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Domain Name System. There's actually a method to these names and addresses—a naming system known as the Domain Name System, or DNS. The DNS is also the worldwide system of distributed databases of names and addresses. These databases provide the "translation" from names to numbers and vice versa, a sort of international Who's Who of computers. DNS names are constructed in a hierarchical naming fashion, which you can think of as a worldwide organization chart. At the top of this chart are top-level specifications, such as EDU (educational), COM (commercial), GOV (government), MIL (military), ORG (organizations), and NET (networks), and also two-letter country codes, such as US for the United States and CH for Switzerland.

An organization can register for a domain name, selecting one of the top-level specifications mentioned above that describes it best, and then preceding it with a recognizable version of its name. For example, the Yoyodyne Software Systems company will have a domain name like yoyodyne.com. From there, it can divide itself into subdomains, extending the organization chart to department levels, or it can just give all of its computers names in the yoyodyne.com domain.

Once you understand how this naming system works, you can remember names more easily, and you can also tell things about a computer, such as to what organization it belongs. The names do not, however, always indicate geographical location. For example, planet10.yoyodyne.com may be the main computer at the home office in Grovers Mill, New Jersey, mars.yoyodyne.com may be at the Hong Kong branch, while venus.yoyodyne.com might be located at the Santa Cruz division.

Many U.S. organizations and companies use the three-letter designations mentioned above (for example, EDU, COM, and ORG). However, most countries have stipulated that organizations use their two-letter country codes for top-level domains. For example, an actual computer name, quake.think.com, refers to a commercial (COM) enterprise: the computer's name is quake and it belongs to Thinking Machines Corporation (think), a supercomputer manufacturer in the United States. Another example is fujitsu.co.jp, a computer at the Fujitsu Company in Japan (jp is the two-letter country code for Japan).

Now you probably have a few questions. After learning about the DNS, every new Internet user first wants to get a list of all the computers on the Internet. After all, you have a telephone directory of all the people in your home area. But there is no exact, up-to-date Internet name and address list available in hard copy or online anywhere.

In the early days of the ARPANET, a list was maintained, but the Internet grew too rapidly to keep up with all the additions and changes. The distributed domain name system has replaced this centrally managed list and has allowed the Internet to grow gracefully.


"Enough of White Man's ASCII"

Dave Hughes, who is kind of an Internet evangelist, took to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains to work with a group of Native American teenagers at the American Indian Science and Engineering Society's summer school in physics. According to Dave, the kids, who were from the Navajo, Zuni, Crow, Tohono, Sioux, and Picurus Pueblo tribes, "showed polite, quiet interest as I explained the technology and made a local call to the Internet (Colorado Supernet). They laughed a bit, read, and responded to email sent especially to them by Dr. George Johnston, physicist at MIT, whom I asked to directly 'welcome' them to the world of mathematics and physics by telecom.

"Then I said, 'enough of white man's ASCII,' and started calling up the Indian art, the Crow Dance poetry, the new pieces by Lorri Ann Two Bulls, via modem, at 2400 baud. They *really* got excited! Putting questions to me, walking up to look closer at the full-color VGA monitor, their dark eyes laughing, smiles, and half of them standing up for the rest of the hour-long session. When it was over, a crowd around the machine, picking up copies of the Online Access Magazine and Boardwatch Magazine I brought, and more questions. And from their obvious tribal knowledge, they were saying 'That's Crow, that's Sioux!' from the colors and symbols in the various pieces of art.

"A heart-warming session with 40 Indian kids who seemed to get a glimpse of a future even they could participate in. And if I am right, by reaching these youth, starting with their own 'images of their inner selves' as Indians produced by such technologies, they may be better able to move on into the world of science, math, and the cold regions of technological and white man's society, while still not losing their identity or associations with each other. Perhaps even doing their life's work as professionals, from the reservation, thanks to these little devices."

Source: Adapted from a posting by Dave Hughes to the Consortium for School Networking Discussion Forum List (COSNDISC@BITNIC)on July 10, 1992.


Internet Resources

While a list of computer names would not be very helpful, a list of online resources is. Resources on the Internet are all of the useful things that you can access: hardware such as supercomputers, graphics labs, computer centers, or printers, and online information, like the wealth of databases, documents, software, archives, pictures, and sounds available. Resources can also be people. If you can talk to a group of people to figure out the answer to a question or problem, they are a resource; so are mailing lists and conferencing systems. An online forum on school networking or a work group on molecular biology are both Internet resources. Your understanding of the astonishing array of Internet resources, and how to get at them, will grow as you learn your way around the Internet.

Internet or Outernet?

To better understand what the Internet is, you also need to understand what the Internet is not and what networks are not on the Internet. A number of worldwide networks use protocols other than TCP/IP and provide their own sets of services. Some don't allow remote login, while some employ different file transfer methods; many have a special connection to the Internet. These connections are not, however, the seamless web that was mentioned earlier, where the participating networks interoperate to allow the same services. Instead, these are connections of convenience, that—like marriages of the same sort—have their purposes but not a lot of other interaction.

Networks on the outside are called outernets, but understanding the distinction between outernets and the Internet can be difficult. Because of the differing governments and languages involved in the Internet and the outernets, there's only one basic service—electronic mail—that currently can move between them. Electronic mail moves from the Internet to the outernets through email gateways, the connecting points that translate the different email protocols of each network. Most academic and commercial outernets have established email gateways to the Internet. This worldwide system of networks and gateways is sometimes called the Matrix. Some network cartographers apply this term to the electronic regions discovered during their virtual journeys all over the world via electronic undergrounds and mazes; it's meant to encompass all the possible email passageways.

The Matrix is also sometimes called the Net by citizens of all networks. This term is ambiguous because it doesn't refer to any one network, but it works well in referring to the overall worldwide situation. If you hear someone say that he's "on the Net," it probably means that he can be contacted by email.

It's interesting to note that many computers on outernets these days have DNS names, so it may only look as though they're connected to the Internet. There's a neat feature in the DNS that allows for Mail Exchange (MX) computers. An MX computer is a gateway that's connected to the Internet and that is willing—meaning that an arrangement has been made—to transfer email to an outernet computer. Instead of finding an IP address for the outernet computer in the database, the DNS obtains an MX record, or the name of the Internet computer that will deliver the email to the outernet computer. All of this should be transparent to the user, making it easier to send and receive electronic mail between the Internet and outernet networks. Which outernets have email gateways to the Internet? More every day, but some of the well-known international networks are FidoNet, a cooperative network made up mostly of microcomputers linked via telephone lines; BITNET (Because It's Time Network), an academic and research network; and UUCP, a network of computers that talk to one another over dial-up connections using UUCP (Unix-to-Unix Copy Protocol). Commercial networks, including CompuServe, MCImail, and Genie, have made connections too. As time goes on, more and more commercial networks are connecting directly to the Internet and are offering full Internet services to their customers. America Online and Delphi are two such services.

Network News

Another service available on many of these networks is called network news. "News" in this context doesn't refer to current events from the news wires but to discussions; it usually means interest groups and conferences. There are thousands and thousands of different discussion groups on topics ranging from artificial intelligence to recipes, from politics to sex, from ornithology to skydiving—some collectively generating the equivalent of a book about the size of this one each day. News is transmitted on the USENET network, which has special relationships and connections with some of the networks previously mentioned. For example, USENET news can be transmitted across and between the Internet and UUCP networks, allowing citizens of both cultures to participate. The protocol that is used to transport news over the Internet is called Network News Transfer Protocol (NNTP). USENET is "on its own," however, and no one person or organization controls it. It's a huge cooperative anarchy, with several million people participating worldwide.

Even though USENET is closely related to the Internet, and a lot of its traffic travels over the Internet, USENET is not the Internet. Many people who have access to USENET news don't have Internet connections; similarly, Internet connectivity doesn't always provide access to USENET news. Also, note that USENET is a conferencing system, and is not considered an email network.

Now that you know what the Internet is and what it's not, it's time to get on with learning to use it. Conferencing, email, and interactive online conversations are the most exciting new developments in communications since the advent of the telephone. If you think the fax machine is great, wait until you try the Internet! With just your fingers on the keyboard, you can reach around the world.

Backward Forward Copyright © 1994 by Tracy LaQuey and Editorial Inc.


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