Domain names demystified


Every so often, we get a rise in call numbers to the help desk on a particular topic; there is generally no rhyme or reason to the rise, but it happens. When it does happen, we like to get information out there which could help people understand the topic which is quite clearly not defined well enough.

The latest topic in the gun sights is domain names, and specifically all of the terms that get banded around, who in the chain does what, who is responsible for which parts of the system and most importantly, who you talk to to get things done as you need to.

We'll start by defining a couple of the terms that will be used throughout this article, and those which you will hear whenever you talk to your hosting company or another party about this topic:  

1. Domain name Your domain name is the most important part of the web site address, it is your corporate banding. If you had a company called My Fresh Foods, then your domain name might well be myfreshfoods.com.au or something similar. A company or an individual may have multiple domain names that they use. Contrary to popular belief, one never OWNS a domain name, they are merely exclusively registered for use by an entity for a given period of time, usually one, two or five years.  

2. Sub-domain Domain names are read from right to left, and each part of the domain name (separated by the dot) is used to specify a sub-section of the item to the right of it. So, to take our example above (myfreshfoods.com.au), we start on the right with the .AU which signifies Australia, to the left of that we have .COM which is a subset of the .AU meaning a company (usually) within Australia. Further to the left of that we have myfreshfoods which identifies our fictional company, and possibly further to the left of that we could have www which would be the sub-domain.   To be specific about the components of our name here, we have the following items: www = the sub-domain myfreshfoods = the domain .com.au = the Top Level Domain (or TLD)  

3. DNS (Domain name system) Computers do not use domain names to identify the location of a web-based service, they instead use numerical IDs called IP addresses (IP = Internet Protocol, but that is not important). An IP address is in the format of four sets of up to three digits each separated by a full stop. It's a format known as a dotted-quad, and looks like this: 202.6.132.115 ... each Internet-connected device will have its own IP address so that it can be uniquely addressed as required.   Unfortunately, people are generally not great at remembering lots of numbers in this particular format; we are much better at remembering words as we can associate them to other items in our world. Thus, we need a system that translates the domain names that we understand into the IP addresses which computers use for address location. This system is called DNS. It's analogous to a phone book that we are used to using on a daily basis; we look up the company name that we are interested in, and read across to the phone number that they have. Same thing with DNS; the system uses the domain name to find the IP address and direct your request to the relevant Internet-connected device.  

4. Registrar A registrar is realistically the editor of the DNS phone book. They are responsible for making sure that each domain name is only registered once; and they hold details of who it was that has registered the domain name, and for how long they have registered the domain name for. Most people do not deal directly with registrars, but instead deal with resellers.  

5. Resellers A reseller is the company that the domain name registrant will deal with on a day-to-day basis when registering and modifying domain names. A reseller will have accounts with one or more registrars and will take care of the process of advising the registrar of your details when you make or renew your domain name. It is the reseller who you would normally pay, and they will take care of reminding you when your domain name is up for renewal etc. Almost any business possessing suitable credentials can be a reseller for a registrar, but for the most part, you will find that they are hosting companies (like ourselves), or web designers or something along those sorts of lines.  

6. Name servers For the DNS to work correctly, and quickly, the data held in the DNS record is copied to thousands of dedicated machines around the world. The reason for this that your local Internet Service Provider (ISP) will lookup a local copy of their DNS record rather than consulting the computers of the of the registrar all the time. Not only is it quicker for your ISP to do that, thereby allowing your request to be routed quicker, it also saves both them and the registrar on bandwidth costs for the request and the reply.   Of course, with all of these copies around the world, there is the possibility for corruption of the DNS record. Someone, somewhere may have changed something leading to the position whereby there may be a conflict on an entry ... server one may say that myfreshfoods.com.au points to 111.111.111.111 but server two may suggest that it points to 222.222.222.222 ... which one is correct?   This is where a name server comes into play. It is considered the definitive record of DNS entries. In the event of dispute, the information contained in the record stored on the name sever is the one that is used.   From time to time (around every three hours or so, but it is configurable), servers around the world re-synchronise their copies of the DNS record with the name servers to ensure that they have up-to-date information. The limit on the cache is called the TTL or Time-To-Live, but the definition of it and its usages are outside the scope of this article.

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So, there you have it, we now know what all of the words mean and what every part of the system does in isolation. We should be able to start seeing at this point as to how each of the pieces start to fit together, but now we need to understand who can do what, when they can do it and so on.  

Let's start with who can do what. Basically, if we consider the items defined above in a hierarchical fashion (as shown below), each level of the hierarchy  can modify the items for which it is responsible, and can change the item that is directly beneath it. It cannot modify up the chain as that is enforced by the body above it in the chain.  

The hierarchy looks like this: A. Registrar B. Reseller C. Domain name D. Name servers E. DNS record F. Web server  

Now we can see where everyone fits in the chain of events, we can start to see who needs to be contacted in order to get information changed. Of course, your main port of call will be the reseller, seeing as the registrar will usually not deal with individual registrants. Of course, if you have registered a number of domain names through different resellers, then each of those resellers would have no knowledge of the other reseller(s) involved, even though any domain name(s) may be pointing to the name servers on their network.  

For example, if we purchased myfreshfoods.com.au via Expeed, and myff.com.au via another reseller, it would be entirely possible for the second reseller to have myff.com.au use the name servers on the Expeed network as the authoritative DNS record, however we at Expeed would have absolutely no idea that it had been done, and would not be able to change the name servers even if we wanted to because the second domain name, and therefore the name server settings would not be under our control.  

This example above is one of the most common reasons for confusion that we receive on the help desk: a customer has used a reseller's control panel to use the Expeed name servers for a domain name whose website is hosted on one of our servers, and the customer considers this act to have actually transferred the domain to us to act as reseller for, and it is just not the case at all. Hopefully, the above example demonstrates why this is not actually the case.

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This leads us quite neatly to the process of transferring a domain name.  

All hosting companies, and lots of web designers and others offer to transfer domain names around for you, and some even insist that if you are to use their services for design or web hosting or whatever then the transfer is required, but what in fact is happening?  

You will be changing either one or two of the items above when transferring domain names around. At the very least you will be switching item B (Reseller), but you may also be switching item A (registrar) as well. Not all resellers resell for the sale registrar, so when you transfer a domain between resellers, you will transfer it to the registrar used by the reseller as well. Of course, the original reseller and new reseller may use the same registrar - this is not uncommon as there are very few registrars in the country and the world - so it may be as simple as the registrar switching the reseller reference in their system. If you are also moving between registrars then the entry must physically (metaphorically) move between the two.  

Whilst on the subject of transferring a domain name, we should take a bit of time to look at the anatomy of the transfer process, because the transfer process itself has been known to trip more than a few people up as it is not quite as easy as one is lead to believe. So, this is how that part of the process works (it will also give an insight into why it can in some situations take so long):  

Step 1: Customer requests that the domain name be transferred to the new reseller (usually done via the new reseller's website)

Step 2: An automated request is sent from the new reseller to the new reseller's registrar requesting that they take the domain over on their behalf

Step 3: The new reseller's registrar requests the old reseller's registrar to release the domain

Step 4: The old reseller's registrar will e-mail the registrant of the domain to confirm that the domain is to be transferred

Step 5: Upon confirmation of the transfer from the registrant, the old reseller's registrar notifies the new reseller's registrar that the transfer may take place

Step 6: The new reseller's registrar confirms that the domain is to be released, and requests from the old reseller's registrar that the name be released by them

Step 7: The new reseller's registrar adds the new domain to their own, and the reseller's account

Step 8: The new reseller's registrar notifies the new reseller and the registrant that the domain has taken place. The transfer is now complete.   If the process is going to stall, it is most likely to stall at steps 4 or 5.  

The registrant MUST confirm the transfer in order for it to take place. Failure of the registrant to respond positively to the transfer confirmation means that the transfer will stop at that point. Also, at step 4 (or earlier), the registrant will be required to enter a code from their current registrar called an EPP code, to prove that the person requesting the transfer is the person that is able to access the domain information. This is done to prevent a nefarious individual changing a domain name other than their own.  

Any delay at step 5 is outside of everyone's control and everyone just has to wait for it to complete.  

Domain name transfers are normally pretty quick, but it depends on every step being followed not only in sequence, but in a timely manner by all concerned. Of course, lots of the steps are automated, it's not like there are letters being sent around the world or anything, but that's not to say that delays cannot come into play. Most registrars will advise that a domain transfer can take anywhere up to 7-10 days, but in reality, it's normally a day or two.  

Another thing to bear in mind is that although the reseller and optionally the registrar have changed, the name servers will not have changed unless the registrant has specifically requested that to happen as part of the transfer process.  

There are some situations whereby a domain transfer is actively blocked, and in these situations the transfer will just fail completely. Unfortunately, the receiving reseller will not normally be made aware that the transfer fails so will be blind to the fact (they are told once the transfer succeeds however).  

1. Registrar lock Usually, once a registrar registers or receives the transfer of a domain name, they will place upon it a lock, called a registrar lock. This is done so that the domain cannot be accidentally changed in a way that would either render it useless or disposed of. In order to instigate a transfer, the domain must first be unlocked. Most registrars (and resellers) will have a control panel option to release the registrar lock on a domain, or you can call them up and get it done.  

2. Transfer lock After any registration or transfer of a domain name, it enters a transfer lock period of 60 days where the domain name may not be transferred around again. This again is a measure to counteract misuse of the system, and to stop domain names being transferred around continually. If you try to move the domain in this period, it will just fail. Again, the new reseller will usually not be told that the transfer has failed.

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Answers to some common questions:

1. If I transfer my domain name, will my DNS settings come along with it? They should do. If you already have a DNS record set up, and you are not changing name servers as part of the domain name transfer then all will be well, as the same name server will be authoritative after they transfer as was before it. If you are changing name servers as part of the process then it will depend upon how up-to-date the new name servers are in terms of it's cached records. For the most part, everything should be fine if you are not making continual or last minute changes to the DNS. As with everything though, it's always wise to get a copy of your existing DNS record before making the change so that you can re-create the items as required if necessary.

2. Will transferring my domain name also transfer my sub-domains? Sub-domains are actually a DNS entry, so the answer to question one applies.  

3. Will I need to re-do all of my e-mail addresses when I transfer my domain name? E-mail addresses are dependant upon the domain name, not the registrar or the reseller, so transferring it around should not cause any problems with e-mails. Be aware though that if you are changing name servers then the mail server pointed to by the DNS record on the new name server should contain the e-mail accounts. If that IP address is up-to-date then everything should continue as required.  

4. I registered my domain name through [company name], can you take it over for me please? No. A reseller has no authority to request that they take over a domain name, that authority must be given by the registrant, and can ONLY be given by following the transfer procedure.  

5. [Company name] registered my domain and I want to change the name servers to you, can you do it for me? No. Resellers only have authority over domains that they have registered, and cannot change anything on domains that are not under their control.  

6. If I transfer my domain name to you, will my website go offline? It shouldn't. The same applies to web sites as to e-mail addresses, so the answer is the same as above  

7. My domain name has a long time left in the registration period, can I transfer it? Yes. As long as you are outside of the 60 day transfer lock, you can. The transfer process is actually free, but all resellers charge for the service. What they are actually charging for is an additional registration period, and that will be added to the expiry date upon transfer. So, if you have six months left of your .COM registration period, and you transfer the domain, then you will implicitly renew that for a further year given a new expiry date 1 year and six months into the future. Be aware that there are certain restrictions with registration period lengths for certain top-level domains (TLDs); .COM.AU is one example, whereby registrations are in blocks of two years which cannot be changed.  

8. There are four or five spaces for name servers, you have only given me two. Is that correct? Yes, that is correct. There should be at least two name servers specified for a domain name. Two allows for the the situation whereby the first named server is offline, the second server can service the request. Some people specify three, but rarely more than that; two is the most common number to provide.  

9. I've put your two name servers beneath the existing name servers for the domain, is that enough to transfer it? No. Not only is it insufficient to transfer the domain name to a new reseller (see the steps required for that above), it is also insufficient to use the new name servers and is quite a dangerous practise. The name servers listed against the domain are consulted in sequence. Only in the event that the first name server is offline, will the second be consulted. If both first and second are offline, then the third (if present) will be consulted and so on. If servers one and two are with company A, and servers three and four with company B, then it is entirely possible that the DNS records held by each company could be out of sync which would lead to any number of routing problems for the duration of the cache time (TTL) at least, or until the either or both of the first two servers are back online.  

10. How do I get my EPP code for transfer? Your current reseller or registrar will have a control panel whereby you can request the EPP code. It will normally be e-mailed to the administrative contact for the domain, so make sure that those details are up-to-date before you start.

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So there you go, everything you ever wanted to know about domain names but were afraid to ask.  

Of course, we cannot cover everything in a blog post like this, and there will always be situations that arise which need special handling. If that's the case, you'll know about it because the process will fail or stall or something; just contact the help desk and we'll get you sorted out without too much trouble.

In terms of general advice though we would offer the following:

  • Try to keep all of your domain name registrations with a single reseller or registrar. It's just easier that way than having them spread everywhere. It saves lots of time in the end.
  • Keep the administrative contact details up-to-date on all of the domain names as they will receive all of the relevant e-mails when transferring, renewing etc.
  • Don't leave your renewals and transfers until the last minute. Give yourself a couple of weeks in case something goes wrong. It's really difficult (and can be more expensive) to recover an expired domain name
  • A reseller may not be able to tell you who your existing reseller or registrar is; that information may be private. It is UP TO YOU to know this information and to keep it safe

Good luck with your domain name management and transferring. Once you get to understand it, like everything, it is nowhere near as confusing as it would at first appear.    

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