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What are Handshake (HNS) domains, and how do they work?

A particular topic of interest in the blockchain space is the emergence of blockchain-related projects in the domain name system (DNS) and domain ecosystem. Handshake, in particular, has been gaining attention among decentralized technology enthusiasts for its potential to revolutionize how people think about and interact with domains, especially in the context of Web3.

What is a handshake (HNS) domain?

Handshake (HNS) is a decentralized, permissionless naming protocol that allows for peer-to-peer communication and provides an accessible alternative to centrally managed domain names, such as .com, country-code domains and other generic domains.

As a decentralized peer-to-peer domain naming protocol, Handshake aims to serve as a DNS chain alternative to the current default root chain. Also, the creation of top-level domains (TLDs) such as .agency, .gov, .edu and the like are currently managed by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and are subject to an application process.

As such, before an applicant can have a new TLD created in the root DNS, they first have to apply for the top-level domain, win an auction for it, and await approval. The current process is tedious, complex and expensive — not to mention highly centralized. This makes the system vulnerable to hackers and nonresistant to corruption and censorship.

Handshake hopes to change the system and provide alternative Handshake top-level domains that are much more efficient, affordable and secure. The goal is to be able to use blockchain technology to allow Handshake domains to bypass the current ICANN-overseen system and help build a more decentralized domain landscape online.

Handshake (HNS) vs. traditional DNS

As mentioned, the current DNS infrastructure is heavily reliant on ICANN’S root zone. This means that for HNS domains to be resolved, there must first be a Handshake-aware resolver in the resolution chain.

The way DNS works, however, is quite similar to HNS. The only difference is the root zone file that the internet trusts and reads from, hence the need to introduce a Handshake alternative.

The goal isn’t to switch to the Handshake root zone entirely, as doing so would render current TLDs (.com and others) unless they also claim and recreate their TLDs on the Handshake blockchain. Suffice it to say that this is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Compatibility is another potential issue. There are thousands of TLDs, and they continue to increase as the internet expands. What Handshake has done to ensure that the new decentralized root zone will be compatible with these other TLDs is to reserve them for managing organizations to claim over the next three years.

How does a Handshake domain work?

Handshake primarily distributes website addresses via auctions handled automatically by Handshake’s software. Auctions for TLDs are held every two weeks, and users have to bid using the Handshake protocol’s cryptocurrency, HNS, to participate.

Whoever wins the bid pays the second-highest price following the format of a Vickrey auction, a sealed-bid auction type wherein bidders are unaware of the bids of others. This ensures that everyone is treated fairly and that domain names are allocated efficiently and at a fair market value.

The Handshake blockchain runs similarly to the Bitcoin (BTC) blockchain. Miners run the Handshake software, competing to unlock newly minted HNS tokens by solving a series of mathematical puzzles. New blocks are added to the blockchain every 10 minutes, and miners are paid 2,000 HNS every 10 mins of mining. The maximum supply of HNS is 2.04 billion.

What is a Handshake domain used for?

There are many use cases for handshake domains. They work just like any domain name and can be used for any website or online service. For businesses, in particular, Handshake domains can provide a competitive edge by giving them greater privacy and control over their domain namespace.

Some other documented use cases for Handshake are:

  • Sell subdomains: Make a profit from selling subdomains that are extensions of one’s TLD.
  • Log in with Handshake: Use Handshake to log in securely and privately without needing a password.
  • Redirects: Use it as a URL shortener.
  • dLinks: Use Handshake to create a decentralized hub for one’s content online.
  • Hmail: Create an email address on one’s Handshake name.
  • dWord: Can be used to build websites deployed on one’s Handshake name.
  • Nomad: Handshake names can be used as a username on a social networking site.
  • Creating a website: Use Sia Skynet, GitHub Pages, Heroku, Vercel or WordPress to create a website on Handshake.

How to register a Handshake domain?

As mentioned, one way that users can participate in the auction processes for Handshake domains is by using HNS. Other than that, domain registrar Namecheap offers registration services for Handshake domains to the public.

Namecheap currently offers the following TLDs:

Top-level domains offered by Namecheap

To register a handshake domain on Namecheap, a user simply has to enable the HNS option and follow the regular process for registering a traditional domain name. Aside from registering a domain name, transferring to or updating a Handshake domain can also be done either on Namecheap or via HNS coins.

How to access a Handshake domain?

Handshake domains currently do not resolve on regular web browsers. To access a Handshake domain, one has to use either the Handshake software itself or any of the following:

  • Browser extensions
  • Fingertip
  • HDNS.io
  • HNS.to
  • NextDNS
  • VPNs.

Advantages and disadvantages of Handshake domains

There are several advantages to using Handshake domain names, including enhanced privacy and control, greater flexibility in domain name usage and the ability to participate in domain name auctions.

Also, the push toward a more decentralized internet could mean that decentralized domain name system services like Handshake may eventually be considered more stable and resilient to domain name hijacking or server outages.

However, there are some drawbacks to using Handshake domains as well. For one, domain name users must already have HNS coins to participate in domain auctions or use other services offered by Handshake, placing barriers to entry for those who are not tech-savvy or may be less familiar with cryptocurrency.

To the uninitiated, alternative domain names can also be somewhat more complex to set up and use than traditional domain names, especially since the adoption of alternative domains has yet to penetrate the mainstream.

​​The future of Handshake domains

The move to instate Web3 blockchain domain name systems is geared toward providing users with simpler, shorter domains that can easily be used online. As such, Handshake domains — and similar iterations of decentralized domain system services — may be used to represent a blockchain address, for instance.

People can then just say, “Send the payment to joe.crypto,” instead of a hex string with multiple characters, making it more convenient and user-friendly to use domain names on the web. Handshake aims to take part in the decentralized future by offering users better control of their data, security and privacy while keeping things decentralized.

However, it remains to be seen if accessibility will become an issue for potential adopters. As things stand, both registration and browser support are still firmly in the hands of the traditional infrastructure. Also, if ICANN releases TLDs in the future that might conflict with Handshake’s TLDs, domain usage may become more complicated.

In such a circumstance, resolvers would need to decide whether to resolve the Handshake TLD or ICANN TLD. ICANN is also an undeniably larger and more powerful organization — will it yield to decentralization? 

And with such a complicated process for domain infrastructure turnover in the direction of decentralization, won’t switching to HNS just make it the major player once ICANN domain names are phased out (if at all)? Many questions remain to be answered, and only time will tell if services like Handshake will become widely adopted — or fade into obscurity.​