In the first article of the "How the Internet Works" series, we explained the basic principles behind the internet. This time around, the name of the game is names, and we've got some questions for you to ponder:
- How does a website even get a name?
- Why are names needed?
- Would a website by any other name smell just as sweet?
In this article, we'll answer these questions. (Well, at least the first two.)
For all intents and purposes, on the internet, a domain name is simply a website's name. For instance, some example domain names include practicum.com or plato.stanford.edu. When dealing with these, people are usually talking about top-level domains (TLD) and second-level domains (SLD). Let's explore both.
A top-level domain (known as a domain zone) designates a website's country or category. Looking at some examples of top-level domains, you'll probably notice some familiar friends in the mix: .kr, .br, .cz, .com, .org, .edu.
There are two categories of top-level domains. There are country-code domains designated for specific countries and there are generic domains.
Today, .com is probably the most widely known example of a generic TLD. While the .com domain was originally reserved for use by commercial entities, these restrictions have since been removed. The same thing happened in the cases of the .org and .net domains, although the .edu domain remains reserved for educational institutions.
Country-code domains are the second category of TLDs. It's not actually necessary for a website to have a domain that corresponds to the country of origin. For example, a website from Russia may utilize the .com zone. And while the .tk domain was originally created for the tiny Tokelau Islands in the Pacific Ocean, just about anyone can make use of it.
Moving on, a second-level domain is, essentially, the main name of the website:
To illustrate, in the case of the domain name practicum.com, we have the practicum second-level domain in the .com zone. Likewise, we can break down plato.stanford.edu and see it has .edu while the top-level domain and the second-level domain is plato.stanford.
Domains of any level are usually written with Latin letters, but with Internationalized Domain Names (IDNs), we can see various language-specific characters in the URL. This includes Cyrillic letters, Chinese and Japanese characters, or Latin alphabet-based characters with diacritics or ligatures. For example, the domain 中国移动.中国 is the address of a Chinese mobile operator and кто.рф leads to a website for registering Russian domain names.
From a technical point of view, a domain name is a record in the database that tells computers: "If an address is entered, send a request to the corresponding IP address of the server that hosts the website." A domain name also functions as a record on a server which hosts a website: "If there is an incoming request for a particular domain name, send back the corresponding website which is tied to the domain name."
Who needs a domain?
if you want to create a website, or if you already have one and wish to make it accessible for a larger audience, you need to buy a domain. The timing of this is flexible. You could buy a domain name before building your website (this is referred to as domain parking) or when the website is ready to launch.
A domain is like a fingerprint: each one is unique. That means if someone has already registered the domain you'd like, such as practicum.com, you won't be able to take it. Although it does happen, buying an already-registered domain can become quite an expensive endeavor.
A company or individual can buy as many unique domain names as they'd like as there are no restrictions. You can buy a domain for yourself, your company and each of its products, a special domain for a big presentation, or as a birthday present for a loved one. As long as the domain has its own unique name, you can buy it.
Buying a domain
To buy a domain, you first need to choose a domain name registrar. There are plenty of companies to choose from. Some popular registrars include Namecheap, GoDaddy, DreamHost, HostGator and NameSilo, but there exist a wide variety of additional choices beyond these.
No matter which one you end up going with, the overall experience you get is essentially the same. Buying a domain usually goes something like this:
- You'll register on the website.
- From there, it's time to select an available domain name.
- Next, you'll fill in the necessary personal information or details of the organization.
- Then, you must pay for the domain name.
- Finally, you'll be able to connect your domain to your hosting service. (We'll talk about hosting in another article of this series.)
WHOIS is an online record which contains information about domains and their owners. As you set up your domain, it's also worthwhile to consider grabbing the "WHOIS protection" or "private registration." It might incur some extra fee, but this feature guarantees that your personal contact information won't be available in the WHOIS record.
Domain renewal and expiration
Generally speaking, people are not able to "buy" domain names. Instead, domain name registrars essentially rent them out for individuals and organizations to use. The length of this agreement varies, but the contracted time is generally a year at the low end, while a lease period of 10 years would be an example of a more extended timeframe.
What happens when the contract ends? Buyers may decide to avoid any future problems and set up an auto-renewal plan for their domains. Additionally, when the agreed time period nears an end, customers will generally be given the opportunity to renew the domain. Once the domain expires, usually there is a grace period where services are suspended, but the original buyer still has the opportunity to renew. After a certain period of time has passed, expired domains are auctioned off. If a popular domain finds itself expired and up for auction, there's a good chance someone will buy it. Eventually, if the auction is unsuccessful, the domain will be made available for purchase once again.
Phew, that was quite a bit of work! Still, registering a domain is only half the battle. You also need to configure it so that everyone knows exactly where the address leads. That means you'll need to connect it to a hosting service where you'll upload the necessary files. After that, you'll have your own website with its own name on the web.
But before we tackle that bit, let's take a pause. Hopefully, you feel a little more confident about domains and you're ready to make a name for yourself. After that, if you're ready to take the next step, building a website, setting up a back end, or breaking into a tech career, here's some good news — we've got you covered! At Practicum, we offer online education and mentorship to help you develop a career in tech and allow you to take a deep dive into interesting topics like data science, web development, and more, in an awesome and supportive environment.