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DNS (Domain Name System) Tutorial

The Origin
How DNS Works
DNS Specifics


While DNS is one of the least necessary technologies that make up the Internet as
we know it, it is also true that the Internet would never have become as popular
as it is today if DNS did not exist. Though this may sound like a bit of a
contradiction, it is true, none the less.

DNS stands for two things: Domain Name Service and Domain Name Servers. One
acronym defines the protocol, the other defines the machines that provide the
service. The job that DNS performs is very simple: it takes the IP addresses that
computers connected to the Internet use to communicate with each other and it
maps them to hostnames.

Sounds pretty simple, doesn't it? Well, it is. But just because it's simple doesn't
make it any less important.

Human beings tend to have a difficult time remembering long strings of

seemingly arbitrary numbers. The way that our brains work, it's difficult to make
information like that stick. And that is where DNS comes in. It allows us to
substitute words or phrases for those strings of numbers. Words are a lot easier
for people to remember than numbers, especially when they can be tied to a
specific idea that is linked to the website.

But how does DNS work? What makes it operate? How did it start?

The Origin of DNS

Like almost everything else originally associated with the Internet, DNS traces its
origins to ARPANET. Alphabetic hostnames were introduced shortly after its
inception as a means of allowing users greater functionality, since the numeric
addresses proved difficult to remember.

Originally, every site connected to ARPANET maintained a file called ‘HOSTS.TXT'

which contained the mapping information for all of the numeric addresses used
there. That information was shared through ARPANET. Unfortunately, there were
many problems that arose from that setup. Errors were commonplace and it was
inefficient to make changes considering they needed to be made on each and
every copy of the HOSTS.TXT file.

In December of 1973, a proposal was introduce in RFC 606 called ‘ Host Names
On-line' that went through several revisions until eventually, in 1974, RFC 625
came out, giving the Stanford Network Information Center (NIC) the official license
to be the centralized location to host all of the hostname information.

The centralized system worked well for almost a decade. However, in the early
1980's, the amount of dynamic data that was passing through the network made
it difficult for a single source to be able to efficiently maintain and host all of the
information. The host file was becoming too large and unwieldy. Many sites were
downloading the entire file on a nightly basis. This was putting too large a strain
on the Stanford NIC's resources. Something needed to change.

By November of 1983, a plan was laid out in RFCs 881, 882, and 883, also known
as ‘The Domain Names Plan and Schedule ,' ‘ Domain Names -- Concepts And
Facilities ,' and ‘ Domain Names -- Implementation And Specification.' These three
RFCs defined what has developed into DNS as we know it today. Surprisingly, not
a whole lot has changed since that time.

How DNS Works

In a nutshell, DNS translates IP addresses into hostnames and back again. The
hostnames are for the benefit of human end users. The IP addresses are the only
essential thing, as far as the computers are concerned. In a longer form, we need
to begin by looking at the different types of DNS servers.

The first type of server is called a ‘Root Name Server.' Each Top Level Domain
(such as .com, .edu, .us, etc) has one or more Root Name Servers which are
responsible for determining where the individual records are held. These servers
are fairly static and every machine on the internet has the capability of reaching
any of them, as needed.

The servers that the Root Name Servers direct queries to are called ‘Authoritative
Name Servers'. These are the servers which hold the actual information on an
individual domain. This information is stored in a file called a ‘Zone File.' Zone
files are the updated versions of the original HOSTS.TXT file.

The final type of name server is called a ‘Resolving Name Server'. These are the
servers that do the majority of the work when you are trying to get to a machine
with a certain host name. Besides being responsible for looking up data, they also
temporarily store the data for hostnames that they have searched out in a cache,
which allows them to speed up the resolution for hostnames that are frequently

The manner in which these servers work together is fairly straightforward. When
you attempt to go to a website, you type in a hostname in your web browser. Let's
say, for convenience, that you are going to In your computers'
settings is a list of resolving name servers which it queries to find out what's IP address is.

The first thing that the resolving name servers will do is check their caches to see
if the DNS information for is already there. If it isn't, they will go and
check with the .org root name server to see which authoritative name server
holds the zone file for Once they have that server's IP address, they
connect to it.

Once the resolving name server has queried the authoritative name server, it
replies back to your computer with one of a number of different things. Ideally, it
will report back with the correct IP address and allow your computer to connect to
the web server and show you the web page that you were looking for. However, if
the authoritative server is down, doesn't have a record for the specific hostname
that you are looking up, or if the root server doesn't have a record that the
domain name even exists, the resolving name server will report an error to your
DNS Specifics

Now that you have a basic idea of where DNS came from, why it's used, and how
it works, it's time to take a look at some of its specifics. There are many details
about DNS which confuse people and are never addressed by lists of frequently
asked questions. However, most of these questions are very easy to answer.

One of the most common points of confusion is the difference between a domain
name and a hostname. The short answer is that a domain name is something like and a hostname is something like . But that only helps
illustrate the confusion. To really understand it, we need to start at the hostname
level and work backwards.

DNS works on a hierarchical structure. Most hostnames have three sections, each
separated by a period. What most people don't realize, though, is how these
sections work. The first section is actually what most people would commonly
read as the last: the top level domain. Whether it is .org, .com, or anything else,
the top level domain is the first part of a hostname which is read by a name

The second section is the domain. In combination with the top level domain, this
is what forms the domain name. Everything from to is a
domain name. This is the level at which zone files are held by authoritative name

A hostname, therefore, is everything else. Any DNS record held in a zone file is a
hostname. Typically, these are things like and These
are the most common of the domain name subheadings.

It is also possible to create something called a sub-domain. A sub-domain is a

hostname which has its own zone file. This is created by adding another record in
a domain's zone file. This isn't done very often, but when a single hostname would
have a great deal of information tied directly to it, it can make it much easier to
organize things.

As you can see, there is a great deal about DNS which most people never care to
find out about. It is, quite possibly, the most simple of the technologies associated
with the Internet, but also possibly the most misunderstood because of its
simplicity. Without it, though, the Internet would never have become what it is

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