Domain registration is something many people take for granted. Yes, it means ownership of a sort, but it’s not enough to register a domain; if you actually want to use it for something, you’ll need to do more.
As I write this, I own something like
69 too many domains, so I know a little bit about it.
Let me walk you through the concepts.
Become a Patron of Ask Leo! and go ad-free!
First, we have to clarify exactly what this thing called a “domain” is.
At its most basic, a domain is simply a human-readable name associated with a number — an IP address — that computers “really use” to talk to each other. There’s more, of course, but that’s the most basic concept.
For example, “askleo.com” is a domain. “Askleo.com” is easier to remember and type than its current IP address, which is 184.108.40.206. I say “currently” because it could change. That’s another advantage of using domains over raw IP addresses: using the domain allows the IP address to change without consequence to you.
Registering or purchasing a domain
While the common terminology is that you “purchase” a domain, in reality, it’s more like you’re leasing it. You retain ownership of a domain by paying an annual fee. Depending on the domain and the registrar, which I’ll talk about in a moment, those fees can be as low as five or six dollars a year, or much higher. Most registrars allow you to pre-pay at a discount for several years.
A “registrar” is a company authorized to register domains on your behalf and sell them to you. For example, one of the largest domain registrars is GoDaddy. I happen to use SimpleURL.
Not all registrars can sell all domains. For example, the popular “.com”, “.net” and “.org” domains are commonly available through most US-based registrars, but for foreign-based domains, such as “.co.uk”, “.cn”, “.to” and the like, you’ll often need to locate the registrar responsible for those “top level” domains, as they’re called, and register with them.
By default, registration information is public. In other words, unless you take extra steps or specifically request an anonymization service from your registrar, your name, email address, and mailing address are all required to be public information.
If you look at the registration information for askleo.com (scroll down once there) you’ll see the types of information made available. Make sure you understand what’s being made public and take appropriate steps to protect your privacy. In my case, I use a post office box and a voicemail-only telephone number.
Once you’ve registered your domain, you don’t automatically get a working website or email. In fact, you often get absolutely nothing, except the ownership of the domain and the tools to allow you to make those IP address assignments.
That’s where DNS comes in.
DNS, an acronym for “Domain Name System” (or Service), is the system used to map domain names to IP addresses and other information associated with the domain.
Every domain has at least one DNS server associated with it — quite literally an internet-accessible server that contains the authoritative information for that domain. In addition to your registration information, your domain registrar must keep at least one piece of information about your domain, which boils down to, “If you want to know anything about this domain, talk to this server over here.”
The DNS server does not have to be owned or controlled by your registrar; the registrar simply needs to point to it when asked about your domain. Again, if you look at the information for “askleo.com”, even though it’s registered via SimpleURL, the DNS servers (also known as “Name Servers”) are a series of server names like “NS-26.AWSDNS-03.COM”. I have Amazon Web Services (AWS) handle my DNS.
Most registrars automatically assign domains they register a DNS server of their own. In most cases, that’s just fine, and it may be required if you’re using some of the registrars’ additional services (I’ll get to them in a moment). The important thing is you have some kind of access to the DNS server’s information, so you can control the settings associated with your domain.
DNS controls where email gets delivered for your domain. One of the bits of information DNS keeps about your domain is called an “MX”, or mail exchanger, record. MX says, “Email for this domain should be sent to that server over there.” It can, of course, point to a server you control, if you’re running your own email server.
While that’s what I do, I suspect in most cases that’s not what you want.
Many registrars offer email services as part of your domain purchase. Particularly if all you want the domain for is to have your own email address on that domain, those services are probably the way to go.
The services include email forwarding — so you can, for example, set up email@example.com and have that automatically forwarded to your Outlook.com, Gmail, Yahoo!, or other email account. Even better, when you decide to switch email providers all you do is change the forwarding rule at your registrar, and firstname.lastname@example.org will automatically begin arriving at your new address — without having to tell all your contacts that anything has changed.
Many registrars also provide actual email mailboxes for you to access your email directly, without forwarding it at all.
Web hosting is all about setting up a website. It’s completely separate from email, with the exception that web hosting, too, starts in DNS.
As I mentioned, one of the basic uses of DNS is to map the name to an IP address: “askleo.com” to 220.127.116.11, for example. What that means is that when you request a page from askleo.com in your browser — say by visiting https://askleo.com – your browser first asks DNS “where’s askleo.com?”, gets the answer (18.104.22.168), and then connects to the server at that IP address to fetch the pages that make up the site.
That server is the “web host” — it’s the server that holds the files that make up the web site.
There are several approaches to web hosting:
- None. If all you want is email, you may not need a web host at all. If all you care about is that email@example.com works, then it probably doesn’t matter that http://www.yourveryowndomainname.com doesn’t.
- Registrar provided. Letting your registrar host your website as well as your DNS is often the simplest approach to getting your website up. It’s not always the most cost-effective or capable, but it is simple, and often a great place to start.
- Shared hosting. With shared hosting, you contract with a provider to literally share some space on one of their servers, often with dozens or hundreds of other websites. They give you a place to put your content (and often host your email), and all you do is point your DNS at the IP address of their server. Shared hosting is extremely common and often inexpensive. For example, I often work with BlueHost, which at this writing offers a nice, complete package of web hosting for $6.95/month. There are many other services in this space; as I said, it’s extremely common.
- Dedicated hosting. For high-end or mission-critical services, dedicated hosting is pretty much what it sounds like: you contract with a hosting provider for an entire server (or virtual server) dedicated to whatever you want to do. While that’s how Ask Leo! is set up, I’d not recommend it for average consumers or small businesses unless you have extraordinary needs. It can be pricey and complex to administer.
- Host it yourself. I get questions about this all the time: people want to run a server at home. It’s very possible, but typically not practical, unless you’re quite knowledgeable and have a very good internet connection.
Pulling it all together
When registering a domain, there are several aspects to consider:
- Registering an available domain name itself.
- Using DNS to make sure the domain references the right servers and services.
- Determining if and what email services to use and how they should be provided.
- Determining if and what website services to use and how that should be set up.
For casual use, a single domain registrar can typically provide the entire set of services to get your domain up and running. As your needs and experience expand, you can pick and choose, moving different aspects of domain management to other services and providers as needed.
Subscribe to Confident Computing! Less frustration and more confidence, solutions, answers, and tips in your inbox every week.
I'll see you there!