Much Ado About Domains

by Cassandra Moffitt on

If you’ve ever gone through the process of launching a new website, or even taking over the management of an already established one, you’ve probably been faced with conversations or decisions about your domain name, domain registrar, IP addresses or DNS. In this article, we’ll explain what each of these terms mean (as well as a few others), and what role they each play in bringing your website to “life”. After we’re done, we hope you’ll feel more empowered to make important decisions regarding your domains in the future.

What is a domain name?

Domain names (sometimes called a website address, url or just a domain) are comprised of two parts, the actual domain itself and the TLD (Top Level Domain). In our domain, “gridnewyork.com”, “gridnewyork” is the domain, and “.com” is the TLD. In addition to the most popular TLDs (such as “.net” and “.org”) there are also a number of lessor known variations, such as “.attorney”, “.dance” and “.agency”. New TLDs can only be created by ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, a regulatory agency that we will cover in more depth below.

In some cases, websites can have “subdomains,” which are smaller portions of a larger domain. Some very common subdomains are “calendar.google.com” – “calendar” is a smaller subset of Google’s services, but still falls within the “google.com” domain. Many cloud-based service providers set you or your organization up on a subdomain of their own domain. This can be useful when, for example, separating eCommerce from “brochureware” content sites by using store.yourdomain.com as a subdomain.

The Basics of IP Addresses

To understand how domains work, it’s important to start at the beginning: IP addresses. An IP address (or Internet Protocol address) is a technology that allows a networked device, such as a computer or smartphone, to communicate with another device via the Internet. In this way, IP addresses are very similar to your phone number – anyone in the world who has your specific number can communicate with you by dialing that number.

You may have heard over the past few years that devices have been migrating from using IPv4 (Internet Protocol version 4) to IPv6 (Internet Protocol version 6). Under version 4, IP addresses consisted of four sets of numbers that range from 0 to 255. An example of an IPv4 address would be 72.21.211.176 (Amazon).

However, with the growth of the Internet, the number of available IP addresses has steadily decreased. In anticipation of a predicted depletion of available addresses, a new version of IP (IPv6) was developed and is increasingly becoming the standard for the issuance of IP addresses. An IPv6 address consists of up to eight sets of up to four alphanumeric characters. An example of an IPv6 address would be 2a03:2880:2110:df07:face:b00c::1 (Facebook). The expansion from IPv4 to IPv6 increased the pool of available IP addresses from 4 billion to 340 trillion, trillion, trillion, which allows every person on earth to have billions of addresses for every device they own.

How does this relate to domain names again?

The files that make up your website are all hosted on a physical computer or virtualized server located at your website hosting provider. (For more information on how website hosting works, check out our related article, Hosting: Your Website’s Home on the Web) That computer or server has its own unique IP address(es) that other devices (such as your customer’s desktop computer) need to use to pinpoint the location of your specific website files.

Very early on, people realized that it was difficult to remember or share their IP addresses for these communication purposes. Domain names were created as a way to map a human-friendly name to an IP address for easier access. This mapping between domain names and IP addresses is managed by the Domain Name System, or DNS. The entire job of DNS servers is to route any website viewer looking for “gridnewyork.com” to the appropriate IP address – which certainly makes viewing websites a lot easier! In that sense, when we dial a phone number on our smartphone, we typically do it by finding a name in a directory – DNS works much like that, translating easy-for-humans names and words into numbers.

The second benefit to this system is that it means that your domain is not forever tied to the specific computer that your website is hosted on at this point in time. The mapping between your domain name and the IP address of your website hosting location can be changed quickly and easily. DNS servers “refresh” their domain-to-IP associations within 48 hours of the change being made!

Yikes, who oversees all of this?

Formed in 1998, ICANN is a not-for-profit partnership of people from around the world who are responsible for a number of high level Internet operations and responsibilities, including coordinating the Domain Name System, introducing new TLDs, and the assignment of IPv4 and IPv6 address blocks (ranges of IP addresses) to regional Internet registries (who in turn provide them to local Internet service providers, such as Time Warner Cable and Greenlight Networks, who then assign them to their customers).

How do I purchase a domain, manage my domain, or update my DNS?

On the local level (you and your business), domains are registered through any number of available domain registrars, such as eNom, Network Solutions, or GoDaddy. Domain registrars are accredited, commercial businesses that manage the reservation of domain names. When you choose a registrar, you are certifying that specific registrar to be the only registrar that can modify your domain registration information, including which domain name servers to use for mapping the domain to an IP. Transfering domains between registrars is incredibly common, although the process varies between individual registrars.

When you register a domain name, the registrar has to pay an annual fee to whichever registry operator manages your specific TLD (for “.com” addresses, this is currently VeriSign), plus a smaller annual administration fee to ICANN. These costs are passed on to you by your registrar, and must be paid either annually, or for several years in advance. If they are not paid, your registration of the domain may lapse, putting your domain at risk of being deleted or even registered by another party.

Before making any updates to an existing domain’s DNS entries and settings, we highly encourage you to contact your hosting provider, IT department, marketing agency, or whoever has been managing your website. It is also important that you keep records of who your registrar is and maintain control of the login for your account (including using a secure password to prevent unauthorized access). More information about making modifications to your specific domain should be available directly from your registrar or hosting provider.

If you are interested in purchasing new domains or managing your current domains, we can help! We’ve assisted hundreds of clients with the management of their website and website-related services, including domains, website hosting, and traffic generation.

Photo courtesy of flickr user Ged Carroll.