May 022012

So you have, or want, a web site? And your web consultant starts talking about web hosting accounts, domain names, and other strange stuff. There’s an account for this, and an account for that, and on seemingly forever. What does it all mean? Like a house, you may just want the result, and not have to understand all of the internal construction details about 2×4’s, subflooring, and utility hookups.

I wrote this analogy in an attempt to answer that question for a business person for whom so many of these terms were extremely confusing. This description fits the case where a small business person wants to own a website and have some knowledge of how it is put together. (You can also buy services from consultants or other companies that insulate you from all these details.)

Think of your web hosting provider (ARVIXE in this case) as a gated community (one of many in the internet universe). Your billing account and its password give you access to the community and constitute the key to the gate to request services from the community.

Your hosting account is the lot you have leased from the community. The community (ARVIXE) chose which lot to give you and provides the roads and utility services. The hosting account user name and password unlock the gate to your lot.

On your lot, you are allowed to construct a wide variety of buildings, and may have several buildings and outbuildings. You can build your own building from scratch, build one from a kit, or install a ready-built building. You’ve chosen to build a WordPress building. WordPress is a very common building, and there are probably more of them in the community than any other type of building. Since so many lessees want WordPress buildings, the community has made it exceptionally easy for you by providing a service (Softaculous) that creates the building at the click of a button. Your WordPress account and password are a master key to unlock the door to the building so you can change things.

You can control visitor access to your building. Like many WordPress buildings, you’ve chosen to allow visitors to freely look around and use facilities (such as purchasing items or booking a reservation) that you make available to visitors. You can also give selected people special keys to your building. You’ve given one to me, and it is also a master key like yours (so I can change anything). (You could have created other keys with more limited access, but you did not find it necessary for your building.)

You’ve given your building a name (called a domain name, like that allows anyone to get to your building if they know your name. All they need is your name; a service called DNS (Domain Name Service) translates the name into a “street address” (IP address) that specifies exactly where your building is. That translation happens usually invisibly to the user. You’ve also given your building a “friendly” name (Guy Scharf Consulting) and written a description for it. Various yellow page services (Google, Yahoo, Bing, etc.) pick up that information automatically and create giant books that anyone can search through to find places like yours,

You (or your web developer, acting on your behalf) can customize your standard WordPress building almost as much as you can imagine, creating different rooms (pages) with different content and colors. You adjust the experience in each room using WordPress plugins and other customization techniques. When you enter your building using your master key (logon to your WordPress account), you see a “dashboard” which contains the controls by which you modify the site. The Pages section lets you create, delete, or change pages on your site. The Plugins section allows you to add or delete plugins.

An “outbuilding” you have on your lot is a mailing service. You might have set up an entire bank of mailboxes, each with the own email address, but you’ve set up only one. In case someone mis-addresses mail to you, any mail addressed to your building name ( will be placed in this same mailbox. The mailboxes are of course locked, and you use your email account and its password to open the box. Or, if you don’t want to be bothered with the mailbox for your building at all, you can instruct the service for forward any mail received to a mailbox you have somewhere else (such as your email account on

Like all analogies, this breaks down a bit when you look at the details closely. Visitors to your site are a bit like birds. They fly around and alight wherever they like. They are completely unaware of the community or the lot; all they see are buildings they can enter. They can find your street address, but rarely do because it isn’t as useful as your building name.

Lots are actually quite large. You didn’t need an entire lot of your own, or want to pay for it (several $hundred per month) or make all of the utility connections yourself. So you just have a subdivided section of the lot. This is called a “shared hosting” account, which means that you and many other people are sharing the same large lot (server).

Subdividing a lot like this has certain consequences. There is only one road, water line, electric line to the large lot. It that road is interrupted for any reason, every building on the entire lot goes dark (down, unavailable) so no birds can land on any building in the larger lot. If a huge flock of birds lands on all buildings at the same time, you can suffer a “brownout” (your website responds slowly, if at all). If a building on another sub-lot gets infested with pests, the can use up a disproportionate share of utilities, causing a brownout also. If some other building has enemies, and they decide to attack that building (DDoS – Distributed Denial of Service attack), the attack can overwhelm the utility supply to the lot and prevent access to your site (by birds, you, or anyone else). The community tries to respond to problems such as these and resolve them before you are much affected, but they are not always successful. Usually attacks are a problem to others only for a few hours, but it can extend to several days.

Since you are all on a large, shared lot with shared utilities, sometimes pests that infect one building can enter buildings on the same large lot through underground connections. (This doesn’t happen often, and the community erects barriers to prevent it.  But I suspect this is how hackers gained access to another web site I manage and attempted to deface it in February.)

Like renting an apartment instead of a owning a stand-alone house, all those drawbacks are the tradeoff that come with an inexpensive sub-lot.

Describing the community as if it were just a collection of lots is also a simplification. The lots are actually grouped together in subcommunities of several hundred lots (data centers). The data centers may be in different parts of the country.

Actually, the community may not even own any of the lots itself. The community may leases subcommunities (dozens to hundreds of lots/servers) from companies that own huge “data farms” with many thousands of servers. Those companies provide just the hardware and freeway access. The lots themselves are completely bare when the community gets them. (More specifically, the community, the web hosting provider, has to install an operating system, set up IP addresses, etc. so they can create lots and sublots to lease out to people who want them.)

Please let me know if this analogy is helpful.

  One Response to “Understanding Your Web Site”

  1. I have been struggling and struggling to understand this! You are a genius! The metaphor is incredible. Now it will be so much easier to make the many decisions necessary for creating a website! Thanks you!

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