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Internet Domains and (Small) Business

(August 1, 2003 - Reprint from "The Digital Rag Too") The Internet domain name system is probably the most misunderstood aspect of the Internet in the eyes of the small business owner. The questions I get and the problems I've seen have prompted me to write this article to provide some basic information and some pragmatic rules for small business owners to follow.

Most people today see domain names as part of two different facilities, e-mail and web addresses. In an e-mail address, the domain is the part to the right of the @ symbol. In a web address (Universal Resource Locator or URL) it is the part after the "http://" or "ftp://" and before the next "/" so in http://www.pacdat.net/Digital_Rag/ the domain is "www.pacdat.net".

First a bit of history and some basic semantics.

Putting names to computers was invented to give human memory a bit of a break. Internet systems actually address each other using a set of numbers called an Internet Protocol (IP) address - based on 4 sets of digits from 0 to 255 each separated by a period as follows: or or or

Back when there were only a few hundred or even a few thousand systems connected to the Internet, there was a simple text file conversion utility that identified a computer with a number. These files of addresses were all kept up to date by hand. As the number of machines grew, keeping the files up to date became a real problem.

Example of a "hosts" file              pacdat1              portapitt              www

Fortunately Dr. Mockapetris and the late Dr. Jonathan Postel, in 1983, saw the need for a more automated and distributed facility and invented the Domain Name Service (DNS).

The DNS paradigm involves names separated by a period instead of numbers separated by periods. There is a mapping of the names to the numbers that takes place each time a computer system must be addressed, but this "name resolution" is mostly done behind the scenes so the user never sees the number. Administration of the system is "delegated" at each point where there is a period in the name. The administrator of a delegated level must keep track of all the delegations, and especially in the case of the top levels, typically charges for such administration (US$35/year being the typical amount today for COM, ORG, NET etc.)

The names build from right to left but are normally read from left to right. They build upon the first level or top level domains (TLDs) by adding second level domains, then third level domains and so forth to a maximum currently of 63 characters (including the dots or periods). For example, in pacdat.net the top level domain is "NET" and the second level domain is "PACDAT" (case is insignificant in domain names). The machine I'm writing this article on is called "PACDAT1.PACDAT.NET" and others in my local network include "NFS.PACDAT.NET" and "PACTV.PACDAT.NET" where PACDAT1, NFS and PACTV are all third level domain names. My system is fairly typical of most LANs in that it uses the third level domain name as the system name of a particular computer. 

Most software systems of the past (pre 1993 or so) couldn't deal with more than one DNS name pointing at any one machine. In addition, many times a particular machine was dedicated to the provision of a single Internet service; e-mail, gopher, wais, dns, web, ftp etc. and many system administrators simply named their machine after the IP service it provided. This lead to machine names like "WWW.PACDAT.NET" or "FTP.PACDAT.NET" or "MAIL.PACDAT.NET" or "POP.PACDAT.NET" for web, ftp, e-mail routing or e-mail receiving respectively. Generic machines got other names, sometimes mythical gods (thor), or other characters (golum, frodo, gandalf) or anything the administrator felt like.

So the domain names beginning with "WWW" are only named that way because of convention - they don't need to be named that way! In fact, many new domain users are dropping the WWW and just publishing the second level domain (pacdat.net works the same as www.pacdat.net)

It used to be that if you had an account on a particular machine, then your e-mail address was your account name @ the machine's DNS name (richard@pacdat1.pacdat.net) for example in my case here. This worked well up to the point where the Internet became a commercial product. During our initial growth at Wimsey in the early 90's, we participated in the development and deployment of some of the first software packages that could deal with hosting e-mail for multiple domains on a single computer. By the time our "Virtual Post Office" system was finished in 1997, it was hosting thousands of domains and tens of thousands of e-mail accounts easily on a single system.

Today, systems host hundreds and thousands of web domains, e-mail accounts, ftp accounts and all manner of Internet Protocol services, all on a single computer or load-shared across what looks to the rest of the net as if it were one system.

So... if the DNS name doesn't have to refer to a unique computer anymore, what is it that it does refer to? Today, it refers to data and facilities for a particular company - yours if you work it right and your ISP sets things up properly. The fact that your data and facilities might be hosted on a computer that hosts other company's data and facilities is a triumph of technology and in most company's case makes no difference. The software today looks at the name the viewer used to find it, and makes itself look like a "virtual" server for that name. Sometimes the computer system may have several (many) different IP addresses and present a different name/company on each of them.

For more information and tutorials you can visit www.dns.net/dnsrd/

Up until the mid 1990's, there were six main "top level domain names" plus one for each country in the world. Most recently this has been added to but for now we won't worry about the additions.

Most people today are familiar with the most prevalent and oldest "Top Level Domains" - dot-COM, dot-ORG, dot-NET as well as their country domains dot-CA in the case of Canada and dot-US in the case of the United States.

Unfortunately, many people really don't understand what comes either before or after the most obvious part of a typical domain name when they see it in the context of either a web address or an e-mail address; the two most prevalent uses of domain names in the business world today.

We've already dealt with the classic third level domains - WWW, FTP, MAIL, POP - they simply are the extension of the historic need to designate a machine for a particular task. Today there is little need for them in a new domain except to "fit in".

So... let's discuss the options that a new (to the Internet) business has in domain names and what their consequences might be.

In this discussion we'll assume that we're dealing with a small business so we don't have to think too much about "protecting" an international trade name or dealing in multiple countries.

Many businesses will decide that they want their own unique second level domain in one of the top level domains now available. The most sought after TLD is dot-COM and if you can get something that fits closely with your business name under this TLD then you probably should take it. If you can't find something appropriate in COM then you should look at your country domain (CA, US, etc.) as the other major TLDs are supposedly reserved for specific types of organizations. Unless you are running an ISP you should not use NET, and unless you are a non-profit organization you should steer clear of ORG. The other main TLDs have acceptable usage policies (AUP) and people who police them fairly strenuously so you won't get MIL or EDU or GOV.

The new TLDs and information on them and the main ones can be seen at www.icann.org/tlds/

Another option that some businesses might consider is a third level domain under their Internet Access Provider's (IAP - the company who sells you access to the rest of the Internet) main domain (pacdat.isp.net or mybusiness.myisp.com etc.) This is not offered much currently, however you may come across it. This is an inexpensive and relatively easy way to have a unique identity on the Internet. The main problem with it is that over time you may decide to move your hosting from your current IAP to someone else - and you can't take the name with you because it is tied to the original IAP; well, you really could take it with you, but the IAPs usually don't allow you to, they control it and they use it as a reason for you to stay.

As an alternative to using your IAP's domain, you may be able to find a separate service provider (not an access provider, just a service provider.) In fact, pacdat.net, my domain, is used in this fashion by a number of my friends and some organizations I and my family have associations with. These include 583rcacs.pacdat.net (my sons' Air Cadet squadron,) bcoy1cpb.pacdat.net (Colin Stevens' military group's site) and a number of others. Our software company hosts a number of such domains that others can use for their site domain names. Note that we are not an Internet Access Provider - we don't sell access to the 'Net, only services on it; so in the new scheme of things we truly are an Internet Service Provider.

Note that with each of these extra (3rd, 4th, etc.) levels of domains it is possible to have a separate set of e-mail addresses too. richard@pacdat.net is different from richard@583rcacs.pacdat.net and so it goes with all multi-level domain names. In some cases the e-mail software may be set to forward one address to another, or even alias all addresses at one domain to the same name in another domain (*@pacdat1.pacdat.net is the same as *@pacdat.net for example) but that is for another article.

Another alternative sometimes offered is not actually a sub domain, but rather simply a separate file folder or directory under on the server for a particular domain. An example might have a URL such as: www.myisp.com/mybusiness/. The portion "mybusines/" is the name of a file folder on the server.

The biggest problem with your business having just a folder (besides the same problem above where you can't take it with you to another IAP/ISP) is that it doesn't give you a separate e-mail address name-space. Your IAP/ISP might let you have something like mybusiness@myisp.com but there is always the chance (and with some of the larger ISPs a good chance) that the name will already be taken. The generic names "sales@" or "info@" will all have been taken so you will be stuck with something like: mycompany-info@ or mycompany-sales@.

So to summarize:

bulletIn WWW.yourname.com - the WWW is not necessary and today is becoming redundant. The domain name is the "yourname.com" portion.
bulletmycompany.myisp.com is OK as long as you are sure you are not going to change ISP/IAPs. Today this likely means you are using one of the top tier IAPs like your local major telephone company or cable provider or a major ISP.
bulletwww.myisp.com/mycompany/ may be OK but is not as flexible as mycompany.myisp.com in that it doesn't give you the ability to have your own separate set of e-mail addresses (such as "INFO@mycompany.myisp.com" and "SALES@mycompany.myisp.com")

Richard Pitt

Richard Pitt is a Canadian Internet pioneer, having been the CEO of Wimsey.COM, the first commercial ISP in Canada. Today he is one of Bannerline's associates and deals in all aspects of business and the Internet.
The "Digital Rag Too" is the latest iteration of the Digital Rag, Canada's first Webzine, published by Wimsey.


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