So your host queries a DNS server to map the name to a location (an IP address), which sets off a chain of queries across a number of servers throughout the Internet. But who pays for all these servers, and how do they make money? To understand the answer to these questions, we need to dig a little into the business side of the DNS system; we’ll use the illustration on the left to discuss the process of allocating names in the DNS space.
Note: I’m not going to use the words “registry” or “registrar” anyplace here, primarily because it’s so heavily overloaded. A registry is technically a database of allocated names or numbers, and a registrar is technically the owner of that database. IANA, in this scheme, is a registry. So is the TLD Manager (TLDM in the diagram). So is the reseller. And, in many cases, so is the customer. It’s easiest, then, just to avoid these terms, and use something else to describe these functions.
IANA is at the top of this chain — as just about everyone knows — but they don’t play as big of a role as many people think. IANA essentially determines which top level domains (TLDs) are going to be used, and which organizations own those top level domains.
The top level domain is the letters to the right of the last “dot” in the domain name, such as .com, .org, .tv, and .net. A complete list is here.
There is a specific process IANA uses to allocate new TLDs — a process that’s has its critics as well as its supporters. This process was revamped recently (several years ago), and is now being used to release a new batch of TLDs into the wild. Who does IANA assign these TLDs to? This is where people often get confused; IANA assigns these names to organizations, from governments to coalitions of groups to nonprofits to companies.
An organization that owns a TLD can do one of several things. They can manage the space themselves, which includes running the servers that provide redirects to the authoritative servers for that domain (the top level servers in our last look at the DNS system). Google and Verisign, for instance, have their own extensive DNS infrastructure, and so will most likely manage .google and .verisign (if their applications are both granted) themselves.
Another option, which is much more common, is for the organization to contract out the maintenance of name allocation and top level servers to another organization, such as Verisign or ISC. The terms of these contracts vary, but let’s take Verisign’s .com contract as an example.
The U.S. Government, which owns .com, has an ongoing contract with Verisign to manage the .com namespace. Verisign is paid a fixed amount for each .com name allocated, and is not (under the terms of this contract) to resell any domain names directly to consumers. The entire system is designed to put several layers of blindness between the U.S. Government, in this case, and the actual end user. Sometimes the contracts include a fixed amount sent back to the TLD owner, or a smaller per name fee paid back to the owner. Verisign uses the differential to hire people, build a network, do research in the naming space, participate in global efforts to make the Internet more available, and run the top level server in our diagram (not a cheap proposition in the real world).
Continued in part two!