Learn what a domain name and host are, and learn why you should register your domain separately from your host.
101: What’s a Domain, What’s a Host?
Your host is a server where your files are located on the internet. A server is basically a big, powerful computer located somewhere very far away. Your server is assigned an IP address.
Your server “serves” (shows) your files to someone when they request them. People request your files by clicking a link or by typing the page or file’s address into their web browser.
Your domain is your website address in words more understandable to humans — e.g., my domain is katemwalsh.com. Your domain name also provides your pages and files, but that doesn’t mean you have two “copies” of your website. As mentioned, your host server has an IP address.
The domain name translates to your server’s IP address to human-readable words. This is done via the domain name system (DNS).
This is so people don’t have to type a long string of numbers (IP addresses) every time they want to access your website. They are difficult to remember — and easy to screw up even when you do remember them.
Types of Hosts
You can purchase space on a shared server. Most people starting out go with shared hosting as it is cheap and accessible. You don’t have to know much about how the actual server works because many things are already configured for you. You also generally get something like cPanel or Plesk included so configuration is even easier.
Shared hosting means your website is among many on the same server. Shared hosting environments are virtually separated, walled off from one another. So, it’s not like you’ll have to wade through other people’s stuff; it’s not like anyone can freely access your stuff. But you are sharing a physical server and thus its physical resources.
Imagine if five different people each used your home computer for three different tasks at the same time. Your computer would probably get pretty slow, especially as you add more and more people using it. It works the same on a web hosting server. Like your home computer, that server has only so much memory, only so much CPU power, only so much hard drive space.
On a good shared host provider, resource sharing and allocation usually won’t be a problem. However, a bad shared host provider may oversell their server’s capabilities, packing too many websites onto one server.
And — good or bad provider, the nature of shared hosting is that you’re sharing resources. You can’t run websites that receive a lot of traffic or use a lot of resources on shared hosting.
“Unlimited” Shared Hosting
You may read the prior paragraphs and scoff, as you’ve seen shared hosts offer unlimited space and bandwidth. Unfortunately, “unlimited” isn’t really unlimited. Neither should you believe claims of huge storage space.
If you try to run a resource-intensive website on shared hosting, you will run into trouble. One of three things will happen:
- Your site will crash because the server’s resources are exhausted (space, bandwidth, CPU, memory).
- Your host provider will suspend your account and require you to upgrade your hosting plan before reactivating your site.
- Your host provider will keep your site up while charging you a lot of money for overages.
None of these are good things.
You can purchase a virtual private server (VPS). That’s a private server environment on a server. They’re more powerful in that you can install server-level software, and work very similarly to dedicated servers.
While they might be a step up from shared hosting, they aren’t what you want for powerhouse performance. On a VPS, there are usually fewer websites sharing a physical machine than a shared host, but everyone is still sharing a physical server machine and its resources.
You can purchase a dedicated server, which means you have a whole server box somewhere dedicated to your site only. They’re good for performance: you don’t have to worry about anyone else running resource-hogging things on your server. They also tend to be expensive, however.
Configuration is also something you’ll want to look into deeply before you start. You almost certainly don’t want a completely unmanaged dedicated server for a live project you intend to use to make money — unless you have server administration experience, or someone who does at the helm.
If you have no idea what you’re doing, a managed dedicated server might be best. Your use of the server will be restricted somewhat, but you’ll also have somewhere to turn if something goes wrong.
There are other kinds of servers and hosting platforms. Some of them are specialized for certain purposes. However, most people don’t need to know about those unless they’re specialists. If you’re reading this, you probably don’t need to know about them!
Why Register Separately?
Basically — it helps you to keep the most valuable asset you have, your domain name. If you’ve had the same domain for the past ten years, it probably means a lot, right? It has links pointing back to it, a lot of people know it and recognize it — you might even have a business and money connected to those domain names.
If you register your domain with your host, one company effectively controls your entire website infrastructure. That may not be a good thing, if your host is shady. It’s not as large a problem on a big, recognizable host though.
However, there’s another problem: if someone gains access to your webhosting account, they control everything and might be able to transfer your domain away from your control.
- Webmasters’ Stack Exchange: Brief overview of pros and cons by John Conde
- Treehouse.com: Answer by Colin Marshall
- Webmasters’ Stack Exchange: Example of what can go wrong
Another Example of Why to Register Them Separately
In 2002 or 2003, I bought space and a domain name from a company. 2004 or so, someone else bought the original company. Fast forward to renewal time, and they wanted me to pay a massively increased amount. I don’t remember what the final amount was, but I do remember it included a $150 renewal fee.
When I asked for a transfer, they wanted me to pay a couple hundred dollars to “release” my domain name to me (probably would have been more if I had a domain name someone else wanted!). Had I bought hosting with one company and registered my domain with another, I would have been able to keep my domain without payment to the newly shady company. As it was, I just walked away from that domain, lesson learned.
What happened to me and happens to others is probably illegal or at least against ICANN regulations (the part about them not letting me transfer it without paying, anyway). But I was only a kid. I didn’t exactly have the time, money, or know-how. Even if I had the know-how and money, it still would’ve taken time to get my domain back. If your domain is business-related in any way, that’s time you absolutely can’t afford to lose.
I’ve always heard — though can’t verify with certainty — that it’s poor practice to type your desired domain name into a registrar’s search engine (e.g., going to NameCheap and typing your domain into their search). It’s better to type the domain you want directly into the browser. In the distant past, shadier hosts have purchased these domain names and tried to sell them to you at a higher price.
It might be a dead practice by now, or just superstition. Not sure! Either way, I only type the domain name into the registrar when I’m ready to buy.
Hosts and Domain Name Registrars
JustHost — I’ve been on shared hosting with JustHost since 2009, and aside from one outage where many, many hosts were affected, I’ve been super happy here. I don’t have extensive experience with their support, etc. because stuff here just tends to work.
I also break my own rules twice: this is an “unlimited” host (though the terms of service do specify my account can be suspended for excess resource consumption! Read the TOS when you buy stuff). I also keep a domain here (it’s free — though do note, the actual, named registrar is not me).
Again, I haven’t had any problems and I do recommend them! Just things to consider when you buy.
Domain Name Registrars
Namecheap — I like Namecheap. I’ve had two domains through them since about 2012. They’re cheap and I’ve experienced no problems (that said, caveat: I’ve never spoken with support). They have a pretty neat control panel that’s simple to use, too.
GoDaddy is a mixed bag. I won’t make a recommendation either way.
There are already a lot of recommendations against GoDaddy. That’s not to be dismissed — especially if you’re a developer. Reportedly, that’s where many run into problems.
Personally, I also went in a circular path getting a managed dedicated server. According to instruction, I replied to an email. I did so, and waited about a week. I replied again. Same deal: no response. I requested the server set-up info e-mail again. When I received it again, I noticed it was from email@example.com. I wasn’t sure were my e-mails ended up, but I had the sneaking suspicion they weren’t being received. I had to call to resolve it. It did get resolved, so there’s that.
If you’re doing something small on shared hosting, you probably won’t have problems. Plus, if you don’t have a lot of know-how, their control panel is very manageable. That’s important for people who aren’t comfortable messing with the more complex stuff. Rolling out a WordPress on GoDaddy is fairly simple for a non-technical person — and very affordable.
Additionally — I have to say, I’ve gotten a lot of very good customer service from GoDaddy. Problems other than the managed dedicated migration were all generally resolved quickly. Some individual techs and support personnel have been downright awesome, too.
I requested installation of Git on the aforementioned managed dedicated server. Unfortunately, tech support said it wasn’t allowed by the terms of managed dedicated servers — though they’d had many requests for it. I kind of took that as a hint to take it up the chain — tech support may not actually decide offered services, after all. So I called in and spoke with a representative. She added it to discussions and suggested a discount on future billing cycles, and followed up by e-mail.
This was very recently, so I don’t know how all of it will unfold, but I left the experience feeling pretty good.