A domain by any other name would smell as sweet...

Today I thought I would tackle a slightly different area and delve into the mysterious world of internet domains. They’re not actually that mysterious actually and quite straight forward but tend to confuse a lot of people, not least because different people use different terminology for the same concepts.

You get up in the morning pop on you computer and go your favourite website. Lets say www.facebook.com. You just type that in the URL bar and a webpage just loads magically right? Well yes, but it’s not actually magic.

First of all your computer reads what you’ve typed in “www.facebook.com”. It then splits that up into a server and a internet domain, a bit like you might split up someone’s street address into a number and a street name. It figures out it is looking for a computer out there called “www” under the internet domain “facebook.com”.

You see the first bit of a URL actually points to a physical computer out there somewhere. Sometimes that computer can be known under different names but i’ll come to that later. The internet domain part is not really a physical location as such it just identifies under who's jurisdiction this server comes under. It knows that somewhere out there is a computer that can tell it the way to all the other computers that end facebook.com. In fact it first of all has to look up “.com” and figure out who to ask about facebook from there. Once it’s worked out who tells it about computers ending “facebook.com” it asks it where www is. That computer will tell it an IP address which is what it actually connects to. In this case IP addresses are what the internet really runs on but most people don’t want to remember things like ““ or ““ - it’s easier to remember things like www.google.com than a random list of numbers.

You may also notice there is a lot of to and fro-ing going on there just to get to a webpage, and you’d be right. The point is that internet technology is very decentralised. Part of the reason for this is that it means that the failure of any one computer doesn’t cause catastrophic damage (it was designed to withstand nuclear attack!!!). Anyway all this traffic is very small and only takes a second.

Once your computer has looked up www.facebook.com (or as you could call it the computer “www” that sits under the jurisdiction or “facebook” under the jurisdiction of the “.com” domain) it remembers where it is for next time so it doesn’t need to look it up again for a while.

The other point here is that “www” is a completely arbitrary name for the computer. If it was called “chickenkiev” then you could point your web browser at “ckickenkiev.facebook.com” and it should show you a webpage. It doesn’t need to be called www.... it is just that that has become the accepted standard for webservers and the thing everyone types in.

Now what if you want your own website? How does that all work? Well as you can hopefully see from the above what you need to have a website “www.greatthings.com” is actually two things - firstly you need to be able to tell people about computers that end “greatthings.com” and secondly you need a computer out there called www.

In fact these fall neatly into two completely different services - usually referred to “Domain name” control and “web hosting” accounts. Often you will buy both of these from the same person (I offer both for example) but you don’t have to. Buying a domain name is something you do though a domain name registrar such as “123-reg”. You choose your domain (the greatthings.com bit) and pay an annual fee for holding onto that domain. While you pay for it no one else can use it so it is a good idea to register domain names you want to protect even if you don’t actually have a website to host yet. The website hosting part usually involves renting a bit of space on a computer connected to a very fast internet connection and putting up your web pages (which are just a set of files) onto that computer. For big sites companies have their own computer, but that’s an expensive option and for just half a dozen web pages renting space on a shared computer is the way to go.

When you have both these things you have to point the www entry for your domain at this computer. That lets the internet know where it can find your website. Usually this is done though a web page you can access when you signed up for your domain name. If you had your web page designed by a web developer (rich are you???) then they normally take care of this for you, but they still need to set up both aspects I’ve mentioned. It’s worth remembering that the domain name - “greatthings.com” for example - should be registered under your name, and that even if you subsequently fall out with your web developer, you legally own the right to do what you want with it - including pointing the “www” bit at another website.

So there you go. All much clearer? Incidentally Primitive Designs offer both purchasing domain names for you, and will host websites. All with advice and at competitive rates! Get in touch if you want to know more...

By Primitive Designs Last updated: 13 October 2011, 13:41