Here’s the scenario:

You’ve just bought a domain name for your swanky new website and you notice that you’re only able to register it for a certain number of years.

What happens at the end of those years – will you lose your domain name after that period?

And why do you need to keep paying someone for the domain name in order to keep using it, don’t you own it now?

We need a little explainer of how the DNS (Domain Name System) works. Don’t worry, we’re not going to get too technical here.

Here we go.

Every computer on the internet has a unique ID number, called an IP address. This allows one computer to contact another so they can share information. Think of these IP addresses as phone numbers. Us humans don’t love numbers the way computers do so we’ve invented the DNS system to allow us to use words instead of numbers.

If an IP address is a dude’s phone number, a domain name is his name. We don’t think to ourselves “hey I need to call 01567 156 127 to plan our daring diamond heist,” we think “hey I need to call Ulysses to plan our daring diamond heist”. We then look up Ulysses in the phone book. This phone book tells us the number at which we can contact Ulysses – it’s a central log that allows us to match names to phone numbers.

This is what the DNS does – it’s a centralised log of all domain names on the internet. So when you register a domain name you’re not buying a word for life, you’re buying a connection service and reserving a slot for your name in the phone book. You’re paying the domain name registrars (phone book operators, if you like) to send all requests for your domain name to the IP address of the computer that you set it to go to in your domain name records. This computer then hosts and serves your website files and databases to visitors.

OK if that’s enough detail for one day look away now. This is where we’re going to get a smidge bit more technical for those who want it.

Just like our phone book example, when you tell your computer to look up the domain name, it plays out in much the same fashion, except there are over 340,000,000 domain names (with 130,000 – 150,000 new domains being registered per day) so our phone book then becomes a whole library with ledgers detailing the records stored in each wing, section and shelf.

Different registrars store records for different parts of the domain name. This is how it plays out:

DNS lookup diagram

Note – there are just 13 of these root servers in the world. These are the big daddies, the very top end of the infrastructure. If a few of them went down at once the world would probably end.

In conversation form the process would sound something like this:

  1. Your computer: Dear ISP, please get me
  2. Your ISP: Hello nearest Root Server, who holds records of .design domain registrars?
  3. Root Server: That’ll be
  4. Your ISP: Hello, who holds records for the domain?
  5. That’ll be Fasthosts
  6. Your ISP: Hello Fasthosts, please give me DNS records for
  7. Fasthosts: That’ll be the computer known as
  8. Your ISP to your computer: Try

Then your PC sends a request to the computer at that IP address, which hopefully is indeed hosting the website and happy to send you the required data to show the web page on your computer screen.

That’s why you need to pay someone (e.g Fasthosts) to register your domain name. They in turn pay others to play their part in the wonderful service that we know as the Domain Name System.

Side note: in reality ISPs often save their own copy of many domain records the first time they fetch them (referred to as DNS Record Caching). This cuts down the number of requests they have to make, making for a faster service as they can just refer to their own records without having to ask everyone else every time. Of course their saved records can get out of date but they update them regularly enough for it to not cause an issue most of the time.

All things considered it’s amazing how quickly and effortlessly it (usually) runs, all without a moment of thought on our part. 😊

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Author: Aidan Ashby

Aidan is a web and branding designer living in Bristol, UK. He’s a cautious optimist and is loathe to discuss himself in the third person. He loves pancakes and has a perpetual desire to just be sat in the woods with his feet up in front of a bonfire.

Connect with Aidan on LinkedIn.


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