I've already got some personal Web space with my Internet Service Provider (ISP), but I'm looking for a more personalised presence on the Web. I'm told I need my own domain name. Can you explain what that is?
My dictionary defines domain as a region having specific characteristics, or a field or scope of knowledge or activity. These definitions are pretty close to the Internet usage of the word. The number of computers connected via the Internet is so large they need to be grouped into sets in a logical way. These sets are known as domains.
A domain name is an Internet-wide unique name which points to you or your organisation's information on the Internet. It's much like a phone number or street address and enables people to easily locate you in the infinity that is the Internet.
If an enterprise or individual wishes to connect their network to the Internet, they must first register a domain name. Domain names are registered by Network Information Centres (NICs) around the world such as InterNIC or Nominet in the UK. The registration is usually taken care of by your Internet Service Provider (ISP), but most NICs allow users to register directly. Many also charge a small annual fee for domain name registration, currently u50 per annum in the UK.
Is there a structure to domain names?
There certainly is. Technically speaking, a domain name is a variable depth hierarchy of strings, separated by a dot. The idea of domain names is to provide user-friendly names instead to IP numbered addresses. For example, (www.vnu.co.uk) is much easier to remember than 193.207.165.001.
Just as there are various ways of expressing the date, there were several formats for Web addresses, specifically "little-endian", where the address starts with the most specific name, and "big-endian", which starts at the other end. This latter format was favoured in the UK, but is rapidly falling from grace.
These descriptive strings normally mirror organisational structure, so (ic.ac.uk) is located here in the UK, which administers the academic domain (.ac), which in turn gives control to the Imperial College domain (.ic) and so on.
How much freedom do I have in choosing a domain name?
Some is the short answer. For example, I might think (www.roger.gann) has a certain flair to it, but it wouldn't be acceptable. The composition of domain name has to follow a strict set of rules and generally, only the elements on the left of the complete domain name are variable. The top-level domain names (the element of the domain name to the right) are immutable. These consist of two character country codes: (.au) Australia; (.fr) France; or (.us) the US. In the US, the granularity of the domain name can be as fine as (organisation.city.state.country).
Also fixed are the names one level lower - the organisation or zone-level sub-domains - which are used to further segment many of the top-level domains. For example, all domains based in the UK will have domain names ending with (.uk). If you're registering a company, the domain name will end in (.co.uk) or, since September 1996, will end in (.ltd.uk) or (.plc.uk). Academic sites will be (.ac.uk), school sites (.sch.uk), government zones (.gov.uk), the National Health Service (.nhs.uk) and UK Internet companies get (.net.uk).
There are also six non-country-specific top-level domains as well: (.com) for commercial; (.edu) for educational institutions; (.gov) for the US government; (.mil) for military agencies; (.org) for non-profit organisations; and (.net) for administration of other networks. These top-level domains are suitable for organisations having a global presence. In the beginning, when the Internet was still relatively unpopulated, global domain names were popular, especially in the US, where the Internet originated. However, geographical domains, for instance, (name.organisation.country) are the way forward.
What is a subdomain?
A subdomain is a portion of a domain, anything lower than a top-level domain like (.co). For example, (www.domain.com) is a subdomain of (domain.com). The (www) indicates that this subdomain is actually a Web site. The (www) prefix is merely a tradition and isn't a mandatory label for Web sites.
How do I know if a domain name is in use?
Domain names are being registered at a furious pace, so it's difficult to be sure if one is already in use. Generally, if you go to (rs.internic.net/cgi-bin/whois), you'll be able to find out, although there are no guarantees until the domain name is actually assigned to your company. The Whois database contains records for all of the domains that have been registered with InterNIC, as well as information on over 200,000 networks.
Are there restrictions on the name I can pick?
Yes there are. For a start it has to be unique. In general, you can't use it if it's a trademark of another company. All the details on the Internet's domain name policy are available through InterNIC, the agency that handles domain name registration.
But domain names are allocated on a first-come, first-served basis and it's tough luck if somebody else has beaten you to the punch. If someone registers your name, it can be a cumbersome and costly process (and often impossible) to get it back.
The converse is also true. If you have a domain name and someone else has it trademarked, or if they can show that your use of that domain amounts to "passing off", they can take it from you. Check out (rs.internic.net/policy/internic/internic-domain-6.txt) for details on how domain name disputes are dealt with.
And don't forget that, thanks to country-specific top-level domains, you might own (www.bloggs.com), but someone else might own (www.bloggs.co.uk). For example, a friend of mine, whose name is the same as a major US clothing designer, quickly snapped up the (.com) version of his name when it became available, even though the designer still has the (.co.uk) version.
Are there any prohibited characters as well?
Double-letter names are not allowed as they're reserved for country codes. But two-character names like (3M.co.uk) are allowed in certain cases. Top-level and subdomain names are also restricted to their portion of the address, (air.uk.uk) or (org.co.uk) are illegal. Single-letter domains like (a.co.uk) are reserved.
In general, a domain name can consist of only letters (a to z), numbers (0 to 9) and dashes/hyphens (-). Other characters are not allowed for technical reasons. The name cannot start or end with a dash and there is a maximum length of 80 characters. Domain names are not case sensitive so it's OK to mix cases for reasons of clarity. The name of the HTML file (after the domain name) is not supposed to be case sensitive, but it is on many servers.
Can anybody register a domain name?
Yes. There are several registration options: DIY using your Internet Service Provider, or using one of the new breed of companies specialising in domain name registration. If you have no direct connection to the Internet it makes sense to use the services of an ISP because it can provide storage, but be prepared to pay for it. The cheapest way is DIY. You'll need to provide details such as the domain names and IP addresses of two computers permanently connected to the Internet to act as name servers, as well as admin and technical contacts with email addresses.
What if I decide to register my own domain name? Is the registration process easy?
You obtain a form or template online from Nominet and fill it out. Then email it back to Nominet where it's automatically checked for errors and compliance. If there's a problem, it's returned for amendment. If not, the process is complete and you'll be invoiced.
If I ask my ISP to register my name, what should I be looking for when I go shopping for a corporate domain name?
Apart from an appropriate domain name like (www.yourcompanyname.co.uk), your fees should also include email accounts, 10Mb or more of disk space for text and graphics, up to 5Mb of FTP space, CGI-Bin/Java access and registration with the 10 biggest search engines.
Can I register a name in advance?
Yes, a domain name can be registered even if you don't have a computer network connected to the Internet. There are two scenarios: where you want to deny the use of your name to others, or where the domain name will be used by a third party to provide services for the owner.
Do I own my domain name?
Yes. Once officially registered, you are the owner of your domain name and your Internet Service Provider simply administers it for you. If you want to set up your own server, you'll be able to reassign the domain name to point to that server.
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