Decoding web terms part two
I previously wrote about a small sampling of web development industry terms so you could create your own personal scrapbook of them. (Okay, not really, but it could look nice). By now, you know a good chunk but we're gonna level that up with another set of terms.
DNS & Domain Names
Your website lives at example.com, right? Nope, it lives on a server. So that server must live at example.com, right? Nope, again. This is where the mighty DNS - short for domain name server - makes an appearance.
Servers don’t have pretty names; They have IP addresses, which are a series of numbers that identify them and they’re okay with talking to each other that way. However, early web folks realized that most people wouldn’t remember to type in 127.0.0.1 to visit their favorite website. (That IP address is actually a trick - it typically resolves to localhost, which is used by developers to build stuff on their own machine). Domain Names were created as a way to point actual humans to websites. When you’re typing in a domain name to visit a website, that domain name accesses its DNS records to find an IP address to visit.
One of the parts of launching a website that’s moving to new hosting is pointing the domain name to the new hosting. This means we go in, change some settings of the DNS to point to a different server, and then site visitors get sent to a new location for the updated website. DNS actually has many different settings, such as pointing emails or making what’s called a subdomain that points to another site that has a domain name with an extra prefix, such as test.example.com.
HTTP and HTTPS
I used to do a lot more phone-based tech support in my early days of developer work. An awkward situation that would come up sometimes: Client wants to read me a website address over the phone, I say go ahead, client starts by reading “h-t-t-p-colon…”
I’m too polite to point out to someone over the phone that they don’t have to give me the “http” part of a website address for my browser to know to send me there. Truthfully, if a DNS has certain settings, you don’t even have to type in a www to get to a website (try it out on some of your frequented sites - you might notice it drops the prefix upon site arrival). The Hypertext Transfer Protocol, known as http, is basically a request protocol that allows computers to communicate with each other. There’s even more to it than that, but for the purpose of this article, we’ll simplify to just sending and receiving information.
An HTTP request opens up when you type in a domain name, makes a call to find the server that domain name is pointing to, then returns different results based on what it finds from the request. Usually, that will be a functioning website. But if something is wrong, you may get a common failure response known as a 404 error, which means what you requested couldn’t be found (oftentimes displayed as a page that says something like “Error: Page Not Found”).
An HTTP request can not only ask for information, but also try to send information along, such as when you submit a form online that connects to a database. Sending this type of request can be dangerous if it doesn’t have extra security added to prevent sensitive information from being caught by something malicious, like a hacker's third party code. This is where HTTPS comes in - the ‘S’ refers to an extra layer of security through the use of encryption. HTTPS is a must-have for websites and applications that involve logins or making purchases with credit cards. In recent years, major companies like Google have been pushing for all websites to utilize HTTPS in an effort to make the Internet more secure and prevent any form of unwanted data interception.
BONUS ROUND: SSL/TLS
As a followup to the term of HTTPS, here’s a quick breakdown of SSL, which stands for Secure Sockets Layer. It enables the encryption and identification necessary for HTTPS to function. When you update your website or application to have HTTPS, you’ll need to buy and install what’s called an SSL Certificate. This certificate has two purposes: To verify the identity of a website (ensuring visitors they’re not at a fake website) and to encrypt the data that’s being sent. SSL has received many security updates over the years, to the point now where the most up-to-date secure socket connection is made through TLS, short for Transport Layer Security. The certificates purchased still reference SSL.
Because they deal with security and authentication, an SSL Certificate requires a cost and renewal each year so that you can continue to prove your website is really yours. While the addition of SSL Certificates is a paid cost, an organization called Let’s Encrypt spearheaded an effort to offer free and automatically renewed certificates for websites that are within certain guidelines. They even partnered with our friends at WP Engine so that your WordPress site can include free HTTPS as soon as it launches on WP Engine’s hosting. This makes it even easier for more sites to be as secure as possible, which is super rad.
Now that you've got a grasp on what these industry terms are, you can follow along with all the web development vernacular, too. Keep your eyes peeled on our blog for even more insight into the verbiage used by the ever elusive web developer.
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