Domain Names and Company Name Retrieval
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Network Working Group J Klensin
Internet Draft MCI
Document: draft-klensin-tld-whois-02.txt T Wolf, Jr.
Dun & Bradstreet
July 29, 1997
Domain Names and Company Name Retrieval
Status of this Memo
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Distribution of this draft is unlimited.
Changes from prior draft: Small technical clarifications.
Location of web information for particular companies based on
their names has become an increasingly difficult problem and the
Internet and the web grow. The use of a naming convention and
the domain name system (DNS) for that purpose has caused
complications for the latter while not solving the problem.
While there have been several proposals to use contemporary,
high-capability, directory service and search protocols to reduce
the dependencies on DNS conventions, none of them have been
This document proposes a company name to URL mapping service based
on the oldest and least complex of Internet directory protocols,
whois, in order to explore whether and extremely simple and
widely-deployed protocol can succeed where more complex and
powerful options have failed or been excessively delayed.
1. Introduction and Context
In recent months, there have been many discussions in various
segments of the Internet community about "the top level domain
problem". Perhaps characteristically, that term is used by
different groups to identify different, and perhaps nearly
orthogonal, issues. Those issues include:
1.1. A "domain administration policy" issue.
1.2. A "name ownership" issue, of which the trademark issue may
constitute a special case.
1.3. An information location issue, specifically the problem of
locating the appropriate domain, or information tied to a
domain, for an entity given the name by which that entity is
Of these, controversies about the first two may be inevitable
consequences of the growth of the Internet. There have been
intermittent difficulties with top level domain adminstration and
various attempts to use the domain registry function as a
mechanism for control of service providers or services from time
to time since a large number of such domains started being
allocated. Those problems led to the publication of the policy
guidelines of [RFC1591].
The third appears to be largely a consequence of the explosive
growth of the World Wide Web and, in particular, the exposure of
URL formats [URL] to the end user because no other mechanisms have
been available. The absence of an appropriate and adequately-
deployed directory service has led to the assumption that it
should be possible to locate the web pages for a company by use of
a naming convention involving that company's name or product name,
i.e., for the XYZ Company, a web page located at
has been assumed.
However, as the network grows and as increasing numbers of web
sites are rooted in domains other than ".COM", this convention
becomes difficult to sustain: there will be too many organizations
or companies with legitimate claims --perhaps in different lines
of business or jurisdictions-- to the same short descriptive
names. For that reason, there has been a general sense in the
community for several years that the solution to this information
location problem lies, not in changes to the domain name system,
but in some type of directory service.
But such directory services have not come into being. There has
been ongoing controversy about choices of protocols and accessing
mechanisms. IETF has published specifications for several
different directory and search protocols, including [WHOIS++],
[RWHOIS], [LDAP], [X500], [GOPHER]. One hypothesis about why this
has not happened is that these mechanisms have been hard to select
and deploy because they are much more complex than is necessary.
This document proposes an extremely simple alternative.
2. Using WHOIS
The WHOIS protocol is the oldest directory access protocol in use
on the Internet, dating in published form to March 1982 and first
implemented somewhat earlier. The procotol itself is simple and
minimalist: the client opens a telnet connection to the WHOIS
port (43) and transmits a line over it. The server looks up the
line in a fashion that it defines, returns one or more lines of
information to the client, and closes the connection.
We suggest that modifications or add-ins be created to Web
browsers that would access a new, commercially-provided Whois
server, sending a putative company name and receiving back one or
more lines, each containing a URL followed by one or more blanks
and then a matching company name (that order was chosen to
minimize parsing problems: since URLs cannot contain blanks, the
first blank character marks the end of the URL and the next
non-blank marks the beginning of the company name). As is usual
with Whois, the criteria used by the server to match the incoming
string is at the server's discretion. The difference between this
and the protocol as documented in [WHOIS] is that exactly one
company name is returned per line (see section 3 for details of
The client would then be expected to:
(i) If a single line (company name and URL) is returned, either
ask for confirmation or simply fetch the associated URL as if
it had been typed by the user.
(ii) If multiple lines (names) are returned, present the user with
a choice, presumably showing company names rather than (or
supplemented by) URLs, then fetch using the URL selected.
Obviously, while the most convenient use of the services
contemplated in this document would occur through a client that
was part of, or intimately connected with, a Web browser, a user
without that type of facility could utilize a traditional WHOIS
client and paste or otherwise transfer the relevant information
into the target location of a browser.
3. Formats, versions, and international character sets
Preliminary work with the approach suggested above suggests that
some specific conventions about syntax and variations would be
3.1 Line sent from client to server.
These lines may take either of two forms:
(i) A simple 7-bit ASCII string, containing a "company name"
(ii) A string in the format (using the ABNF notation of RFC 822):
Variation "/" 1*Octet
Variation :== "0" | ( Non-zero-digit 1*Digit)
Non-zero-digit :== 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9
Digit :== 0 | Non-zero-digit
Where Octet is any eight-bit sequence, representing a prefixed
The first form will be construed as equivalent to the second form
with the leading string "0/". Variation numbers are specified in
In all cases, the interpretation of what "company name" might mean
and, in particular, what variations of form or spelling,
abbreviations, and so on, might be accepted is strictly up to the
interpretation of the server. If rules driving the server lead to
the conclusion that a string matches some company in its data,
the correctness or incorrectness of that decision is not covered
by this specification.
For variation 0 and, by default for all others, any alphabetic
text in lines is to be construed in a case-insensitive fashion.
3.2 Lines sent from server to client.
The server is expected to return one or more lines to the client,
depending on its interpretation of the input string. In general,
each line will consist, as described above, of a URL, a space, and
a "company name". This document deliberately does not specify the
content or semantics of the "company name" string. It might be a
name, or a name and descriptive information such as location and
type of business, or other information at the option of the
server. The expectation, as mentioned above, is that the
information will be displayed by the client to aid users in
selecting the appropriate URL.
These lines, consistent with normal Internet practice, will be
terminated by a CR LF sequence (rather than one or the other of
those control characters).
When and if different variation numbers are introduced, their
specifications may include variations on what the server is
expected to return.
In lieu of "URL and company name" responses, the Server may also
return "error messages". These take the form of lines containing:
"///" SP String
where the String is 7-bit ASCII with no control characters other
than SP, unless the variation associated with the variation
number specifies otherwise. For this experiment, all "error
messages" but the following two are discouraged:
/// Not found
Indicating that the "company name" does not
/// Variation not supported
Indicating that the variation number supplied
by the client is not recognized by the server.
3.3. Registered variations
The following two variations are established as part of this
0/ Query and response are in 7-bit ASCII, no controls other
than SP, "Company name" separated from URL by one or more
1/ Query and response are in UTF-8, no controls other than
SP, "Company name" separated from URL by one or more
SP characters, no specification of language on either
input or output.
The authors will maintain a registry of additional variations
which they hope will be very short (see section 9). If this
specification evolves into a proposed standard after an
experimental period, the draft for that standard will propose that
the registry be turned over to IANA.
4. Alternatives not chosen
Few comments on the initial draft of this document addressed the
basic model or protocol design for the service discussed.
Instead, they focused on inquiring about the decisions we didn't
make and about beliefs about the protocol specification that were
not intended by the authors. The latter have been, we hope,
corrected. Questions of the following three types predominated in
the first category.
4.1. Why didn't you use <insert-favorite-directory-protocol-here>?
Many notes raised the question of how much more could be done with
a higher-powered directory protocol rather than the extremely
simple WHOIS. Questions were raised about LDAP, X.500 DAP, CCSO,
RWHOIS, and WHOIS++. We had several reasons for avoiding them.
The most important has been a strong commitment to see how much
can be done with an extremely simplistic approach, and WHOIS
represented the most simplistic approach we could find. If it
turns out to be too simple in practice, things can always evolve
to one or more of the more advanced protocols. But, if we
started with one of them, we would never get that information.
Other issues included:
* None of the existing directory proposals has really emerged as
the "right" solution with a large installed base. The deployed
base of WHOIS and WHOIS clients is huge, and using it avoids
either having to make a premature choice of "winner" or to
become embroiled in the debate.
* For the casual user, the mechanisms needed to activate the
extensive attribute-based directory searches of the stronger
protocols are just too complicated and may actually act as a
deterrent to effective use.
* Substantially since the dawn of the ARPANET, the Internet
experience has been that setting up a directory service is easy,
but that maintaining one and keeping the records up-to-date is
extremely difficult. The economics of operating an effective
directory service and keeping everything up to date may will
require a revenue-producing product. Use of a very simple
protocol for the basic service creates a situation in which
basic service can rationally be given away while more advanced
service are operated on a charge or subscription basis.
4.2 And why not use a Web search engine?
Web search engines are immensely effective and powerful, but
address a different problem than this protocol. The protocol
model here does involve a directory lookup, using a presumed
company name as a key. The quality of the result will depend
on the quality of the underlying directory and the editorial and
research work that goes into its construction (neither of which
are matters for the protocol itself -- we trust that marketplace
pressures will separate good servers from poor ones). Web search
engines are often more effective at locating information about
companies than the specific company-designated web pages.
4.3. Why not return a more highly structured information format
rather than a simple pair of URL and "company name"?
Again, the goal was to keep things extremely simple and, in
particular, permit minimal interpretation between the user's input
and the query and between the response and a display or action.
Some of the inquiries on this subject were due to
misunderstandings about the implications of the "company name"
field; the semantics of that field have been clarified above. We
also wanted to avoid the level of standardization implied by a
tagging scheme: highly-structured fields might lead either to
interoperability problems or excessive restriction on what might
5. Thoughts on Directory Providers
There is no technical reason why there should be only one provider
of company name to URL mapping services using this protocol, nor
is there any reason for registries of such providers. Presumably,
servers that provide the best-quality mappings will eventually
prevail in the marketplace. However, as with most traditional
uses of WHOIS, it is desirable for implementations of clients (or
Web browsers supporting this protocol) to allow for user choice of
servers through configuration options or the equivalent.
[RFC1591] J. Postel, "Domain Name System Structure and
Delegation", RFC 1591, March 3, 1994
[GOPHER] F. Anklesaria, M. McCahill, P. Lindner, D. Johnson, D.
John, D. Torrey, B. Alberti, "The Internet Gopher Protocol
(a distributed document search and retrieval protocol)",
RFC 1436, 03/18/1993.
[LDAP] W. Yeong, T. Howes, S. Kille, "Lightweight Directory
Access Protocol", RFC 1777, 03/28/1995.
[RWHOIS] S. Williamson, M. Kosters, "Referral Whois Protocol
(RWhois)", RFC 1714, 12/15/1994.
[URL] T. Berners-Lee, L. Masinter, M. McCahill, "Uniform
Resource Locators (URL)", RFC 1738, December 20, 1994.
[WHOIS] E. Feinler, K. Harrenstien, M. Stahl, "NICNAME/WHOIS",
RFC 954, 0/01/1985.
[WHOIS++] P. Deutsch, R. Schoultz, P. Faltstrom, C. Weider,
"Architecture of the WHOIS++ service", RFC 1835, August 16,
[X500] R. Wright, A. Getchell, T. Howes, S. Sataluri, P. Yee, W.
Yeong, "Recommendations for an X.500 Production Directory
Service", RFC 1803, 06/07/1995.
[Z39.50] C. Lynch, "Using the Z39.50 Information Retrieval
Protocol in the Internet Environment", RFC 1729, 12/16/1994.
7. Security Considerations
This suggested use of the WHOIS protocol adds no significant
security risks to those of traditional applications of the
protocol which is one of the most widely-deployed applications on
the Internet. As usual, servers should expect to use the string
sent to them as an information retrieval key, not as a function to
be executed in some way. A more significant risk would arise if
the server supporting the translation function were somehow
spoofed; in that case, an incorrect URL might be returned for a
particular company. As with the possibility of finding an
incorrect page using naming conventions, the best protection
against the risks that could then occur is careful attention to
certificates, signatures, and other authenticity-indicating
This memo was inspired by a many discussions over the last few
years about the status and uses of the domain name system,
information location using conventions about domain names,
exposure of URLs to end users, and convergence of directory and
search protocols. While the people involved are too numerous to
attempt to list, the authors would like to acknowledge their
contributions and comments.
Martin Hamilton, Keith Moore, and Gary Oglesby made important
suggestions that have contributed to the revision of this draft.
9. Authors' Address
John C. Klensin
MCI Internet Architecture
800 Boylston St, 7th floor
Boston, MA 02199
Tel: +1 617 960 1011
Ted Wolf, Jr.
Dun & Bradstreet Information Services
3 Sylvan Way
Parsippany, NJ 07054
Tel: +1 201 605 6308
Address for purposes of registering variants only: