False alarm: The Net's not falling

It was scene worthy of Independence Day: While fireworks light up the sky, the Internet goes black. But, like the movie, this story was fiction.

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It was scene worthy of the Hollywood blockbuster Independence Day: While fireworks light up the sky on July 4, the global Internet goes black. But, like the movie, this story was fiction.

The panic started this morning with a flurry of email that implied the Internet's traffic routing mechanism, the domain naming system, could partly collapse July 4. The main "root server," the computer that sends out index-like information all over the Internet, had gone quiet June 27 without anyone noticing, the messages said.

"If this breakage is found to be an intentional act by NSI..., " the messages began, hinting darkly at a conspiracy on the part of Network Solutions, the company that manages the largest and most popular portion of the domain-naming system under agreement with the federal government.

Without that information, the other 12 root servers all over the Internet would lose all their information in seven days. On July 4, the Net would freeze. It was great story, but not true.

Yes, there was a hiccup in the naming system, Network Solutions executives, but it was far from a disaster and certainly not a conspiracy.

On Monday, Network Solutions made a change to its main server that caused the domain name information it sends out to be partially corrupt and unreadable, said Dave Holtzman, senior vice president of technology. That caused the other servers all around the Web to appear as though they weren't updated.

The total damage? Any changes made to the naming system in the last couple of days were unavailable to the Net for a few hours. Network Solutions fixed the problem this morning, he said. Even if updates hadn't been sent out since June 27, the problem would never get so far as an Internet meltdown.

"Our monitors were spitting error messages out all over the place this morning," Holtzman said.

In fact if there's anything frightening about this tale, it's that the Internet's infrastructure is so fragile and that problems like this are routine. Not only is the naming system easily upset, but Network Solutions is also under attack from miscreants and over zealous domain name speculators alike.

"This sort of thing happens all the time," Holtzman said. "There is some fragility to the DNS [domain naming system]. It works, but it relies on a lot of people pulling the oars at one time," he said.

In addition, Network Solutions has been under seige, not only from hackers who don't like its policies, but also because the function it performs is just too popular. Last week someone temporarily seized control of the server that directs traffic to domain names that end in ".com", Holtzman said.

Plus, domain name speculators, who can fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars for a easily remembered moniker, run self-executing programs against the company's database of names "every microsecond" so they can seize a cherry name when it becomes available, Holtzman said.