Name servers are the repositories of information that make up the domain database. The database is divided up into sections called zones, which are distributed among the name servers. While name servers can have several optional functions and sources of data, the essential task of a name server is to answer queries using data in its zones. By design, name servers can answer queries in a simple manner; the response can always be generated using only local data, and either contains the answer to the question or a referral to other name servers "closer" to the desired information.
A given zone will be available from several name servers to insure its availability in spite of host or communication link failure. By administrative fiat, we require every zone to be available on at least two servers, and many zones have more redundancy than that.
A given name server will typically support one or more zones, but this gives it authoritative information about only a small section of the domain tree. It may also have some cached non-authoritative data about other parts of the tree. The name server marks its responses to queries so that the requester can tell whether the response comes from authoritative data or not.