What is DNS?

DNS was in the news last week with an outage that took down large corporate websites, and prevented airline passengers from checking in. Today we will explore what DNS is, and how it allows users to navigate the Internet.

Computers communicate with one another using strings of numbers called IP addresses. Instead of asking users to try to remember which string of numbers connects to Google or Delta Airlines, the domain name service (DNS) links an IP address to a website or web service. This system makes our lives easier and was built to be an efficient way for an operating system and browser to find the IP address for a given website. The problem is when one of these DNS services goes down, it can take down large swaths of the Internet.

Last week, a DNS service provided by Akamai suffered a problem after an update cycle. The outage took down many sites including Southwest Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Fidelity Bank, US Bank, FedEx, UPS, the PlayStation Network and more. Akamai noticed the problem and reverted the update, but some sites took up to 24 hours to resolve to the correct IP address again. The website Downdetector tracks outages across the Internet and reported 48 services were down during the outage. The company emphasized the incident was not the result of a cyber-attack, but a bug triggered by a software update.

DNS services are a part of the Internet most users are unaware of until something goes wrong. Companies like Akamai control DNS resolution for large parts of the Internet, so when one service provider has a problem, many websites can be affected. Individual sites can also be affected by an attack on their DNS servers. Hackers can flood a domain’s DNS servers in an attempt to disrupt the IP address resolution for a given site.

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Posted by Charles Wright