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How Do Domain Names Work?

Internet has a unique numerical address, called an IP (Internet Protocol) address, but remembering strings of random numbers is pretty difficult, so instead of typing in something like "" we type "," but we end up at the same destination, thanks to information stored on one of thirteen Internet root servers, special computers distributed around the world.


The behind-the-scenes translation that links "" to the IP address is called "resolving the domain name," and it doesn't just apply to websites, but email and other Internet applications, as well.


Is There a Map for This?


The goal of the domain name system (dns) is for any Internet user to be able to type in a domain name or email address, and get to the right page, or receiving account, and the process is referred to as "universal resolvability," which is important in two major respects:


Ensures predictable results:

When you dial your mother's phone number, you know it will ring at your mother's house. This is because of technology that translates a dialed number into a signal sent to a specific telephone set. Similarly, when we type domain names we expect to resolve IP addresses to specific sites on the Internet.


Makes sure domain names are globally unique: Just as no two companies have the same phone number, no two websites have the same domain name. If they did, there would be no way to resolve domain names to the correct web pages. This is especially important because DNS only understands the answers "yes" and "no." If it were asked to choose between identical domain names with different IP addresses, the system would halt, and neither address would be resolved.


In addition to this, universal resolvability is a crucial part of the global reach of the Internet, allowing schoolchildren in China to visit websites for museums in the United States, for example, or ensuring that employees in a company's New York office can easily share data and email with their counterparts in London or Tokyo.


All of this is coordinated by ICANN, a non-profit organization that manages and allocates the distribution of unique IP addresses and domain names, as well as overseeing the processes which resolve domain names to the correct IP addresses.


But How Does it Work?


TLD (top level domain) registry organizations store online data about the location of every domain name in their registry. (In our example of "" the .com is a top level domain, so it's found in the .com registry.) When you try to find the Internet address for "," your computer first has to find the .com registry, and that's where those thirteen Internet root servers come in.


These root servers are vital, because they contain the IP addresses of ALL the TLD registries, and not just the global registries like .com, .org, etc. but also the 244 country-specific registries such as .uk (United Kingdom), .de (Germany), and .to (Tonga). If this information is either ambiguous or at all inaccurate, key registry on the Internet.

In addition to these thirteen root servers, there are thousands of other computers called "Domain Names Resolvers" which cache the information received from DNS queries to root servers. They're scattered in strategic locations among the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) - hosting providers - and institiutional networks and it is they that are the workhorses, constantly answering user requests to resolve domain names, or find the correct IP address.


DNS Resolution - Step by Step


Essentially, the process works like this:


1.) Computer user types domain name into browser, i.e. ""

2.) Request is forwarded to local resolver, generally at the user's webhost or access provider

3.) Resolver splits address into component parts, searching information copied from Internet root server to resolve IP to host name

4.) The result is forwarded back to the user

5.) Correct website appears.


It seems so simple that you might wonder why we use the resolvers instead of going directly to the root servers? The answer is equally simple: volume. With thousands of people going online every day, those thirteen Internet root servers would easily be overwhelmed. Consider, in the ten minutes it takes to register domain names, check them against ICANN's information, and type in your credit card number, at least 150,000 DNS queries have been made to servers around the world. That's a lot of domain names!


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