Back to all posts

How does DNS work? – The backbone of the internet

The Domain Name System (DNS) is often referred to as the backbone of the internet. It’s run by many engineers and their organizations, it ultimately shapes the future of the internet.

I recently attended ICANN58 in Copenhagen. It was an amazing week of round table discussions about the future of the internet. It included:

  • seminars on policy development for the DNS
  • workshops on how the architecture for the internet functions
  • where the internet’s biggest vulnerabilities lie

It was a lot of fun, and I gained a t0n of value from it.

Just to backtrack a little, I’m relatively new to the domain world and the inner workings of the internet architecture. Since joining this space as a developer with iwantmyname, I’ve had to learn a ton. There’s a massive labyrinth that lies below the browser’s surface. So I wrote this guide to walk you through some of the infrastructure that hides behind those domain names and numbers we all use daily.

How does the internet work?

“This is a very common interview question: what happens when you go to, enter a query, and press enter?” — Quincy Larson

So you open your browser and go to and this awesome site loads up right in front of you in the blink of an eye. You already know that this site is rendered from a range of compiled files that sit on a server somewhere. But how does your browser find its way to those files in the infinitely expanding internet? You may start thinking…

What the heck just happened?

The very first time you went to, your browser didn’t know what the IP address for was, so it couldn’t connect to and retrieve those files. Nor for that matter did it know where the actual servers were that those files are hosted on. And therefore, it had no idea from where to pull those files to start rendering the page.

So here’s what happens: (cue the graphics!)

OK, let me expand upon that a bit

  1. A user asks their browser to visit
  2. The browser queries a DNS Resolver (usually their ISP) “where’s”
  3. DNS Resolver queries the Root servers (which have a big important list that keeps this information) “where is .COM?” Replies with Verisign.
  4. DNS Resolver then queries Verisign — “where is” Verisign replies with the nameservers and the IP address
  5. Hosting servers are queried with the IP address. “Give me the files for IP address (please)”
  6. Website files are delivered and rendered on the page so user can learn to code…or whatever they were doing.

I grabbed this screencast from Verisign, by far the biggest Registry in the world running .com .net .cc .tv and .name. It shows you the process in a nice way how the protocol works through the sequential queries and responses through the DNS structure.

Don’t worry too much about trying to read all the text, but just watch the exchanges and flow of information to reiterate what we’ve discussed above (it’s on a loop so will restart).

Sourced from Verisign


Who makes it work?

In short IANA, in long ICANN, (I’ll explain these organizations in a moment and all this will make more sense, I promise!)

The reason for explaining how it works, was to uncover who makes it work — the real question and purpose for this article. It’s easy to think things just work. But of course, it’s no accident, the reason the internet works is because of the protocols and policies that have been created and gained enough of a consensus to become universal norms, but who agrees on these and how?

In short, and with specific regard to how domain names and IP addresses are mapped, that function falls under the competency of IANA (Internet Assigned Numbers Authority). They have the mandate of making sure the correct technical procedures are in place to have a safe and stable Domain Name System. Which brings us to ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers). There’s no discussing IANA without ICANN:

Besides providing technical operations of vital DNS resources, ICANN also defines policies for how the “names and numbers” of the Internet should run. The work moves forward in a style we describe as the “bottom-up, consensus-driven, multi-stakeholder model” — ICANN.COM

In September of 2015 the IANA function which has been run by ICANN since 1998 permanently transitioned from being under a contract with the United States Department of Commerce to the autonomous control of ICANN \o/ ICANN has a board of directors and as a body, is divided up into separate member groups, let’s explore the Multi-stakeholder model:

“ICANN’s inclusive approach treats the public sector, the private sector, and technical experts as peers. In the ICANN community, you’ll find registries, registrars, Internet Service Providers (ISPs), intellectual property advocates, commercial and business interests, non-commercial and non-profit interests, representation from more than 100 governments, and a global array of individual Internet users. All points of view receive consideration on their own merits. ICANN’s fundamental belief is that all users of the Internet deserve a say in how it is run.” — ICANN.COM
ICANN Multi stakeholder Model — image credit

While it is fair to say all these groups are “represented,” I would argue all are are not represented equally. It’s natural to expect that those with more financial stake and cash to burn will try to pull the conversation in a certain direction. For example, telecoms like AT&T, Comcast, Charter, Verizon, Vodafone, T-Mobile, Orange.

They will arguably pull us in a backward direction, where they can package up websites like they did with cable TV channels, and sell them to end users, toll the traffic on the cables they control, and generally triple-dip on a more closed internet so they can make even more profit.

Some Governments will also try to influence in a direction toward their own state-interest, while others will try to be more global citizens. Intellectual Property advocates (organizations that are usually made up of IP lawyers) want things to be more about IP and brand security, so they can protect the lucrative rights of their high paying clients.

Service providers in the commercial sector like Google and Facebook are visible in the array, and tend to advocate — in part at least — for their users’ privacy, along with maintaining their own domination of the web.

Registries like Verisign, have an interest in designing favorable policy outcomes to which they are bound to comply.

iCANN is like this, but way less adorable…

Interestingly in my experience it is the Registrars — where you can register domain names (like iwantmyname) — who provide a voice of reason in the fray. They have to balance their obligations to ICANN and the Registries against those of their customers. And as a result of this, they often have to push back against various members or interest groups, or at times even the ICANN board itself.

Let’s talk end users

Hey! That’s us!

There’s a significant lack of end-user engagement in this process. Well, we’d all be better off if the end users of the internet started paying more attention.

Remember that there are some 3.7 billion internet users, but there are only a few people who own stakes in telecoms, registers, or web platforms. The freeCodeCamp community alone has more than a million users, and together we share so much that’s at stake.

This said, the number of folks currently engaged in this discussion is very small — maybe only a few thousand people. To be honest, I think there’s a growing need for more of us developers to take a more active voice in the conversation.

This is, after all, our livelihood. It’s where we tend to spend our time. It’s the space that consumes much of our focus, energy, and passion. And apart from being highly savvy and heavy users of the internet, we also have unique insights into our own audiences. We can speak with an empathetic voice that resonates with an even larger end user base.


This article was originally posted at:

Can we take you from stuck to unstuck?

We'd love to hear from you

Product Design

The ‘Product’ is the website, service, application, interactive thing being worked on by the business. The practice of Product Design is similar in a lot of ways to UX Design. It involves the coming together of many specific design disciplines...

Call to action (CTA)

A call to action is a marketing term that refers to a prompt that invokes a response leading to a sale. When referring to a call to action (CTA) in the digital design world we usually mean the interactive element that leads to the next step in the experience - something that needs to be clicked or tapped.

User testing

User testing refers to a technique used in the design process to evaluate a product, feature or prototype with real users. There are several reasons why you might want to undergo usability testing, the most common is that it allows the design team to identify friction in a user experience they are designing, so that it can be addressed before being built or deployed.


WYSIWYG (pronounced WIZ-ee-wig) is an acronym for "What You See Is What You Get". It helps identify an an interface that allows user input resulting in an output that is rendered in a similar way. For example; a word processor application interface might resemble a piece of paper,so when printed the user can see how the output will appear.

Content Management System

A content management system (CMS) is an tool that allows a website editor/administrator to manage the content that is displayed. Websites are made of HTML and CSS to create pages. Pages can be hard-coded but would require technical development skills to make changes. A CMS usually allows a person without coding knowledge to amend existing and add new content to a website using a WYSIWYG interface.

Responsive Web Design

Responsive web design refers to a web page that dynamically adapts its layout to fit the size and orientation of the device on which it is viewed. A responsive design allows for a more optimised user experience across desktop and laptop computers as well as smartphones and tablets of varying sizes.

User Stories

User stories allow the functionality of a product or service to be expressed as written descriptions of an experience as seen from the users perspective. The writing of user stories creates a list of design and development tasks to complete in order to create any required functionality.

User Interface

A user interface (UI) is a conduit between human and computer interaction - the space where a user will interact with a computer or machine to complete tasks. The purpose of a UI is to enable a user to effectively control a computer or machine they are interacting with, and for feedback to be received in order to communicate effective completion of tasks.


A persona in UX Design is the characterisation of a user who represents a segment of your target audience. On a project you might create any number of personas to be representative of a range of user needs and desires. The solutions you design must answer these needs in order to deliver value to your target audience.

Card sorting

A great, reliable, inexpensive method for discovering patterns in how users would expect to find content or functionality. Card sorting is used to test the taxonomy of data with a group of subjects, usually to help inform the creation of the information architecture, user flow, or menu structure on a project.


A technique used to generate ideas around a specific topic. Often done in groups, but can be done individuals. The process usually involves writing down all ideas around a topic onto paper, a whiteboard or stickies often implying some kind of association.

Minimum Viable Product

An MVP is a product that has the minimum set of features to prove the most essential hypothesis for a product. Businesses building a new product can create a Minimum Viable Product to prove that an idea is viable and warrants further investment. A further benefit being that the next stage of development can be informed by feedback obtained from testing that MVP.


A sitemap is a diagrammatic representation of a hierarchical system. It usually depicts the parent-sibling relationship between pages in a website, showing how sub pages might be arranged underneath their parent groupings. This arrangement forms a map of the site.

User journey

A user journey represents a sequence of events or experiences a user might encounter while using a product or service. A user journey can be mapped or designed to show the steps and choices presented as interactions, and the resulting actions.


A prototype is draft representation built to test ideas for layout, behaviour and flow in a system. Prototypes are an indispensable tool for resolving a large number of potential issues in a concept or business before too many resources are deployed to put a design into production.


A Wireframe is a visual schematic that conveys a basic level of communication, structure and behaviour during the design of a system. Wireframes are low-fidelity designs that bypass including a detailed user interface or visual design, conveying just enough to get across the core idea.


To say something is usable is a qualitative statement about how easy that thing is to use. Usability is an assessment of how learnable a system is and how easy a user finds it to use. The usability of a system or product is a key factor in determining whether the user experience is a good one.

Information Architecture

Information architecture is the design and organisation of content, pages and data into a structure that aids users understanding of a system. A more organised system enables users to more easily find the information they require and complete the intended tasks.

UI Design

User Interface Design is the discipline of designing software interfaces for devices, ideally with a focus on maximising efficiency, responsiveness and aesthetics to foster a good user experience.

UX Design

The practice of User Experience (UX) Design is the coming together of many specific design related disciplines to improve the usability, responsiveness, uptake and aesthetics of a product or service.

User Experience

A general term that covers all aspects of a user's participation while engaging with something that has been designed. Usually when talking about User Experience in the digital design field it refers to the interactions, reactions, emotions and perceptions while using an app, service, website or product.