As we discussed last month, there are two main formats for Internet addresses. Internet Protocol (IP) addresses (e.g., 140.170.42.65) are primarily used by computers. Domain Name System (DNS) addresses (e.g., www.ptf.com) are primarily used by humans.

Because IP addresses are used in routing packets, they are absolutely critical to life on the Internet. If a machine does not have an IP address, it isn't on the Internet. A DNS address, on the other hand, is merely a (very) useful convenience.

Most sites get their IP addresses from Internet Service Providers (ISPs). The ISPs, in turn, get their IP numbers from the "Internic" (+1 703 742 7777, http://rs.internic.net/).

My provider, for instance, "owns" the IP address range from 140.174.000.000 to 140.174.255.255. They were thus free to give me the sub-range from 140.174.42.000 to 140.174.42.255, without any interaction with the Internic. Similarly, I am free to assign (ranges of) numbers within my own allocation.

By giving out ranges of addresses for local allocation, the Internic eliminates a great deal of paperwork, both for itself and for network administrators. A similar strategy is used in the Domain Name system: once I have registered ptf.com as a domain, I am free to assign subsidiary names (e.g., www.ptf.com) without asking anyone's permission.

Paying the Piper

Although this distribution of labor reduces the Internic's efforts by orders of magnitude, the growth of the Internet is more than making up the difference. Allocating IP addresses and registering domain names for gazillions of new sites is a lot of work, and someone has to pay for it.

The US Government, which has been paying the bills until now, will be opting out in a couple of years. Internet registration rates have also skyrocketed, reaching values far in excess of those in effect three years ago when the Internic's contract was signed.

In response to these pressures, the Internic is imposing a $50 registration fee, due annually, for second-level domain names (e.g., ptf.com). The domains involved include com, edu, net, and org. No distinction is made for individuals, non-profits, etc.

$50 a year may seem a bit high just to leave table entries alone, but this is somewhat misleading. The Internic plans to use the annual re-registration as a way to keep tables up to date, flush unused entries, etc. As one who has vainly tried to reach administrative contacts for a number of domains, I can see real value in this.

Or Not...

There is, however, considerable resistance brewing up. Some folks object to the idea of the Internic using its monopoly position to quintuple its budget. There is also concern that the Internic might decide to deny or de-register domain names for political or other reasons. Finally, there is a real monetary concern. $50 per year is more than some occasional PPP users pay for their entire Internet feeds!

Fortunately, there is a reasonable alternative, and possibly some unreasonable ones, as well. First, let's look at the officially designated "reasonable alternative". The US Domain is quite willing to register domain names, at no cost whatsoever. The domain is administered by John Postel, assisted by a miniscule staff from USC's Information Sciences Institute (ISI) and a large number of volunteers.

The domain has several dozen second-level domains, all based on US Postal Service two-letter codes (e.g., CA). A third level of naming handles cities and rural localities. The paid staff handles the top two levels, leaving the third level to local volunteers.

At first glance, the names used in the US Domain seem pretty unwieldy. If PTF's WWW server (www.ptf.com) were located in the US Domain, it would be named something like "www.ptf.sf.ca.us" or possibly "www.ptf.sanbruno.ca.us". This is a bit cumbersome, to be sure, but it is quite workable.

And, by dividing up the name space in a hierarchical manner, the US Domain distributes the administrative load very nicely. A server for the US Domain need not handle the entire name space, only the portion in the local area. A server for the "com" domain, in contrast, must be able to field requests for any of a large (and rapidly growing) number of domains.

In any event, the US Domain currently handles more than 100,000 hosts. For registration information, send email to us-domain@isi.edu or drop by http://www.isi.edu/in-notes/usdnr/.

Other Options

Because DNS names are only loosely connected to IP addresses, there is no reason a US site's DNS name has to be US-based. Many of the "com" domains are, in fact, located outside of the US. Turnabout would seem to be fair play, at least until the situation in the US gets resolved. By registering the "do" domain in Italy, a site could have hosts named "just.do.it" or "dont.do.it", as desired.

More seriously, there are moves afoot to open up the DNS to competition. If any of several companies could register domains, competitive pressure would tend to select for reasonable prices, comfortable terms, and responsive customer service. Coordination might prove tricky, but would certainly be possible.

There is also the rather peculiar prospect of new top-level domains and/or sets of root-level servers. The root-level DNS servers tell inquiring machines where to go for domain-sprcific information. They can certainly choose to recognize servers for an "alt" domain, regardless of the Internic's wishes.

Finally, there is nothing magical about running a root-level server. Someone could create a new set of root-level servers, adding any desired top-level domains. The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) will soon be meeting to hammer out a workable strategy. It will be interesting to see how these issues are resolved.