So, I’m sitting on a dock in the Adirondack Mountains in northern New York state, with my laptop and a semi-reliable wireless connection from a cabin up the hill. I type in ashmug.com in Firefox, and in seconds our nifty web site appears on my computer screen. If we think about it, that’s a pretty extraordinary accomplishment – an instruction sent from one corner of the country that ultimately finds its way to another corner and back again. For our inaugural post on web and related topics, let’s explore the whole idea of Internet addresses and domains. We’ll use ASHMUG.com as an example.
The ASHMUG web site is hosted on a server with this Internet address: 188.8.131.52 (aka an IP address). Our web host, bluehost.com, is located in Provo, UT. They probably have rooms full of servers, each of which has an address like this, and sometimes a single machine may be like an apartment building with a bunch of these numerical addresses. One of those servers in Provo has been assigned our IP address.
I, however, did not type 184.108.40.206 into Firefox. I typed ashmug.com. So, who makes the connection?
We start with ICANN – Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. They keep track of and issue both the numerical IP addresses and the high level domains: .com, .org, .us, .tv, etc. They’re technically an international, non-government body, but with heavy support and influence from the United States government.
The ASHMUG.com domain has a top level, .com, as part of its address. That usually refers to commercial enterprises, but there is no scrutiny or checking done when someone registers their domain. In a similar vein, .org, often means a not-for-profit organization, but you don’t have to prove your non-profit status to get a .org domain.
When ASHMUG’s founding fathers, er… parents, wanted to start a web site, they registered the name with one of a large number of domain registrars. In our case ashmug.com is registered with GoDaddy.com, of Danika Patrick infamy. (Not being wild about the misogynistic advertising from GoDaddy, I’ll hold my virtual nose through this paragraph.) GoDaddy had to 1) make sure that no one else was using the ashmug.com domain name, and 2) that the domain owner had a real email address, street address, etc. We passed! This registration keeps track of the domain’s owner and a few other contact people, and also records where the ashmug.com domain name server (DNS) is located. JARGON/ACRONYMN ALERT: it’s already getting confusing, huh? Don’t worry, there is a glossary at the end of this post.
When we registered GoDaddy sent our domain name and the address of our DNS server to one of about a dozen or so root name servers around the world. These are hosted at various organizations and institutions and they update each other’s information constantly.
So, back to my laptop on the dock – connected via the HughesNet satellite service. Let’s say I type in ashmug.com on my browser and this is the first time HughesNet has had to retrieve this domain. Their servers poll one of the root servers nearby and ask, “Where in the hell is ashmug.com?” The answer they get back is to go to a server at bluehost.com. That server, then, will say, “You want a regular web site for this domain? Then try this address: 220.127.116.11.” HughesNet sends the request to 18.104.22.168 and the web page appears on my browser. Once I do this HughesNet will remember the information it retrieved about ASHMUG and if I go back to the site later today or tomorrow, HughesNet will used the cached(saved) information to speed up the process.
Email works much the same way. If I want to send a message to an ashmug email address, my email service does the same kind of lookup, but at the end the bluehost DNS server will say, “You want to send a message to <something>@ashmug.com? Well, in this case send it to a server called mailx.opendoor.com.” This is a good example of a topic we had on the ASHMUG discussion list recently. Bluehost.com hosts our web site, but Project A/Ashland HomeNet hosts our email accounts when it bought the OpenDoor business recently. Though the web site and email addresses both have ashmug.com it is possible to have the web site hosted in one place and the email someplace else.
There’s another magical process on the Internet that I’ll just mention briefly. We can gawk at it and admire it, but I don’t know enough about how it truly works to explain it well. One of the original design objectives for the Internet is that communication would not flow through a central computer/controller. Instead, the design allows communication to flow on a number of different paths, which makes it less susceptible to foreign attack (this was the Defense Department, after all, who paid for the early research.) There are little packets zinging around the multitude of connections. Sometimes a big message will be broken into several packets and it is theoretically possible that each of those packets goes a different route. How does that happen? I haven’t a clue.
So, what does this all mean to you, if you want to have your own domain name and web site? Here are some typical steps.
- Choose and register a domain name – probably using either the .com or .org top level. You do this through a domain registrar. Shop around. You should be able to get good service for $10 a year per domain. I use gkg.net, but there are plenty of others. You may have to try several different domain names until you find one that is not taken already.The registrar will ask where your domain name servers are located. You might not know yet, until you do step #2. In that case you can “park” your domain with the registrar, which means the domain name belongs to you, but for the moment, it points to the registrar.
- Choose a web site/email host. There are a gazillion of these. Ask for referrals from friends and on the ASHMUG list. The bluehost.com chosen by our web team may be a good solution but there are lots of others.
- Based on the instructions from your new web site host, go back to the registrar and change the settings so that your name servers are the ones specified by the host.
…or… sometimes you can go to a full service web host, and they will offer to take care of everything for you, including registering the domain name. In this case, just make sure your domain name is registered to you and not to the web host. You need to own that name, so that you can move it whenever you like and not be locked into a single web host.
Using a web developer…. If you are starting a web site from scratch and getting help from a web developer, they may offer to set up your domain for you. Just be sure that they register the domain in your name, and not theirs. They can be listed as a technical contact, but the Registrant/Domain owner needs to be you.
Domain Name – your person, unique “English looking” web address. e.g. ashmug.com
Top Level Domain – the various .com, .org, .gov, .tv choices that suggest what kind of organization you are. No guarantees, though – no one checks.
IP Address – the numerical address for either your web hosting server or your email server. e.g. 22.214.171.124
Registrar – a company that is authorized to reserve and register domain names. This is your first step on the process of getting your own domain.
Name Server – this is a special server that is often provided by your web host, and which tells the rest of the Internet where to find your web pages and email boxes. e.g. ns1.bluehost.com