Tech Industry

Server snags put domains in limbo

A high-level network latency problem leaves many new and updated domain registrations in a lurch, Network Solutions confirms.

For the past two days, a high-level network latency problem has left many new and updated domain name registrations in limbo, a spokesman for Network Solutions has confirmed.

Several network administrators maintain that the lag is not a cause for alarm--but rather a common hiccup in the system. But there is little agreement about its cause, which may underscore the complex and often political debate over how to manage the domain name registration network.

Usually, new domain name registrations and updates take 20 minutes to process, according to InterNIC, which is run by Network Solutions. The InterNIC then publishes the new registrations in its root name server "A." The remaining 12 root name servers (B-M) pick up the changes via the domain name server protocol.

"All the name servers have data up to whenever the lag begins," said Jon Postel, who runs the Internet Assigned Names Authority (IANA) and also serves as director of the computer network division at the Information Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California. The IANA is the nonprofit governing body that oversees all domian name registrations, including those conducted by the InterNIC.

Postel blamed the congestion on the overall increase in traffic on the Internet and the greater size of the files being transmitted. He said the lag is occurring "because machines are busier than they used to be or files are taking longer to be transmitted."

But Network Solutions instead attributed the problem to human ("operator") error, but said the problem has yet to be identified. Christopher Clough, a spokesman for Network Solutions, said that the inherent "volunteer" nature of how the entire system is operated may have been the cause.

"There's a tremendous amount of dependencies on a tremendous amount of systems and a tremendous amount of people," he said.

Network Solutions is under contract with the U.S. government, and employs volunteers to operate many of its systems, said Clough.

Clough added that the upcoming restructuring of domain name registrations will attempt to address these intermediary problems. On September 30, Network Solutions' contract for exclusive control of all top level domain name registrations, including ".com," ".net," and ".org," will expire. What will happen next is still unclear.

The Clinton administration has called for the Internet community--and all its various factions--to come up with the make-up of a non-profit board to run the system.

The process has been fraught with controversy and hard work. Several entities, including IANA and Network Solutions, have come up with proposals to do so, but it is unclear how and when power will actually be transmitted.

"There can be delays by operators and they can be one to two days," Clough added. "It has happened in the past."

Paul Vixie, whose Redwood City, California-based Vixie Enterprises manages 1 of the 13 root servers, sees the situation differently.

"There are 13 servers, 4 have been current in recent days, 9 haven't been current in recent days," said Vixie. "Do you think 9 of 13 have left for vacation?"

Vixie added that many root servers, including his, had problems accessing information from root server "A," a server that the remaining 12 also access. Root sever A, Vixie pointed out, is run by Network Solutions under government contract.

Nonetheless, Vixie said that latencies like this are not alarming.

"I've been doing this for 11 years and this is normal," he said. "Eleven [root servers] would have to halt and catch fire before the Internet as a whole would be threatened."