What’s the Difference Between a Domain Name vs. Hosting?

Ever get asked why a site isn't live after a URL was purchased? Here's how to explain what's needed.

In my 10-plus years of developing websites, there has been a lot of confusion — and thus education — about the differences between a domain name vs. hosting. All business owners need to understand this distinction because knowing the difference between a domain name vs. hosting  is crucial for your business. Not knowing could lead to website downtime or worse: losing ownership of your domain.

It’s a rather simple distinction, but it’s technical and so has a tendency to confuse. So if you don’t yet know, after completing this article you’ll be prepared to speak to the distinction with authority — and be able to join all those exciting cocktail party discussions about the difference between a domain name vs. hosting.

Before we jump in, it’s important to clarify that for the purposes of this article, we are only talking about web hosting. I realize that the more technical user will want to point out that there are some use cases in which a domain doesn’t need a host environment, or vice versa, but the point here is to make the distinction between the two for the less technical.

What Is a Domain Name?

A domain name is purchased through what is referred to as a registrar. If you’d like to geek out on the exciting history of domain name registrars, there’s an article on Wikipedia that goes into much more detail than we’ll be getting into here. For our purposes, all you just need to know is that companies like GoDaddy, Network Solutions, Namecheap, and Register.com, to name a few, provide you with the ability to purchase a domain. 

Let’s say you purchase a domain, www.yourcompany.com. You are good to go and can have your website up and running immediately, right? Wrong.

This is where the confusion begins. A domain name is similar to having a phone number. You’re paying for the right to reserve that number/domain name. If you choose to do nothing with it, that’s your choice. (In fact, there are a lot of people who do just that. They purchase domain names and squat on them hoping to sell them for more than they purchased them for.) However, much like you need a provider to receive phone calls at your phone number, you need to host your website somewhere for your users to be able to view it.   

One of the main reasons I believe there’s so much confusion about the difference between a domain name vs. hosting is that all the aforementioned registrars also provide many other services. Their business model is to offer ancillary services that compliment the purchase of a domain name such as email, security certificates, and yes . . . hosting!  So let’s get into that.

What Is Hosting?

After you purchase a domain name, you’ll need to have a place to put all the files that make up your website so that the world can see them.

As mentioned previously, all the companies listed above that allow you to register domain names provide hosting services as well. But the fact is, you don’t have to host with the company you register your domain with.

There are quite a few other hosting options out there that may be better suited for your application. For example, companies like Amazon (AWS), Linode, and Rackspace only focus on providing hosting. So you could purchase a domain name from Namecheap and host your site with Linode, for example.  

Keep in mind that there are decisions you will need to make about the type of hosting needed for your specific application. Your hosting environment is going to be based on whether you are building a website, have a data farm, are creating an app, or are just hosting files.

You’ll need to have a good plan in place for this, which can be provided by your IT team. If your company doesn’t have an IT team to help make these decisions, your best bet is to hire someone with knowledge about hosting so that you can cover all the hosting requirements for your application or website.

Unless you have some complicated setups for redundancy (CDNs or the like), you only need one hosting provider. If you think you may be paying for more than one hosting provider, then start asking questions to make sure you understand what’s going on.

Frequent Questions About Domain Names vs. Hosting

What happens if I stop paying for hosting?

Your website or application will go down and your users will see an error page. Service can be restored quickly in most cases by paying the hosting bill or changing the DNS of your domain name to point to another server that hosts the files.

What happens if I don’t renew my domain name?

Users will be redirected to a page that usually contains messaging about an expired domain or has ads relating to the registrar. Depending on the registrar, you’ll have up to a 30-day grace period to renew the domain.

After that 30-day grace period, there is sometimes another two-week to 30-day redemption period. Generally during the redemption period there’s an additional fee if you renew the domain. Once that time has expired, your domain is free for anyone to purchase — which is clearly something you don’t want. Keeping up with your domains is vital.

For how long can I purchase, or renew, domain names?

The maximum time allowed is 10 years and is something I highly recommend. That way, you only have to worry about your domain name renewing every 10 years.

How will I know when my domain name is up for renewal?

You’ll get an email from your registrar that your domain name is about to expire. Some providers have an auto-renew feature that will keep your credit card on file and renew the domain automatically on the renewal date.  

What type of hosting should I get?

That’s a deeper discussion that requires answering a lot of questions such as, “Is the site e-commerce or just a standard website?,” “What will the volume of traffic be on the website?,” etc.  Find someone qualified and knowledgeable in the web space and they can tell you whether you should go with shared, VPS, cloud, or dedicated hosting for your website.

How long should I purchase hosting?

Go month to month or year to year. NEVER purchase hosting with a contract that is more than a year or that you can’t get out of. It’s not worth the minimal savings if the service is horrible and you can’t exit the contract.

Get a Handle on Your Domain Name & Hosting

As I’ve explained, domains and hosting should be viewed as two entirely separate functions that work together. A domain without a hosting environment will serve little purpose if you want to have a working website. Likewise, you can purchase hosting, but if there’s no domain pointed to the files you place in your hosting environment, it’s not going to do you much good. Having this understanding will arm you with enough knowledge so that you can get the services you need — and won’t overpay for ones you don’t.

This is the space we at INDUSTRIAL live in every day, so if you have any unanswered questions about domain names vs. hosting, please feel free to contact us and we can help you along with the process.


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