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Tuesday, 15 January, 2002, 13:04 GMT
Net's servers under scrutiny
Pile of US dollars, BBC
European net groups are refusing to pay Icann
By BBC News Online technology correspondent Mark Ward

A row is brewing over the reliability and security of the servers that direct much of the net's traffic.

Some of the organisations that oversee the net's domains are calling on the internet's ruling body to give guarantees about the safe running of these crucial servers.

They are threatening to withhold cash demanded by the ruling body, saying the fees it is levying amount to a tax for which they get little in return.

The EU and national governments are also starting to express concern about the lack of formal agreements covering the running of the servers.

Root privileges

The row centres on the root servers that hold the master list of where the database for each domain, such as .com and .uk, can be found online.

Almost every time anyone looks for a webpage these root servers are consulted.

The computer of someone searching for for the first time would consult the closest root server and would find out that Nominet handles the database of net domains ending .uk.

The root server then would pass on the net address of Nominet to allow the searching machine to find the exact web address of the BBC website.

Currently there are 13 root servers dotted around the world, all but three of which are in the US.

The "F" root server, located at the Internet Software Consortium offices in Redwood City, California, is fitted with eight gigabytes of Ram and handles over 272 million domain queries per day.

Cash call

Net ruling body Icann (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) has the task of overseeing the safe running of these servers.

However, many of the servers are looked after on an ad hoc basis by very different companies. Icann does not pay the wages of the people that oversee the servers, nor has it signed contracts with the organisations that look after the root servers to establish service levels, standards of reliability or security.

Icann logo, Icann
Icann has refused to sign contracts
Organisations that look after the top level domains such as .uk and .de are asking Icann to give guarantees about root server stability, given that billions of dollars of e-commerce now depend on the safe running of these key servers. So far Icann has refused.

Dr Willie Black, chairman of the organisation that represents European top-level domains and managing director of Nominet, said fear of a lawsuit was preventing Icann from signing a contract to provide a given level of service.

He said Icann feared that if any root server were to go offline the damage claims by companies with lost business could be huge.

"They could not cope with that kind of insurance risk," he said.

This reluctance to sign a contract had also stopped Icann putting in place mechanisms to help the smooth running of the domain name system, he said.

Mr Black said many domain registries like Nominet felt frustrated by Icann's stance, given that the root servers only held a database of the 300 or so computers with detailed lists of which domain was where.

"It's not exactly a complicated operation," he said. "The Nominet database has millions of entries."

Role play

Concerns about the control Icann has over the root servers are now being expressed by the EU and some national governments who want guarantees about their stability.

Icann's refusal to sign contracts has irked many country code domain administrators, as has its levy of fees on these registrars.

In the past Centr (Council of European National Top-level domain Registries) has given Icann donations to keep it going, but now it is withholding cash unless Icann starts to give guarantees about the service it can expect in return.

Nigel Roberts, head of the Channel Island domain registry and a member of Icann's country code committee, said the row was leading people to question just what Icann was for.

"The issue is not the amount of money," he said. "It is about the role that Icann has."

He said many people wanted an overseer for the root servers and a technical co-ordination body that could drive the development of the net, not a global net policeman.

See also:

25 Jan 01 | Sci/Tech
Brit to head net body
04 Jul 00 | Sci/Tech
Net groups in world wide wrangle
11 Jan 02 | Sci/Tech
Me, my web and I
25 Jul 00 | Sci/Tech
Channel Islands balk at 'domain tax'
31 Jan 01 | Sci/Tech
Major net security holes identified
12 Dec 00 | Sci/Tech
Net gains for Tuvalu
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