Web Hosting 101, part 1: Registering a Domain

Editor’s Note: This is the first installment of a three-part series on web hosting. Be sure to move on to read author Patrick McNeil’s next two articles:

Everyone seems to have a unique story about how they came to be a web person (designer or developer). Given the newness of the field, it’s hardly surprising that so few started there. I started in Information Technology; I was one of those guys installing network hardware, setting up servers and building wide area networks. I learned the nuts and bolts of web hosting, the physical computers and networks, and also the software that runs these systems. As a result, I often take it for granted just how easy I find it to set up, troubleshoot and maintain my web hosting.

But for designers transitioning into web design, hosting isn’t an easy topic to sink your teeth into. In fact, it’s downright intimidating. But this information is really valuable because it helps you understand the context a website operates in. It can allow you to solve very real and obnoxious problems for your clients. And it can empower you to make the most of the web.

I recently presented at the HOW Interactive Design Conference on just this topic. Turnout and feedback were great, and that encouraged me to share this knowledge a bit further. Hence, this three-part series: Web Hosting 101.

Conveniently, there are three components to web hosting: domain names, domain name services (DNS) and the different options for hosting services. We’ll tackle each topic in turn, so you don’t have to read one epic post.

What is a Domain Name?

Before we get to the web host, we first have to consider the most fundamental piece of this puzzle: the domain name. You’re familiar with this part of the equation, but there’s probably a lot you don’t know about the topic, so I’ll dig a little deeper.

A domain name is nothing more than a text string used to identify a location on the internet (or set of locations, as we’ll discuss). A few example domain names would be google.com or irs.gov. Note that the domain name doesn’t include the “www” before it. Nor does it include anything that might follow, like “/index.html” for example.

How to Register a Web Domain

In order to have a domain, you must register it. There are many ways to do this, but the two most common are through a dedicated registrar or as a part of an all-in-one hosting plan (GoDaddy, for example). I use name.com, but there are many excellent registrars for you to pick from.

You may not know you can register a web domain anyplace you like; you don’t have to register a domain in a specific place in order to use a specific web host. For example, while GoDaddy likes for you to register your domains with them, that’s not required. You can register a domain anywhere you like and simply point it to your hosting plan there. (More on this in the series when we cover DNS). This leaves you with the freedom to register all of your domains in a single place, which is exactly what I propose you do. This way you can manage a single list of domains instead of many accounts with domains on many different services.

Domains Are Portable

Another important detail that many people are not aware of is that you can move your domain between registrars. A common situation I find is that web developers have over the years registered domains in many places. As a result the maintenance on these can be a pain—like tracking when they expire and making sure to renew them. A simple solution is to move all of your domains to a single registrar. Every registrar is required to allow you to move your domain to a different registrar. If you prefer name.com as I do, then you could easily migrate all of your domains to this single location. All that you have to do is go to the new registrar and initiate the transfer. You follow a few simple steps and your domain is magically moved to the new registrar.

Two important points to note:

  • If you move the domain you’re not moving your web hosting—just the place that your name is registered.
  • If you have an all-in-one plan where your domain registration is wrapped up with your hosting then moving your domain might break your site. The key is to make sure you properly set up DNS after the move. (Again, watch for part two of this series for details on this).

What is WHOIS?

If you are working with a client’s existing domain, you might need to do a little detective work. For example, your client may not know where the domain is registered. Perhaps the company or individual that originally registered it is long gone. In such cases you need only one simple tool to magically produce this information for your client, one that will make you look like a hero: WHOIS.

WHOIS is a tool for querying the database of all registered domains. As it turns out all of the domains are registered in one massive database (this is an oversimplification, but it works for our needs). WHOIS lets you ask the database for details on a given record.

The easiest way to do this is to head over to http://whois.domaintools.com/. You simply punch in the domain name and hit “lookup.” The results will include all of the details available for the domain: the name of the registrar as well as all of the important contact details for the domain, like the registrant, administrative contacts, etc.

WHOIS Privacy

If you look up your own domain in the WHOIS, you may be surprised to find your e-mail address, phone number and mailing address available to anyone. And although companies are not supposed to use the system to mine for data on people to spam … errr, market to … they still do it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve registered a domain and then received credit card offers. A simple way to avoid this is to use WHOIS privacy.

If you’ve purchased very many domains, you’ve run across this option during the checkout process. Purchasing this option simply replaces the contact information used in the registration with some generic information provided by the registrar. Although the rules in such cases stipulate that the registrar is to be nothing more than a proxy for the domain, it makes me a bit nervous that the registrar is listed as the owner of the domain. It seems to me that if a registrar were to go out of business, this could potentially be problematic. New regulations are intended to prevent such problems, but I’m wary. Still, there could be very solid reasons to purchase the privacy option. If so, fork over the extra $4 per year for domain anonymity.

Want to learn more about web hosting? Be sure to read the next two installments in this series for web designers:

More Technical Resources for Web Designers