Many people get rightfully confused when they start hearing all the acronyms and strange terminology when it comes to website hosting. For a non technical person – it’s a lot to try and digest. Let’s start with the two main things you need to have a website – a domain name, a nameserver (aka DNS), and a host – usually called a server. and how they work together.
You should know what a domain name is – but why do we have them? They’re sort of like the contact list in your phone. When you type facebook.com into your browser, a request is sent to a nameserver, which looks up the IP address of the website you’re trying to visit, which might look like 192.168.1.1, which is a website version of a phone number.
Here’s a way oversimplified example of how this works:
- Browser to DNS: what is the IP address for facebook.com
- Nameserver Responds: 192.168.0.1
- Browser: Calls up 192.168.0.1 and asks for facebook.com
Domain Name Registrars
You register domain names through a registrar, like godaddy or namecheap. They typically cost around $10-$15/year to register, but can be into the thousands of dollars for popular or short domain words.
It is best to register your domain names personally, rather than allowing a third party to purchase and manage them for you. I’ve seen many people get in a bind when a developer that controls their domain has a falling out, and refuses to give them access to their domain, and it’s not always easy to try to convince the registrar that you are the rightful owner.
Most people use the nameservers that their registrar provides, e.g. you bought your domain at GoDaddy, so you end up setting up your DNS records there. It’s possible to register your domain at one registrar, and use a nameserver elsewhere, but most people wont.
This is where the rubber meets the road. Next, we’ll discuss hosts or servers, but in order for users to type in a domain name and get connected to the right server, you must add DNS records. The most common type of record is an A record. It’s a simple lookup record – you request a domain name, and it returns an IP address, like this:
greenvillewebworks.com -> 192.168.0.1
When you switch from one server to another, you just change the IP address, and the traffic gets routed to the new server. It’s a simple process, and typically doesn’t take long, depending on how the records were setup. In rare instances, it can take up to 24 hours for the change to propagate to all the DNS servers worldwide.
People tend to use these interchangeably. A host is more of a singular term, where a server can contain many hosts, for many different websites or services. A server needs to have at least a single IP address to be reached on the internet, but some will have multiple IP addresses, which make it easier to host multiple websites.
A server can host many different services. The main two that most people utilize are webservers, and mailservers for email. Your email and website can be served by the same server, but typically they aren’t, and you’ll have one DNS record that points to your website, and another, called an MX (mail-exchanger) that points to where your email should go.