Canada’s Web domain celebrates 25 years

Imagine that instead of simply typing www.itbusiness.ca to access this Web site, you had to type something like /c=ca/o=itbusiness/ou=news into your browser’s address bar. It could have happened if the X.500 standard for directory services was adopted as the naming convention for the Internet.

Instead the naming convention we now know as the domain name system (DNS) won the day. It was also the standard that University of British Columbia computer facilities manager John Demco chose when he decided to start an all-Canadian Web registry 25 years ago. After a year of planning for a naming scheme that would unite Canada’s disparate networks, he flipped on a server under his desk and started taking applications for dot-ca addresses. It was 1987, when gas cost 48.6 cents per litre and IBM made the 3.5-inch floppy drive standard on its PS/2 computers.

“I was in the right place at the right time,” Demco says. “I happened to have the right aptitude for this. I’ve always been interested in naming and aspects of reference.”

The first address that Demco registered? You might think it would be UBC.ca, but instead it was UPEI.ca for the University of Prince Edward Island. It was the first application he received, Demco explained, and he wanted to be “even-handed” about the process. He even went on to register seven more addresses on that first day – for McGill University, The University of Western Ontario, Ryerson Polytechnic, Carleton University, Queens University, the National Research Council, and Bell Northern Research. He registered UBC.ca on day two of the registry.

In 25 years, the dot-ca registry has grown significantly from the volunteer organization that Demco started. Since 2000, it’s been managed by the non-profit Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) and is approaching 2 million Web sites. It’s run on fail-safe servers in two Tier-1 telecommunications hotel locations in Ontario, including one at 151 Front St. in Toronto. The domain is used by Internet giants like Google and eBay, by major banks, and by small businesses and individuals alike.

To Byron Holland, president and CEO of CIRA, the country code top level domain (ccTLD) has come a long way.

“It’s a classic tech bootstrap story in a way,” he says. “25 years ago the Internet was a thing that geeks were interested in. Now it’s the underpinning of the fabric of modern society.”

CIRA has created a Canadian brand on the Web that means security and trust, Holland says. Those who register a dot-ca address must have concrete ties to Canada and abide by the country’s law, so visitors know businesses they are going to be held up to a certain standard.

For small businesses, the dot-ca namespace is one area it’s still possible to get a good URL. The popularity of dot-com addresses means that most domains there are at least reserved, if not actively used.

More international online businesses are now localizing in Canada by registering a dot-ca address. Freelancer.com announced the launch of Freelance.ca earlier this week after buying Toronto-based Scriptlance. Australia’s DesignCrowd launched a dot-ca in June, and 99designs launched one last year.

“We all like to be part of a tribe, and the tribe tends to be local,” Holland says. “Being identified with Canada is being identified with stability and strength.”

Demco and a group of volunteers operated the dot-ca registry until Dec. 1, 2000. Then they handed it over to CIRA (co-founded by Demco) with 60,000 sites registered. Demco had been working for 10 years to transition the registry to a more professional organization, and helped found the non-profit organization in 1998. By then, his team was working eight hours a day to manage the registry.

“It was starting to get pretty busy,” he says. “It turned into a second job essentially towards the end there.”

Twelve years later, and the domain name space is about to get a lot busier on a global basis. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers – which bestowed the dot-ca registry responsibility upon Democo in 1987 as the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority – is opening up the top level domains. Applicants for more than 2,000 new registries were revealed June 13 and the list goes from dot-AAA to dot-Zulu.

CIRA is planning to focus on its brand message of being reliable, delivering 100 per cent up time, and being Canadian, Holland says. That includes technical improvements like moving the infrastructure to separate power grids. A recent hardware refresh and installation of a real-time production of backup environments have already been completed.

“We’re getting ready for a more fragmented and highly competitive landscape,” he says. “There’s going to be chaos entered into the market.”

Demco says he expects that brand-centric domain names will be more successful than the more generic ones. Still, those domain names might not matter so much on a Web where most people navigate with Google.

“It’s not clear what relevance domain names are going to have in the future,” he says. “A lot of people don’t think in those terms anymore, they just type a phrase into a search engine.”

Considering how much change the past 25 years has brought to the Internet, it’s hard to imagine what the next 25 holds.

“It was so exciting back then,” Demco says. “But we’re still just getting started.”

Brian JacksonBrian Jackson is the Editor at ITBusiness.ca. E-mail him at bjackson@itbusiness.ca, follow him on Twitter, connect on , read his blog, and check out the IT Business Facebook Page.

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