This is not intended to be a highly technical article (though it easily could be) so we’ll keep it simple and use an analogy of a signpost.
What is a domain used for?
A domain is commonly used for 2 things that are most visible to you, though there are many more. One is your website, and the other is your email address. At Macnamara, our domain is macnamara-ict.co.uk so our website can be written as www.macnamara-ict.co.uk and our email addresses as email@example.com or some other alternative.
Your domain, email server and website are usually hosted in different places, though they don’t have to be. Many website hosting packages have rudimentary email and domain hosing as an add-on service (though they are often really are pretty basic). But even if they are hosted at the same company, their locations on the internet are different, and will be on different servers.
When you visit a webpage, your browser has to be told where that website is. This is an IP address, which you can think of like a postal or street address pinpointing exactly where the building is you want to go to, though not necessarily which office or floor within the building. Similarly, when you send an email, your email provider needs to know where to send that email to, and again that’s an IP address. The IP address the domain points to is called the DNS Record.
Like a Signpost
Here’s where the analogy comes in. Think of your domain like a signpost, with arms pointing in different directions. There may be many arms on the signpost, but 2 of them will almost certainly be pointing towards a website and an email server. These arms are the DNS Records for your domain.
The domain itself could be managed (hosted) completely independently of both the website and email services, and often is. It could be anywhere in the world. Like a real signpost, it doesn’t matter where it is as long as the arms point in the right direction! If you change where one of the services is, like your website, you need to change the sign to point the new location.
One is (usually) never enough
There are different types of records depending on what service it’s pointing at. Ultimately they all point to an IP address in the end, but your signpost might point to another signpost that’s on the way to the ultimate destination. This is called a ‘recursive query’ and we won’t get into that here, suffice it to say that your signpost might not have all the answers. For example, if you’re travelling to an address in Greenwich from Leeds, you’ll start seeing signs to London on the M1 quite soon after setting off, and you’ll have a rough idea of the direction, but you’ll need to get closer to London before you start seeing signs to Greenwich itself.
Look after your domain!
Good domain management is vital if everything is going to work properly. Make sure you have access to your domain either directly or through a trusted partner. Never let anyone manage it who doesn’t know what they are doing, and make sure it’s always registered in your name. If someone else manages to get at it, they may break it, or worse, take control of it for their own use. If this happens, asking for directions might get… complicated.