Understanding Website Hosting and Domains

December 24th, 2014

Domains, hosting, registrar… you may know that these terms have something to do with a website, but what do they mean, and why should you care?

Do you know where your website is hosted? Who hosts your email? Who hosts your domain and where is that domain registered? Do you know who the administrative and technical contacts are within your company?

If you have been involved with a new website migration or build, you probably will have heard of the terms domain, hosting and registrar. But few people actually know what these things are, or why they are relevant to a website.

We’re going to try to break these things down a bit. Keep in mind that this is a complicated topic, so we’ll be using general terms and in some cases over-simplifying. Hopefully you’ll at least understand the basics once we’re done.

The main terms we’ll concentrate on are: Domain Registrar, Domain Name Server, Email and Website Hosting.

So what do these things mean? First of all, it helps to think of these terms in a hierarchical format.

Keep this structure in mind as we continue. Notice that we’ve arranged these in a top-down hierarchy.

At the top: The Registrar

It all starts at the top with the domain registrar. The domain registrar handles the registration of your website domain name, specifically what comes after the “www”.

It’s always important to make sure you know who has control of your domain, and that a reputable company is handling the renewal process. Domain names come up for renewal every few years, depending on the renewal plan. The last thing you want is to find out that you had unknowingly allowed your domain to expire.

In this same way, the registrar will handle the sale of multiple associated domains, for example .com .ca and .net versions of your website, or even similar URLs, like www.bakesale.com and www.bakesales.com

These companies have varying renewal policies for domains rentals. Keep in mind that you never actually “own” the domain, you continually rent them. Sometimes the registrar will set the renewal process to be automatic so that you don’t receive a notice every year; they’ll set it to renew automatically for 5 or 10 years. They’ll also have transfer policies in the event that you want to move your domain to another registrar.

Examples of Domain Registrar companies are: Treefrog, Tucows, GoDaddy, Network Solutions and NetFirms.

In the middle: The Domain Name Server (DNS)

Without getting too involved, a domain name server (DNS) is a massive database that stores website IP addresses and their associated “names”, in order for people to find sites on the Internet.

Brief explanation: each website has its own unique IP address, which is a set of numbers and periods. A domain name server translates those numbers into plain English. As opposed to seeing 234.543.345, we see the much prittier www.website.com.

Domain Name Servers handle website as well as email requests. Again, instead of having to remember some random string of numbers, the Domain Name Server allows you to send an email message to “somebody@website.com” and the servers handle all the necessary redirecting behind the scenes.

Examples of Domain Name Server companies are: Tucows, GoDaddy, Google, OpenDNS and Network Solutions.

At the bottom: Email/Website Hosting

Email and website hosting is on the bottom of the food chain in terms of access and control. These are on the same level in our diagram because technically they are not contingent on one another.

Email and website hosting can technically be handled by two different companies, but are often handled by the same one. A client can choose to migrate their website to another hosting company, and keep their email where it is. It is not necessary to host your website and your email in the same place.

Hosting a website basically means storing all of the website data: pages, files, images, and everything that would accept and serve up requests from users.

In the same way, email hosting entails storing all of the email messages and email files for that domain.

Even though website hosting and email hosting are on the same line in our diagram because they are not dependent on one another as far as permissions go, they are two very different entities. They operate on two completely different protocols—which is something that often confuses people, especially now that there are so many web-based email services like Gmail. Something to keep in mind: the Internet is the network; the World Wide Web and email are services used within it.

Now that we know a little bit more about the different pieces and what they are dependent on, let’s create a scenario.

“Knowing this information will help save time if you are getting into a website migration or new website build.”

Registering Your Domain

So you want to register your domain. This usually means that you have selected a website domain that you want to register (such as www.thiswebsiterules.com) and you’re ready to make it legit. By the way, don’t waste your time trying to register www.thiswebsiterules.com—it’s already taken.

Treefrog is a domain registrar, so we can handle this for you, or you can go through one of the examples of registrars listed above.

Normally you will need to assign an administrator, as well as a technical contact for your domain. Each contact is affiliated with an email address. It is very important to keep track of which email addresses are associated with these contacts. Sometimes people leave businesses and their email addresses are never changed. However this is the address that will receive notices about the domain expiration. If no one is getting those emails, then you could potentially miss the registration deadline, and your domain could legitimately be up for grabs.

The technical contact is normally the person who will handle technical questions regarding the domain. For example, someone notices that your DNS, website or email has stopped working, someone might look up your technical contact information and send that contact a notice. Again, keep track of who this person is. Sometimes critical notices are sent to this email address, and you want to make sure nothing gets missed.

Transferring domains

Some registrars will have made you confirm an agreement prior to getting on board, in which case you will need to know the details of that agreement before proceeding.

If a web agency (like Treefrog, for example) is going to be taking over as your domain registrar, then we will need access to the usernames and passwords for the accounts affiliated with your website. We’ll need to know the administrative and the technical contacts (where applicable) so that we can coordinate the transfer.

Alternatively, if we are going to be your DNS company, but you wish to remain with your current registrar, then we will need to know:

  • Who the registrar is
  • Who the administrative and technical contact are from your company for the associated domain
  • What the passwords and login information is in order to access the registrar information and properly set up the Domain Name server settings.

Hosting your Website and email

Some companies want to have their website hosted with one company, and their email hosted somewhere else. This can happen if the company is launching a new website, while their email has been with the same company for years and they are uncomfortable moving it.

Know Who is Who

In an ideal situation, Treefrog would handle all four of these components. It is only ideal in the rare case that there’s an issue, so we don’t have to go to any other source; everything is housed in one place. It’s not necessary that we handle everything, and we’re very clear about the freedom our clients have to host their email, website, or DNS anywhere they choose. The only thing is, we should know who is hosting these components at the outset of a project, to save confusion.

Knowing this information will help save time if you are getting into a website migration or new website build. We suggest compiling this information and knowing where to get access to it, in the event that there’s ever an issue with domain expiration, or hosting issue, or perhaps you have an IT person leaving and they know all this stuff; you have to be able to get access to this information efficiently.

We suggest having a quick cheat sheet somewhere accessible that contains your Domain Registrar, your DNS provider, your website and email hosting company, plus all your administrative and technical contacts, and the usernames and passwords for each level. Keep this in a safe place. Even if you personally don’t know all the technical details about your website, this will be a great starting point.