Chapter 1. 'Now where did I put that...?', or 'What is a directory?'

I have a fairly good memory for numbers, phone numbers in particular. This fact amazes my wife. For those numbers I cannot recall to the exact digit, I have a dozen or so slots in my cell phone. However, as the company I worked for grew, so did the list of people with whom I needed to stay in contact. And I didn't just need phone numbers; I needed email and postal addresses as well. My cell phone's limited capabilities were no longer adequate for maintaining the necessary information.

So I eventually broke down and purchased a PDA. I was then able to store contact information for thousands of people. Still, two or three times a day I found myself searching the company's contact database for someone's number or address. And I still had to go to other databases (phone books, corporate client lists, and so on) when I needed to look up someone who worked for a different company.

Computer systems have exactly the same problem as humans?both require the capability to locate certain types of information easily, efficiently, and quickly. During the early days of the ARPAnet, a listing of the small community of hosts could be maintained by a central authority?SRI's Network Information Center (NIC). As TCP/IP became more widespread and more hosts were added to the ARPAnet, maintaining a centralized list of hosts became a pipe dream. New hosts were added to the network before everyone had even received the last, now outdated, copy of the famous HOSTS.TXT file. The only solution was to distribute the management of the host namespace. Thus began the Domain Name System (DNS), one of the most successful directory services ever implemented on the Internet.[1]

[1] For more information on the Domain Name System and its roots, see DNS and BIND, by Paul Albitz and Cricket Liu (O'Reilly).

DNS is a good starting point for our overview of directory services. The global DNS shares many characteristics with a directory service. While directory services can take on many different forms, the following five characteristics hold true (at a minimum):

  • A directory service is highly optimized for reads. While this is not a restriction on the DNS model, for performance reasons many DNS servers cache the entire zone information in memory. Adding, modifying, or deleting an entry forces the server to reparse the zone files. Obviously, this is much more expensive than a simple DNS query.

  • A directory service implements a distributed model for storing information. DNS is managed by thousands of local administrators and is connected by root name servers managed by the InterNIC.

  • A directory service can extend the types of information it stores. Recent RFCs, such as RFC 2782, have extended the types of DNS records to include such things as server resource records (RRs).

  • A directory service has advanced search capabilities. DNS supports searches by any implemented record type (e.g., NS, MX, A, etc.).

  • A directory service has loosely consistent replication among directory servers. All popular DNS software packages support secondary DNS servers via periodic "zone transfers" that contain the latest copy of the DNS zone information.