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Do we need alternative domain names?

Proponents are touting the benefits of alternative top-level domain names. But are there any benefits for businesses? ZDNet Australia investigates the pros and cons.

Proponents are touting the benefits of alternative top-level domain names. But are there any benefits for businesses?

Last month, Australian domain name registrar Grandom announced it was accepting registrations for a range of alternative top-level domains (TLDs). At the time, Grandom director Sash Cacoroski touted the increasing popularity of alternative TLDs internationally.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) administers the authoritative database of domain names on the Internet and the Internet domain name system (DNS), by which domain names are translated into IP addresses.

Alternative domain name servers provide their own databases of domain names. However, in order to use these alternative systems, ISPs or end users must install software or reconfigure their DNS systems to access the alternative provider's domain name databases.

ICANN describes itself as an Internet community-based organisation, acting as the coordinator for the operation of what it describes as the authoritative root server system. It's also a policy forum for decisions about policies governing which TLDs are to be included in the authoritative Internet domain name system (DNS).

In a paper on the topic released earlier this month, ICANN stated that these groups which have established alternative root name servers seek to persuade ISPs and Internet users to replace the pre-stored IP addresses of the authorative root nameservers with those of the alternative servers.

Although by most estimates public knowledge of the alternative domain name space isn't wide amongst the general Australian population, some believe education will increase interest in its use.

"Historically companies have been frustrated when seeking to register their Web address, only to find their option has already been taken by an organisation operating in another industry," Cacoroski argued in a statement issued when Grandom began accepting registrations for alternative domain names.

In an interview with ZDNet Australia, Cacoroski described what he refers to as the inclusive name space as the "truly international Internet". Cacoroski also sits on the board of global trade association Top Level Domain Associations, which describes itself as a trade association for the benefit of top-level domain holders. He believes that interest in alternative domain names is growing, with public awareness growing.

But not everyone agrees with the concept of the alternative name space.

According to an ICANN paper, the DNS was intended to provide a reliable way to unambiguously refer to Web sites, e-mail servers and other Internet services. "One of its core design goals is that it reliably provides the same answers to the same queries from any source on the public Internet, thereby supporting predictable routing of Internet communications," it states. "Achievement of that design goal requires a globally unique public name space derived from a single, globally unique DNS root."

Mary Hewitt, director of communications at ICANN, said it's about universal resolvability. Although Hewitt said there was nothing wrong with the alternative root-"we're not the Internet police"—but added that the aim was to keep the Internet working effectively and efficiently globally.

There are a number of consequences if alternative roots were to become prevalent, according to ICANN's Web site. These include different answers being given to the same DNS query issued from different computers on the Internet, depending on whether the computer which is inquiring is programmed to access the authorative root, or one of the alternative roots. ICANN also sees the main consequence of inconsistent data is that the same domain name could identify different computers depending upon where the name is used.

Although ICANN has argued that working within the system doesn't preclude experimentation, it believes this should be done in a controlled manner.

"ICANN's prime directive of preserving the stability of the Internet and DNS requires an unwavering commitment to promote the continued prevalence of a single authorative root for the public DNS," according to ICANN's Web site.

Philip Argy, senior partner of the technology, communications and intellectual property group at law firm Mallesons Stephen Jaques, describes alternative domain names as "like having a special fax machine no one else can connect to".

Argy believes Australians are still completely befuddled by domain names generally, and questions whether or not Australian businesses would want to opt for alternative domains, "given that the whole point of a domain name is to maximise your exposure".

Likewise John Brand, senior program director of electronic business strategies at market analyst META Group, also has reservations about the benefits of alternative domain names for business users. "We're failing to see any benefits," Brand said. "What people want is to get access to the content [a business] provides in the most efficient way possible."

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