France Does Some DNS Spring Cleaning

PARIS (06/08/2000) - Among the 70,000 registered domain names in France, more than 20,000 result in errors when Web surfers try to reach them, rendering the sites virtually inacessible.

"Many businesses complain about the access time to their Web site, or problems sending e-mail, and think they can solve their problems by asking and paying for more bandwidth, but it is the DNS (Domain Name System) that is to blame," explained Bruno Rasle, marketing director for IPerformances, a IP network specialist.

The DNS is the essential first link between the Internet user and Web sites. It is used to locate the specific server that the user wants to connect to. When a user types an address such as www.entreprise.fr, the browser queries the network of servers in the DNS to figure out the underlying, numeric IP (Internet protocol) server address. If the first server in the DNS can't answer the query, it is passed on in hierarchical fashion, until the search is successful.

The process only takes tenths of a second, unless an error occurs. A DNS server, wrongly configured somewhere, or outdated server software, usually cause errors to occur. In the best case, the customer waits, if he is patient, several seconds to be connected. In the worst case, a site may become completely inaccessible. In addition, there are security problems: a wrongly configured server can open the door to hackers to steal e-mail, or allow spammers to flood a site.

The DNS can be compared to a widely distributed database, a system of interdependent servers. Because sites are created, changed and shut down so frequently, errors are quick to appear and cause problems for many users.

But there is a solution to the problem -- that ISPs (Internet service providers) responsible for domain names go through a sort of spring cleaning .

The success of this operation will rest mainly on French ISPs, but also on any user or business willing to participate. And businesses have every reason to, as it would let them demonstrate they give high priority to quality of service.

The project is supported by Afnic (a French organization that supervises the .fr domain) that had voiced its concern for the quality of Internet access in France. Afnic is sending e-mail to approximately 910 ISPs to alert them to the operation.

"We rarely use this lengthy list. It's very important for us. We want to demonstrate that the .fr domain is trustworthy, as opposed to the Wild West of the .com world," said Jean Yves Babonneau, head of Afnic. "On top of the warning message, Afnic has also began to inform ISPs of errors found during the monthly domain census."

"We will warn them of fatal errors, that is, when a DNS server that is supposed to manage a domain does not work," said Philippe Lubrano [cq], director of the engineering department for Afnic. "Until today, we only verified this once a year. Now, we will be able to monitor the situation every month and see if ISPs change the errors that we mention to them."

For this project, a new tool will be used to detect errors: DNS Expert, from the Icelandic developer Men & Mice. But the idea for a national cleanup actually came from Domainz, the New Zealand equivalent of Afnic.

"When I saw the study from Men & Mice on the .com domain, I asked them to make a similar evaluation of the .nz domain," said Patrick O'Brien, in charge of the project at Domainz.

According to Men & Mice's Sjogn Agustsdottir the results in New Zealand were great in the beginning with only 27.5 percent of errors versus 72.5 percent for .com.

"We still decreased the number of errors to 24.8 percent in four weeks, while dealing with the same time with the Y2K date change."

Men & Mice and Domainz established a protocol of tests that can be used for any national DNS. With a boost from IPerformance, France will be the first country after New Zealand to try out the tests. The test protocol and documentation will be available for free on menandmice.com in English and in French at iperformances.fr.

During the last test in France, 29.35 percent of Web sites returned errors. At the end of the month, Le Monde Informatique will check in on how the second battery of tests went.

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