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Google could shake up the registry market with new open-source Nomulus platform

Kevin Murphy, October 19, 2016, Domain Registries

Google has muscled in to the registry service provider market with the launch of Nomulus, an open-source TLD back-end platform.

The new offering appears to be tightly integrated with Google’s various cloud services, challenging long-held registry pricing conventions.

There are already indications that at least one of the gTLD market’s biggest players could be considering a move to the service.

Donuts revealed yesterday it has been helping Google with Nomulus since early 2015, suggesting a shift away from long-time back-end partner Rightside could be on the cards.

Nomulus, which is currently in use at Google Registry’s handful of early-stage gTLDs, takes care of most of the core registry functions required by ICANN, Google said.

It’s a shared registration system based on the EPP standard, able to handle all the elements of the domain registration lifecycle.

Donuts contributed code enabling features it uses in its own 200-ish gTLDs, such as pricing tiers, the Early Access Period and Domain Protected Marks List.

Nomulus handles Whois and likely successor protocol RDAP (Registration Data Access Protocol).

For DNS resolution, it comes with a plug-in to make TLDs work on the Google Cloud DNS service. Users will also be able to write code to use alternative DNS providers.

There’s also software to handle daily data escrow to a third-party provider, another ICANN-mandated essential.

But Nomulus lacks critical features such as billing and fully ICANN-compliant reporting, according to documentation.

So will anyone actually use this? And if so, who?

It’s too early to say for sure, but Donuts certainly seems keen. In a blog post, CEO Paul Stahura wrote:

As the world’s largest operator of new TLDs, Donuts must continually explore compelling technologies and ensure our back-end operations are cost-efficient and flexible… Google has a phenomenal record of stability, an almost peerless engineering team, endless computing resources and global scale. These are additional potential benefits for us and others who may contribute to or utilize the system. We have been happy to evaluate and contribute to this open source project over the past 20 months because this platform provides Donuts with an alternative back-end with significant benefits.

In a roundabout way, Donuts is essentially saying that Nomulus could work out cheaper than its current back-end, Rightside.

The biggest change heralded by Nomulus is certainly pricing.

For as long as there has been a competitive market for back-end domain registry services, pricing has been on a per-domain basis.

While pricing and model vary by provider and customer, registry operators typically pay their RSPs a flat fee and a buck or two for each domain they have under management.

Pricing for dot-brands, where DUM typically comes in at under 100 today, is believed to be weighted much more towards the flat-fee service charge element.

But that’s not how Nomulus is to be paid for.

While the software is open source and free, it’s designed to run on Google’s cloud hosting services, where users are billed on the fly according to their usage of resources such as storage and bandwidth consumed.

For example, the Google Cloud Datastore, the company’s database service that Nomulus uses to store registration and Whois records, charges are $0.18 per gigabyte of storage per month.

For a small TLD, such as a dot-brand, one imagines that storage costs could be reduced substantially.

However, Nomulus is not exactly a fire-and-forget solution.

There is no Google registry service with customer support reps and such, at least not yet. Nomulus users are responsible for building and maintaining their registry like they would any other hosted application.

So the potentially lower service costs would have to be balanced against potentially higher staffing costs.

My hunch based on the limited available information is that for a dot-brand or a small niche TLD operating on a skeleton crew that may lack technical expertise, moving to Nomulus could be a false economy.

With this in mind, Google may have just created a whole new market for middleman RSPs — TLD management companies that can offer small TLDs a single point of contact for technical expertise and support but don’t need to build out and own their own expensive infrastructure.

The barrier to entry to the RSP market may have just dropped like a rock, in other words.

And Nomulus may work out more attractive to larger TLD operators such as Donuts, with existing teams of geeks, that can take advantage of Google’s economies of scale.

Don’t expect any huge changes overnight though. Migrating between back-ends is not an easy or cheap feat.

As well as ICANN costs, and data migration and software costs, there’s also the non-trivial matter of shepherding a horde of registrars over to the new platform.

How much impact Nomulus will have on the market remains to be seen, but it has certainly given the industry something to think about.

Rightside new gTLD renewals can top 80%

Kevin Murphy, October 14, 2016, Domain Registries

Rightside says it is seeing encouraging renewal figures from its oldest batch of new gTLDs.

The company this week revealed that renewals after two years of ownership on average stand at 81%.

In a blog post, Rightside broke out some numbers for .dance, .democrat, .ninja, .immobilien, .social, .reviews and .futbol.

Those seven are the only ones in its portfolio to have gone through two full renewal cycles.

The renewal rate after year one was a modest 69% — in other words it lost almost a third of its installed base after 12 months — but this increased to 81% after the second year.

The actual number of domains involved in quite tiny — 81% equates to just 21,000 names across all seven TLDs.

Breaking out a couple of TLDs, Rightside wrote:

Our first gTLD to market, .DANCE, saw a 70% renewal rate in year one expand to 83% in year two for that same subset of domains. Our best performing gTLD of the seven is .IMMOBILIEN, which renewed at 83% in its first year, and grew to a stupendous 87% in its second—which certainly makes sense given the permanent nature of real estate.

But Rightside reckons the numbers reflect well on the new gTLD industry. It said:

domain investors with portfolios including new gTLDs recognize the long-term value of these domain names, and rather than let them drop after the first year, are holding onto them to find the right buyer continue to earn parking revenue. Second—and likely the more significant driver—is that end users are actually picking up these domain names and putting them to use.

Donuts rolls the dice with $22.5 million .web lawsuit

Kevin Murphy, August 9, 2016, Domain Registries

Donuts is demanding ICANN pay up the $22.5 million it reckons it is owed from the auction of the .web gTLD, which sold late last month for $135 million.

The company yesterday amended its existing California lawsuit against ICANN to allege that Verisign tried to avoid regulatory scrutiny by secretly bankrolling successful bidder Nu Dot Co.

The updated complaint (pdf) reads:

VeriSign’s apparent acquisition of NDC’s application rights was an attempt to avoid allegations of anti-competitive conduct and antitrust violations in applying to operate the .WEB gTLD, which is widely viewed by industry analysts as the strongest competitor to the .COM and .NET gTLDs.

Donuts wants a minimum of $22.5 million, which is roughly what each of the six losing .web applicants would have received if the contention set had been resolved via private auction.

(I previously reported that number as $18.5 million, because I accidentally counted .webs applicant Vistaprint as losing .webs applicant, when in fact it won .webs, paying $1.)

The company’s claims are still based around the allegation that ICANN breached its duties by failing to root out Verisign as the puppet-master.

The complaint alleges breach of contract, negligence, unfair competition and other claims. It says:

ICANN allowed a third party to make an eleventh-hour end run around the application process to the detriment of Plaintiff, the other legitimate applicants for the .WEB gTLD and the Internet community at large.

ICANN intentionally failed to abide by its obligations to conduct a full and open investigation into NDC’s admission because it was in ICANN’s interest that the .WEB contention set be resolved by way of an ICANN auction.

The irony here is that Ruby Glen LLC, the Donuts company that applied for .web, is subject to an arrangement not dissimilar to NDC’s with Verisign.

Ruby Glen is owned by Covered TLD LLC, in turn a wholly-owned Donuts subsidiary.

It’s well-known that fellow portfolio registry Rightside has rights to acquire Covered TLD’s over 100 applied-for strings, but this is not disclosed in its .web application.

ICANN will no doubt make use of this fact when it files its answer to the complaint.

Verisign itself has not been added as a defendant, but much of the new text in the complaint focuses on its now-confirmed involvement with NDC. The suit reads:

Had VeriSign’s apparent acquisition of NDC’s application rights been fully disclosed to ICANN by NDC… the relationship would have also triggered heightened scrutiny of VeriSign’s Registry Agreements with ICANN for .COM and .NET, as well as its Cooperative Agreement with the Department of Commerce.

The fact that Verisign is allowed to collect over half a billion dollars cash every year as a result of its state-endorsed monopoly is a longstanding cause of embarrassment for the Department of Commerce.

It has taken an interest in regulating Verisign’s .com contract in the past — it’s the only reason Verisign has not been able to raise .com prices in the last few years.

But the US government is not a party to the .web contract (unlike .com, where it has a special relationship with Verisign) and is not involved in the new gTLD program’s management or policies.

The complaint also makes reference to a completely unrelated Independent Review Process declaration from last week, which slammed ICANN for its lack of accountability and transparency.

Donuts faces the additional problem that, like all new gTLD applicants, it signed a covenant not to sue ICANN when it applied for its new gTLDs.

A judge in the DotConnectAfrica v ICANN can has allowed that lawsuit to proceed, regardless, but it may prove a stumbling block for Donuts.

It all looks a bit flimsy to me, but I’ve learned not to second-guess American judges so we’ll just have to see how it plays out.

Rightside refuses Donuts’ “opportunistic” $70m gTLD offer

Rightside has rebuffed Donuts’ semi-hostile takeover attempt for its portfolio of gTLD registry contracts.

The question now is: will Donuts up the offer from the $70 million already on the table?

In a pre-markets statement today, Rightside said the offer “undervalued” the assets.

CEO Taryn Naidu is quoted as saying:

After thoughtful evaluation, Rightside’s Board has determined that Donuts’ proposal significantly undervalues Rightside’s Registry assets. We believe Donuts’ proposal is an opportunistic attempt to acquire Rightside’s valuable portfolio of domain extensions with an undervalued price and in a manner that would not be in the best interests of Rightside shareholders.

The company reckons its gTLDs will be bringing in $50 million to $75 million in revenue a year in the next three two five years, which would represent substantial growth over current levels.

It made $2.6 million from the registry business in the first quarter this year.

Donuts’ offer could be considered “opportunistic” given that there’s some shareholder dissatisfaction with Rightside’s success rate with new gTLDs today.

Activist investor J Carlo Cannell and Uniregistry CEO Frank Schilling, both of whom own small but significant chunks of Rightside, have called on the company to get rid of some of its under-performers.

By announcing the offer publicly — apparently after months of private offers — Donuts might have been trying to capitalize on this unrest.

But pissed-off investors don’t necessarily want these gTLDs sold off cheap.

Rightside has 40 new gTLDs. A $70 million offer equals $1.75 million per gTLD. That’s fair way below the average sale price for gTLDs at ICANN auction, which is $7 million (or $3 million if you take the median).

Will Donuts now increase its offer, or back away?

Web.com acquires dozens of registrars from Rightside

Kevin Murphy, May 11, 2016, Domain Services

Web.com has acquired dozens of registrars from rival/partner Rightside, seemingly to boost the success rate of its SnapNames domain drop-catching business.

I’ve established that at least 44 registrars once managed by Rightside/eNom have moved to the Web.com stable in recent weeks, and that might not even be the half of it.

All of the registrars in question are shell companies used exclusively to register pre-ordered names as they are deleted by registries, usually Verisign.

The more registrars you have, the more EPP connections you have to the Verisign registry and the better your chance at catching a domain.

Web.com runs SnapNames, and is in a 50-50 partnership with Rightside on rival drop-catcher NameJet.

The two compete primarily with NameBright’s DropCatch.com, which obtained hundreds of fresh ICANN accreditations last year, bringing its total pool to over 750.

Web.com has fewer than 400 accreditations right now. Rightside has even fewer.

It’s usually quicker to buy a registrar than to obtain a new accreditation from ICANN.

If Web.com finds itself in need of more accreditations in order to compete, and Rightside is happy to let them go, it could be possible to infer that SnapNames is doing rather better in terms of customer acquisition than NameJet.

But the two services recently announced a partnership under which names grabbed by either network would be placed in an auction in which customers of either site could participate.

This would have the effect of increasing the number of caught names going to auction due to there being multiple bidders, and thus the eventual sales prices.