Having participated in the development of SMTP e-mail system (the vital element that allows e-mail to be sent between different computers), in 1983 he turned to another key element – the need for a globally distributed human-friendly database of IP addresses. The result was the Domain Name System (DNS).
In an interview with Marie Zitkova, .aero Business Manager at SITA SC, Dr Mockapetris talked about his work – and the way it is continuing to reshape the Internet universe: "Information is at the heart of our needs today – one of the biggest challenges for airport administrations is to deliver the right information in the right way at the right time. The beauty of the DNS is that a rich core functionality is already there. It just needs the right applications to generate even greater value."
Every Internet address is defined as a number, and there are hundreds of millions of them in use. With the DNS, Paul Mockapetris created the ability to use a name to refer to an address, so that you can move and change your address, but keep the same name. The key insight was to leave the system "open", so names can keep track of things other than Internet addresses. The result was the DNS – a cornerstone of our Internet-enabled world, with over a billion names in use, a figure that's expected to double every year for the next five years.
"The DNS was built to be simple and predictable," explained Dr Mockapetris, echoing two of the elements that underpin the creation of .aero – still the only business sector to have its own TLD naming structure. "It was created to let people use names for anything. But we had to figure out how to organize the distribution of domain names and how to ensure the system could accommodate diversity without unnecessary restriction."
"We added an application to handle e-mail routing – and over time more people have added applications that depend on this massive distributed database and deliver value by providing information and data that people want."
"For example, the phone industry will be using DNS to route calls and add features, using a facility called ENUM – designed to make the existing phone number space available for Internet telephony. During the ENUM development stage, a little piece of DNS technology was developed that others then adopted while they were figuring out how to use DNS to keep track of RFID (Radio Frequency IDentification) tags," he replied.
Radio tags and security issues
This is an area of increasing interest to the air transport industry, so is RFID likely to become a mainstream technology soon?
"RFID is now in wide use, but there is not yet a global standard. We're getting there and I know your industry is working hard to use RFID for improvements in everything from parts supply to baggage handling. There are also serious privacy issues, but they are being resolved."
What about security – another core industry concern?
"Building a universally-accepted mechanism so that you can check digital signatures of DNS information is hard, and is the main reason why the DNS Security Protocol (DNSSec) is not yet implemented. People are still discussing how to close the loop – for example, how those who run the .com domain can maintain signature verification information for 30 million sub-domains. There are also control issues: who will control the top level key to the root? These are difficult questions.
"Overall, we're close to agreeing a roadmap for deployment. But while we develop the application, I'd like to see organizations using it within their own closed communities – maybe .aero could become an early adopter? After all, as a sponsored domain, you can set and manage your own standards and policies."
As someone used to spending time in international airports, does Paul Mockapetris have any strong ideas about using Internet technology better?
"DNS manages distribution superbly. So given increased availability of wireless Internet in airport lounges, why not make smarter use of the Net and the resilience of the .aero domain? I'd like to be able to open my laptop or online PDA and connect to a relevant departure screen and airport map, without even buying the wireless service."
"Information is at the heart of our needs today – one of the biggest challenges for airport administrations is to deliver the right information in the right way at the right time. The beauty of the DNS is that a rich core functionality is already there. It just needs the right applications to generate even greater value."
Talking to the industry
Dr Mockapetris will discuss the future of the Internet and DNS and its implications on airport IT at the ACI Airport subcommittee (AITSC) meeting at ACI's World Assembly, Conference and Exhibition in Lisbon*.
The objective of this session, which is sponsored by .aero, is to engage in creative discussion about the impact of the latest DNS technology developments on the future of IT and communication in the air transport industry, including the links which recently emerged between the RFID and bar coding technology and DNS.
From the .aero perspective, if the true potential of the .aero domain as an industry controlled partition of the DNS is to be realized, it must be see in the context of the entire communications infrastructure of the air transport community. While on the surface .aero is just a "brand" name and a policy development platform, DNS as the technology behind .aero is of ever increasing importance. This session is a key part of an awareness building campaign designed to empower the airport community to drive the policy development in the .aero domain.
* Airport Council International (ACI)is a key member of the Dot Aero Council - the group that determines the strategy and conventions of the .aero domain.