What's in a name? In real life, not very much, but on the Internet names are vital. Every computer on the Net is known to the others by a 32-bit binary number - that's a number between 0 and 4.2 billion. The numbers are usually written in a special format, like 188.8.131.52, which makes them a bit awkward to remember. The Domain Name Service (DNS) is the part of the Internet that translates between the names we call computers, such as stonewall.demon.co.uk, and the numbers they represent.
When you subscribe to a traditional dialup Internet provider you are usually allocated an email address within its domain, along the lines of demon.co.uk or dial.pipex.com. And if you use Web space on its servers, you'll probably have the name of the provider as part of your URL too.
While that might be acceptable for a home user, it's almost certainly not the image you want for your company and there's the added complication that if you change to a different provider, you'll end up with different email addresses and URLs.
The solution is to register your own domain name, a unique name on the Internet that identifies your company and can be used for email, Web sites and anything else to do with the Net. You can even register a domain name for a group of people who use different computers for their Internet access.
Some providers can automatically direct some email, such as [email protected], to one machine, while messages for another user can be sent elsewhere, so you could have a single domain name linking offices across the country, all using an ordinary Internet account.
Where do you put it?
When you register a domain for your company, strictly speaking you register your company within a domain. For instance, you might register in the domain dedicated to UK companies, or to non-profit organisations. Or you may decide you want a domain that's more international; on the Internet that's often synonymous with American, and some people have even found they do better business with the US when they use an address that's believed to be on the other side of the Atlantic.
Once you've registered your domain, you have complete control over it.
For instance, if you register the name mycompany.co.uk, you can automatically have addresses such as www.mycompany.co.uk or sales.mycompany.co.uk and hq.mycompany.co.uk, without having to make any further registrations - anything "below" your domain is up to you.
But before you can get that far, you have to decide which domain you want or are eligible for. In the UK you can choose from these:
.co.uk Commercial organisations, sole traders and just about anyone else .org.uk Non-profit organisations .sch.uk Schools .ac.uk Academic institutions such as universities and colleges .plc.uk Public limited companies .ltd.uk Private limited companies
There are a few others, for use by organisations such as Internet providers, government and the National Health Service. If you want a name in one of these areas you will have to be part of the appropriate organisation or fulfil some very strict criteria. Perhaps you don't want to have a name that lets everyone know you're in the UK. No problem - you can use one of the international domains instead:
.com Commercial organisations .org Non-profit organisations .edu Educational establishments
Once again, there are special international domains for the military, government and Internet providers. There is also a pseudo-domain called uk.com, which was set up as part of a price war between some UK providers, but this doesn't qualify as a proper domain and you would be well advised not to consider it.
Of course, there's much more to the domain you choose than the one you like the look of. There are special rules for certain domains and you may not qualify. For instance, the names in .ltd.uk and .plc.uk have to be the registered name of your company, and you have to be able to prove that you own the company. Names which end in .co.uk, however, can now be registered by anyone. As long as it's not already taken, you can have just about any name you choose.
Many users prefer international names, partly because they are shorter and easier to remember. But before y0ou rush for the coolest name on the Net, think about how people will find you. If you don't advertise much, an easily guessed name would be best - for a limited company, that would almost certainly involve using .ltd.uk or .plc.uk.
How much does it cost?
Once you've decided on a domain name, you need to register it. Although you can do this yourself in the UK it's almost always better to arrange for an Internet provider to do it for you. If you're not yet connected, you can register via the forms at http://www.nic.uk but that's more expensive.
Unless you have a permanent link to the Internet, you'll need to arrange with a provider to keep information about your domain on its computers, for which you can expect to pay up to #200 per year. If you order the domain yourself and don't want a provider to look after it, you'll need two independent servers to hold the information, so if one is cut off the rest of the world can still find out about your domain.
If #200 sounds expensive, you have to remember that the provider needs to make sure the information is always available, so computers around the world can route email to your computers or access your Web pages using your own domain name. Often the maintenance of your domain will include the facility to have all your email delivered to your network.
There is another fee after you have paid your provider. In August this year, a charge was implemented for domain registration in the UK - currently #100 for the first two years and #50 a year thereafter. By comparison, it costs $100 to register an international domain for two years, then a $50 yearly fee. It was partly the dispute over the #100 fee that led to the creation of the uk.com pseudo-domain.
It's worth shopping around when you decide to register your domain name, as some providers absorb part of the cost depending on the other services that you order. So, if you want a domain for your own Web pages and your email, it may be cheaper to order both from one provider than to use a different one for each. You may even find some providers unwilling to deal with an arrangement where a competitor is providing some of your services.
How do I register?
When you have chosen a provider, all you have to do is supply it with the necessary information and wait for the domain to be delegated. This simply means the provider is able to put information about the domain on its servers to make it visible to the rest of the world.
In the UK, there is now an automatic registration system which is supposed to delegate a domain within about 25 minutes of an Internet provider making a request. If you fill in the forms yourself it won't be processed as quickly.
The fastest registrations are usually those for a .ltd.uk or .plc.uk name. Other UK domains, and international ones, can take longer to register and at times there can be a backlog; for instance, the changes to UK registration in August incurred delays of a few weeks in some cases, as people rushed to beat the introduction of charges.
And that really is all there is to it. For most users, the best solution is to tell your provider what you want and let it do all the work. Looking after your domain is easy but setting it up can be fiddly if you don't have the experience, so this is best left to the experts.
You may balk at the cost but, if you're a business, think how much you spend on sign-writing or headed paper each year. A domain of your own will cost much less, and if you're serious about the Internet it's one of the most important investments you can make.
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