Domains and domain management

This is a background article for the mostly non-technical person who wants to know a bit more.

If you are new to all this, it will be hard work. The whole thing has grown up organically; it involves technicalities, national differences, and lots of different commercial organisations.

Your address on the Internet

The Internet is like an extremely long High Street with every enterprise and member of the public living on it. Each enterprise and member of the public is assigned a number on that High Street - it's their address. This numerical address is known as a public IP (Internet Protocol) address.

The most common version of a public IP address takes the form xxx.xxx.xxx.xxx for example 195.10.235.16. This is known as a v4 (version 4) address. Because the world is running out of IP addresses, another standard called v6 (let me guess... version 6) is being deployed alongside IPv4. Apparently there are so many IPv6 addresses we'll be able to give one to every grain of sand - well, that's useful.

Your IP address is assigned by your ISP from a pool of addresses they have acquired from a higher authority up the Internet management chain. Frequently your IP address is not fixed (termed dynamic in the trade) and may change if you reset your router. And if you change ISP then you will receive a different IP address from the new provider.

Remarks

Knowing about IP addresses can be useful when you register a domain or have internet connection problems.

If you have a router on your premises connected to an internal LAN, the latter has its own set of private IP addresses typically 192.168.xxx.xxx where xxx represents a number between 1 and 255. Private IP addresses on the LAN are allocated either by the router or by a DHCP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol) server. Using a server allows for smarter client computer configuration - a good thing.

The initials IP are also bandied about but those involved in Intellectual Property - patents, copyright and even domain names.

The domain name system

Having to publish your Internet address as 233.192.9.23 would be fraught with difficulty. Not only is it difficult to tap in correctly but, as mentioned above, should your ISP change the number you would have to republish it. Clearly this was not a viable solution so to get around this the Domain Name System was invented to give a 'friendly' name to your current IP address.

In principle, what happens is that a numerical IP address on the Internet is assigned a friendly name eg mywonderfulwebsite to which is appended typically .com, .co.uk, .de (Germany), .me, (Montenegro), .aero (aviation) or .coop (co-operatives). This friendly name is known as the domain name.

The domain name and matching IP address are published to at least two name servers, though sometimes name servers can be contracted to nameservers.

Domain registrars

However, we immediately run into a problem: how do we stop two or more people having the same name? This is solved by organisations called domain registrars which exist for each country in the world.

In order to manage your own domains, it's enough to know that there are a number of international and national organisations that deal with it. In Europe, domains are managed by national organisations. In Britain, a company called Nominet has been assigned the task of UK domain management by the Government.

The owner of a domain name, be it a company or individual, is known as a registrant.

UK domain name registration

In the case of the UK, the top level domain space (uk) is divided into secondary levels to indicate the kind of organisation that is being represented by the domain name.

The second level domains (SLDs) are co, me, org, ltd, net, plc and sch - for commercial enterprises, individuals, non-commercial organisations, limited companies, public limited companies, internet service providers and schools respectively, and there are others such as ac, gov, nhs, police and mod. For more information on SLDs go to www.nic.uk and select Second Level Domains from the menu.

Nominet has a membership scheme to allow third parties to act as domain name registrars for enterprises and the general public. Caz Limited is a paid-up member of Nominet which means we can do this.

US domain name registration

The top level domains (TLDs) like .com, .org, .net that don't have a country code are ostensibly American but most people treat them as global.

Examples of registrars in the US are Network Solutions and Register.com. Outside the US we have joker.com in Germany and even France Telecom.

Registering a domain name

A domain name is part of your brand and so should be treated like property - giving it the care and attention it deserves.

Ideally you should manage your own domain or domains even though this requires a little technical expertise. Registering a domain can be done through one of the multitudinous domain registrars like 123-reg.com or joker.com. Your choice will largely depend upon taste and expertise, and obviously prices are a factor too. At one end of the scale registrars like GoDaddy and Network Solutions have shouty forms, bamboozling buttons and graphics along with frequent marketing emails, but are quite lively and at the other end of the scale, folk like joker.com are minimalist and send only terse emails when absolutely necessary and you do have to pay attention when they do.

One tip is to try and find a demo of a registrar's domain management system and see if you can get along with it.

Multiple domains

Cybersquatting

In essence this is the practice of some individuals and organisations for registering similar domain names to yours with the express intent of capturing your business. We've seen this in action, granted not often, but often enough to see that it could be a real headache. If you get cybersquatted, then your only option may be to change your domain/trading name.

To prevent cybersquatting it may be necessary to register additional names. For example if your main domain name is mycompany.com you may also want to register my-company.com and point the latter with a permanent redirection to mycompany.com. Employing a permanent redirection will ensure that you don't lose brownie points with search engines.

Within the UK you can sue someone for 'passing off' if they are pretending to be you, but obviously that will involve lawyers, time and money.

National domain names

If second-level domains are available in your home territory eg .co.uk, .co.nz it may be far more appropriate to lead with one of them. However you should look to see if the global versions of your chosen prefix don't clash with something potentially undesirable.

Maintaining a domain name

Domains have to be renewed every two or three years. You do have the option for choosing longer periods and that's something you may want to consider.

Failure to renew a domain can be catastrophic to your business, so ensure that you have a procedure for ensuring that they are kept up to date and that your records with your registrar are also up to date. In particular, your registrar should have your correct email address at all times. If you have an electronic diary where you can put in the expiry dates years ahead, then do that.

There are organisations who buy up lapsed names with view to selling them back to disorganised (former) owners. To give you some idea of this: one of our former clients was looking at $100,000 to recover a domain. In the end, he managed without.

How do people find your website or send you email?

Now we are onto the client side of the web.

Hosts

When talking DNS, administrators don't talk about computers or servers, they talk about hosts.

The host part of your fully qualified domain name (FQDN) is typically the www part, though www is just a convention and some people choose not to have it. You could have additional host names like blog or shop if that was appropriate. You might do this if you were aliasing a third-party blog or shop respectively onto your domain.

DNS lookup

Visitors find you by using a giant address book called the Domain Name System that was mentioned above. This keeps tabs on all the domain names and matching IP addresses on the Internet. This service is provided by computers called DNS servers that are arranged in a hierarchy with a few root servers keeping all the others up to date.

When you put in a web address into your browser, your computer looks up the name in the nearest DNS server. The 'nearest' has either been set by you, your computer system administrator or your ISP. If the address cannot be resolved (ie found) then the DNS server looks further upstream iteratively until the root DNS server is found - this will have the correct IP address for a given domain name. Once found, each of the DNS servers in the chain will cache (ie store) the name and matching address. This means that if it gets another query for the same domain name, it doesn't have to go waddling back up the chain again.

The cached record in the DNS server is given a Time To Live (TTL) counting down from the aforementioned 24-hours, though this figure can vary according to the individual server configuration. On some DNS servers, the stale records are only cleared out a couple of times a day and this can lead to propagation delays if you move your website or mail provider.

Email

Email goes to a separate mail server that might be on the web or on your premises. You point your email to the server using an MX (Mail Exchanger) on your nameserver.

Scams

In the months leading up to renewal of one of your domains you may receive an email or letter from someone showing how to renew it - and this organisation may not be your existing registrar or broker. If you don't know who the current registrar or broker is for the domain, then you may fall prey to this scam so keeping good records is paramount if you are going to avoid it. Then at least you can call upon help if you have only slight knowledge of the system.