Domain name control panels

Let’s unpack some fundamental ideas, because they are going to come up again and again in this article series.

I’m going to oversimplfy a bit to get the basic ideas across, but it can still sound mind bending at first.

What does a domain name actually do?

Think of a mobile phone: you need a phone number and a handset. The number directs calls to a specific handset, no matter what model, or where it is in the world. A domain name is quite similar. Out of the box, it’s usually set up to direct two services: a website and email.

A server is simply a computer, in many ways just like your own. The difference is that a server is in a state of automated communication with other servers. Each one might be doing a specialist job, say just serving up websites. It could be a bit multi-purpose — serving websites, fielding email, and storing databases.

You can think of it as being like a business that outsources some tasks to other business, but to the customer it all looks like it’s under one brand.

Essentially, a domain name is a kind of address book of computers performing a specific business task. See it as a reception desk directing visitors to the building designated to supply their order. The domain name needs to store the unique IP address for each server it uses. An IP address is usually a set of four numbers, dot separated. The IP address of the server this website sits on, for example, is 35.214.61.132.

It should follow from the above that, if our Web services can be split across servers, the servers can be managed by different Internet Service Providers (ISPs). A domain registering agent usually also offers Web hosting. But we’ll see in the next couple of articles that, although you may well may use the same ISP, you don’t have to, and that you may well find good business reasons to use a different service provider to register your domain name, host your website, and manage email respectively.

Before you register a domain name

Think hard about the name, phone number, email and postal addresses of the account creator. They will be the legal owner of the domain name.

In the fullness of time you may well own multiple domain names, so your registration account is an important business asset. Given that any business experiences a turnover in personnel, it’s important to think about preserving access to it. This isn’t quite simple as saying “don’t lose the username and password” because two-factor authentication is rapidly becoming a norm, so it can prove to be a head-scratcher in all but the most rigorous of admin contexts.   

I’ve seen people lose control of their domain name by failing to think through account set up. A common enough mistake with non-profits is to delegate setup to a volunteer, often an aspiring Web developer, with whom the charity later loses contact. In a worst-case scenario, the charity can’t login and renew payment card details, or demonstrate that they’re the moral owner. Let’s say the primary email contact (often the username) goes to an account they don’t have access to: in this case they’d have to restart a website from scratch. The knock-on effects can be serious: domain email will also be lost. Access to other services that use a domain email as a username can rapidly become precarious too.

There is no bullet proof solution, but make sure it’s an account registered in your name (if you’re the sole representative), or the name of a business owner, with a business address that you can later prove is (or was) yours. Be sure to see that the domain name is registered completely independently of the person or agency creating your website: you may be their client, but the domain name is your asset: it shouldn’t end up part of their portfolio.

As far as humanly possible, make sure that the registered email address will always remain accessible, so that even if you lose a password you can reset it. If there are recovery options (a mobile number, secondary email) make sure they’re also in the name of a standing business owner. Other gotchas include mobile numbers for two-factor authentication. In this case, you may have the username and password, but you can’t enter an authentication code at login if it’s sent to a mobile number you no longer have access to. Registering security questions like “Your mother’s maiden name” present an obvious conundrum: whose mother?

Having though this through and registered your domain name, now let’s decide whether to host it with the same ISP.