The Players: Who Does What?
- Domain Registrar: the company that sells you the right to use a domain name (“www.mydomain.com”).
- Web Host: the company that gives your domain a home on the Internet (i.e. makes it “live”).
Many companies offer both domain registration and web hosting services, and buying the services together can be very convenient. But it is not necessary, and some would tell you that it’s not desirable, as it gives one single company more power over your website than you might like.
Internet Service Provider (ISP): the company that pipes the Internet to your house. Your ISP has nothing to do with your web domain, although, like a web host, they do usually provide basic email service as part of the ISP package (e.g. email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org).
When you register a domain name, you are purchasing the rights to use that name for a certain period of time, usually one or more years. Domain names must be renewed when they are nearing expiration in order to keep the right to the name. It usually costs $10 or less to register a name for a year.
Registering a domain name is only the first step in creating a website. In order to be useful, your domain name needs a way to make itself known on the web. This is called “hosting” your domain. It’s perfectly possible to register a name without hosting it; this is sometimes called “parking” a domain, and your domain registrar may impose a small “parking” fee. However, you can’t do anything with your parked domain (and it will likely show ads for your domain registrar) until you host it somewhere.
Web hosts provide a whole set of services, but the two most important are email and web page hosting. Just because you have both of these services available doesn’t mean you have to use them; you may choose to host a web page on your domain, but continue to use an email address you already have, such as one provided by your ISP (e.g. email@example.com) or a free email address at Yahoo or Gmail etc. Likewise, you may choose to create an email address (or several), but never put a web page up. If this is the case, there are several companies that provide email-only services that are cheaper and better than the vanilla email service provided as part of a full hosting package.
Email: The host’s mail server is the machine that actually sends and receives (“serves”) email for you. When you set up an email account in a program such as Outlook, Windows Live Mail, Apple Mail, or Thunderbird, the program will ask for your incoming and outgoing server name. Sometimes these are the same, such as “mail.yourdomain.com,” but sometimes the incoming and outgoing are different, such as “pop3.mydomain.com” and “smtp.mydomain.com.” Your web host provides the correct server information.
Email services often come with a limited amount of space for email storage. When your account hits the limit, the mail server will stop accepting mail, and no one will be able to send you email. The storage limit doesn’t much matter if you are downloading all of your email and storing it on your computer (technically speaking, using a “POP” email service), as it can then be safely deleted from the server as you go. But if you are accessing your email from many devices (phone, tablet, laptop, desktop, etc), you may prefer to keep your email on the server more or less permanently (using “IMAP” email service), in which case space matters.
Web Page Hosting: The web host provides a certain amount of space on its computer (usually referred to as a server), where you store your web page files and perhaps a database (if you use something like WordPress or Drupal). When someone enters the address of one of your web pages, the host “serves” that page up – provides it to the requesting computer. Your host may limit the amount of information that it will serve up for you each month, or it may offer “unlimited bandwidth” and simply slow down delivery if things get busy. If you are using something like WordPress or Drupal to manage your website, the management software takes a certain amount of computer power to run. Your host will impose limits on the amount of computer power your site is allowed to use at any given time, which may or may not matter to you depending on how many visitors your site has.