(August 1, 2003 - Reprint from "The
Digital Rag Too") The Internet domain name system is
probably the most misunderstood aspect of the Internet in the eyes of the
small business owner. The questions I get and the problems I've seen have
prompted me to write this article to provide some basic information and
some pragmatic rules for small business owners to follow.
|Most people today see domain names
as part of two different facilities, e-mail and web addresses. In an
e-mail address, the domain is the part to the right of the @ symbol.
In a web address (Universal Resource Locator or URL) it is the part
after the "http://" or "ftp://" and before the next "/" so in
domain is "www.pacdat.net".
First a bit of
history and some basic semantics.
Putting names to
computers was invented to give human memory a bit of a break. Internet
systems actually address each other using a set of numbers called an
Internet Protocol (IP) address - based on 4 sets of digits from 0 to 255
each separated by a period as follows:
192.168.100.1 or 18.104.22.168 or 255.255.255.255
Back when there
were only a few hundred or even a few thousand systems connected to the
Internet, there was a simple text file conversion utility that identified
a computer with a number. These files of addresses were all kept up to
date by hand. As the number of machines grew, keeping the files up to
date became a real problem.
|Example of a "hosts" file
Mockapetris and the late Dr. Jonathan Postel, in 1983, saw the need for a
more automated and distributed facility and invented the Domain Name
The DNS paradigm
involves names separated by a period instead of numbers separated by
periods. There is a mapping of the names to the numbers that takes place
each time a computer system must be addressed, but this "name resolution"
is mostly done behind the scenes so the user never sees the number.
Administration of the system is "delegated" at each point where there is
a period in the name. The administrator of a delegated level must keep
track of all the delegations, and especially in the case of the top
levels, typically charges for such administration (US$35/year being the
typical amount today for COM, ORG, NET etc.)
The names build
from right to left but are normally read from left to right. They build
upon the first level or top level domains (TLDs) by adding second level
domains, then third level domains and so forth to a maximum currently of
63 characters (including the dots or periods). For example, in pacdat.net
the top level domain is "NET" and the second level domain is "PACDAT"
(case is insignificant in domain names). The machine I'm writing this
article on is called "PACDAT1.PACDAT.NET"
and others in my local network include "NFS.PACDAT.NET"
and "PACTV.PACDAT.NET" where PACDAT1, NFS
and PACTV are all third level domain names. My system is fairly typical
of most LANs in that it uses the third level domain name as the system
name of a particular computer.
systems of the past (pre 1993 or so) couldn't deal with more than one DNS
name pointing at any one machine. In addition, many times a particular
machine was dedicated to the provision of a single Internet service;
e-mail, gopher, wais, dns, web, ftp etc. and many system administrators
simply named their machine after the IP service it provided. This lead to
machine names like "WWW.PACDAT.NET" or "FTP.PACDAT.NET"
or "MAIL.PACDAT.NET" or "POP.PACDAT.NET"
for web, ftp, e-mail routing or e-mail receiving respectively. Generic
machines got other names, sometimes mythical gods (thor), or other
characters (golum, frodo, gandalf) or anything the administrator felt
So the domain
names beginning with "WWW" are only named that way because of convention
- they don't need to be named that way! In
fact, many new domain users are dropping the WWW and just publishing the
second level domain (pacdat.net works the same as www.pacdat.net)
It used to be that
if you had an account on a particular machine, then your e-mail address
was your account name @ the machine's DNS name (email@example.com)
for example in my case here. This worked well up to the point where the
Internet became a commercial product. During our initial growth at Wimsey
in the early 90's, we participated in the development and deployment of
some of the first software packages that could deal with hosting e-mail
for multiple domains on a single computer. By the time our "Virtual Post
Office" system was finished in 1997, it was hosting thousands of domains
and tens of thousands of e-mail accounts easily on a single system.
Today, systems host
hundreds and thousands of web domains, e-mail accounts, ftp accounts and
all manner of Internet Protocol services, all on a single computer or
load-shared across what looks to the rest of the net as if it were one
So... if the DNS
name doesn't have to refer to a unique computer anymore, what is it that
it does refer to? Today, it refers to data and facilities for a
particular company - yours if you work it right and your ISP sets things
up properly. The fact that your data and facilities might be hosted on a
computer that hosts other company's data and facilities is a triumph of
technology and in most company's case makes no difference. The software
today looks at the name the viewer used to find it, and makes itself look
like a "virtual" server for that name. Sometimes the computer system may
have several (many) different IP addresses and present a different
name/company on each of them.
information and tutorials you can visit
Up until the mid
1990's, there were six main "top level domain names" plus one for each
country in the world. Most recently this has been added to but for now we
won't worry about the additions.
Most people today
are familiar with the most prevalent and oldest "Top Level Domains" -
dot-COM, dot-ORG, dot-NET as well as their country domains dot-CA in the
case of Canada and dot-US in the case of the United States.
people really don't understand what comes either before or after the most
obvious part of a typical domain name when they see it in the context of
either a web address or an e-mail address; the two most prevalent uses of
domain names in the business world today.
We've already dealt
with the classic third level domains - WWW, FTP, MAIL, POP - they simply
are the extension of the historic need to designate a machine for a
particular task. Today there is little need for them in a new domain
except to "fit in".
So... let's discuss
the options that a new (to the Internet) business has in domain names and
what their consequences might be.
discussion we'll assume that we're dealing with a small business so we
don't have to think too much about "protecting" an international trade
name or dealing in multiple countries.
will decide that they want their own unique second level domain in one of
the top level domains now available. The most sought after TLD is dot-COM
and if you can get something that fits closely with your business name
under this TLD then you probably should take it. If you can't find
something appropriate in COM then you should look at your country domain
(CA, US, etc.) as the other major TLDs are supposedly reserved for
specific types of organizations. Unless you are running an ISP you should
not use NET, and unless you are a non-profit organization you should
steer clear of ORG. The other main TLDs have acceptable usage policies
(AUP) and people who police them fairly strenuously so you won't get MIL
or EDU or GOV.
The new TLDs and
information on them and the main ones can be seen at
Another option that
some businesses might consider is a third level domain under their
Internet Access Provider's (IAP - the company who sells you access to the
rest of the Internet) main domain (pacdat.isp.net
or mybusiness.myisp.com etc.) This is not
offered much currently, however you may come across it. This is an
inexpensive and relatively easy way to have a unique identity on the
Internet. The main problem with it is that over time you may decide to
move your hosting from your current IAP to someone else - and you can't
take the name with you because it is tied to the original IAP; well, you
really could take it with you, but the IAPs usually don't allow you to,
they control it and they use it as a reason for you to stay.
As an alternative
to using your IAP's domain, you may be able to find a separate service
provider (not an access provider, just a service provider.) In fact,
pacdat.net, my domain, is used in this fashion by a number of my friends
and some organizations I and my family have associations with. These
include 583rcacs.pacdat.net (my sons' Air
Cadet squadron,) bcoy1cpb.pacdat.net (Colin
Stevens' military group's site) and a number of others. Our software
company hosts a number of such domains that others can use for their site
domain names. Note that we are not an Internet Access Provider - we don't
sell access to the 'Net, only services on it; so in the new scheme of
things we truly are an Internet Service Provider.
Note that with each
of these extra (3rd, 4th, etc.) levels of domains it is possible to have
a separate set of e-mail addresses too.
firstname.lastname@example.org is different from
email@example.com and so it goes with all
multi-level domain names. In some cases the e-mail software may be set to
forward one address to another, or even alias all addresses at one domain
to the same name in another domain (*@pacdat1.pacdat.net is the same as
*@pacdat.net for example) but that is for another article.
sometimes offered is not actually a sub domain, but rather simply a
separate file folder or directory under on the server for a particular
domain. An example might have a URL such as:
www.myisp.com/mybusiness/. The portion "mybusines/" is the name of a file
folder on the server.
The biggest problem with your business
having just a folder (besides the same problem above where you can't take
it with you to another IAP/ISP) is that it doesn't give you a separate
e-mail address name-space. Your IAP/ISP might let you have something like
firstname.lastname@example.org but there is always the
chance (and with some of the larger ISPs a good chance) that the name
will already be taken. The generic names "sales@" or "info@" will all
have been taken so you will be stuck with something like:
So to summarize:
- In WWW.yourname.com
- the WWW is not necessary and today is becoming redundant. The
domain name is the "yourname.com"
is OK as long as you are sure you are not going to change ISP/IAPs.
Today this likely means you are using one of the top tier IAPs like
your local major telephone company or cable provider or a major ISP.
may be OK but is not as flexible as
mycompany.myisp.com in that it doesn't give you the ability to
have your own separate set of e-mail addresses (such as "INFO@mycompany.myisp.com"
- Richard Pitt
Richard Pitt is a Canadian Internet pioneer, having
been the CEO of Wimsey.COM, the first commercial ISP in Canada. Today
he is one of Bannerline's associates and deals in all aspects of
business and the Internet.
The "Digital Rag Too" is the latest iteration of the Digital Rag,
Canada's first Webzine, published by Wimsey.
top of page