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Celebrating 35 Years of the DNS Protocol

In 1987, CompuServe introduced GIF images, Steve Wozniak left Apple and IBM introduced the PS/2 personal computer with improved graphics and a 3.5-inch diskette drive. Behind the scenes, one more critical piece of internet infrastructure was quietly taking form to help establish the internet we know today.

November of 1987 saw the establishment of the Domain Name System protocol suite as internet standards. This was a development that not only would begin to open the internet to individuals and businesses globally, but also would arguably redefine communications, commerce and access to information for future generations.

Today, the DNS continues to be critical to the operation of the internet as a whole. It has a long and strong track record thanks to the work of the internet’s pioneers and the collaboration of different groups to create volunteer standards.

Let’s take a look back at the journey of the DNS over the years.

Scaling the Internet for All

Prior to 1987, the internet was primarily used by government agencies and members of academia. Back then, the Network Information Center, managed by SRI International, manually maintained a directory of hosts and networks. While the early internet was transformative and forward-thinking, not everyone had access to it.

During that same time period, the U.S. Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, the forerunner to the internet we know now, was evolving into a growing network environment, and new naming and addressing schemes were being proposed. Seeing that there were thousands of interested institutions and companies wanting to explore the possibilities of networked computing, a group of ARPA networking researchers realized that a more modern, automated approach was needed to organize the network’s naming system for anticipated rapid growth.

Two Request for Comments documents, numbered RFC 1034 and RFC 1035, were published in 1987 by the informal Network Working Group, which soon after evolved into the Internet Engineering Task Force. Those RFCs, authored by computer scientist Paul V. Mockapetris, became the standards upon which DNS implementations have been built. It was Mockapetris, inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame in 2012, who specifically suggested a name space where database administration was distributed but could also evolve as needed.

In addition to allowing organizations to maintain their own databases, the DNS simplified the process of connecting a name that users could remember with a unique set of numbers—the Internet Protocol address—that web browsers needed to navigate to a website using a domain name. By not having to remember a seemingly random string of numbers, users could easily get to their intended destination, and more people could access the web. This has worked in a logical way for all internet users—from businesses large and small to everyday people—all around the globe.

With these two aspects of the DNS working together—wide distribution and name-to-address mapping—the DNS quickly took shape and developed into the system we know today.

The Multistakeholder Model and Rough Consensus

Thirty-five years of DNS development and progress is attributable to the collaboration of multiple stakeholders and interest groups—academia, technical community, governments, law enforcement and civil society, plus commercial and intellectual property interests—who continue even today to bring crucial perspectives to the table as it relates to the evolution of the DNS and the internet. These perspectives have lent themselves to critical security developments in the DNS, from assuring protection of intellectual property rights to the more recent stakeholder collaborative efforts to address DNS abuse.

Other major collaborative achievements involve the IETF, which has no formal membership roster or requirements, and is responsible for the technical standards that comprise the internet protocol suite, and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which plays a central coordination role in the bottom-up multistakeholder system governing the global DNS. Without constructive and productive voluntary collaboration, the internet as we know it simply isn’t possible.

Indeed, these cooperative efforts marshaled a brand of collaboration known today as “rough consensus.” That term, originally “rough consensus and running code,” gave rise to a more dynamic collaboration process than the “100% consensus from everyone” model. In fact, the term was adopted by the IETF in the early days of establishing the DNS to describe the formation of the dominant view of the working group and the need to quickly implement new technologies, which doesn’t always allow for lengthy discussions and debates. This approach is still in use today, proving its usefulness and longevity.

Recognizing a Milestone

As we look back on how the DNS came to be and the processes that have kept it reliably running, it’s important to recognize the work done by the organizations and individuals that make up this community. We must also remember that the efforts continue to be powered by voluntary collaborations.

Commemorating anniversaries such as 35 years of the DNS protocol allows the multiple stakeholders and communities to pause and reflect on the enormity of the work and responsibility before us. Thanks to the pioneering minds who conceived and built the early infrastructure of the internet, and in particular to Paul Mockapetris’s fundamental contribution of the DNS protocol suite, the world has been able to establish a robust global economy that few could ever have imagined so many years ago.

The 35th anniversary of the publication of RFCs 1034 and 1035 reminds us of the contributions that the DNS has made to the growth and scale of what we know today as “the internet.” That’s a moment worth celebrating.

By Scott Hollenbeck, Fellow at Verisign

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