The need for organizing and managing is in our nature. The proper functioning of things requires coordination, for without a set of rules in place, the world would quickly fall into chaos. And so would the online world, too.
While it’s true that we have to own IPs to be able to surf the Web, we don’t actually…own them. In fact, these resources have been assigned to us by the Internet’s authority. Literally. Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, or IANA for short, is a vital cog in the digital machine we call the World Wide Web. Without it, the internet would go crazy and its infrastructure would fall apart.
What is IANA, exactly? What are its responsibilities? This is what we are going to cover today.
What is IANA?
IANA (Internet Assigned Numbers Authority) is an organization in charge of assigning important resources over the internet.
While most of us know IANA for taking care of assigning IPs, its responsibilities extend a bit more. IANA is instrumental in overseeing the allocation of vital Internet identifiers, which we will cover in this article.
The resources that are in IANA’s care are a vital part of the well functioning of the Internet. Even if the Web is not centralized, a part of its key elements must be managed for us to enjoy online communication.
Because of that, IANA can be viewed as the Internet’s administrator. It works in close conjunction with other important authorities. Thanks to this ”government”, the online world is able to function properly.
How did IANA come to be?
Even during the Internet’s infancy, IPs, protocols, and domains had to be managed. But back then, things were much more rudimentary than what we see today, so you did not need an entire organization to watch over the then-Internet.
Back then, a single gentleman named Jon Postel was responsible for all this. Postel had a huge contribution to ARPANET protocols, meaning he helped in laying the ground for today’s Internet.
ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) was not that hard to manage back in the 70s, but Postel discovered that IPs and port numbers were more important than what was initially thought.
He realized that we shouldn’t use the same IPs and ports for different applications, so he handled them expertly.
But the ”official” management was handled by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). Fun fact, if it weren’t for DARPA, we wouldn’t have many of today’s technologies (artificial intelligence, smartphones, and Wi-Fi, to name a few).
As for IANA, it emerged in 1988. For ten years (until 1998), IANA had been funded by DARPA and ISI (Information Sciences Institute).
Since its birth, IANA has changed hands several times. From 1998 to 2016, the supervising of IANA was done by ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers)
The latter is a non-profit organization responsible for maintaining the core infrastructure of the Internet. Founded in 1998, ICANN used IANA to watch over the entire online world. That was until 2016 when the US government decided that IANA’s responsibilities should move to another sector.
IANA vs ICANN – Who does what?
While IANA and ICANN appear to share similar tasks, both of them do different things.
- IANA deals with TLDs (top-level domains) as instructed by ICANN and the assignment of IP addresses, ports, and other related attributes. In other words, IANA’s main purpose is to maintain the registries of the internet’s unique identifiers, as we will see in the following sections.
- ICANN is the institution that runs IANA. ICANN is mainly responsible for the technical coordination of the Internet’s domain name system. It manages and delegates TLDs according to strict policies. It is closely related to WHOIS records.
What does IANA actually do?
As of 2016, IANA takes care of any “unique parameters and protocol values” for the Internet. In particular, we are talking about three main identifiers:
- IP addresses and AS Numbers;
- DNS root zones;
- Protocol parameters;
The organization’s core objective is to ensure these resources remain unique (as we need unique values for every single device), and publicly available.
Managing IP addresses and AS Numbers
Both IPv4 and IPv6 global pools are managed by IANA. Alongside ASNs (Autonomous System Numbers), they are assigned by IANA to the five Regional Internet Registries (RIRs).
Because there are so many IP addresses worldwide. Each RIR manages IP allocation for a specific part of the globe:
- RIPE for Europe;
- APNIC for the Asia-Pacific;
- ARIN for the North-America;
- LACNIC for Latin America;
- AFRINIC for Africa.
In turn, the RIRs split the IP blocks into smaller blocks. These blocks are then assigned to corresponding NIRs (National Internet Registries) and LIRs (Local Internet Registries).
There is just one last stop before your device gets its unique IP. The NIRs and LIRs pass the blocks to different Internet Service Providers (ISPs), companies, and other parties. And from there, they will handle your Internet Connection.
IANA usually allocates addresses to RIRs in sizes of /8 blocks for IPv4, while IPv6 blocks come as /23 to /12 prefix blocks.
IANA is also responsible for handling AS numbers (ASN). An Autonomous System is a big network or group of networks ( a group of one or more IP prefixes) that have a single routing policy. They are pretty much the backbone of every computer or device that accesses the Internet.
In turn, each AS must have its own AS number (ASN). These are used for helping autonomous systems efficiently interact with each other.
IANA is tasked with assigning and managing ASNs for a good reason. There is a limited amount of ASNs available, and if they were given out too freely, the supply would run out, and routing would become much more complex.
Managing DNS root zones, DNSSEC, .INT, and .ARPA registries
DNS (Domain Name System) is a vital component of the Internet. You can further read about the entire process behind it and its uses here. It works as a database that connects domain names to their specific IP addresses. DNS is mainly overseen by ICANN, which works closely with IANA. The latter handles root nameservers, the top elements of the DNS hierarchy. This means that IANA manages the data for TLDs (top-level domains) like “.com” and ‘.net”.
- DNSSEC (DNS Security Extensions) is an extra security layer for DNS authentication. It adds cryptographic signatures to existing DNS records to better protect against cyber attacks;
- .INT registry is useful for registering domains for organizations created by international treaties;
- .ARPA zone is short for Address and Routing Parameter Area. This one is used solely for Internet-infrastructure purposes;
Managing protocol parameters
More than IP addresses are needed for the Internet to work. Exchanging online information requires devices to be able to communicate with each other.
For that, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) introduced protocol parameters.
These protocols need to be unique and work in close conjunction with each other. In this regard, IANA has to maintain and publish registries pertaining to these protocols. That’s because engineers, administrators, developers, and other parties need them in order to ensure communications between devices, applications, and so on.
What are the most common protocol parameters?
There are a few common protocol parameters that you’ve probably heard of. Among these, we find:
- HTTP status codes – They are useful in informing us if a request to a server has been processed successfully, or if an error occurred. For example, the most common status code is the 404 error, when you cannot access a web page.
This is just a widespread example, as there is a full list of HTTP status codes. They are important for administrators, developers, and other parties that need to investigate a problem or make sure everything works properly.
- Port numbers – They identify a specific application or service on a system. They date all the way back to the 70s when Jon Postel realized the same port numbers shouldn’t be used for multiple applications.
Port numbers are useful for identifying the senders and recipients of data packets across the Web.
An IP address can have over 65 thousand ports (65,535, to be more exact), and they all fit into different categories. That’s because each port is used for a particular task. Here IANA manages ports up to port 49,151. The rest of them are dynamic, so they are not tied to a specific application.
- Language abbreviations indicate the language of a specific content displayed on a specific page. For example, EN means English, DE (Deutsch) means German, etc.
Even if the Internet allows us nearly unlimited access to information and communication, it still has to be taken care of by competent authorities.
Without organizations like ICANN and IANA, the World Wide Web will most likely turn into the Wild West, where everything risks getting chaotic and confusing.
IANA is one of the pillars that support the Internet’s well functioning. And to think it was the genius of a single man that brought you to this page, accessing this article from your laptop, phone, or computer… We’ve surely come a long way.