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How Domain Name Servers Work

Domain Names

The Amazon.co.uk logo is displayed on a cardboard shipping envelope from Amazon. Amazon.co.uk is the domain name for Amazon in the United Kingdom. nkbimages/Getty Images

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If we had to remember the IP addresses of all our favorite websites, we'd probably go nuts! Human beings are just not that good at remembering strings of numbers. We are good at remembering words, however, and that is where domain names come in. You probably have hundreds of domain names stored in your head, such as:

  • howstuffworks.com — our favorite domain name
  • google.com — one of the most used domain names in the world
  • mit.edu — a popular EDU name
  • bbc.co.uk — a three-part domain name using the country code UK

You'll recognize domain names as having strings of characters separated by dots (periods). The last word in a domain name represents a top-level domain. These top-level domains are controlled by the IANA in what's called the Root Zone Database, which we'll examine more closely later. There are more than 1,000 top-level domains, and here are some of the most common:

  • COM — commercial websites, though open to everyone
  • NET — network websites, though open to everyone
  • ORG — non-profit organization websites, though open to everyone
  • EDU — restricted to schools and educational organizations
  • MIL — restricted to the U.S. military
  • GOV — restricted to the U.S. government
  • US, UK, RU and other two-letter country codes — each is assigned to a domain name authority in the respective country

In a domain name, each word and dot combination you add before a top-level domain indicates a level in the domain structure. Each level refers to a server or a group of servers that manage that domain level. For example, "howstuffworks" in our domain name is a second-level domain off the COM top-level domain. An organization may have a hierarchy of sub-domains further organizing its internet presence, like "bbc.co.uk" which is the BBC's domain under CO, an additional level created by the domain name authority responsible for the U.K. country code.

The left-most word in the domain name, such as www or mail, is a host name. It specifies the name of a specific machine (with a specific IP address) in a domain, typically dedicated to a specific purpose. A given domain can potentially contain millions of host names as long as they're all unique to that domain. (The "http" part stands for Hypertext Transfer Protocol and is the protocol by which information is sent by the user to the website she is visiting. Nowadays, you're more likely to see "https" which is a sign the information is being sent by secure protocol where the information is encrypted. This is especially important if you're providing a credit card number to a website [source: EasyNews].)

Because all of the names in a given domain need to be unique, there has to be some way to control the list and makes sure no duplicates arise. That's where registrars come in. A registrar is an authority that can assign domain names directly under one or more top-level domains and register them with InterNIC, a service of ICANN, which enforces uniqueness of domain names across the internet. Each domain registration becomes part of a central domain registration database known as the whois database. Network Solutions, Inc. (NSI) was one of the first registrars, and today companies like GoDaddy.com offer domain registration in addition to many other website and domain management services. [source: InterNIC]

Later, when we look at how to create a domain name, we'll see that part of registering a domain requires identifying one or more name servers (DNS servers) that have the authority to resolve the host names and sub-domains in that domain. Typically, you would do this through a hosting service, which has its own DNS servers. Next, we'll look at how these DNS servers manage your domain, and how DNS servers across the internet work together to ensure traffic is routed properly between IP addresses.

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