Getting Started: The Nature of Websites, and What You Will Need to Create Yours
Naming Your Site and Presenting It to the World
noticeable difference among the four main types of web hosting that may matter more than the snappiness of your site is the way each type of hosting appears to the end user in the address for your website, or URL. Although most historical websites, as we noted at the beginning of this chapter, are merely a set of files that can be located on virtually any server, the address to locate those files varies depending on where you host it, and in what manner. To understand why web addresses can vary so much, we must look at the anatomy of a URL, the unique location in cyberspace every web page has, and how it relates to the structure of the Internet and the servers connected to that network of computers.
One of the great innovations of the web is the way in which it has made computer technology and networking more accessible, and among the techniques for doing so was a new system that named computers with letters and words rather than the numbers preferred by computer scientists. Each server (not website) on the Internet has a unique Internet Protocol address, or IP address, so that other computers can find it. Currently that address is four one- to three-digit numbers separated by periods. (Because the world is running out of these numbers, there are plans to move to longer designations, just like when the phone company moved from four-digit dialing to seven-digit, and from seven-digit dialing to ten-digit.)21 For example, the IP address for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History is 126.96.36.199. Shrewdly divining that average human beings have enough trouble remembering the phone numbers of their family members, the creators of the web laid an alphabetical layer on top of this infrastructure of numerical IP addresses. This layer of technology, called the Domain Name System (DNS), translates (or “resolves” in computer-speak) addresses written in a more readable format of characters and words into underlying numerical addresses, which the requesting computer then seeks out. When someone types “http://www.nmah.si.edu” into their web browser, a request is sent to a special computer called a domain name server (alas, also abbreviated as DNS), which sends back a numerical IP address that matches those letters and the client computer then requests a web page from the computer that goes by the name of 188.8.131.52.
Without a doubt, the DNS is a fantastic innovation that has greatly advanced the use of the web because it allows regular people like historians to choose a name that they would like associated with their website. (Regular people like historians cannot assign themselves a numerical IP address.) Like Hebrew or Arabic, “domain names” should be read backward to be understood properly. Let’s return to our example of the Douglas County Historical Society. The URL for the organization is www.watkinsmuseum.org. The string of letters to the far right, “org,” is called the top-level domain (TLD). Common TLDs are “com,” “org,” “net,” “edu,” and “gov,” in addition to the 242 two-letter country codes, such as “uk” for the United Kingdom and “fr” for France. More recently, the powers that govern the Internet have added the .museum TLD, which may hold attraction for some readers of this book, although most museums already use .org instead; to qualify for this new TLD, you must show the appropriate institutional bona fides.
Large companies and organizations called “registries” own and manage the TLDs. For all intents and purposes, you cannot make up your own. The real action is in the second-level domain (SLD). The Douglas County Historical Society based their second-level domain on an abridged version of their physical home, the Watkins Community Museum of History. Together with the TLD “org” (which stands, appropriately enough in this case, for nonprofit organization), watkinsmuseum.org is commonly referred to as the “domain name” (even though technically it consists of an SLD and a TLD).
Like the Douglas County Historical Society, you can register a domain name with a “registrar.” Your registrar should be accredited by the international body responsible for managing domain names and the DNS, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).22 Nonaccredited registrars often promise things they can’t really deliver except through technological trickery or a suspect business model, like your own TLD or a “free” domain name. Only ICANN can approve new TLDs (and they have done so very slowly), and registrars must pay registries around $5-6 per year for each domain they register. If you are being offered a domain name for less than $6 per year, something funny is probably going on. Having said that, with hundreds of ICANN-accredited registrars, the domain registration business has rapidly become competitive and so you can find decent registrars for around $10 per year, and even less for multiyear registrations. Though the once-monopolistic Network Solutions remains the leading domain registrar, lower prices and equivalent service can be found at Dotster and the oddly named but very cheap GoDaddy.com (the third and fourth most popular registrars).23 Given the low cost of registering a domain name, you might also want to consider buying other domains that are similar to your main name to prevent confusion among possible visitors. For instance, the Douglas County Historical Society could also purchase watkinsmuseum.com (and watkinsmuseum.net, etc.) if they wanted to be sure that web surfers looking for their site didn’t instead end up by accident at another, nonhistorical website. (Traffic to these extra domains can be redirected automatically by domain registrars to your primary domain.)
If you are using a host that can accept your own domain, and if you choose it carefully, a domain name can facilitate the ease with which people find your website and associate it with a specific historical topic. Which would you rather type into your browser, www.institution.org/~username/topicname/home.htmla typical address on an institutional serveror www.topicname.org? This comparison becomes even more stark as you move from the home page of a site into internal pages. For instance, you could place a timeline at yourdomain.org/timeline.html (easy to hand out to others and cite in written materials) rather than www.yourispdomain.net/users/username/topicname/timeline.html. M. M. Eskandari-Qajar’s site on the history of the Qajars in Persia previously sat on his ISP’s web server, at home1.gte.net/eskandar/qajtoc.html. After registering a domain name, Eskandari-Qajar, a professor at Santa Barbara City College, moved the whole site to www.qajarpages.org. He is now able to hand out easy-to-remember URLs for sections of his site such as the events calendar and the FAQ (frequently asked questions) page.
The American Historical Association ended up with their current domain, www.historians.org, through a more circuitous route. Initially, the association occupied a subdomain within CHNM’s server with the address http://chnm.gmu.edu/aha. By the time they had decided to register their own domain, the early-bird American Hospital Association had already taken the obvious aha.org. So the historians’ AHA had to add “the” to the domain. Unfortunately people had trouble remembering or guessing the somewhat inelegant theaha.org, and so more recently they purchased secondhand the simpler historians.org. This domain is more memorable and also has an appropriate keyword in the domain name, which may help when people are trying to find the association using a search engine (as we will see in Chapter 5). Other less obvious advantages to having your own domain name rather than using the domain of your web host includes the ability to keep your site at the same URL if you change ISPs or move from one institution to another, and the potential to group multiple projects under a single domain.
With institutional web hosting, the URL instantly conveys the affiliation of the web author. For example, Paul Halsall, who built the extensive Internet Sourcebook we mentioned in Chapter 1, taught a course at Brooklyn College on Chinese culture, materials for which resided within his personal space on one of CUNY’s servers, namely, one of several Sun servers in the Atrium Computer Lab. Observant people can see Halsall’s username in the URL for the site (academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/core9/~phalsall/), and everyone who comes to the course website can identify its association with Brooklyn College and CUNY by glancing at the URL. Even though the site has almost one hundred images and a lot of text, it is still relatively modest in extent, and Halsall did not need a lot of space to contain it. The Brooklyn College server made a great deal of sense, and to the college’s credit the files have not been purged from their server even though Halsall left the campus in 1999 to go to the University of North Florida. Today he continues to maintain his course websites in a simple but effective way on the UNF servers (www.unf.edu/~phalsall/).
Hosting your website on your ISP’s server may appear less desirable than an institutional home, but it provides the independence of having your own space without the cost of a commercial host and the yearly domain registration fee. For example, David E. Brown uses personal space on the web server of his ISP, Comcast, for his site on the Fifth Regiment of the U.S. Colored Cavalry, as the URL (mywebpages.comcast.net/5thuscc/) shows. The modest-sized site (about thirty pages) fits easily within the space the cable company allots. Brown could have registered 5thuscc.org as his domain name for this project and contracted with a commercial hosting service, but the Comcast arrangement works just fine. Of course, should he change Internet service providers, he would have to change his site’s URL.
Eskandari-Qajar’s, Halsall’s, and Brown’s websites are on very different topics and are hosted in three different ways, but all represent personal historical sites with little need for complicated technology. The nature of web hosting can change significantly as additional technologies we discussed in this chapter (and in more detail in the appendix)audio, video, databases, XMLbecome important to your site. Also, if a site grows to gargantuan proportions or receives an extremely high number of visitors, you may have to explore new hosts for your website. The Internet is perfectly structured for such transitions, thankfully; you can transfer your site’s files directly from your old host to your new, often in mere minutes.
21 A new protocol for Internet addresses, called IPv6, uses a longer set of numbers and letters, and will likely supplant the current IPv4 in the future. See IPv6: The Next Generation Internet, ↪link 2.21a; Hubert Feyrer, “Introduction to IPv6,” ONLamp, ↪link 2.21b.