The network that powers the Internet's Domain Name System is getting an overhaul, just as the company most associated with that system is being sold to VeriSign, who verifies server security, for some $21 billion.

Until now, volunteers at government and academic research centers ran the DNS on a collection of aging network equipment. Starting this month, however, much of the system will migrate to state-of-the-art servers and routers at commercial network operations centers.

Bruce Chovnick, senior vice president of Network Solutions, said: "This part of the Internet is growing up. It's now coming under commercial operation, with commercial terms and conditions. If I were running a corporate network, I'd feel good about that."

Fast For corporate network managers, the enhanced DNS means improved reliability for applications such as Web browsing and messaging. It should provide speedier response times for users in Europe, Asia and parts of the US because servers will be located to reflect traffic patterns on the 'Net.

Chovnick said: "Corporate network managers will potentially see better response rates for queries on the Net because the servers are in better locations."

The DNS upgrade has broad support within the Internet industry. Ross Rader, director of Tucows Names, said: "There was nothing wrong with the government-funded support or the volunteer operation of the servers, but more horsepower, more scalability, more iron are never bad things. When you improve the basic infrastructure, everybody is ahead."

The Internet's top-level domain (TLD) servers ensure that when a user types a URL into his browser, he ends up at the right Web site. The TLD servers being upgraded store names in the .com, .net and .org domains, which account for most of the traffic on the 'Net.

$7.5m upgrade NSI manages these TLD servers under a four-year contract awarded last November by the Commerce Department. NSI will spend $7.5 million upgrading the TLD servers and covering operational costs.

The ongoing TLD server upgrade will not be affected by this week's announcement that NSI would be acquired by Internet security supplier VeriSign. NSI’s CEO, Jim Rutt said: "We will certainly go full steam ahead with that upgrade."

He admitted, however, that the acquisition might put additional pressure on NSI to spin off its registry business, which oversees management of the TLD servers. Rutt said: "We are evaluating our alternatives with regard to the registry business - whether we should spin it off, or how."

There are two steps to NSI's TLD server upgrade. First, NSI is relocating the current TLD servers to network operations centres run by top-tier ISPs. This phase will be completed in June. Next, NSI will replace the equipment at each location with two IBM RS/6000 servers, two Cisco routers, load-balancing software and firewall software. The new equipment will be rolled out at 15 locations by the end of August.

Tom Newell, vice president of NSI's registry business, said: "We're placing these servers at the core of the Internet, as close as possible to the most number of users. We're using top-tier international ISPs. The reason that's important is that the ISPs that are best-positioned to service the global Internet are the ones with the biggest pipes."

Vital Barbara Dooley, president of the Commercial Internet Exchange Association , points out that while NSI's upgrade plans are significant, they won't affect the 200 TLD servers that handle country code domains as well as .edu, .gov and .mil. Dooley said: "If the .com servers were to go out, it would cause significant problems around the world. But, there are many other TLD servers that in their own countries can be as significant as .com is in the US."

NSI's TLD servers house the current list of names assigned in .com, .net and .org called zone files. NSI updates the zone files - almost 2G bytes worth - at 5am and 5pm daily. NSI uses the Internet to send out the new zone files, but the company is testing a satellite service that will blast out the updated files more quickly and allow for more frequent updates.

Newell said: "Hopefully, by year-end, we'll be able to update the zone files four times per day." He added that companies will benefit because changes to their domain names will be propagated across the Internet more rapidly.

Traffic jam One of the reasons NSI is upgrading the TLD servers is to handle increasing traffic volume. In December, the TLD servers handled as many as 2,000 queries per second. By the end of February, peak traffic had risen to 5,000 queries per second. NSI projects the servers will handle 10,000 queries per second by June.

By installing new equipment, NSI is preparing the TLD system for future growth rather than responding to existing problems, according to Dooley, he added: "The slip-ups that have happened in the domain name system have been human error."

The TLD servers are different than the Internet's root servers, which are also run by volunteers and are co-located with some of the TLD servers. The Internet's 13 root servers are at the top of the DNS hierarchy. The Commerce Department has not decided who will manage the root servers in the future, although NSI runs the root server "A".