What’s in a Name?: Domains and Domain Name Servers

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I’ve been learning more about computer networking recently, and part of that exploration has led me to learn more about domains and domain name servers. Computer networking is such a vast topic, and being new to computer networking, I found myself confused with all the different terminology and concepts. I wanted to cover this topic because I think it’s especially useful if you ever wanted to set up your own domain name and all the infrastructure that goes along with it. Along the way, we’ll cover some tools that may also be useful.

So, first things first..

What is a domain name?

Computers work by routing you to a specific IP address (e.g., 172.217.6.14). As humans, this can be hard to remember, so we use domain names. A domain name is the address of your website in plain English. In your browser, you can either type www.8thlight.com or 52.222.222.131. They mean the same thing. A domain name is made up of the following parts: the sub-domain (www), the domain (8thlight) and the top level domain (.com).

A note of clarification—a domain name is not the same as a URL. For example, the URL: https://www.8thlight.com has the domain name 8thlight.com.

A helpful tool to find the IP address of a domain name is ping. This tool can be used for debugging purposes if you’re setting up your own domain name. You can double check that your domain has an IP address associated with it. Here’s a sample of the output:

$ ping www.8thlight.com
PING d114sp4kkqch89.cloudfront.net (52.222.222.131): 56 data bytes
64 bytes from 52.222.222.131: icmp_seq=0 ttl=246 time=27.143 ms
64 bytes from 52.222.222.131: icmp_seq=1 ttl=246 time=21.353 ms

Note - you may see a different IP address for www.8thlight.com because there may be mulitple IP addresses that correspond to this website. The primary purpose of this is to always have a fallback option if need be.

How does this relate to a Domain Name System?

Domain Name System (DNS) is the translation layer, storing the mapping of a domain name to an IP address. It’s a database that contains all the records of public addresses and their associated domain names. This translation layer is fairly complex, so I'm going to lay out the basics below.

What is a DNS Server?

DNS software can be installed on a server, thus making it a DNS Server. This software allows for the lookup process to occur. You may have heard of the term Name Server (NS). These are servers that have DNS.

How does the lookup work?

The lookup process is actually a series of lookups. Here's a visual that describes what the lookup process would look like for www.drive.google.com

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When you make an http request to www.drive.google.com, it first hits the com name server. The com name server only has knowledge of the next part of the address, so it returns the IP address for—google.com. The google.com NS has knowledge of www.drive.google.com, so it finally returns the IP address for that, and your browser is directed to that IP address.

To look up the NS server's IP addresses for 8thlight.com, we can use nslookup

$ nslookup 8thlight.com
Server:         192.168.0.1
Address:        192.168.0.1#53

Non-authoritative answer:
Name:   8thlight.com
Address: 52.84.141.164
Name:   8thlight.com
Address: 52.84.141.215
Name:   8thlight.com
Address: 52.84.141.74
Name:   8thlight.com
Address: 52.84.141.163

Keep in mind the IP address is different for www.8thlight.com

$ nslookup www.8thlight.com
Server:         192.168.0.1
Address:        192.168.0.1#53

Non-authoritative answer:
www.8thlight.com        canonical name = d114sp4kkqch89.cloudfront.net.
Name:   d114sp4kkqch89.cloudfront.net
Address: 52.222.222.131
Name:   d114sp4kkqch89.cloudfront.net
Address: 52.222.222.36
Name:   d114sp4kkqch89.cloudfront.net
Address: 52.222.222.73
Name:   d114sp4kkqch89.cloudfront.net
Address: 52.222.222.111

This is because the first nslookup is to the name server, whereas the second nslookup is to the website. The name server will return the IP Address of the website www.8thlight.com

Conclusion

Typing an address into your browser is actually a complex process, and it all happens so fast! DNS is actually something we use every day without even knowing it. It is one of the many parts of the Internet that allows us to access a website. DNS just grazes the surface of computer networking. For more topics on computer networking, you might enjoy the book Computer Networking: a Top-Down Approach by Kurose and Ross

Avni Kothari, Software Crafter

Avni Kothari is a bike rider and Software Crafter at 8th Light, Chicago.

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