We'll assume that if you found ICANN Wiki, you likely understand what a domain name and DNS is and have an understanding of what root servers are.
For those who would desire a quick refresher, DNS is a hierarchical system designed to, among other things, allow us humans to use text strings to access content or services by converting those strings as shorthand for the IP addresses (instead of having to learn or memorize numbers) on the global information network. (Grossly oversimplified)
Operating systems now have been distributed for decades with the listing of the default DNS servers to use as the authoritative place to obtain an answer when searching for a TLD. There are thirteen root servers in that file, and these are most often described as being the Internet's main DNS root. (Grossly oversimplified)
In addition to the Internet's main DNS root (currently consisting of 13 nominal root servers working in agreement with ICANN), several organizations operate alternate root servers (often referred to as alt roots). Each alternative root has its own set of root nameservers and its own set of TLDs (TLDs).
These are hierarchical structures that can peacefully co-exist, save for when there is an overlap, such as two separate root systems adding an identical TLD.
Conflicts can occur in user experience and functionality when there are identical TLDs that do not match in their delegation, which is why some form of centralized coordination is important in adding names to roots, such as we see with ICANN.
Coordination on the scale that is required to encompass many voices and views takes time. The time required to build consensus is glacial in contrast to the pace of Internet pioneering and innovation commonly seen. The addition of TLDs to these alternative roots proved to be a more agile solution, yet it meant that only people could view sites or send email to people using domains in these alternative TLDs. This could be improved through the use of special helper applications, or if a custom configuration was made to their computer, or to their nameservers, or a custom configuration at an ISP upstream in the DNS heirchy. None of these solutions were as comprehensive as being listed in the default nameservers that are seen when an operating system starts.
This lent itself to the ICANN proclamation of one true root, a way to avoid such collisions by working through consensus in their process. Yet this announcement was not entirely embraced or uncontrovercial.
The .biz TLD created by Pacific Root was in operation before ICANN proposed running .biz, and at least one of the alternative root servers resolves .biz to Pacific Root's. There are .biz domain names that exist in different roots and point to different IP addresses. The possibility of such conflicts, and their potential for destabilizing the Internet, is the main source of controversy surrounding alt roots.
Alt roots can in general be divided into two groups; those run for idealistic or ideological reasons, and those run as profit-making enterprises.
Whilst technically trivial to set up, actually running a reliable root server network in the long run is a serious undertaking, requiring multiple servers to be kept running 24/7 in geographically diverse locations. During the dot-com boom, some alt-root providers believed that there were substantial profits to be made from providing alternative top-level domains. Only a small proportion of ISPs actually use any of the zones served by alt-root operators, generally sticking to the ICANN-specified root servers. This in turn led to the commercial failure of several alternative DNS root providers.
List of alternative root zones or registries
Among the most well-known alt-root zones are:
- Open Root Server Network (ORSN)
- Open Root Server Confederation (ORSC)
- OpenNIC Site charter
- AlterNIC (ANIC)(stopped in 1997)
- eDNS (stopped in 1998??)
- Iperdome (stopped in 1999) see the announcement
- .WEB IODesign
- New.Net / Vendare
- dotLOVE - endorsed and supported by Dr. Masaru Emoto (of What the Bleep? fame)
- Cesidian Root Alternate Link
- iDNS i-DNS.net International
Also Identified Alternative Roots
- BORN : Business Oriented Root Network
- ONIC : The OpenNIC Project
- CINICS : Common Interest Network Information Center Society (Jefsey Morsin)
Some Alternative Namespaces look confusingly similar to the existing ICANN namespace
- Unified Root
- Open Root Server Confederation
- the dot love company
- Open Root Server Network