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Domain name hosting, website hosting and keeping them separate

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Wednesday, 07 October, 2009

Content I've often had to explain to clients that websites have two distinct aspects of hosting - domain name hosting and website hosting.

For people new to commissioning websites, this is an essential and simple concept to grasp and will save confusion later down the line for example, when domain names have to be renewed. Understanding the distinction will allow payments to be updated for both, to avoid domain names lapsing and therefore being lost.

Domain hosting and website hosting can be acquired from the same company but can also be bought separately from two different companies.

Domain hosting - the first thing to do

Domain hosting is the cheaper of the two, and is simply about asking a domain registration company to register and keep/host records for any domain name (usually for a minimum of two years at first). Its the first thing that needs to be done when considering having a website and "renting" webspace for the domain name at this point is unnecessary.

Each domain name is unique - there are different suffixes to choose from (.com, .net, .co.uk etc) but there can never be the same domain name twice. Therefore, its usually an important issue that when starting a website, you need to consider what name to go for and to check that it's available to get.

You can read about tips for choosing a domain name by clicking here

Registering more than one domain

When considering domain hosting, you can also register more than one. For example, you might want to get the same name, but use different suffixes ("yourbusiness.com" and "yourbusiness.co.uk") or you might also want to get slight variations on the name itself.

For a business, the cost is minimal and since domain names are unique, it might be a worthy investment to acquire variations on your name to avoid competitors cashing in on your domain.

Setting details for your domain

With most domain registration companies, when you register a domain, you'll often get access to an administration panel where you can set and change details for the domain and of course, pay for it in the future. You can usually set it so that when the new domain name is entered in a browser window address bar, it "forwards" to a web address you specify or simply goes to a "holding page" that the company provides. If anyone emails to the domain, the email is forwarded to another email address you specify.

Thus, you can imagine that at first, you can set the holding page for the web address and specify your own, perhaps personal email to forward to. Once you have a website, you can then set both of these to the new website details. If you register more than one domain name, you can do the above for your "primary" domain, and then all the other domain names can all be set to the same details.

Choosing a domain registration company

Nowadays, it seems competition has caused most domain registration companies to offer fair deals and a good service. I used to come across a few companies that would lock you in once you bought a domain from them, by enforcing a charge (I remember one being £50) if you wished to transfer the domain away.

Theoretically, once you're happy with one company and it does everything you need, there isn't much need to go elsewhere.

Price-wise, the main thing to watch out for is that the prices are reasonable (as a guide, ".co.uk" domains should be around £10 for the first two years and ".com" domains £15-£30) and that there is no charge to transfer domain names away from their system.

What the domain registration company should offer for your domain

From an administration point of view, you'll need to make sure you can do the following:
  • Set the Domain Name Servers (DNS - this allows you to set where a website is hosted, if hosted elsewhere.)
  • Administer the Domain Zone file (If you're not setting the DNS elsewhere, you can set aspects of the domain elsewhere individually, such as the email)
  • Set domain and email forward (If you're not altering any of the two above, then you'll at least want to control these two)
The requirements above might not make much sense but if you're having a website built by a professional, the first two will be useful for them. Either way, these requirements should be standard and you can easily make an enquiry with this list to a company before registering a domain.

About Web hosting

Web hosting, in contrast to domain hosting has alot more to consider. What you'd actually be getting when buying a web hosting package, is an allocated amount of space on the web hosting company's servers, to "host" your website files and a portion of the bandwidth to connect these files to the internet.

In theory, you could just host your website on your own computer if you could leave it on 24 hours a day, connected to the internet via your broadband supplier. But of course, in practise, your computer and internet connection would have to be set up in a certain way. Web hosting companies simply specialise in setting up computer hardware and connectivity to the web specifically to host websites and offer all the services around this in a much more cost effective way.

Which web hosting package?

Prices and types of web hosting packages can vary quite alot. You can get free hosting, inexpensive shared hosting or you could get your own dedicated server, which could cost a thousand or two per month to rent.

Basically, for most purposes and particularly for new, smaller web presence sites, you need pay no more than £30 - £60 per year.

I'd certainly advise against using free hosting space for a business website. You're likely to have more restrictions and less control over how you use the space and it sometimes shows in the browser that your site is hosted with free space. The cost of shared hosting is negligible compared to the professionalism you gain from it.

Ultimately however, if you're having a website built by a professional, they should know what's needed for the site (e.g. whether a database is required) and therefore should be able to advise on the choice of web hosting package to get.

Separating domain name hosting and website hosting

Faced with both domain and web hosting, the most convenient thing to do is to look for one company that provides both and order from them. It's certainly more convenient and the process automatically ties the domain name to the hosting space without you even having to acknowledge the need for it. There are sometimes settings that need to be set up between the domain name and web space, so being hosted with one company means that this is all arranged.

However, having gone through the process of getting hosting many times, nowadays, if given a choice, I'd advise getting the domain from one company and the hosting space from another.

There isn't a compelling reason to do this, at least not when things are going smoothly. But keeping the two separate means they're both independently controlled by you (or your website designer) rather than a company you buy from.

How domain names and web hosting are linked together
Registering your domain from one company (let's say Fantasy Domains (!)) and getting web hosting from another company (Reality Hosts (!)) does mean that there's an extra bit of admin to do at first.

But first, how are domain names and web hosting connected?

When you register a domain name, the domain hosting company registers the name to the appropriate "registrar" (e.g. Nominet, for all the UK suffixes). Once registered, when the domain name is entered into a browser (by you or your new visitors), the browser detects what the suffix is, does a check with the appropriate registrar's records (e.g. Nominet) which then in turn tell the browser to go check with Fantasy Domains for the website files to show.

If you've not set up a website yet, then Fantasy Domains' records might indicate that their default holding page should be shown.

Now if you got web hosting from Reality Hosts, the "extra bit of admin" that needs to be done, is simply to get the DNS Settings from them (usually two sets of numbers or something that looks like ns1.realityhosts.com and ns2.realityhosts.com) and then to login to the Fantasy Domains' admin control panels for the domain, and enter the DNS settings there.

Therefore, after doing this, every time Fantasy Domains gets a "request" for the domain name, it simply tells the browser to go look at Reality Hosts' web hosting files.

Make sense? The DNS settings are basically the link that ties the domain name to the web hosting space.

The benefit of keeping domain name hosting and web hosting separate

In the case of things going wrong with your web hosting (which is more likely than domain name hosting) and the relationship with the hosting company goes sour, you can simply set up hosting elsewhere.

Alternatively, over time, you might also find other reasons for legitimately moving web hosting. For example, your site might need a database or other dynamic technology not available with the current host, or a number of sites on different hosting accounts need to be amalgamated onto one server, or you might simply outgrow the hosting company.

Transferring your website to a new web hosting company

In order to transfer your site and assuming that the domain is registered with a separate company to your web hosting company, you begin by simply registering a new web hosting account with a new hosting company. The existing website then needs to be uploaded or installed on there so that you have two duplicate sites, the old one of which is viewable via the domain name.

The next and final thing to do is to get the DNS settings from the new hosting company and update the domain name control panel. Over 24-48 hours, your domain name will then start directing visitors to the new website.

Again, if you're having your website built by a professional, they should be able to advise on your domain name and web hosting options, but its good to be aware of what your options are and the implications.

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