A History of Domain Names
The history of domain names started with just a single file.
The name of this file was "hosts.txt." The late Dr. Jon
Postel, a UCLA professor maintained this file while under contract
to the U.S. Department of Defense. The file contained information
on all the host computers connected to the ARPANET, which is what
the Internet was called before it became the Internet. This information
included the hostname and IP address of each host. As the number
of hosts on the Internet increased, and Dr. Postel moved on to other
duties, a company called SRI took on the responsibility of maintaining
the file. Eventually the file became available to the public and
the history of domain names was born.
To understand the history of domain names
you need to understand what a domain name actually is. Domain names
were created so that any computer on the Internet can track at IP
address that corresponds with a particular computer hostname. Your
computer needs to know another computer's IP addresses in order
to send email messages and requests for web pages. A domain name
is essentially the human friendly version of an IP address, using
word and acronyms instead of numbers
The old system was quite primitive. Administrators
who wanted to change information about their hosts would email the
changes to SRI. SRI would change the hosts.txt file every few days,
and administrators would periodically FTP that file from SRI's server.
This system was in place for many years, until the administrative
load became too great. It only took a few hundred ISP addresses
to overload this archaic system.
In 1984 there was a breakthrough in the
history of domain names when Paul Mockapetris (then at USC's Information
Sciences Institute) designed the New Domain Name System. This DNS
is the system that we still use today to map hosts and domains to
IP addresses and actual machines. Under this system, DNS information
is spread across the Internet. There is no one machine or center
that maintains information on all host names (although Verisign
which took over the duties of the NSI in 1998 comes close.) Each
domain owner maintains information on his or her own hosts. A central
authority keeps records on where each domain owner keeps their information.
For years the maintenance of the Internet
and the Domain Name System was under the auspices of the Department
of Defense. Then, in 1991, the history of domain names experienced
another breakthrough when the National Science Foundation (NSF)
assumed responsibility for the non-military portion of the Internet.
In 1992, the NSF awarded NSI a contract for managing the registration
of domain names and maintenance of domain name information. NSI
has had a government-sponsored monopoly on the registration of second-level
domains and what are known as the gTLDs: .com, .org, .net, and .edu.
ever since. The Internet Assigned Names Authority (IANA), continues
to be responsible for the allocation of IP addresses.
In 1998, the NSI's contract to manage the
non-military component of the Internet expired and plans were made
to transform the NSI's Internet unit into a new organization. That
new organization is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names
and Numbers (ICANN). Representing yet another breakthrough in the
history of domain names, ICANN is a not-for-profit corporation that
aims to manage the domain name system and manage the servers that
help implement the domain name system. The corporation was formed
in reaction to two policy papers released by the U.S. Government
recommending that the administration of the Internet eventually
be turned over to the private sector.
In theory, no one person is the "boss"
of the Internet; but there are people in charge of the physical
networks that transmit data and the points where these networks
connect. (There are also people in charge of the addressing system
computers use to communicate with each other. It remains to be seen
if the history of domain names will have any effect on how efficient
and fair the Internet is when it comes to both commercial and non-profit
interests and if it will remain free of the control of any government.