Bob Hawkes

Meet Dr. Paul Mockapetris: Inventor of the Domain Name System

By Bob Hawkes, Nov 14, 2019
  1. Bob Hawkes

    Bob Hawkes formerly MetBob NameTalent VIP Gold Account Trusted Blogger

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    Over the years domain investors and website developers change DNS settings countless times, and the whole system just works. The field of domain name investment exists because standards were developed to robustly link domain names and internet addresses. This means that names that resonate with humans have great value. At the 2019 NamesCon conference, I had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Paul Mockapetris, who invented the Domain Name System (DNS) architecture back in 1983. He provided insights on how the DNS system came to be, and how it continues to evolve.

    Dr. Paul Mockapetris photographed at the time of the interview at NamesCon 2019. Photo taken by Edward Zeiden.


    BH At the time that you were developing the plan for the DNS system in 1983, did you realize how incredibly important it would become?

    PM I like to work on problems that other people think are not important and I think might be. My feeling at the time was that it could possibly be something very important. Most people wanted something that would just replace the single host table, but I was very fond of building distributed systems. It was more complicated than a lot of people wanted at the time, and now they ask for more features.

    BH I assume that at that time the idea of distributed systems was almost unheard of by many people?

    PM It was kind of lying around. Some people were looking at applications for distributed systems.

    BH This is a good time to ask about your education.

    PM I did a combined bachelor’s degree in physics and electrical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Then I headed to the west coast, where I worked at the University of Southern California while going to graduate school at University of California at Irvine. My doctorate is in information and computer science from Irvine. I was a long-term graduate student because I kept finding interesting diversions.

    BH Where exactly was the DNS idea developed?

    PM There are a lot of stories out there about where the DNS system came from. The underlying principles came from my work at the Machine Group at MIT that later became the Media Lab. I did not have very powerful hardware at the time, so I made a system combining multiple computers similar to a modern cloud. This was my early involvement with distributed computer systems. My work on distributed systems continued at University of California at Irvine where I was based when the parameters of DNS were being defined and published.

    BH Was your doctorate thesis on DNS?

    PM Not really, but it was on the related topic of distributed information systems.

    BH I read that you did work in the space industry early in your career?

    PM Long ago I worked at Draper Labs in Boston on validating flight software. One of the simplest ways to make something redundant was to have fallback with multiple providers. That idea was kicking around in my mind as I was thinking about how to define the DNS naming system.

    BH I guess at that early stage there was not one view of how distributed systems should work?

    PM There were two ways to handle distributed systems, a simple query, as well as the zone transfer method that keeps copies synchronized. Both were meant to be very simple, and they were complementary systems.

    BH Has the DNS largely evolved over these decades as you thought that it might?

    PM I had some initial ideas about how it should evolve. One of my principles was to keep it as simple as possible but have room for growth. It has grown in a number of ways, some of which I foresaw and some of which I didn’t. I always say if you design a system and can imagine all of the possible uses, it really is not very interesting. You should be building something that can be used for things that have not been invented yet. Otherwise it will become obsolete too quickly.

    BH What is your current position?

    PM We earlier talked about unintended consequences. I would contend that today there is more DNS traffic to stop things rather than to make them happen. In the early days the role of the DNS was principally to make email delivery work. Then spam started arriving and other threats arose. It is kind of interesting that although DNS-enabled modern email, now we spend much more DNS-related resources deciding what should not be delivered.

    I am currently Chief Scientist at ThreatSTOP. We make lists of sites that you shouldn’t talk to. We keep away traffic at the edges of your network to protect you. Our products make security work better in an automated fashion.

    I am also involved with several other projects, including one involving blockchain.

    BH I guess no NamePros interview would be complete without the following question. Do you personally invest in domain names?

    PM No. It seems to me like work. I probably should have, but no I do not invest in domain names.


    Dr. Mockapetris has been awarded numerous honours. He was the recipient of the John C. Dvorak Telecommunications Excellence Award in 1997. In 2005 he was recognized by the Special Interest Group on Data Communications (SIGCOMM) with an award carrying this citation.
    In 2012 he was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame as an Innovator. He has received honorary degrees and numerous other citations and awards.

    Over his career Dr. Mockapetris has held many different leadership positions. In the early 1990’s he was networking program manager at the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) of the U.S. Department of Defense. He has worked at numerous innovative companies including Chief Scientist at Nominum from 1999 to 2016.

    Among his pioneering accomplishments, he developed the first SMTP email server. Dr. Mockapetris is of course best known as the creator of the DNS system.

    That the DNS system Dr. Mockapetris designed has been so robust over many decades is a tribute to his intellect and foresight. Every Internet user depends on the system, and the whole field of domain name investment exists because of the effective link between domain names and Internet addresses.

    Even in a short interview, the bright, innovative, engaging and sensible nature of Paul Mockapetris shines through. It was no accident that it was he who invented the DNS system.

    Further Reading

    The principles of the DNS are laid down in two documents authored by Dr. Mockapetris. These were published online in the Request for Comment (RFC) series. That series is a hybrid between academic and discussion papers. The original documents provide interesting historical insights into the early development of the domain name system. The first paper defines the problem this way.
    The second paper, published the same year, provides the details of how the domain name system was to be implemented. Here is how that paper describes its objectives.
    The late Jon Postel, who was the editor of the RFC series at the time, played an important role in the development of the DNS and many other early Internet standards. He also is a member of the Internet Hall of Fame.

    Wikipedia has an informative article on the current domain name system, while this article from Cloudflare provides a nice description on how the DNS system works.

    You can read more about Paul Mockapetris various places including this biography at the time of his appointment to the Internet Hall of Fame.

    Dr. Mockapetris is currently involved in several ventures, including as Chief Scientist at ThreatSTOP. The company describes itself this way.
    Dr. Paul Mockapetris and Bob Hawkes at the time of the interview at NamesCon 2019. Photo taken by Edward Zeiden. I would like to thank Dr. Mockapetris for kindly agreeing to this interview. It was an honour to meet him.
    Last edited: Nov 14, 2019
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  4. Bob Hawkes

    About The Author — Bob Hawkes

    Domain analyst, writer and educator, with particular interests in domain name phrases and non-business uses for domain names. I am a risk averse domain investor who only invests modest amounts in a variety of extensions and niches. Don't hesitate to contact me - I like to help!

    This is Bob Hawkes's 15th blog post on NamePros. View all blog posts

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  5. Comments (32)

  6. WarpedMind

    WarpedMind Established Member ★★★★★★★★★★

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    Wow @Bob Hawkes, what a great interview, article, and opportunity! I loved reading this... thank you so much for this great contribution.
  7. Joe Nichols

    Joe Nichols Common sense consultant VIP

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    Wonderful reading, Bob. Thank you for sharing.
  8. Internet.Domains

    Internet.Domains Top Contributor VIP

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    Great interview, TY @Bob Hawkes!

    One of his blockchain projects is Veres.One. They are working on "decentralized identifiers" and to solve problems the current DNS is known for.

    From Veres.One:

    "Decentralized Identifiers (DIDs) are complementary to the Domain Name System (DNS) that is in widespread use today with one important difference: with DNS you lease your identifiers instead of owning them, whereas with DIDs, you own your identifiers."
  9. Dave

    Dave Top Contributor VIP ★★★★★★★★★★

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  10. Soofi

    Soofi Top Member PRO VIP ★★★★★★★★★★

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  11. The Durfer

    The Durfer Top Contributor VIP Blue Account

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  12. Brands.International

    Brands.International formerly lolwarrior VIP

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    Amazing and very informative article Bob,
    thank you!
  13. sharastar

    sharastar Established Member

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    As always Informative Thanks @Bob Hawkes Wonderful and Awesome Reading of DNS!
  14. J Sokol

    J Sokol Top Contributor VIP

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    Thank you, Bob. It's interesting to learn the origins of DNS.
  15. Joshua Harding

    Joshua Harding Blue Account

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  16. Grego85

    Grego85 Quality.Domains VIP

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    Awesome interview! I always love hearing from the pioneers!
  17. topdom

    topdom Top Contributor VIP

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    Domain investing is like gambling, dating, pirating, not something very respectable, so even if he invested in domains, he wouldn't admit it. You can't have a great career somewhere, and work on such childish stuff at the same time and admit it publicly.
  18. Zilla

    Zilla SOLD or DROP VIP ★★★★★★★★★★

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    Great like always!thanks Bob!
  19. falez

    falez Established Member

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    bob hawkes, youre a legend man
  20. DpakH

    DpakH Upgraded Member Blue Account

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  21. rcs1973

    rcs1973 Established Member

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    This should be published in Mass media, not just NP.
    Many thanks Bob!
  22. Larion

    Larion Established Member

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    extremely intelligent people of whom the world has never heard of...

    Thank you Dr. Paul Mockapetris for contributing to a better world !

    Last edited: Nov 15, 2019
  23. Blue Guru

    Blue Guru New Member

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    Wow. The concept of the domain system is nearly 40 years old. If you could do it over again in 2019, what would you do?
  24. vikki88

    vikki88 Established Member

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    Thank you @Bob Hawkes for sharing your interview with the community. :)
  25. ideacipta

    ideacipta Established Member

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    thanks for sharing sir.
  26. HandMadeDomains

    HandMadeDomains Established Member

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    What's great about your articles, Bob, is your genuine interest and enthusiasm about learning how something works and then sharing it with us in a way that's easy to understand.

    Thank you as always!
    (And being greedy ... I'd like some more please!! ;) )
  27. griff

    griff Top Contributor VIP

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    always look forward to your contributions Bob! Thanks
  28. BradWilson

    BradWilson Upgraded Member Gold Account

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    This is once again a great article - well done and thanks.

    There is a really good reason why Bob has ALL the top posts right now, they're all great. Screenshot_20191115-130136_Chrome.jpg
  29. WatchDogue

    WatchDogue Top Contributor VIP

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    Excellent interview Bob!

    You posed a a great series of succinct and pertinent questions with Dr. M. that are informative,educational and, understandable for those of us not MIT worthy!
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