A lot of confusion (understandably) exists about how domain, web, and email hosting works and what the difference is between them. Most online services these days offer all of these services, so is it really necessary to understand the differences? Just like there are carpenters who can do perform all aspects of a small project themselves (rough carpentry, painting, finish carpentry, flooring, etc…), you typically hire specialists when undertaking serious construction projects. Similarly, many hosting providers have their own specializations and you can get the most for your money by selecting the services that best meet your needs.
In order to illustrate how these all work together, I’m going to describe the process of registering a domain to sell my new world-changing invention; the “widget,” of course.
The first step in the process of setting up a domain is registration. This is done through ICANN-accredited registrars, who collectively maintain the shared registration system (SRS). There are over 500 companies that offer these services and some of the larger ones are Network Solutions, Go Daddy, and Register.com. Quite simply, the registrars will let me know whether “JonsWidgets.com” is available and, if so, register it in my name. As it turns out it is available, but this point all I’ve done is reserve the right to use a the domain name.
Now that “JonsWidgets.com” is reserved, the next step is to get the domain listed in the “Internet phone book,” also known as the Domain Name Service (DNS). When you’re browsing the Internet, domain names are a convenient way for humans to remember sites and email addresses. However, we all know that computers only understand ones and zeros, so everything must eventually be translated into a number. Every computer on the Internet (both browsers and servers) has what is known as an IP address – it’s a unique number that identifies that particular machine on the network and works very much like a telephone number. Every time you type a domain name into your browser, the first thing your computer must do is to perform a DNS lookup to find the address of the server for which it’s looking.
These days, nearly all of the domain registrars offer DNS hosting services. As soon as you register a domain name, the registrar will typically create a DNS listing that points to a common page indicating that the domain is “parked” but that a web site doesn’t yet exist.
OK, now it’s time to talk web hosting. So far, all we’ve done is secured the domain name and pointed any browsers to a generic “Under Construction” type of page. The first question is, “Who should I use as a web host?” Selecting a web host should be the result of finding the best match between the requirements of your site and the hosting company. This is largely dependent upon the technology that will be used in developing your site. Here are two main considerations:
- Environment: Linux vs. Windows
Most hosting packages are offered in either Windows or Linux based hosting environments. LAMP (Linux-Apache-MySQL-PHP) is a commonly used collection of open source software that offers inexpensive web hosting. Windows hosting is generally a combination of Windows Server, Internet Information Server, SQL Server and ASP.NET technologies that are more expensive to license and, therefore, generally cost a little more for hosting.
- Add-On Applications
There is a growing list of applications that web hosting providers offer and in many cases they’re free! Two of the more popular categories of add-ons are blogs and content management systems. I’ll cover both of these in more detail in future posts, but these technologies make it incredibly easy (and cheap) to build powerful, professional looking web sites without anyone having to write a single line of computer code. If you plan on using on of these for your site, it’s important to choose a provider that specializes in hosting that particular application. The service and performance will typically surpass those of a provider that specializes in either something else or nothing else.
Email hosting is similar to web hosting in the sense that it needn’t necessarily be hosted by either your registrar or web host providers. This is another case of selecting the host that makes the most sense for your particular situation. Using myself as an example, several of my domains’ email accounts are hosted by Google’s Gmail service. This is configured by making a change to the DNS records for your domain.
You can see that email routing is also controlled by entries in the DNS records. This is how it is possible to direct different types of domain traffic to different servers. In the screen shot above, in fact, you can see a few entries (called CNAMEs) that create sub-domains that direct traffic to completely different servers and/or services like email, calendar, shared documents, etc…
There are a couple of points to take away from this with regard to web and email hosting. The first point is to understand that you are not beholden to the registrar of your domain to also host your web site or email. The second point is that a web hosting provider should be chosen based on the requirements of your web site; not the other way around. Finally, in many cases you can benefit from “best of breed” providers in the form of increased service for less money.