Under the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers' agreement with the Commerce Department, the new nonprofit will take over the Net's "A" root server--the master file for all top-level domains (TLDs), including ".com," ".net," ".org," and individual country codes such as ".us." Overall, the root server system is made up of thirteen file servers around the globe that map out the hierarchy of where computers reside in the network.
For the past six years the A-root has been maintained by NSI. But a historic changeover in the Net's management will soon shift control of the server to ICANN. The controversial nonprofit is making plans to set up the A-root at the University of Southern California, where many of the network's core technical functions already are administered, such as the L-root server.
Although it is the linchpin that holds the Net together, most online users never even make their way up the chain to the A-root server. Still, the transfer is a critical technical endeavor that must go off without a hitch, or it will threaten the stability of the network.
The switch also symbolizes the incremental chipping away of NSI's authority over the system--which, thanks to an ongoing government pact, has become a billion-dollar business.
"Our technical staff and operators are working on the plan, which will be ready in a couple of weeks," said Mike Roberts, ICANN's interim president.
The primary root server has never been pointed away from NSI for a long period of time. One exception was several years ago, when the late Jon Postel, one of the Net's primary architects, took it upon himself to have the root server operators point to the L-root at USC instead of the A-root at NSI. This episode was unplanned and called a "hijacking" by some, but by most accounts the network didn't suffer.
"If the root server operators went back to their hotels at INET and redirected the primary to ICANN, they could have done it in an hour," Roberts said. "We're going to do it very carefully, with government oversight, but it's not rocket science."
Not surprisingly, NSI is the first to raise questions about the switch, although it says that when Commerce gives the green light, it will cooperate with ICANN to relinquish control of the A-root.
"We have been doing it as a public service, and we have done a good job, so what problem are they trying to solve?" said NSI senior vice president Don Telage.
"We will only follow express written direction from the Department of Commerce, and if they were to tell me to take the [A-root server] and ship it to Moscow, then that's where it would go," he added. "We will comply."
For its part, Commerce is waiting to see the A-root transition strategy and says nothing will change until it gives the word.
"The authoritative root is operated by NSI under the direction of the U.S government," said Commerce spokeswoman Becky Burr, who is overseeing the process. "The other root servers would only redirect to ICANN in accordance with a well-developed plan that was consistent with preserving the stability of the Net."