to surmount such constraints. But European
participants were wary of being subsumed within US-dominated categories. There even a
were a few who thought that no other TLDs should be created beside country codes. Postel
rejected that idea:
I think that there are many cases of organizations that operate
in multiple countries where attaching them to one country or
another would cause (political and emotional) problems.211
If country names were to be added at all, it had to be determined what counted as a
country, how should it be listed, and who should administer its registry. There was an easy
enough answer for that. A guide to the names of recognized nation-states and their legal
denotations was available in the form of a United Nations Bulletin called “Country Names.”
It paired the countries of the world with a corresponding “Alpha 2" code. France was
matched with FR, Mexico with MX, and so on. A Berlin-based group known as the ISO 3166
Maintenance Agency (part of the UN’s International Organization for Standardization) used
the “Country Names” Bulletin along with another UN-based list of unique statistical
designations to generate a table known as ISO 3166-1. It maps country names with a column
of two letter codes and another column of three letter codes. In RFC 920 Postel designated
the ISO 3166-1 table as the validating authority for any future country code designations that
might be added to the root.
See his brief online memoir, Peter T. Kirstein, “Early Experiences with the ARPANET and
INTERNET in the UK,” http://www.cs.ucl.ac.uk/staff/jon/arpa/internet-history.html.
Paré (2003: 70-1).
Once it was decided to add country codes, the next step was to determine who should
administer the zone. Postel decided that a country code registration, like any domain name
registration, required that an application be made by a “responsible party” who could receive
the delegation. The Internet was still small enough in the mid and late 1980s that an applicant
for a country code might be a familiar colleague within the TCP/IP development community
– most likely an academic, perhaps even an old friend from grad school.
Though the process began slowly, with the addition of .us in February 1985. Two
more – .gb and .uk – were added in July. The assignment of two codes for one country turns
out to be a story in itself.
British computer scientists had been participating in the ARPANET project since 1973
under a Governing Committee chaired by Peter Kirstein, a key figure in the creation of the
Internet. A long time faculty member at University College London (UCL), Kirstein
pioneered the first TCP test network with Cerf. He also founded the International Academic
Network Workshop meetings... the annual gatherings that were later transformed into INET
by Larry Landweber, providing a platform from which to launch ISOC. Kirsten went on to
participate in CCIRN, overseeing the growth of Internet connectivity worldwide.
In 1985, Kirsten needed a favor. Despite the fact that the ISO 3166-1 table used Great
Britain as a country name, Kirstein wanted Postel to accept .uk as the entry for his country’s
networking community. UCL’s network had been using .uk as an ARPANET identifier long
before any country codes were added to the domain name system. Switching over would be
inconvenient. Postel accepted Kirsten’s request to add .uk to the root, but just as a temporary
solution. A record for .gb was added as well, with the expectation that it would soon come
into widespread use. It didn’t work out that way. The change was continually put off,
making its possible execution look ever more painful and disruptive. Postel made several
attempts over the next few years to get the British networking community to convert, but
gave up in 1988. In the end, the use of the .uk suffix in the DNS was allowed to stand.
Postel may have been famous as a stickler for technical consistency, but the incident showed
that he could also bend on administrative questions.
* * *
An important design feature of the DNS was its capacity for redundancy. Its zone
files could carry more than one IP address for each name referenced in the system. If the first
listed site failed to respond for some reason, perhaps because of network congestion or a
temporary outage, this feature helped ensure that an alternate site publishing the same
resources could be found. The hierarchy was maintained by allowing only one of those
addresses to be flagged as the “Start of Authority” for subordinate data.
A distinctive feature of the DNS was that it did not rely on TCP to transmit
information across the network. The Uniform Data Protocol (UDP) was used instead. TCP
runs by instantiating “windows” or “frames” that behave as virtual circuits between hosts.
Keeping those windows open requires some extra processing and transmission overhead, but
this overhead is a reasonable penalty for the ability to maintain interactive sessions, transmit
potentially long messages, and support various other services. Since DNS queries are rather
short, it is not necessary to call on TCP just to find out what IP number matches up with a
particular domain name. UDP is fine for this, but imposes certain limits. Since the maximum
length of a UDP packet is 512 bytes, there is a fixed ceiling on the number of hosts addresses
that can be included in a discrete UDP message, and therefore referenced under the same
domain name. That constraint had direct implications for the maximum size of the root zone.
The DNS was initially configured to allow up to eight distributed nameservers at the
root level. Only three were implemented at the time of launch. The primary DNS host was
at SRI and two secondaries were running at ISI. Two more secondaries were eventually
added at military facilities on the east coast. The machines in these arrays were alternatively
known as masters and slaves. After some clever finagling in the 1990s, engineered under the
direction of Bill Manning, the maximum size of the root was extended to thirteen servers.
Privatization of the New Communication Channel, http://www.sit.wisc.edu/%7Ejcthomsonjr/-
Phone interview with Mary Stahl, April 24, 2003.
The first generation of Cisco routers were introduced to the market in 1985,
furnishing a compliant platform particularly suitable for DNS traffic. The DNS grew
steadily more popular, particularly among users of the UNIX operating system, though both
the original host table system and DNS were in simultaneous use for the rest of the 1980s and
into the early 1990s.
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