One of the things I’ve noticed over the years is how often businesses and organizations struggle to understand and track their own web assets, such as domains, web hosting, and email.
In this series of posts, I’ll explain several of these key technical elements—what they are, how they work, and why it’s important to keep track of and protect them.
Part 1 – Domains
The starting point for a web request (accessing a website through a browser or sending an email) is typically the domain. Most are aware of the need to register (purchase) domains for either business or personal use, but many don’t know how they actually function. People may think it’s as simple as typing in an address and reaching a site, but there is a series of steps that each request undertakes to reach its destination.
What are they?
Simply put, domains are sign posts on the Internet. They direct the way to a specific resource like a website or an email address, and are the first step in the flow of information when a request for a resource is made.
Making a web request is like going on a trip. Instead of arriving at a sunny beach in Mexico, you’re trying to reach a web page or email address. Much like a plane ticket, which directs you to a specific departure airport and a specific flight, a domain directs you to a specific domain name server (DNS). I’ll be covering DNS (or “the departure airport”) in an upcoming post.
A typical domain consists of a unique name and a TLD (top‐level domain), such as topdraw.com. In this case, topdraw is the unique name and .com is the TLD. There are several types of domains.
- gTLDs (generic TLDs) are the most common. These include .com, .net, .org, etc.
Examples: google.com, facebook.com
- ccTLDs (country code TLDs) are assigned to 250 countries. One example of a ccTLD is a .ca domain, which is specifically a domain for Canada. Each ccTLD has its own rules about who can purchase/own them, while some countries have licensed out their assigned ccTLD for commercial purposes, such as the island of Tuvalu (.tv).
Examples: cbc.ca, tsn.ca, bbc.co.uk, mtv.tv
- IDNs (internationalized domain names) are fairly new. These allow for domains in different languages and character sets, such as Arabic, Cyrillic, and Hebrew.
Examples: 日本レジストリサービス.jp (Japan Registry Services)
How do you get a domain?
Buy it! (if it’s available). Domains can be purchased from thousands of different resellers, including Top Draw. These are typically known as a domain providers.
A registrant is the person/company purchasing the domain name, and listed owner of the domain.
Registrars are the companies/organizations that have control over the granting of domain names. These are typically larger companies like Tucows (OpenSRS) or Network Solutions. Registrars have access to the central Registry Database, from which the Authoritative Root (a list of all domain names on the Internet) is built.
Once a domain is acquired, it is then owned by the registrant for a period of 1 to 10 years at a time, depending on the TLD and the length purchased. Domains can typically be renewed indefinitely prior to expiry.
Once purchased, the domain is pointed to at least two domain name servers, with one acting as the primary DNS (again, more on this in an upcoming post!).
How do they work?
When a request is made to a particular domain, the request is pointed to the domain name servers (DNS) associated to the domain. It is the DNS that determines where the request goes from there.
Why are they important?
Domains are important for several reasons. They allow you to create a web presence or set up branded email addresses, they protect your intellectual property from other people treading on your name, and they can be used for marketing or specific services/products.
What should I be doing?
If you are registering domains yourself, we recommend buying directly through one of the large registrars, such as Tucows (Hover or OpenSRS), Enom, Network Solutions, or GoDaddy. If you are registering through a third-party like Top Draw, find out who they register their domains through, and if you will have access to a registrar account. We register our domains through OpenSRS (Tucows), one of the largest providers in the world, and are happy to give our clients access to their domains at any time.
When it comes to domain registrations, you always want to make sure you/your company is listed as the domain registrar. Even if a third-party is registering/maintaining the domain on your behalf, you should be listed as the registrant in order to retain legal ownership in the event of a dispute.
Always, always, always (I can’t stress this enough) make sure your domain admin contact information is kept up-to-date, especially the email address. This is one of the biggest issues we run into with businesses we deal with.
What often occurs is that someone who previously worked for the company or someone else, like the CEO’s brother’s son’s best friend, registered the domain five years ago, and the admin contact now points to an email address that doesn’t exist. That email address is key, as that is where renewal reminders will typically be sent, and in the event you forget your domain registrar account password, that is the one and usually only place you will be able to recover your account access. It can be a pain to have this changed manually, as you will need to provide proof in the form of applications and business licenses.
That brings us to the next point, which is to always keep your domain registrar account information on file and up-to-date. Maintaining good records will allow you to keep control over your assets.
Most registrars will send renewal notices once your domain gets to within 90 days of renewals. Pay attention to these and renew as early as possible to avoid complications. If your domain expires, you will usually have a grace period to renew. However, it could mean that anything tied to your domain (like your website or email) may be unavailable as you scramble to renew.
Try to keep all of your domains in one registrar account. All too often domains are registered by various people in different departments, so they use different registrars. Luckily, domain registrations can be transferred and consolidated in one place, but why go through the hassle? Create a domain champion internally who is managing the whereabouts of everything domain-related.
Most public domain information can be found by doing a WHOIS search (http://whois.domaintools.com). It’s up to you if you choose to make this information private or not. Some registrars charge for private WHOIS, but some (like Tucows), do not. WHOIS is very useful for finding out several pieces of information, including the registrar, registrant, contact information, expiry date, and where the name servers are pointing.
Domain locking is another useful tool. You can set your domain’s status to locked to prevent unauthorized transfers. Most registrars also require an authorization code (or auth code) when a transfer is requested, so this is just an extra layer of security above that.
There you have it, more than you ever wanted to know about domains. The next part of this series will focus on DNS, or in the trip analogy, the departure airport.