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The main purpose of a domain name is to provide symbolic representations, i.e., recognizable names, to mostly numerically addressed Internet resources. This abstraction allows any resource (e.g., website) to be moved to a different physical location in the address topology of the network, globally or locally in an intranet, in effect changing the IP address. This translation from domain names to IP addresses (and vice versa) is accomplished with the global facilities of Domain Name System (DNS).
By allowing the use of unique alphabetical addresses instead of numeric ones, domain names allow Internet users to more easily find and communicate with web sites and any other IP-based communications services. The flexibility of the domain name system allows multiple IP addresses to be assigned to a single domain name, or multiple domain names to be services from a single IP address. This means that one server may have multiple roles (such as hosting multiple independent websites), or that one role can be spread among many servers. One IP address can also be assigned to several servers, as used in anycast networking.
By definition (RFC 1034, updated by RFC 1123), domain names are made of non-empty labels separated by dots (.); labels are restricted to the ASCII letters a through z (case-insensitive), the digits 0 through 9, and the hyphen (-), with restrictions in terms of name length and position of hyphens. Namely hyphen cannot appear at the beginning or at the end of a label, and the length of a label should be between 1 to 63 with total length of a domain name not exceeding 255 (a restriction of the Domain Name System, see RFC 2181, section 11). Since this definition does not allow the use of many characters commonly found in non-English languages, and no multi-byte characters necessary for most Asian languages, the Internationalized domain name (IDN) system has been developed and is now in testing stage with a set of top-level domains established for this purpose.
The underscore character is frequently used to ensure that a domain name is not recognized as a hostname, as with the use of SRV records, for example, although some older systems such as NetBIOS did allow it. To avoid confusion and for other reasons, domain names with underscores in them are sometimes used where hostnames are required.
Domain names are often referred to simply as domains and domain name registrants are frequently referred to as domain owners, although domain name registration with a registrar does not confer any legal ownership of the name, only an exclusive right of use.
The following example illustrates the difference between a URL (Uniform Resource Locator) and a domain name:
- URL: http://www.example.net/index.html
- Domain name: www.example.net
- Registered domain name: example.net
As a general rule, the IP address and the server name are interchangeable. For most Internet services, the server will not have any way to know which was used. However, the explosion of interest in the Web means that there are far more Web sites than servers. To accommodate this, the hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP) specifies that the client tells the server which name is being used. This way, one server with one IP address can provide different sites for different domain names. This feature goes under the name virtual hosting and is commonly used by web hosts.
For example, as referenced in RFC 2606 (Reserved Top Level DNS Names), the server at IP address 126.96.36.199 handles all of the following sites:
When a request is made, the data corresponding to the hostname requested is provided to the user.
Every domain name ends in a top-level domain (TLD) name, which is always either one of a small list of generic names (three or more characters), or a two-character territory code based on ISO-3166 (there are few exceptions and new codes are integrated case by case). Top-level domains are sometimes also called first-level domains.
The generic top-level domain (gTLD) extensions are:
Generic top-level domains
Generic .biz · .com · .info · .name · .net · .org · .pro
Sponsored .aero · .asia · .cat · .coop · .edu · .gov · .int · .jobs · .mil · .mobi · .museum · .tel · .travel
Reserved .example · .invalid · .localhost · .test
Pseudo .bitnet · .csnet · .local · .root · .uucp · .onion · .exit
Second-level and lower level domains
Below the top-level domains in the domain name hierarchy are the second-level domain (SLD) names. These are the names directly to the left of .com, .net, and the other top-level domains. As an example, in the domain en.wikipedia.org, wikipedia is the second-level domain.
Next are third-level domains, which are written immediately to the left of a second-level domain. There can be fourth- and fifth-level domains, and so on, with virtually no limitation. An example of a working domain with four domain levels is www.sos.state.oh.us. The www preceding the domains is a host name of the World-Wide Web server. Each level is separated by a dot, or period symbol. 'sos' is said to be a sub-domain of 'state.oh.us', and 'state' a sub-domain of 'oh.us', etc. In general, Sub-domains are domains subordinate to their parent domain. An example of very deep levels of subdomain ordering are the IPv6 reverse resolution DNS zones, e.g., 188.8.131.52.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.0.ip6.arpa, which is the reverse DNS resolution domain for the IP address of a loopback interface, or the localhost name.
Second-level (or lower-level, depending on the established parent hierarchy) domain names are often created based on the name of a company (e.g., microsoft.com), product or service (e.g., gmail.com). Below these levels, the next domain name component has been used to designate a particular host server. Therefore, ftp.wikipedia.org might be an FTP server, www.wikipedia.org would be a World Wide Web server, and mail.wikipedia.org could be an email server, each intended to perform only the implied function. Modern technology allows multiple physical servers with either different (cf. load balancing) or even identical addresses (cf. anycast) to serve a single hostname or domain name, or multiple domain names to be served by a single computer. The latter is very popular in Web hosting service centers, where service providers host the websites of many organizations on just a few servers.
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has overall responsibility for managing the DNS. It administers the root domain, delegating control over each TLD to a domain name registry. For ccTLDs, the domain registry is typically installed by the government of that country. ICANN has a consultation role in these domain registries but cannot regulate the terms and conditions of how domain names are delegated in each of the country-level domain registries. On the other hand, the generic top-level domains (gTLDs) are governed directly under ICANN, which means all terms and conditions are defined by ICANN with the cooperation of each gTLD registry.
Domain names are often seen in analogy to real estate in that (1) domain names are foundations on which a website (like a house or commercial building) can be built and (2) the highest "quality" domain names, like sought-after real estate, tend to carry significant value, usually due to their online brand-building potential, use in advertising, search engine optimization, and many other criteria.
A few companies have offered low-cost, below-cost or even cost-free domain registrations with a variety of models adopted to recoup the costs to the provider. These usually require that domains be hosted on their website within a framework or portal that includes advertising wrapped around the domain holder's content, revenue from which allows the provider to recoup the costs. Domain registrations were free of charge when the DNS was new. A domain holder (often referred to as a domain owner) can give away or sell infinite number of subdomains under their domain name. For example, the owner of example.edu could provide subdomains such as foo.example.edu and foo.bar.example.edu to interested parties.