Top Three Networking Innovations of the Last 25 Years: Domain Names

Have you ever thought about just how far networking technology has come in the past 25 years? I did when I learned that June 2011 marked D-Link’s 25th year in business. The change in that period is truly astounding. Two and a half decades ago, who would have imagined that ordinary consumers would carry handheld devices affording access to a worldwide network of information, communications, and cat pictures?

Networking has advanced by leaps and bounds, but we’re often so inundated with new products and gadgets that we don’t step back and look at the big picture. What have the big breakthroughs been? What monumental strides have changed our lives? To put it another way, what do we have today that we couldn’t possibly live without? In this week’s blog entries, I’ll consider the top three networking innovations of the last 25 years, counting down from 3 to 1.

Innovation #3: Domain Names

Domain names — specifically, the mapping of numerical IP addresses to text strings — make it easy to find and reach the network destination of your choice. The Domain Name System (DNS) was born in 1983, back when the TCP/IP protocol had recently been mandated for use across all interconnected systems within the Internet’s technological precursor, the US government network called ARPANET. Consumers didn’t start using the Internet itself until the early ’90s, thanks in part to Tim Berners-Lee’s invention of the World Wide Web.

But what good would Berners-Lee’s concept of a web of links have been without domain names? Sure, users could navigate through graphical representations of content via new software called a web browser, but imagine how difficult it would be to surf the Internet on the backs of IP addresses instead of textual domain names.

Without domain names, the Internet would have been stunted in its infancy. At least, until a domain-less Internet gave rise to search services allowing user to map the IP addresses to requested information some other way. I bet that centralized system of “bookmarks” would have arisen instead — a kind of Internet Yellow Pages users could access to map a particular brand or site to the IP address of a faraway server.

Though domain names have made worldwide public networking practical, our reliance on them stands at the cusp of doing more harm than good. At what point will domain names become just as complicated as the IP addresses they were intended to replace? Consider the potential confusion created by domain names like david.murphy, davidmurphy.writer, and davidmurphywrites.awesome as opposed to the much simpler thedavidmurphy.com. Maybe we’ll find out five years from now, when the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers is scheduled to roll out a plethora of new domain suffixes, including — no joke — .anything.

Chugging a glass of water is good for you. Downing five gallons of water can kill you. I feel the same way about domain name propagation. The modern-day Internet couldn’t exist without it (or at least, couldn’t exist in as nearly as friendly a fashion). But just how easy will it be to navigate a worldwide network where any word under the sun could become a contextual address? What happens when the original strings of difficult-to-parse numbers have evolved into innumerable subdomains and suffixes?

One could argue that a domain name serves no purpose without the network behind it. And that’s a subject I’ll explore as the “Best Networking Technologies Ever” countdown continues. Next up: How humanity moved the Internet from a stationary computer to the palm of your hand.

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