Subdomains and multiple web hosts

We mentioned subdomains in our recent series about branding. We’ve discussed DNS before, but we’ve never looked directly at subdomains and how they can help us as auctioneers create a better experience for our users. The first part of this post, like any good figure-skating routine, has a technical component, but stick with us because there is cake waiting at the end.

URI

A Uniform Resource Identifier, or URI, is a string of characters that can be used to identify a name or resource on the Internet. Sometimes used interchangeably with URI, a Uniform Resource Locator, or URL, is a subset of URI and is used to describe where a resource is located and how to get it.

URL parsing

A URL consists of several components. We’ll use the following example.

http://www.auctioneertech.com/auction-podcast

The first part that you see is the scheme, or protocol. http tells us that we’re going after an insecure web page. Other schemes include https, ftp. This is the part of the URI that tells our browser how to get the resource.

Everything in the URL that’s after the first foreslash tells our browser the resource to request from the server. In this case, it’s going to look for the /auction-podcast page.

The remaining  part in the middle, between the two consecutive foreslashes and the first single foreslash, is the domain name. This consists of several parts. Our browsers actually parse these domain names in reverse, looking first at the right-most part, then moving left. We’ll work from right to left in our explanation.

The right-most part, as you’ll remember from the last episode of the Auction Podcast, is the top level domain. In our case, it’s .com. It could be .net, .org, .us, .info, or one of many other TLDs. Establishing the TLD tells our browser the kind of domain it’s looking for. Once it knows that it’s looking for .com, it doesn’t have to worry about the many other possible domain types.

The second-most-right part in our example is auctioneertech. This is the primary domain name which, when combined with the TLD of .com, is enough for our browser to be able to contact the appropriate name server. Each domain has a name server, which houses all relevant information about a domain name. This information includes the IP addresses of the server, the email records which dictate where mail gets delivered for the domain, as well as information regarding subdomains. This information is stored in the name server in a zone file.

Armed with the information from the zone file, our browser now continues to move left in its parsing of the domain name. Left of the primary domain name auctioneertech, it finds a subdomain called www. The www subdomain has become essentially a default subdomain. Most zone files specify that the www subdomain is an alias of the primary domain, causing them to serve the same content. In our case, www.auctioneertech.com and auctioneertech.com are treated the same by our server. However, they don’t have to be. We’re finally to the fun part. Get ready for cake.

Subdomains

Because subdomains are DNS records, they can point to anything. We could, very easily, tell www.auctioneertech.com to serve one page and have auctioneertech.com serve something completely different. It wouldn’t be advisable since it would likely confuse our readers, but we could do it.

Subdomains are free, and we can define an essentially unlimited number of subdomains. For example, to make it easier for our employee users, we could set mail.auctioneertech.com to point to Google Apps so it would show the Gmail login screen. We could make calendar.auctioneertech.com point directly to our company calendar. We could set dev.auctioneertech.com to point to the computer in our living room that’s running a development server so we had a real domain name to use for testing purposes.

Now that we’ve established that subdomains can point anywhere from Google to our living room, let’s look at some specific examples relative to us as auctioneers.

Blogs

We mentioned in our Internet branding series how your blog needs to be located on your website to be properly branded. Some of us, however, don’t have access to our website – or its managed by a third party. Maybe we want to use a different hosting company or allow other users access to the blog while not giving them access to our primary server. In all of these cases, we can use a subdomain to host a blog on one of the many inexpensive providers, while not affecting your primary web host. You could be up and running in under an hour with a starter plan from Lunarpages for $2.95 per month – including an automated WordPress installation. wordpress.com allows subdomain mapping for under $10 per month, allowing you to make your existing blog on wordpress.com look like it’s located natively on your website.

Internet bidding

Maxanet is a popular Internet bidding service that many auctioneers prefer because of its low cost, ease of configuration and private branding abilities. Because it’s a service, it runs on its own servers. Some auctioneers have implemented it through the use of frames, but we’re seeing more and more implementations with subdomains. Subdomains are much better for branding, as we recently discussed in a podcast.

Media hosting

Web hosts have strengths and weaknesses. While there is certainly a positive aspect to using one web host for all our needs, it’s rare that such a service can be found that will do everything we need for under $30 per month. Some hosts pride themselves on speed and reliability. These hosts often charge more or have limits on storage or bandwidth. Other hosts pride themselves on value and offer unlimited storage and bandwidth, but may not be very fast. Subdomains let us use multiple hosts to get the best of both worlds. You can host your primary domain on a server that runs your scripts or houses your bidding, while using a subdomain to host your media. This approach is especially valuable for auctioneers who need to store thousands of pictures for their auctions. If we were running an Internet bidding site, we’d grab an unlimited storage plan from a company like Lunarpages or Bluehost for under $10 per month and put our pictures there, using a subdomain like img.auctioneertech.com as  the way to access them.

Putting it all together

Here’s a real-world example of using multiple servers for an auction company with the domain aaronauction.com. The most important website rule for an auctioneer is to put the auction calendar on the front page. In our example, we’re selecting Maxanet for our Internet bidding and auction calendar management. We’ll house our primary domain, aaronauction.com, as well as the default subdomain, www.aaronauction.com, on the Maxanet servers. This way, Maxanet houses our auction calendar, auctions and Internet bidding from our primary site so our users don’t have additional clicks.

We love WordPress, and it’s going to handle both our blogs as well as all static pages – it truly is a great content management system. We love (mt). The (mt) grid service offers 100 GB of storage for $20. 100 GB isn’t enough to serve as our media warehouse for our years of images and video, but (mt) is super-reliable and will work great to house our WordPress installation. We’ll point web.aaronauction.com there, since it will house all our web pages that aren’t part of Maxanet. It’s also the place we’ll install our bulk email package, phpList.

We’ll need a place to put our pictures. Maxanet doesn’t support storing a ton of content, and our (mt) account is fast and reliable, but won’t be enough storage for us in the long run. We’ll need an unlimited storage solution, and for this need we’ll select Lunarpages at $4.95 per month. As with any cheap, unlimited storage provider, we’ll keep local backups of everything just in case something happens. Should something happen, we’ll be able to put what we need up to (mt) until we find a different host for our media. We’ll point media.aaronauction.com at our Lunarpages account.

Cake

The cake may be a lie, but we’ve got a very robust three-server website, all correctly branded with aaronauction.com. We’re not beholden to any single company, Google Analytics will track all three servers under the same account and our users will neither notice nor care that they’re actually pulling content from three different locations.

Do you have other tricks or tips to using subdomains? Did we bork some of the details about subdomains or zone files? Are you skeptical that a distributed web host system is better than having only one web host? Are you excited about Portal 2, too? Let us know in the comments.

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Aaron Traffas, CAI, ATS, CES

twitter.com/traffas | aarontraffas.com | aarontraffasband.com

Aaron Traffas, CAI, AMM, CES, is an auctioneer from Medicine Lodge, Kansas. He is currently community evangelist for Purple Wave in Manhattan, Kansas. Aaron serves as the current president of the Kansas Auctioneers Association and in the past has served on the National Auctioneers Association Education Institute Board of Trustees. He is a past instructor at CAI and co-wrote and instructed the ATS designation course from NAA. He currently instructs the Internet Auction Methods course offered by the NAA. An active contract bid caller, he has competed in multiple state auctioneer contests including placing twice within the top 5 in Kansas. During the summer, Aaron operates a farm in south central Kansas. Aaron is an active singer and songwriter and the Aaron Traffas Band's latest release, Enter: The Wind, can be found at iTunes, Amazon and Spotify.