It’s been some time since I have conveyed knowledge about a technical concept here in the Technology Tutor column. Now seems like a great time to discuss something that continues to be confusing not just to counselors but also for others who don’t possess inside knowledge of how the internet works.
We aren’t necessarily required to have this knowledge. However, possessing it can be incredibly helpful in making important decisions involving our businesses and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). To provide an illustration, I have only basic knowledge of how automobile engines work. I just want my car to run when I need it to. However, I have educated myself about what sort of maintenance my car needs so that it continues running well and to ensure that I have a good sense of what the mechanic is explaining to me when it doesn’t. This level of knowledge allows me to make educated decisions and to save time and money.
With that in mind, let’s look at a significant underpinning of the internet: the Domain Name Service (DNS). Despite the internet being commonplace for more than two decades now, the inner workings of DNS remain a mystery to many. Yet it is very important that business owners understand how it works because it plays a significant role in many of their business, technology and marketing decisions. For that matter, it is beneficial knowledge for all of us to have because it can be integral to privacy and security of data. For example, it’s important to know that your choice of domain name can significantly affect your search engine results. Because many potential clients will search for “counseling your city,” having those terms as part of your domain name can be beneficial. Furthermore, knowing that you can register more than one domain name and point them all to the same website can also be integral to marketing.
Two examples of domain names are counseling.org and tameyourpractice.com. You’re probably used to seeing domain names in your web browser address bar or as part of someone’s email address. Domain names are all owned by an individual entity, whether that is a person, a corporation or another organization. The process of purchasing a domain name is called registration.
The questions I hear most often about domain registration include:
- Do I have to host my domain with my web host?
- How are my domain, web host and email connected?
Let’s start with the technical details, and then I’ll draw an analogy to help pull it all together. When a domain is registered, three important things are established: the owner of the domain name (the registrant), the company responsible for maintaining the domain name records (the registrar) and the name server(s). In many cases, the registrar and name servers are connected/owned by the same company, but that’s not required. At this point, your domain isn’t actually doing anything but sitting there. It’s simply a placeholder and not associated with a website, email address or anything else. This is where DNS comes in.
Devices connected to the internet (such as web servers, email servers and even your computer) are assigned a numerical internet protocol (IP) address that looks something like 18.104.22.168 (the American Counseling Association’s web server). Imagine having to remember the numerical address of all the websites you’d like to visit. Fortunately, you don’t have to. DNS converts the domain name to those numerical addresses. Although bookmarks might help with that, you’ll likely agree that it’s more visually appealing to look at counseling.org than 22.214.171.124 in your browser address bar.
To give you a visual, here’s a simplified version of what a DNS record looks like:
Domain name – tameyourpractice.com
Name Type* Address
www A 126.96.36.1999
@ MX 188.8.131.529
*For the curious, A = Address and MX = Mail Exchange (because it involves email, thus the “@”)
When you type www.tameyourpractice.com into your web browser, DNS responds, directing you to the actual numerical address of the server hosting the Tame Your Practice website. It knows that you want to go to the website because of the “www” and because you’re using a web browser.
Here’s the kicker. Other services for Tame Your Practice, such as email, might be hosted on an entirely different server and thus have an entirely different IP address. Fortunately, because of the magic of domain names, you don’t need to know that. All you have to do is send an email to email@example.com (our contact form makes this really easy), and DNS points it to the correct server.
Interestingly, there are potential benefits to hosting your DNS separately from your web hosting, and both separate from your email. Web designer Kat Love has written an excellent article on that topic (see bit.ly/DNSSeparate). The confusion often happens because so many companies provide everything — domain registration and hosting, web hosting, email and more — in one nice package. People sometimes assume that’s just how it’s done and may not even realize that things such as domain names and web hosting are entirely separate functions. Remember that you have important choices and can host each service with a different company.
Let’s bring this all together with an analogy. Consider your name. Even though people may know your name, they may not know where you live or how to reach you by phone. This is akin to how domain names work. Consider someone in your list of contacts. You may have that person’s street address, home phone number, cell phone number and email address. When you decide to contact that person, which path you follow will depend on how you want to communicate with that person. You don’t simply call out the person’s name and hope for the best. You navigate to his or her name in your contacts and choose the correct item. That contact listing is your own personal DNS for that person. With domain names, you don’t have to keep all the IP addresses in a contact list; DNS does the calling and navigating for you.
Understanding this core functionality of the internet will not only help you understand how applications, websites and other services interact online, but can also increase your confidence about making implementation decisions regarding technology.
Need help applying these concepts to your own situation? Send me an email with your questions.
Rob Reinhardt, a licensed professional counselor supervisor, is a private practice and business consultant who helps counselors create and maintain efficient, successful private practices. Before becoming a professional counselor, he worked as a software developer and director of information technology. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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