The Domain Name System (DNS) is a hierarchical naming system for computers, services, or any resource participating in the Internet. It associates various information with domain names assigned to such participants. Most importantly, it translates humanly meaningful domain names to the numerical (binary) identifiers associated with networking equipment for the purpose of locating and addressing these devices world-wide.
An often used analogy to explain the Domain Name System is that it serves as the "phone book" for the Internet by translating human-friendly computer hostnames into IP addresses. For example, www.example.com translates to 18.104.22.168.
The Domain Name System makes it possible to assign domain names to groups of Internet users in a meaningful way, independent of each user's physical location. Because of this, World-Wide Web (WWW) hyperlinks and Internet contact information can remain consistent and constant even if the current Internet routing arrangements change or the participant uses a mobile device. Internet domain names are easier to remember than IP addresses such as 22.214.171.124(IPv4) or 2001:db8:1f70::999:de8:7648:6e8 (IPv6). People take advantage of this when they recite meaningful URLs and e-mail addresses without having to know how the machine will actually locate them.
The Domain Name System distributes the responsibility for assigning domain names and mapping them to Internet Protocol (IP) networks by designating authoritative name servers for each domain to keep track of their own changes, avoiding the need for a central register to be continually consulted and updated.
In general, the Domain Name System also stores other types of information, such as the list of mail servers that accept email for a given Internet domain. By providing a world-wide, distributed keyword-based redirection service, the Domain Name System is an essential component of the functionality of the Internet.
Other identifiers such as RFID tags, UPC codes, International characters in email addresses and host names, and a variety of other identifiers could all potentially utilize DNS .
The Domain Name System also defines the technical underpinnings of the functionality of this database service. For this purpose it defines the DNS protocol, a detailed specification of the data structures and communication exchanges used in DNS, as part of the Internet Protocol Suite (TCP/IP). The context of the DNS within the Internet protocols may be seen in the following diagram. The DNS protocol was developed and defined in the early 1980's and published by the Internet Engineering Task Force (cf. History).
The growth of networking required a more scalable system that recorded a change in a host's address in one place only. Other hosts would learn about the change dynamically through a notification system, thus completing a globally accessible network of all hosts' names and their associated IP Addresses.
At the request of Jon Postel, Paul Mockapetris invented the Domain Name system in 1983 and wrote the first implementation. The original specifications appear in RFC 882 and RFC 883. In November 1987, the publication of RFC 1034 and RFC 1035 updated the DNS specification and made RFC 882 and RFC 883 obsolete. Several more-recent RFCs have proposed various extensions to the core DNS protocols.
In 1984, four Berkeley students—Douglas Terry, Mark Painter, David Riggle and Songnian Zhou—wrote the first UNIX implementation, which was maintained by Ralph Campbell thereafter. In 1985, Kevin Dunlap of DEC significantly re-wrote the DNS implementation and renamed it BIND—Berkeley Internet Name Domain. Mike Karels, Phil Almquist and Paul Vixie have maintained BIND since then. BIND was ported to the Windows NT platform in the early 1990s.
BIND was widely distributed, especially on Unix systems, and is the dominant DNS software in use on the Internet. With the heavy use and resulting scrutiny of its open-source code, as well as increasingly more sophisticated attack methods, many security flaws were discovered in BIND. This contributed to the development of a number alternative nameserver and resolver programs. BIND itself was re-written from scratch in version 9, which has a security record comparable to other modern Internet software.
The domain name space consists of a tree of domain names. Only one node or leaf in the tree has zero or more resource records, which hold information associated with the domain name. The tree sub-divides into zones beginning at the root zone. A DNS zone consists of a collection of connected nodes authoritatively served by an authoritative nameserver. (Note that a single nameserver can host several zones.)
Administrative responsibility over any zone may be divided, thereby creating additional zones. Authority is said to be delegated for a portion of the old space, usually in form of sub-domains, to another nameserver and administrative entity. The old zone ceases to be authoritative for the new zone.
A DNS query may be either a recursive query or a non-recursive query:
The resolver (or another DNS server acting recursively on behalf of the resolver) negotiates use of recursive service using bits in the query headers.
Resolving usually entails iterating through several name servers to find the needed information. However, some resolvers function simplistically and can communicate only with a single name server. These simple resolvers rely on a recursive query to a recursive name server to perform the work of finding information for them.
In theory a full host name may have several name segments, (e.g ahost.ofasubnet.ofabiggernet.inadomain.example). In practice, full host names will frequently consist of just three segments (ahost.inadomain.example, and most often www.inadomain.example). For querying purposes, software interprets the name segment by segment, from right to left, using an iterative search procedure. At each step along the way, the program queries a corresponding DNS server to provide a pointer to the next server which it should consult.
As originally envisaged, the process was as simple as:
The diagram illustrates this process for the real host www.wikipedia.org.
The mechanism in this simple form has a difficulty: it places a huge operating burden on the root servers, with every search for an address starting by querying one of them. Being as critical as they are to the overall function of the system, such heavy use would create an insurmountable bottleneck for trillions of queries placed every day. In practice caching is used to overcome this problem, and in actual fact root nameservers deal with very little of the total traffic.
For example, assume that the sub-domain en.wikipedia.org contains further sub-domains (such as something.en.wikipedia.org) and that the authoritative name server for these lives at ns1.something.en.wikipedia.org. A computer trying to resolve something.en.wikipedia.org will thus first have to resolve ns1.something.en.wikipedia.org. Since ns1 is also under the something.en.wikipedia.org subdomain, resolving ns1.something.en.wikipedia.org requires resolving something.en.wikipedia.org which is exactly the circular dependency mentioned above. The dependency is broken by the glue record in the nameserver of en.wikipedia.org that provides the IP address of ns1.something.en.wikipedia.org directly to the requestor, enabling it to bootstrap the process by figuring out where ns1.something.en.wikipedia.org is located.
Note that the term "propagation", although very widely used in this context, does not describe the effects of caching well. Specifically, it implies that  when you make a DNS change, it somehow spreads to all other DNS servers (instead, other DNS servers check in with yours as needed), and  that you do not have control over the amount of time the record is cached (you control the TTL values for all DNS records in your domain, except your NS records and any authoritative DNS servers that use your domain name).
Some resolvers may override TTL values, as the protocol supports caching for up to 68 years or no caching at all. Negative caching (the non-existence of records) is determined by name servers authoritative for a zone which MUST include the Start of Authority (SOA) record when reporting no data of the requested type exists. The MINIMUM field of the SOA record and the TTL of the SOA itself is used to establish the TTL for the negative answer. RFC 2308
Many people incorrectly refer to a mysterious 48 hour or 72 hour propagation time when you make a DNS change. When one changes the NS records for one's domain or the IP addresses for hostnames of authoritative DNS servers using one's domain (if any), there can be a lengthy period of time before all DNS servers use the new information. This is because those records are handled by the zone parent DNS servers (for example, the .com DNS servers if your domain is example.com), which typically cache those records for 48 hours. However, those DNS changes will be immediately available for any DNS servers that do not have them cached. And any DNS changes on your domain other than the NS records and authoritative DNS server names can be nearly instantaneous, if you choose for them to be (by lowering the TTL once or twice ahead of time, and waiting until the old TTL expires before making the change).
Users generally do not communicate directly with a DNS resolver. Instead DNS-resolution takes place transparently in client-applications such as web-browsers, mail-clients, and other Internet applications. When an application makes a request which requires a DNS lookup, such programs send a resolution request to the local DNS resolver in the local operating system, which in turn handles the communications required.
The DNS resolver will almost invariably have a cache (see above) containing recent lookups. If the cache can provide the answer to the request, the resolver will return the value in the cache to the program that made the request. If the cache does not contain the answer, the resolver will send the request to one or more designated DNS servers. In the case of most home users, the Internet service provider to which the machine connects will usually supply this DNS server: such a user will either have configured that server's address manually or allowed DHCP to set it; however, where systems administrators have configured systems to use their own DNS servers, their DNS resolvers point to separately maintained nameservers of the organization. In any event, the name server thus queried will follow the process outlined above, until it either successfully finds a result or does not. It then returns its results to the DNS resolver; assuming it has found a result, the resolver duly caches that result for future use, and hands the result back to the software which initiated the request.
As a final level of complexity, some applications (such as web-browsers) also have their own DNS cache, in order to reduce the use of the DNS resolver library itself. This practice can add extra difficulty when debugging DNS issues, as it obscures the freshness of data, and/or what data comes from which cache. These caches typically use very short caching times — on the order of one minute. Internet Explorer offers a notable exception: recent versions cache DNS records for half an hour.
When sent over the Internet, all records use the common format specified in RFC 1035 shown below.
|NAME||Name of the node to which this record pertains.||(variable)|
|TYPE||Type of RR. For example, MX is type 15.||2|
|TTL||Signed time in seconds that RR stays valid.||4|
|RDLENGTH||Length of RDATA field.||2|
|RDATA||Additional RR-specific data.||(variable)|
The type of the record indicates what the format of the data is, and gives a hint of its intended use; for instance, the A record is used to translate from a domain name to an IPv4 address, the NS record lists which name servers can answer lookups on a DNS zone, and the MX record is used to translate from a name in the right-hand side of an e-mail address to the name of a machine able to handle mail for that address.
Many more record types exist and be found in the complete List of DNS record types.
One class of vulnerabilities is DNS cache poisoning, which tricks a DNS server into believing it has received authentic information when, in reality, it has not.
DNS responses are traditionally not cryptographically signed, leading to many attack possibilities; DNSSEC modifies DNS to add support for cryptographically signed responses. There are various extensions to support securing zone transfer information as well.
Even with encryption, a DNS server could become compromised by a virus (or for that matter a disgruntled employee) that would cause IP addresses of that server to be redirected to a malicious address with a long TTL. This could have far-reaching impact to potentially millions of Internet users if busy DNS servers cache the bad IP data. This would require manual purging of all affected DNS caches as required by the long TTL (up to 68 years).
Some domain names can spoof other, similar-looking domain names. For example, "paypal.com" and "paypa1.com" are different names, yet users may be unable to tell the difference when the user's typeface (font) does not clearly differentiate the letter l and the number 1. This problem is much more serious in systems that support internationalized domain names, since many characters that are different, from the point of view of ISO 10646, appear identical on typical computer screens. This vulnerability is often exploited in phishing.
Techniques such as Forward Confirmed reverse DNS can also be used to help validate DNS results.
Registrars usually charge an annual fee for the service of delegating a domain name to a user and providing a default set of name servers. Often this transaction is termed a sale or lease of the domain name, and the registrant is called an "owner", but no such legal relationship is actually associated with the transaction, only the exclusive right to use the domain name. More correctly authorized users are known as "registrants" or as "domain holders".
ICANN publishes a complete list of TLD registries and domain name registrars in the world. One can obtain information about the registrant of a domain name by looking in the WHOIS database held by many domain registries.
For most of the more than 240 country code top-level domains (ccTLDs), the domain registries hold the authoritative WHOIS (Registrant, name servers, expiration dates, etc.). For instance, DENIC, Germany NIC, holds the authoritative WHOIS to a .DE domain name. Since about 2001, most gTLD registries (.ORG, .BIZ, .INFO) have adopted this so-called "thick" registry approach, i.e. keeping the authoritative WHOIS in the central registries instead of the registrars.
For .COM and .NET domain names, a "thin" registry is used: the domain registry (e.g. VeriSign) holds a basic WHOIS (registrar and name servers, etc.). One can find the detailed WHOIS (registrant, name servers, expiry dates, etc.) at the registrars.
Some domain name registries, also called Network Information Centres (NIC), also function as registrars, and deal directly with end users. But most of the main ones, such as for .COM, .NET, .ORG, .INFO, etc., use a registry-registrar model. There are hundreds of Domain Name Registrars that actually perform the domain name registration with the end user (see lists at ICANN or VeriSign). By using this method of distribution, the registry only has to manage the relationship with the registrar, and the registrar maintains the relationship with the end users, or 'registrants' -- in some cases through additional layers of resellers.
In the process of registering a domain name and maintaining authority over the new name space created, registrars store and use several key pieces of information connected with a domain:
Despite widespread criticism, VeriSign only reluctantly removed it after the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) threatened to revoke its contract to administer the root name servers. ICANN published the extensive set of letters exchanged, committee reports, and ICANN decisions .
There is also significant disquiet regarding the United States' political influence over ICANN. This was a significant issue in the attempt to create a .xxx top-level domain and sparked greater interest in alternative DNS roots that would be beyond the control of any single country.
Additionally, there are numerous accusations of domain name "front running", whereby registrars, when given whois queries, automatically register the domain name for themselves. Recently, Network Solutions has been accused of this.