What's in a (domain) name?

What's in a (domain) name?

As the internet has grown, so has the competition for desirable domain names. You've seen and heard them all over the place – strings of characters, dots, and slashes like these:

Yes, they're links to web sites for various businesses and organizations. But what do these jumbles of characters and symbols really mean?

URLs and You

For internet users, these are known as "Uniform Resource Locators" or URLs. Type one into your browser's "Address" field, press Enter, and voila! You are magically transported to a web page for that business or organization. But how does this magic happen?

URLs rely on the Domain Name System that I wrote about in a previous article. These names are read in sections from right-to-left. Note that the URLs above end in .com, .edu, .mil, and .uk. These are known as "Top Level Domains" or TLDs. Each TLD was initially created for a particular type of organization that connected to the original US DoD ARPANET (predecessor to the internet):

.com = commercial organizations and businesses
.edu = educational institutions such colleges and universities
.gov = US Federal government agencies
.mil = the US Military
.net = network and telecoms providers
.org = non-profit organizations

Masters of Their Own Domain

It used to be that a single domain registrar in the U.S., Network Solutions, managed all domain name assignments for the whole internet. In 1999, this lucrative business was put out to bid, so now a number of international domain registrars administer the various TLDs.

In addition, each country has a designated two-character TLD that they are responsible for, such as .us (United States), .ca (Canada), .uk (United Kingdom), .mx (Mexico), .de (Germany or Deutschland), .it (Italia), etc. Many of these country-specific domains also maintain sub-domains that mirror the American TLDs, such as ".co.uk" for commercial entities in the UK.

The reason for all this registration administration is pretty obvious: there can only be one "speronews.com" or "duq.edu" (for my alma mater, Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA) in the entire world. If domain names were not unique, our web browsers and email would get very confused.

Once an organization has registered a domain name, they can create their own sub-domains. For example, the U.S. Marine Corps has created the 'beaufort.usmc.mil' sub-domain so they can better manage the internet services of their Beaufort, SC, area bases and personnel. Thus the URL www.beaufort.usmc.mil points to the World Wide Web (www) server for the USMC bases in Beaufort (near where I now live in the "Low Country" of South Carolina).

Similarly, The Register, an irreverent IT-focused online publication headquartered in the UK, has the URL www.theregister.co.uk for its web site. This indicates that their corporate domain is registered under the commercial sub-domain for the United Kingdom (co.uk).

With Liberty and Domains for All

Needless to say, as the internet has grown, so has the competition for desirable domain names; about 76 million second-level domain names have been registered so far. The restrictions on what kind of organization can get a domain name in a particular TLD have pretty much evaporated, at least in the U.S. I can now register a .com, .net, or .org domain for just about any business or organization that I want, and businesses often have to go with an alternative TLD if someone else has the .com domain that they would like to have.

Several new TLDs have been added, including .biz for businesses, .aero for the aviation industry, .info for information services, .museum for museums, and .name for individuals. The internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the international organization that now has overall responsibility for internet domains and IP addresses, is also working on proposals for new TLDs and internationalized domain names.

Hey, Buddy, Wanna Buy a Domain?

To register a domain name, you can contact any number of domain registry services such as betterwhois.com, networksolutions.com, godaddy.com, domains.mondenet.com, or the many country-specific domain registrars. But don’t hesitate; if you find that a domain name that you want to use is available, register it as soon as possible, even if you won’t have a web site ready to use it for some time.

Here's why: along with the off-chance that someone else may be genuinely interested in that domain name and may snap it up whilst you tarry, I’ve also heard that some registrars allow "snooping" of domain name queries on their sites. A colleague of mine tested this out by going to a registrar web site (not one of those listed above) and doing a query of some nonsensical domain name that didn’t spell out anything recognizable. Within a few days, some "cybersquatter" had registered that domain name and sent him an email offering to sell it to him for twice the price it would have cost!

Also, be wary of dealing with ISPs or web hosting companies that offer to register a domain name for you. Make sure that they register it in YOUR name, not theirs, if at all possible; or if they will only register it under their business on your behalf, make sure they don’t lock the domain registration down so you can’t move it to another provider.

I’m working with a Thai restaurant in the US that was negotiating with a web developer in Thailand. This web developer bought the .com domain that they wanted to use and then offered to sell it to them for $600. Meanwhile, they had already put that domain name on letterhead and business materials in anticipation of registering it. Talk about a nasty international dispute.


About the Author

David Green has been wrassling with networking gear for 19 years and only got pinned by a server once(!) during his entire career. He is the founder and president of NetGreen Consulting, Inc. (www.netgreenconsulting.com), which provides "self-service" websites, network anaylysis, and Internet security consulting services, including Common Criteria Certification documentation. He can be reached at david@netgreenconsulting.com.