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Inside a Drop Catcher’s War Room: How eNom Arms Maker Chris Ambler Is Turning The Tide for Club Drop 

By Ron Jackson
Editor/Publisher



They say the arms race ended with the close of the Cold War 15 years ago, but someone apparently forget to tell combatants in the domain business to lay down their weapons! The fight for dropping domains in this industry has turned into an epic struggle that has left a lot of virtual dead and wounded along the way. In this battle zone there’s no need to worry about surface to air missiles, it’s software programs that strike the deadly blows.


Chris Ambler
At his Club Drop Command Post

Just as real world warfare spawned legendary generals like George Patton and Douglas MacArthur, drop catching combat is producing its own brand of heroes. The best of that breed may well be a self-described nerd named Christopher Ambler who authored new software for eNom that has turned that company’s Club Drop into a contender almost overnight. Ambler and eNom are drawing a bead on the reigning expired names leader, a crack panzer division from Canada called Pool.com

Less than a year after they entered the fray, Pool swept away the previous drop catching kings with a fearsome onslaught fueled by the enlistment of dozens of registrar allies. Pool still has eNom outnumbered, but Ambler believes this is the kind of fight where brains can overcome brawn.  

Before rising to prominence in this industry Ambler’s combat experience had been limited to fighting the suffocating smog and heat in the Los Angeles suburbs where he grew up. When it came time to go to college he planned to tough it out close to home at the University of California Riverside branch east of L.A. However after one year there he decided it was time to throw in the soaked towel and seek a cooler climate. At this same time in the early 80’s he had discovered an esoteric new communications medium called the Internet.  

Much to Ambler’s delight he found a place just a few hours away where he could cultivate his interest in computers and live in a more hospitable climate. That was San Luis Obispo, a picturesque college town on California’s mountainous central coast, halfway between L.A. and San Francisco. SLO happened to be the home of a top notch computer science school, Cal Poly. Ambler enrolled and wound up spending the next ten years of his life there. 

He spent some time developing computer applications then started his own company, Image Online Design in 1995. That year would prove to a turning point in his life and not just because of the new business. At the time, Ambler was sharing a house with three other roommates that was known as “The Inferno”.  One summer afternoon, he was reading the local Usenet groups for Cal Poly and came across a post from a “Lisa” who said that she was bored and wanted to meet some new people. 

Ambler recalled, “she said that she was a model and essentially described what I’d call my ideal woman. Of course, I didn’t believe it for a second and said so! I told her if she was real, she should show up at the Inferno at noon the next Saturday and I would take her to lunch.” 

When Saturday rolled around the doorbell rang right on time. Ambler went to the door expecting to see some of his friends standing there laughing at him. “To my surprise, the most gorgeous woman I’d ever seen was standing there! Unbelievable! I proposed to her about a year later and we were married in July, 1997,” Ambler said.


Lisa Ambler


As it turned out Lisa really was a model and more importantly she was getting an MIS (Management of Information Sciences) degree! Ambler couldn’t believe his good luck – a pretty girl and a computer nerd all in one package! They’ve been together 7 years now and produced two children along the way, 5-year-old Caitlin and 2-year-old Jason.

 

Caitlin Ambler

Jason Ambler


If Ambler has turned into a fighter today some of that spirit may have come from Jason. His son was born two months premature, and has moderate cerebral palsy due to severe blood loss suffered during an emergency C-section when he was born. Jason spent a month in the Intensive Care Unit after birth and was lucky to make it at all. Lisa and Chris spend a lot of time working with him on his physical therapy and they have high hopes that he’ll be walking by the time he’s 3. “His therapists say that with continued attention, he should be able to walk and communicate like any other kid as time goes on,” Ambler said.
 

Though Lisa had Chris’ head spinning like Linda Blair in The Exorcist, he somehow managed to come up with an idea at Image Online Design in 1995 that would make his first big mark on the internet community. “I was writing a check for $3,000 to Network Solutions for 30 domain names (in those days, it was $100 each for 2 years) and I thought, “Wait a minute, this is silly – I can run a zone server just as easy as NSI can!” Ambler recalled. 

"So I got on the horn with Jon Postel (a famed internet pioneer involved with the original DNS system who passed away in 1998) and said, “Look, can I get a delegation for .Web please? I’d like to compete.”  Ambler was one of the first to envision a need for new namespace on the net (years before .com would reach the saturation point).  He pursued his .web extension dream though a maze of acronyms - informal discussion on the Newdom mailing list that became the IAHC which led to CORE’s attempted takeover that turned into the IFWP which finally morphed into ICANN!  

After ICANN’s November 2000 selection process in which .Web was almost given to Afilias (current operator of the .info registry), Ambler was relieved to hear Vint Cerf (viewed by many as the father of the internet) say that he felt that IOD’s pioneering work should mean that if IOD didn’t get .Web, nobody should. 

Ambler told us, “today there are some 40 new extension applicants from 2000 that are still pending (ICANN made it clear that those not selected in 2000 were not turned-down, but were just not approved at that time). My understanding is that ICANN is working on a process (for consideration of new TLD’s), as the Department of Commerce has required them to have one implemented by the end of this year. I think it’s safe to say that our .Web application is still pending and we’re first in line once ICANN resumes the process. IOD is absolutely ready to move forward with .Web,” he added.  

With .Web in limbo, a new wife coming on board and IOD in a holding pattern while ICANN dithered, Ambler came to the conclusion he had better get a real job.  “I put my resume out there and started a nice tour of the U.S. going on interviews. After a few months I was about to consider an offer from the interactive division of Disney when I got a call from Microsoft,” Ambler said.

“They asked if I could make a 3pm flight that day! I asked my fiancé if I should go and she gave me a look and said, “Duh?!” So Ambler flew north, had two days of interviews with a number of different groups then headed back home. 

When he arrived back in San Luis a message was waiting from Microsoft. “I returned the call and they made a good offer, so after the wedding, we moved to Seattle and I spent 3 years with them.” As it turned out Lisa also received a full-time offer from Microsoft and they decided the ideal situation would be for her to take the job and have Chris open a consulting business.  

That arrangement worked well and even allowed Chris to write a book. “I have the dubious distinction of being the author of the very last book (The IIS 6.0 Programming Handbook) that Wrox Press published before going bankrupt," Ambler said. Presumably his book had nothing to do with them going broke!

Last year, Ambler began his relationship with eNom, the popular registrar located less than a mile down the road from Microsoft. "I started talking with Paul Stahura (eNom CEO), which led to my coming on board with them as a consultant,” Ambler said. 

“After about 8 months of consulting, both eNom and I agreed that it was working out very well and we chose to turn the arrangement into a full-time position where I became Chief Software Strategist. In addition to upgrading a number of eNom’s systems to .NET technologies, I was also given the task of turning Club Drop into something.” 


Enom Headquarters
Bellevue, Washington

That looked like a tall order in early 2003. Club Drop was among several also-rans trailing far behind one industry leader. Amber recalled, “At the time, the only other real player was Snapnames, and they had a decent number of registrars working for them versus eNom’s single credential. So my work was cut out for me in creating software that could compete in that environment.”  

What a difference a year can make in this business. Today Ambler’s software is running at eNom with 27 registrar partners, and is competing head-to-head with Pool’s 60-65 registrars (a number that seems to increase on a daily basis). Despite Pool’s edge in numbers, Ambler told us  “we’re now getting about 50% of the value-names that we’re going for with our 27 registrars.”  

The actual drop process and the exact role played by software has always been a mystery to most people. Only a handful have the inside knowledge Ambler has, so naturally we asked him to share it with us! Of course much of what he knows is proprietary and there are still some secrets even he doesn’t know. 

“There are aspects of the process that I don’t know - and nobody knows except Verisign!," Ambler said. “Verisign keeps a lot of the technical information very well hidden and 90% of the fun in writing Club Drop was attempting to determine exactly what’s going on based only on what I could see at my end. It’s true black-box testing! There was a lot of trial and error when we first started, and some of the results were hard to interpret and, of course, Verisign was no help because whenever I’d call and ask a question they’d politely decline to answer!” 

OK, we could believe that, but we weren’t about to let Ambler off that easy. If he didn’t throw us a bone we warned him that this story could take a nasty turn for the worse! That seemed to do the trick and he walked us through the whole process, from the basics most are familiar with to the finer points privy only to insiders.  

“In a nutshell, at 2pm Eastern time (11am my time), Verisign starts changing the status of the list of pending-delete names for that day from pending-delete to available. They do this over the course of an hour or so - a little more or a little less depending on how many names are dropping that day. When this happens, the drop-catching software run by Club Drop or Pool or Snapnames (or whomever) starts pounding Verisign with requests for the name.”  

Ambler said, “The real magic comes in flooding VeriSign with those commands absolutely as fast as you can and, of course, in having as many registrars as possible doing it on your behalf. Verisign limits the number of connections and the amount of bandwidth each registrar gets, so there are a finite number of commands you can bring to bear during the drop. Each registrar that you have working for you increases the number of commands you can send, increasing your chances of getting the domain.” 

“It is the world’s most regular denial-of-service attack,” Ambler said. “In a perfect world, it would be a simple issue of probability. For example, if I had 1 registrar working for me who could do 20 commands, and you had two registrars working for you who could do 15 commands each, you would have a 3/5ths chance of getting a name, and I would have 2/5ths. In percentages, you would have a 60% chance for any given name vs. my 40% chance. As it turns out, it’s not that simple, because (and I’m going to be deliberately vague here), there are things you can do to make your commands more effective once they get to Verisign. So yes, how hard you can slam the heck out of the registry is important, but there’s more to it than that.” 

Ambler added, “the problem in answering this question in depth is that there are a lot of aspects of the drop that I’ve come to understand in the past year or so that may or may not be proprietary. I say “may or may not” simply because it’s hard to know what our competition knows. I may presume, for example, that everyone knows that you have to do something in a particular way, only to find out I was the only one who knew that. Or that I was completely wrong!” 

This may be a topic only domainers are passionate about, but if someone wrote a tell-all book about it, they would probably get a 100% sell-through rate in this industry. If such a book hits the market, odds are Ambler’s name will be on it. “I am working on notes right now for a book about the drop. I’m going to write about how I went about figuring out what was going on, what I thought the competition was doing, and what I thought Verisign was doing.” 

Ambler believes the day is coming when all of the secrets will be revealed. “One of these days the drop will be gone. Not WLS, I think, but something new. At that point I’m going to contact Verisign and ask them how they really ran things on their end. I’m going to talk to the guys at Snapnames, Dotster and Pool (all who are genuinely cool people) and compare notes. I think it’ll make for a fascinating story (including some fun nights at ICANN meetings BSing about the crazy industry we’re all in!)” 

Since he broached the topic, this is a good time to address WLS (Verisign’s proposed Wait List Service), a system that would basically put today’s drop catchers out of business by giving Verisign a new monopoly on the distribution of expiring .com and .net domains.  

Ambler declared, “I don’t think it will be implemented, and I’ve been saying that since it was proposed. There are some serious problems with the technical implementation, in terms of giving advantages to registrars with more domains under management, and it relies on registrars being perfectly honest in order to not take advantage of those problems. It completely closes out competition in the drop and would shift all of the money coming into the system to Verisign, while at the same time making it more difficult to capture most of the current market (some of the current money might not come into the system at all with WLS).” 

Ambler does think some change to the current system is inevitable, even though he doesn’t believe it will involve WLS. With Pool, Club Drop and others taking out large numbers of new registrar credentials simply to aid in their drop chase, he thinks Verisign and ICANN will eventually post a Stop sign. “If you do the math, it could reach 3,000-4,000 credentials or more!,” Ambler said. “That won’t serve the public or the Internet community. Real competition is not being generated.”

Ambler added, “at some point, they have to say “enough!” and come up with something else. Will that be WLS? Possibly, but as I said, I don’t think so. There are too many problems with WLS, if only because of the litigation between Verisign and ICANN. Rather, I suspect they will attempt to come up with a more reasonable allocation of finite resources during the drop and at ICANN.” 

While the long-term future of the drop may be in doubt there is a huge short-term interest in acquiring quality domains that expire. Ambler has started serving that market with drop related products and services of his own. The centerpiece of this enterprise is a new desktop software program called DropShark that is already being used by many domainers. I use it myself and would honestly prefer that no one else hear about it (as is usually the case when one finds something that gives them an edge in zeroing in on the names they want to go after).  

That cat is already out of the bag though so no point in trying to silence Ambler on how and why the program was developed. “After spending countless hours looking through pending-delete lists for the good names (I had to figure out what was difficult to get while testing Club Drop), I came to the conclusion that I needed a search tool,” Ambler said.  

“Early versions of DropShark were just a quick Windows Forms application to load the list and perform basic searches. But as time passed, I kept adding features that I wanted until I got to the point where I had others at eNom asking if they could use it. At that point I realized that this might be something I could expand into a product that others would want. Since I’d done just about all of the development on my own time and while I was consulting, I asked eNom if I could polish it up and release it. Since it helps others in the drop, and most of those people are also Club Drop customers, eNom was happy to agree.” 

DropShark version 1.0 screen shot

DropShark users have been impressed with the first version but Ambler said the best is yet to come. "DropShark already has just about all of the search functionality anyone might want in terms of the names themselves. I’m now adding functionality to determine link popularity and other metrics that serious drop-catchers use to identify the best names. I’m adding support for .org, .us, .biz and .info (and I’ll tip you off that Club Drop is adding these in the near future as well!), and also the ability to scan names in redemption to get an early look at what’s coming up.” 

Ambler wanted to get a lot of feedback on the program so he has been offering an “Early Adopter License” to everyone who purchases a version 1.0 license (the offer will expire at the end of August). The Early Adopter License gives everyone who purchases a license to version 1.0 free upgrades for the lifetime of the application.  

As if DropShark and Club Drop weren’t enough to keep him busy Ambler said, “there are so many cool things that we have planned at eNom, we argue about which to do first! One thing on the horizon is the application currently pending at ICANN for the .Mail registry. As you know, ICANN has chosen to have a new round of sponsored TLDs before they move back to the unsponsored ones still waiting. The Spamhaus Project and others in the anti-spam arena teamed up to propose .Mail, which we think will go a long way towards helping solve the spam problem. eNom would do some of the back-end technical work for .Mail, so I’m looking forward to ICANN approving the application and the work we have ahead of us for .Mail,” Ambler said. 

With all of his domain industry interests, time is obviously scarce. When Ambler does get a free hour or two it is likely to be taken up with photography or music. He has been a keyboard player since he was 10 years old and his camera skills are strong enough to have him dreaming about going pro. He has also been known to slip out of the house to play some poker. Lisa agreed to look the other way as long as Chris keeps handing over 50% of his winnings! 

Chris’ parents also give him a pair of Aces in the hole. His mom Kerry is a cruise consultant and his dad, Dale, is a lender. Ambler said “That works out great, since my mom gets us great deals on Caribbean cruises, and my dad helped us get construction financing on our house!” The new house is Lisa & Chris’ dream home which was completed on two acres in Redmond about 18 months ago.

Ambler Home
10 Miles from the office at eNom

Ambler realizes he has been mightily blessed. “I still can’t believe that I get paid to do what I do. When people ask me what I do, I like to joke, “I Run the Internet!” It’s easier than explaining what a registrar is, what ICANN is and what I really do (plus the look on their faces is priceless)! But seriously, I get to help and do what I love and that’s simply amazing!”


 
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Editor’s Note: For those who would like to comment on this story, we invite you to make use of our Letters to the Editor feature (write to editor@dnjournal.com).


If you missed our previous Cover Story click on the headline below: 

Divine Inspiration: Why Bob Broxton Believes His Domains Will Help Save the World

All other previous Cover Stories are available in our Archive

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