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Waves Beneath a Flat Surface: The Silent and Powerful Domain Name System

Dec 23, 2007
If you are reading this article right now then unbeknownst to you, you have been utilizing the complex Domain Name System (DNS) to navigate around the internet. The DNS works silently and efficiently in the darkest corners of the internet, translating and redirecting your queries to allow you to access virtually any connected computer server in the world by simply typing in letters and words in your internet browser.

The reason we need the domain name system in place is because we carbon-based humans do not think the same way that silicon-based computer chips do. Whereas letters and words are what we think of as 'familiar' and are the easiest for us to remember (and in the case of domain names, followed by a familiar top-level such as COM or NET), computers communicate using long strings of digits that would be difficult for a person to remember or understand. When it comes to navigating across the internet, these strings of digits are called Internet Protocol (IP) addresses, and it is the job of the domain name system to take these long numbers and translate them into a domain name consisting of letters and words, effectively bridging the language barrier between humans and computer servers.

In order for you to be able to reach a certain website through your internet browser, your computer must locate and connect you to the address of the hosting server where that website is stored. This is the main function of the domain name system: To take a user-friendly domain name and translate this into a computer-friendly IP address, since computers communicate with numbers and not letters.

As simple as it sounds, the domain name system is truly the Achilles heel of the internet: it is absolutely essential for walking around, but it if were to be injured or disabled then it would cripple the internet. But as long as the system is working fine, the internet remains a very easy-to-use and user-oriented place (since we do not need to memorize strings of numbers in order to find our way around), and it is this simple nature that is contributing to the wide proliferation of communications technology all over the world.

As for the domain name system itself, it all relies on an interconnected network of nameservers, with your web browser referring you to your local nameserver when it needs to translate a domain name into an IP address. Many times, your local nameserver will know the IP address of the domain name in question, but when it does not then the request has to be directed to something called a root server or an authoritative name server, and then the IP address is sent back to the local nameserver.
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