Domain names are used in various networking contexts and application-specific naming and addressing purposes. They are organized in subordinate levels (subdomains) of the DNS root domain, which is nameless. The first-level set of domain names are the top-level domains (TLDs), including the generic top-level domains (gTLDs), such as the prominent domains com, net and org, and the country code top-level domains (ccTLDs). Below these top-level domains in the DNS hierarchy are the second-level and third-level domain names that are typically open for reservation by end-users that wish to connect local area networks to the Internet, run web sites, or create other publicly accessible Internet resources. The registration of these domain names is usually administered by domain name registrars who sell their services to the public.
Individual Internet host computers use domain names as host identifiers, or hostnames. Hostnames are the leaf labels in the domain name system usually without further subordinate domain name space. Hostnames appear as a component in Uniform Resource Locators (URLs) for Internet resources such as web sites (e.g., en.wikipedia.org).
Domain names are also used as simple identification labels to indicate ownership or control of a resource. Such examples are the realm identifiers used in the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), the DomainKeys used to verify DNS domains in e-mail systems, and in many other Uniform Resource Identifiers (URIs).
An important purpose of domain names is to provide easily recognizable and memorizable names to numerically addressed Internet resources. This abstraction allows any resource (e.g., website) to be moved to a different physical location in the address topology of the network, globally or locally in an intranet. Such a move usually requires changing the IP address of a resource and the corresponding translation of this IP address to and from its domain name.
Domain names are often referred to simply as domains and domain name registrants are frequently referred to as domain owners, although domain name registration with a registrar does not confer any legal ownership of the domain name, only an exclusive right of use.
This article primarily discusses the group of domain names that are offered by domain name registrars for registration by the public. The Domain Name System article discusses the technical facilities and infrastructure of the domain name space and the hostname article deals with specific information about the use of domain names as identifiers of network hosts.
Domain name space
The hierarchical domain name system, organized into zones, each served by a name server.
Parts of a domain name
A domain name consists of one or more parts, technically called labels, that are conventionally concatenated, and delimited by dots, such as example.com.
- The right-most label conveys the top-level domain; for example, the domain name www.example.com belongs to the top-level domain com.
- The hierarchy of domains descends from the right to the left label in the name; each label to the left specifies a subdivision, or subdomain of the domain to the right. For example: the label example specifies a subdomain of the com domain, and www is a subdomain of example.com. This tree of labels may consist of 127 levels. Each label may contain up to 63 ASCII characters. The full domain name may not exceed a total length of 253 characters. In practice, some domain registries may have shorter limits.
- A hostname is a domain name that has at least one associated IP address. For example, the domain names www.example.com and example.com are also hostnames, whereas the com domain is not.
The top-level domains (TLDs) are the highest level of domain names of the Internet. They form the DNS root zone of the hierarchical Domain Name System. Every domain name ends in a top-level or first-level domain label.
When the Domain Name System was created in the 1980s, the domain name space was divided into two main groups of domains. The country code top-level domains (ccTLD) were primarily based on the two-character territory codes of ISO-3166 country abbreviations. In addition, a group of seven generic top-level domains (gTLD) was implemented which represented a set of categories of names and multi-organizations. These were the domains GOV, EDU, COM, MIL, ORG, NET, and INT.
During the growth of the Internet, it became desirable to create additional generic top-level domains. As of October 2009, there are 21 generic top-level domains and 250 two-letter country-code top-level domains. In addition, the ARPA domain serves technical purposes in the infrastructure of the Domain Name System.
During the 32nd International Public ICANN Meeting in Paris in 2008, ICANN started a new process of TLD naming policy to take a “significant step forward on the introduction of new generic top-level domains.” This program envisions the availability of many new or already proposed domains, as well a new application and implementation process. Observers believed that the new rules could result in hundreds of new top-level domains to be registered.
An annotated list of top-level domains in the root zone database is published at the IANA website at http://www.iana.org/domains/root/db/
and a Wikipedia list exists.
Second-level and lower level domains
Below the top-level domains in the domain name hierarchy are the second-level domain (SLD) names. These are the names directly to the left of .com, .net, and the other top-level domains. As an example, in the domain en.wikipedia.org, wikipedia is the second-level domain.
Next are third-level domains, which are written immediately to the left of a second-level domain. There can be fourth- and fifth-level domains, and so on, with virtually no limitation. An example of an operational domain name with four levels of domain labels is www.sos.state.oh.us. The www preceding the domains is the host name of the World-Wide Web server. Each label is separated by a full stop (dot). ‘sos’ is said to be a sub-domain of ‘state.oh.us’, and ‘state’ a sub-domain of ‘oh.us’, etc. In general, subdomains are domains subordinate to their parent domain. An example of very deep levels of subdomain ordering are the IPv6 reverse resolution DNS zones, e.g., 18.104.22.168.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.ip6.arpa, which is the reverse DNS resolution domain name for the IP address of a loopback interface, or the localhost name.
Second-level (or lower-level, depending on the established parent hierarchy) domain names are often created based on the name of a company (e.g., microsoft.com), product or service (e.g., gmail.com). Below these levels, the next domain name component has been used to designate a particular host server. Therefore, ftp.wikipedia.org might be an FTP server, www.wikipedia.org would be a World Wide Web server, and mail.wikipedia.org could be an email server, each intended to perform only the implied function. Modern technology allows multiple physical servers with either different (cf. load balancing) or even identical addresses (cf. anycast) to serve a single hostname or domain name, or multiple domain names to be served by a single computer. The latter is very popular in Web hosting service centers, where service providers host the websites of many organizations on just a few servers.
Internationalized domain names
The character set allowed in the Domain Name System has prevented the representation of names and words of many languages in their native scripts or alphabets. ICANN has approved the Punycode-based Internationalized domain name (IDNA) system, which maps Unicode strings into the valid DNS character set. Some registries have adopted IDNA.
By 1992 fewer than 15,000 dot.com domains were registered.
As of March 15, 2010 there were 84 million domain names, including 11.9 million online business and e-commerce sites, 4.3 million entertainment sites, 3.1 million finance related sites, and 1.8 million sports sites.
Domain name registration
The right to use a domain name is delegated by domain name registrars which are accredited by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the organization charged with overseeing the name and number systems of the Internet. In addition to ICANN, each top-level domain (TLD) is maintained and serviced technically by an administrative organization operating a registry. A registry is responsible for maintaining the database of names registered within the TLD it administers. The registry receives registration information from each domain name registrar authorized to assign names in the corresponding TLD and publishes the information using a special service, the whois protocol.
Registries and 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 may sometimes be 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 the complete list of TLD registries and domain name registrars. Registrant information associated with domain names is maintained in an online database accessible with the WHOIS service. For most of the 250 country code top-level domains (ccTLDs), the domain registries maintain the WHOIS (Registrant, name servers, expiration dates, etc.) information.
Some domain name registries, often called network information centers (NIC), also function as registrars to end-users. The major generic top-level domain registries, such as for the COM, NET, ORG, INFO domains and others, use a registry-registrar model consisting of hundreds of domain name registrars (see lists at ICANN
). In this method of management, the registry only manages the domain name database and the relationship with the registrars. The registrants (users of a domain name) are customers of the registrar, 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 use several key pieces of information connected with a domain:
- Administrative contact. A registrant usually designates an administrative contact to manage the domain name. The administrative contact usually has the highest level of control over a domain. Management functions delegated to the administrative contacts may include management of all business information, such as name of record, postal address, and contact information of the official registrant of the domain and the obligation to conform to the requirements of the domain registry in order to retain the right to use a domain name. Furthermore the administrative contact installs additional contact information for technical and billing functions.
- Technical contact. The technical contact manages the name servers of a domain name. The functions of a technical contact include assuring conformance of the configurations of the domain name with the requirements of the domain registry, maintaining the domain zone records, and providing continuous functionality of the name servers (that leads to the accessibility of the domain name).
- Billing contact. The party responsible for receiving billing invoices from the domain name registrar and paying applicable fees.
- Name servers. Most registrars provide two or more name servers as part of the registration service. However, a registrant may specify its own authoritative name servers to host a domain’s resource records. The registrar’s policies govern the number of servers and the type of server information required. Some providers require a hostname and the corresponding IP address or just the hostname, which must be resolvable either in the new domain, or exist elsewhere. Based on traditional requirements (RFC 1034
), typically a minimum of two servers is required.
Domain names are often seen in analogy to real estate in that (1) domain names are foundations on which a website (like a house or commercial building) can be built and (2) the highest “quality” domain names, like sought-after real estate, tend to carry significant value, usually due to their online brand-building potential, use in advertising, search engine optimization, and many other criteria.
A few companies have offered low-cost, below-cost or even cost-free domain registrations with a variety of models adopted to recoup the costs to the provider. These usually require that domains be hosted on their website within a framework or portal that includes advertising wrapped around the domain holder’s content, revenue from which allows the provider to recoup the costs. Domain registrations were free of charge when the DNS was new. A domain holder can give away or sell infinite number of subdomains under their domain name. For example, the owner of example.org could provide subdomains such as foo.example.org and foo.bar.example.org to interested parties.
Resale of domain names
The business of resale of previously registered domain names is known as the domain aftermarket. Various factors influence the perceived value or market value of a domain name.
- Business.com for $7.5 million in December 1999
- AsSeenOnTv.com for $5.1 million in January 2000
- Altavista.com for $3.3 million in August 1998
- Wine.com for $2.9 million in September 1999
- CreditCards.com for $2.75 million in July 2004
- Autos.com for $2.2 million in December 1999
Domain name confusion
Intercapping is often used to emphasize the meaning of a domain name. However, DNS names are case-insensitive, and some names may be misinterpreted in certain uses of capitalization. For example: Who Represents, a database of artists and agents, chose whorepresents.com, which can be misread as whore presents. Similarly, a therapists’ network is named therapistfinder.com. In such situations, the proper meaning may be clarified by use of hyphens in the domain name. For instance, Experts Exchange, the programmers’ site, for a long time used expertsexchange.com, but ultimately changed the name to experts-exchange.com.
Use in web site hosting
Top-level domain name: .net
Second-level domain name: example.net
Host name: www.example.net
A domain name may point to multiple IP addresses to provide server redundancy for the services delivered. This is used for large, popular web sites. More commonly, however, one server at a given IP address may also host multiple web sites in different domains. Such address overloading enables virtual web hosting commonly used by large web hosting services to conserve IP address space. It is possible through a feature in the HTTP version 1.1 protocol, but not in HTTP 1.0, which requires that a request identifies the domain name being referenced.
Abuse and regulation
Critics often claim abuse of administrative power over domain names. Particularly noteworthy was the VeriSign Site Finder system which redirected all unregistered .com and .net domains to a VeriSign webpage. For example, at a public meeting with VeriSign to air technical concerns about SiteFinder, numerous people, active in the IETF and other technical bodies, explained how they were surprised by VeriSign’s changing the fundamental behavior of a major component of Internet infrastructure, not having obtained the customary consensus. SiteFinder, at first, assumed every Internet query was for a website, and it monetized queries for incorrect domain names, taking the user to VeriSign’s search site. Unfortunately, other applications, such as many implementations of email, treat a lack of response to a domain name query as an indication that the domain does not exist, and that the message can be treated as undeliverable. The original VeriSign implementation broke this assumption for mail, because it would always resolve an erroneous domain name to that of SiteFinder. While VeriSign later changed SiteFinder’s behaviour with regard to email, there was still widespread protest about VeriSign’s action being more in its financial interest than in the interest of the Internet infrastructure component for which VeriSign was the steward.
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.
Truth in Domain Names Act
In the United States, the Truth in Domain Names Act of 2003, in combination with the PROTECT Act of 2003, forbids the use of a misleading domain name with the intention of attracting people into visiting Internet pornography sites.
Fictitious domain name
A fictitious domain name is a domain name used in a work of fiction or popular culture to refer to a domain that does not actually exist.
Domain names used in works of fiction have often been registered in the DNS, either by their creators or by cybersquatters attempting to profit from it. This phenomenon prompted NBC to purchase the domain name Hornymanatee.com after talk-show host Conan O’Brien spoke the name while ad-libbing on his show. O’Brien subsequently created a website based on the concept and used it as a running gag on the show.