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We had some questions from a client recently who was asking about domain name ownership and why there was a need to keep paying for it every year. We've had similar questions a few times and felt it was a really great subject for a blog post, so read on to discover more:
What is a domain name?
Think of the Internet like a phone book - when someone calls your phone number, the phone system needs to know which physical phone to make ring. In order for someone to visit your website, the Internet needs to know where to send them when they type in your website address (e.g. www.lightbulbwebdesign.co.uk).
Like a phone number needs to be registered to a person/SIM card, a website address needs to be registered to a person or business too. For a .co.uk domain name, you have two contracts in place when a domain name is registered:
1) Nominet - Nominet is basically like the phone book for UK-related domain names. They hold all details of who registered which domain name, where they registered it, when they first registered it and when it needs renewed.
2) Your registrar - This is the company you bought your domain name registration from. Common ones include 123-Reg and GoDaddy - if we have bought your domain name for you as part of our service, they are registered with the company who manages our own dedicated server. Often, if you have created your own website, you will have registered your domain name when you bought your hosting package. When you buy the domain name registration, the company you buy it from updates Nominet with the latest details about you and/or your company.
A .com domain name is a bit different - .com domain names are managed by ICANN. ICANN is a United States based company of a similar nature to Nominet - they hold all .com related data.
Both Nominet and ICANN are responsible for maintaining the 'WHOIS' database, which is the worldwide list of all domain names and their registered users.
Why do I have to keep paying for my domain name each year?
A domain name can be registered, but never owned - you simply register the right to use your domain name for a given time period. Once that period is over, if you do not renew your registration, the domain name is put back on the market for others to register and use. The cost associated with this renewal or registration goes towards the upkeep of the WHOIS database and the registrars systems which maintain the link between themselves and Nominet/ICANN.
How is a domain name different from hosting?
Each domain name has settings which tell a web browser what computer to send a person to when they type that domain name into their browser. The computer (more often called a server) where your website files and/or database are stored is called the host, or the hosting server.
The domain name is how your computer finds the correct website hosting server and files for your website.
The hosting server and domain name registrar do not always have to be the same, for example you can register and manage your domain name with 123Reg, but change the settings for your domain name to use a hosting server run by someone else.
DNS - the string that ties it all together
DNS stands for 'Domain Name System' - this is the process and technology that links a domain name with the 'address' of the server which hosts that domain name. Like calling someone by phone, when a unique phone number is dialled, each hosting server has a unique IP address - a sequence of numbers which identify that specific server to the Internet. Each server can host multiple websites - DNS is reponsible for telling your web browser which IP address to 'call' for any given website address you wish to visit.