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13th Oct 2005 | 10:28


Earlier this week a technical cockup in one of the insane alternate DNS roots spilled onto the NANOG mailing list, to much amusement. Bill Stewart posted some comments on resistance at Bell Labs to the deployment DNS in the mid 1980s, including "The Hideous Name" by Rob Pike and P.J. Weinberger, linked above.

It's very wrong, and it's interesting to understand why because it provides a historical perspective on the state of networking at that time. The paper seems to have an underlying assumption that balkanization is the natural state of networking. This has two corollaries: that you do not need to (and should not) compromise your user interface to accommodate the naming schemes of other networks; and that a global consensus name space is not possible.

The paper's model of a name in computing is of a path, which is intimately related to the network's topology - a topic which is of no interest to people who aren't network engineers. In this model the idea of a relative name makes sense: how do I get there from here. However they massively underestimeate the value of globally-valid names, which remain so as they traverse the network and do not need to be rewritten as they move from one namespace into another. (They also massively overestimate the reliability of rewriting.) Globally-useful names are so important that they are created by the users of systems that don't support them: for example in UUCP, people would quote their addresses relative to a few well-known hubs, which effectively acted as the root of the namespace as well as the core of the network.

This illustrates the network effect, which is an idea that is of course absent from the paper since the paper was written at least ten years before the strength of network effects became obvious. Instead the paper invokes standardization as the solution:

It is clear that standards are necessary for electronic mail to be delivered reliably across network boundaries. What needs to be standardized is the interpretation of names, especially at network boundaries. Until such a standard exists; is syntactically and semantically clean; distributes the interpretation of names across the systems that understand them; and is adhered to, the network mail situation will not improve.

This is of course correct, but the solution we have ended up with does not follow their principles of naming at all - and it is of course centred on the Internet and so can't be used to gateway between other networks directly, which they assumed would be necessary.

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Comments {3}

Run away to DreamWidth. Come with me.

from: reddragdiva
date: 13th Oct 2005 11:30 (UTC)

"one of the insane alternate DNS roots"

Is there a sane one, then?

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Tony Finch

from: fanf
date: 13th Oct 2005 11:33 (UTC)

Maybe I have a reader who doesn't know it's a tautology. I seem to have the odd non-geek posting comments...

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The Lusercop

from: lusercop
date: 13th Oct 2005 14:58 (UTC)

and it is of course centred on the Internet and so can't be used to gateway between other networks directly, which they assumed would be necessary.
They also didn't see that everyone would basically be running the same protocol with minor variations on their computer networks, which is kind of the point here. With an effectively de-facto standardised way, not only of interconnecting networks, but also of connecting networks internally, the IP model seems more sane than it perhaps did then. The thing is the naming generally follows the addressing scheme, and since the addressing scheme is not path-based (bloody good thing too, if you ask me), then neither will the naming scheme be.

I did have an interesting discussion about the alternate root stuff with a Tiscali NOC op, where he was basically pointing out that the alternate roots have come about because "IANA won't supply people with the names that they want" and companies like KPMG and CocaCola have management and marketing types who would really like TLDs for their respective companies rather than just the 2LDs that everyone and his dog has. Tiscali's nameservers use an alternate root - because this is what people want, and marketing think they can get something out of it.

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