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Domain Names, Registrars and Hosting

If you are going to provide website design services for clients, you will need to be familiar with the ins, outs and pitfalls of registering and hosting domain names. It looks a bit daunting at first, but it's really not such a biggie if you follow some simple guidelines.

Which comes first - the chicken or the egg?
Domain Registration Services - Registrars
Hosting Service - where your website lives
Windows or Linux - which should I choose?
What do they offer?
Putting it all together

When I built my very first web site, I couldn't wait to put it on the Internet so the whole world could see it, and marvel at my expertise as a web designer.

I discovered that my ISP provided me with free space on their web servers where I could house my magnificent creation. After following their instructions, and making the mandatory mistakes, I finally had my website up and running on The Public Internet – wooohooo!!

I even had my own website address, which was really cool and not all that hard to remember, if you put your mind to it – it looked something like: http://www.myisp.com/users/25966/~myloginname - well, it wasn't yahoo.com, but it was FREE.

And when I say "tilde", which is pronounced "tilda" I really mean that funny squiggly character which appears on the left-most key of the second-top row (the one where the numbers are) of your computer keyboard – oh, and don't forget to hold down the shift key at the same time and remember that myloginname has two "N"s or it won't work properly and, yes they are called forward slashes – the one on the question-mark key (no, you don't need to hold shift for this one).
Do you want me to write it down for you? I'll need a bigger bit of paper than that.


It quickly became obvious here that I was probably getting just what I'd paid for, and that would explain why my shiny new hit counter was still saying "You are Visitor #13" after three months (I had yet to learn about meta tags, search engines and site promotion, but that's a story for another article).

And, to add insult to injury, when I rang my ISP to enquire why my new form-to-email script wasn't working, I was told that their free hosting didn't include CGI-bin execute permissions, (whatever that meant), and that I should look at something called paid hosting.

So, off I went, cap in hand, looking for a better alternative. I had two things on my shopping list:

1. A domain name which folks could remember, and which described my business.
2. Somewhere that my new domain could live, which provided things my free hosting did not, such as email addresses, ability to run scripts etc.

Now, these two things are pretty much inter-related – you need somewhere to house your domain name (a hosting company), and you need to tell the hosting company the domain name you will be hosting with them.
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So, which comes first – the chicken or the egg?

Before you commit yourself to anything, you should check out the various services available. The good old rule "you get what you pay for" holds true here.

Okay, so what should I look for?

Domain Registration Services - Registrars

Let's start with domain name registration – for this you need to use a Registrar.

Domain registration used to be the sole province of a company called Network Solutions (www.networksolutions.com), but in recent times the whole domain registration scene has been opened up, so that there are now literally hundreds of registrars competing for your dollars, with prices as low as $9.99, maybe even less!

Obviously, some of these services offer more that others, and charge accordingly, but do you need all the "bells and whistles"?

Some services offer domain parking, which means you can register your domain name and the registrar will "park" it on their servers for you. This may be useful if you are not ready to upgrade to a paid hosting service.
Some registrars offer this service free; others charge for it, some offer it as an option.
If you are intending to sign up for paid hosting, you don't need domain parking, as your domain will live at your new hosting company.

Some services bundle all sorts of goodies with domain registration, such as "build-it-yourself" websites and even cheap hosting. You should look carefully at what is on offer here, and decide whether you need it. Are you paying for something you don't need?

On the other hand – don't jump at the first discount registrar you come across – look before you leap!
The one thing that is most important is the ability for you to easily and quickly change the details of your domain registration.
This may not seem all that important, but let me assure you, it can become a nightmare with some registrars.

Sooner or later, you will need to change some of the details recorded in your registration – for instance, you may change your email or physical address or, if you change to a new hosting company, you will need to supply new name server information.

Make sure that the registrar you choose offers web-based domain management, particularly the ability to change name server records – most of the good services have a demo of how their on-line management works.

If you are technically competent with DNS and MX records etc etc, you can do all this stuff by email, but if you are in that category you shouldn't need to read this!

One final caution – beware of registrars and hosting services which offer to "do it all for you" – whilst this may appear to be an ideal solution, in some cases you will find that you are not listed as a contact for the domain, which can involve you in a long an tiresome exchange of emails in order to make any changes.
Some of the less scrupulous hosting companies have been known to offer this "do-it-all" service in order to make it difficult, if not almost impossible for you to move your domain to another company.

You own the domain name, and you should be listed as at least one of the contacts – make sure you are.
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Hosting Services – Where Your Website Lives

Whilst choosing the wrong registrar for your domain name may cause you to use bad language, choosing the wrong hosting company can have much worse consequences.

The web site(s) you create are entrusted to your hosting company, and you expect them to be "open for business" 24x7 – that's what the Internet's all about, right?

Wrong!

Even the best hosting company will have some down time – time when your web site is inaccessible to the rest of the world, time when the sign on your e-business door says CLOSED.

If you are doing websites for clients, your day can really be messed up big-time by angry phone calls telling you that they can't access their website – you really want to limit the number of such days/phone calls as much as possible – they're not good for business, or your ulcers!

What you are after is to host your website with a company where downtime is minimal – you can find hundreds of horror stories on the web about the damage done by unreliable or unresponsive hosting companies.

So, be very careful about companies who advertise "Guaranteed 100% up-time" – such a guarantee is just not achievable, unless you are paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for dedicated servers with failover redundancy and lots of other complicated-sounding and expensive features – and these are a bit outside the scope of this article!

Similarly, beware of anything "unlimited" – nothing is unlimited, especially Internet bandwidth. Reputable hosting companies will set out exactly what they offer – so much disk space, so much download and so on.

So, the three things which are most important to you (and, of course, your clients) are:
1. SERVICE
2. SERVICE - and -
3. SERVICE

But how are you going to find out which ones have the best service? After all, they all make much the same claims.

Easy – ask their customers!

Yeah, right, how do I know who their customers are?

Well there are a couple of ways – many hosting companies have a "Forum" or "Bulletin Board" where users and others are free to post their thoughts – you should browse through these looking for positive and negative comments, and try to weigh up for yourself what their users think of them.

You could post a message yourself saying that you are thinking of signing up, and asking for advice – you'll soon find out what others think!

The other way is to search the public newsgroups (usenet) – go to www.deja.com and search for the name of the company you are interested in – you may be surprised at what you turn up!
(I have never been all that impressed by "read what our customers say" messages on websites – are they going to publish the nasty ones?)
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Windows or Linux – which should I choose?

Web servers are typically either powered by Windows NT/IIS or Linux/Apache – which is best for me?

This all depends on what you need to do – Fusion will work happily with either, so that's not a problem.

The Linux environment gives you much more control over your files and folders – you can set and change permissions easily, which makes it easy to install and run most of the freely available scripts, such as form-to-email, bulletin boards etc etc.

If you want to use Microsoft's Active Server Pages (ASP) to create dynamic websites, you are more likely to find it on an NT (Windows) server. The big advantage of ASP is that it's often offered at no additional charge.
Allaire's ColdFusion, likewise is more common on NT servers, though more and more Linux houses are offering it as well.
PHP/MySQL is commonly offered on Linux servers, and is on of the fastest-growing database environments around.
Expect to pay extra for these services.

You don't need Microsoft FrontPage Extensions if you are using NetObjects Fusion – they are only required to allow some of the features of Microsoft FrontPage to operate. Many hosts refuse to install FP Extensions as they are perceived as a possible security risk.

What do they Offer?

Once you have got yourself a "short list" of hosting companies, it's time to analyse the features they offer.

You will want to be able to easily manage your account – use telnet, set up emails etc – check out what the company offers here (control panels).

Most people will want a number of email addresses to go with their domain name (sales@yourname.com service@yourname.com and so on) – how many are offered? – how many do you need? – do they have auto-responders? And so on.

One feature being offered by more and more hosting companies is the ability to drop off the "www" from your address, so you just type myname.com in the address bar – this helps when advertising your site on the radio.

It's impossible to go through all the features that could be available – just remember, if you can get the best SERVICE and SUPPORT, you will have little else to worry about.
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Putting it All Together

OK, so you have chosen your domain registrar and hosting company – now you need to put the two together – what do you do next?

It really doesn't matter in which order you do things, but I would suggest signing up with the hosting company first. (The reason for this is that some registrars may interrogate the host to see if the nominated domain is included in their DNS.)

Most hosting companies will have an on-line form where you can sign up for a new account – you will have to answer the usual questions (name, address etc) and you will also need to tell them the domain name to go with the account.
The fact that the domain doesn't exist yet doesn't matter, as you'll be asked if it's an existing domain to be transferred or a new domain. (You have checked that it is available, haven't you?).

During this process you should find out the names and IP addresses of the Name Servers at your chosen hosting company – you will need to provide this information to the domain registrar.

TIP – as mentioned above – do the domain registration yourself if possible, even if the hosting company offers to do it for you.
Of course, if the domain registration is included in the hosting fee, that's fine, but be sure that you are listed as at least one of the contacts – see above.

Now you can go to your chosen registrar, armed with the DNS information for your host – this will look something like:
ns1.futurequest.net - 63.95.221.2
ns2.futurequest.net - 63.151.112.2
And you will need to supply this info during the registration process. Note that some registrars require only the server names, some require the DNS numbers, and some require both.

Once the registration is complete, you have to wait until the domain is propagated throughout the Internet – this will usually take up to 72 hours.

While you are waiting, you will be able to publish your website using the temporary access information supplied by your hosting company.
When propagation is complete, you will be able to type your new domain name in your browser address bar and lo! – there is your website in all it's glory!

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