Newcomers to managing websites are sometimes surprised to discover that domain names and web hosting are two distinct things with different functions and purposes. Each one is explained in this article.

What is a domain name?

A domain name is the address that takes people to the homepage of a website when they type it into the URL bar in their browser e.g. www.bbc.co.uk or www.google.com. Each part of the domain name gives specific information that enables web browsers to locate the web page that you want to view.

How do domain names work?

Domain names follow a set pattern and are actually read from right to left using a standard naming hierarchy. The link gives directions to the computer which then loads the page requested.

As an example, the domain name www.names.co.uk is made up of three key elements:

  • The .co.uk is the top-level domain
  • The .names is the domain
  • The www. is the sub-domain prefix for the World Wide Web

The most common top-level domains (TLDs) are .com, .org, .ac, .info, .net and .biz.

Country codes are regularly added to the end of these TLDs to indicate where an organisation is based. For example, www.ox.ac.uk is the domain for Oxford University (UK), and www.bbc.co.uk is the domain for the BBC in the UK. Alternatively, many global organisations do not have a specific country ending e.g. www.google.com.

The domain is to the left of the TLD, and is usually the organisation’s name (or variation of) and the part that is most recognisable.

How can you obtain a domain name?

Domain names can be purchased from a domain name registrar. The average cost of a domain is about £15 per year, but this price can vary. It may be the case that the domain name you initially wanted for your business is already in use/owned by somebody else. In these circumstances, you can either try and contact the owner and negotiate a price with them to purchase the exact domain you want, or you can opt for using a slightly different variant.

Who runs the domain name system?

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) manages the central domain names system. Key registration information is kept centrally on the ICANN database so that you can look up the owner of existing domains. When you buy a domain, your details will be listed against that domain on the main directory although some registrars provide an anonymisation service.

What is web hosting?

A website consists of a number of files such as HTML pages, images, specialist software and more. These files need to be stored somewhere so that a website can work properly. The files are normally kept on web servers (special types of computer) that are provided by hosting companies. This is known as web hosting.

Web hosting companies are specialists in the storing of website files and the serving of websites.

There are six main options when it comes to hosting: Dedicated server hosting, shared hosting, VPS hosting, cloud hosting, managed hosting and colocation hosting.

Dedicated server hosting involves having a server exclusively for just one website. This is expensive and requires significant technical expertise, but gives total control.

Shared hosting essentially involves sharing a server with (usually) thousands of other websites. This reduces cost but you do lose some control and have to share space.

VPS stands for Virtual Private Server and this type of hosting is actually a half-way between dedicated and shared server. This is because you share server machines but you have a dedicated ‘fenced-off’ section.

Cloud hosting is growing in popularity and essentially means using combined resources and paying for what you need as you need it. The resources tend to be spread across multiple servers, reducing downtime and keeping costs down. Cloud hosting is a flexible and scalable solution.

Managed hosting is where a service provider leases or rents out dedicated servers and the hardware to a customer, and then also manages those systems for them. This includes dealing with maintenance, updates, back-ups, configuration, and tech support.

Colocation hosting involves using servers that are based in a specialist data centre facility. This service usually only includes the server space and basics such as cooling, power, and bandwidth. In this model, in-house IT staff will have to manage the hardware and software side of things.

In summary, to run a website, you will need both a domain name and a suitable hosting plan. The domain name enables customers to find and load your site, whilst the hosting enables you to store the files needed for the site to function correctly. Once you have these two things, you will be able to build and launch your website.

What next?

Use our domain search tool to find your perfect domain name and check out our various hosting packages and server options. Or, if you want to talk it through, call us on 0345 363 3632 and we’ll be very pleased to help.