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I'm wondering if anyone has any useful analogies to describe what DNS is versus hosting. The average user "just wants a website" and sees it as one atomic unit. To be fair it is possible to buy it like this from some companies but in some situations it's not...

What is the best way that you have found to explain that to end users in such a way that they can comprehend it?

The closest I've got to it is:

  • View DNS as being like looking up a telephone directory for someone’s number. This tells your browser where to go to get the website.

  • Hosting is where you pay for space on a server owned by someone else, typically in a data centre. This allows you to store the files such as images, pages and so forth on this server and is typically subject to a quota.

I thought about using the rent-a-space type analogy but that might not work with some users.

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I think most people are familiar enough with the web to understand the Domain Name is a pointer to the Website concept when explain in simple terms. Using inaccurate or loose analogies is probably asking for misunderstanding. –  Chris S May 16 at 14:29
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I'm not sure there are useful analogies particularly for much the same reason that I no longer try to explain to my parents why 'The Internet' is not synonymous with 'Internet Explorer'. –  Sobrique May 16 at 14:31
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They should see it as one atomic unit. To them, it's magic (almost literally), and a better consultant will abstract away minute details and present a single invoice. –  BigHomie May 16 at 14:32
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I can't agree with that last bit. I've never found that treating my clients like simpletons was a good idea; my personal preference is to educate them until they understand the things that their business depends on. –  MadHatter May 16 at 14:39
    
@MadHatter agreed. –  Brad Bouchard May 16 at 14:51
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7 Answers 7

up vote 21 down vote accepted

I don't use analogies when I explain this concept to people I just try to make it as simple (without completely removing the true meaning behind it) as possible. I do work with a lot of small business owners; some are web savvy/smart, and others not so much. In each instance what I've had good success with is telling them simply that there are two parts to owning and operating a website. You first need a name, or domain that identifies you, and you then need a place to store the files that comprise the actual web pages that people will see when they visit this name/domain. So in essence:

  • A domain, or domain name, is simply the name of their website, or where they tell people to go on the Internet to find their company
  • A domain host, or "hosting" as I refer to it while talking to them is simply the place to store the actual webpages that people will see when going to their website

I've had most of my clients respond well to this and actually get it and not just patronize me with a head nod. Hopefully that helps you.

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I agree. I've never understood the love affair developers have with analogies. Just keep it simple. –  Chris Lively May 16 at 18:08
    
@ChrisLively I think because the world that developers live in is even more complex to the average user than say our SA world is, they have naturally [evolution :) ] over time "developed" - no pun intended - the analogy as a way to make what they do make sense. –  Brad Bouchard May 16 at 19:03
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Analogies come across well when the person using them doesn't have an in-depth understanding of every moving piece of the puzzle. If, for example, a web admin tries to explain DNS, they get the part about HN>IP translation correct, but don't understand the rest of DNS well enough to explain why or how or any of that. In those cases, it makes more sense for someone to say the hostname is the listing in the phonebook, the server is the actual building. It's right enough that people get there's a difference, if not what that difference is or why it has to be that way. –  RobbieCrash May 16 at 19:41
    
@ChrisLively Analogies are incredibly helpful. To step out of the SA world and into the developer world for a moment envision how to explain the difference between workstation and server garbage collection (in .NET) to a CxO level person as I had to do once when explaining why his website wasn't performing up to scratch. The minute you say something like "In server GC a heap and a dedicated thread to perform garbage collection are provided for each CPU..." this class of user is rolling their eyes... ;-) –  noonand May 17 at 7:09
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The domain name is like your company name. The web host is like your company office.

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Okay, I'll bite. The internet is like a box of chocolates, you never know when it will melt down.

Now that we've established that, a Web address is nothing more than an alias to an numerical address, similar to a street address. It's easier to remember Google.com than it is 74.125.225.65. Similar to a criminal's AKA.

Once we know the actual address, we can visit that address and see who's what's hiding there. The address (in the simplest of cases) points to where the file's are hosted, like a PO Box.

Yes, that's it. USPS will now give you a street address for your PO Box. When mail is set to be delivered to a street address (domain name), USPS will uncover the true address (PO Box) and host your mail there.

For clarification, that particular USPS Branch serves as your hosting provider. And to anyone reading don't give me slack about mail going in the PO Box and not coming out, it doesn't matter.

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Ha, I've never heard this analogy before, but I like it. Well spoken my friend. –  Brad Bouchard May 16 at 14:50
    
@BradBouchard lol thanks, the Street Address <-> IP address analogy I've heard a lot, but while typing this I remembered what my neighbor said about PO Box mapping now, and put the two together. It worked quite well, feel free to use it under pay-it-forward-ware. –  BigHomie May 16 at 14:52
    
@BigHomie Like this one, I don't think we have a similar service in Ireland but I'll be able to make something up. –  noonand May 16 at 15:09
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I always tell clients that your website is like your company registration certificate. However, you still need to get yourself an office to run your business and keep your inventory and stuff. This office is your hosting. It usually works!

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Another good analogy. Never thought of this one... –  Brad Bouchard May 16 at 17:23
    
Thanks mate! :) –  Mohamed Elgharabawy May 16 at 18:11
    
I think if you have to really use analogy for this kind of more basic stuff, then the simpler it is the better, as more detailed analogies are too complicated too. –  edvinas.me May 16 at 18:29
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Explaining what those two components are is pretty simple:

Hosting - Where the site files actually reside.

DNS - Name for the site.

You don't need analogies; honestly I'm pretty sure most of those just confuse people to the point that they say they understand when they really really don't.

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Good point Chris. –  Brad Bouchard May 16 at 18:41
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A domain name is like a phone number, and a webhost is like a phone.

You can have a phone number, but without a phone people who call won't get anything. You can have a phone, but without a phone number no one will know how to contact you.

When you have a phone number and the phone company assigns it to the cell phone, people can call you, and reach you.

When you have a domain name, and the DNS system assigns it to the webhost, people can use a browser and reach your web site by typing your domain into the browser.

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I would suggest using the mobile phone analogy.

A domain name is a SIM card which give you and only you a certain phone number (the domain).

You still need a phone to insert the card into, before anybody can call you, as well as an operator to accept the calls to the phone, before you can take any orders. You are free, however, to choose phone and operator depending on your needs as long as you have the SIM card.

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