The Beginning of Control - Part 2: Basic Arrangements

Posted on December 31, 2013
Tags: personal information control privacy

Tim Lavoie

In my last post, I discussed why you should have your own, though really only at a very high level. When you register a domain name, what you are doing is creating an entry in the Domain Name System or DNS. This is the distributed infrastructure which allows someone to type a human-readable name into their web browser or email client, and have it actually reach someone via the numeric addresses which underly computer networks. By registering a name, you have created a way for other people to figure out who to ask for the numeric address. Someone trying to reach you will, by means of their local network arrangement, ask their local DNS server for your IP address. It likely has no prior information, but can ask another system, and so on up the chain, eventually reaching your registrar. At that point, they will likely remember for a defined period of time in order to minimize repeat effort.

Your admin interface will have different kinds of records defined, using cryptic descriptions such as “A record”, “MX record” and so on. If you are subscribing to some all-in-one solution, they may even have these pre-filled for you. In short, the MX record points to the mail server for your domain, and the A record is for basically everything else. You may have a hosting provider already, or not, but these are the records which tell others how to get to your domain. The advantage here is that you can also change where these point, so that you are no longer locked to any one provider. If you have the interest and technical resources, you can do this yourself, or others can be delegated to handle it for you. It’s now up to you!

Hosting Providers

Combined Web/Mail Hosting

This is the simplest for a new user, as a number of choices are made for you. Typically, you will have a way to create some number of email accounts, using your domain as the last part of the address. No longer stuck with “fuzzybunny12312@hotmail.com”, you can choose what you like for the first part. Combined hosts will also provide things such as templated web site designs for you to start from, and all you need to do is decide on looks and content. Software is pre-defined for the most part, so if you have any preferences at this point, it will factor into your decision on whose hosting to use. There will be different packages to choose from, say with varying software or bandwidth allowances, but the point of this sort of hosting is to provide reasonable choices for those who may not know or care about the techie details.

For email, you will want to know about the sort of access you can get, for instance using the POP or IMAP protocols to be able to access it from home or your smartphone. Web-based mail is also a common option, so you can check your email from anywhere with an available web browser. Think of Gmail or similar, but with your own domain name used. Spam filtering is a plus, so that you don’t become inundated with garbage solicitations. Whether you have control over this is a good question to ask though.

For both web and email, you will want to be aware of what is usually referred to as “Terms of Service”. You probably won’t have to worry much about it, unless you plan on doing things that most people don’t do. If you plan on serving up porn, spam or copyrighted materials, check into the details ahead of time. Otherwise, you will pretty much have to go out of your way to find trouble.

More cost, more control

There are other options beyond the basic do-it-for-you hosting, where you have much more work to do. On the other hand, you have the ability to install and configure software on what is called a “virtual private server”, shortened commonly to VPS. These are servers which run a virtualized operating system among many others on a physical server, sharing resources and splitting the cost. The hosting provider takes care of hardware, the host system and connectivity to the outside world, but the rest is up to you; you have admin privileges and a certain amount of CPU, disk space and memory. This is a great option if you are comfortable tinkering with operating systems at home for instance, as this lets you run a small system with better connectivity than typical home Internet.

Running a VPS will start with selection of the operating system, often one Linux distro or another, but I think there are Windows VPS hosts out there too if you prefer. All of the power is yours, but ditto the responsibility. The system is yours to install, secure, and manage. At the very least, do the sort of things that would be (or should be) done for you in a more managed environment:

  • Use a separate non-admin user for most tasks where possible.
  • Minimize the software installed, and ensure that you know how to it up to date. Especially, run only the services you need to minimize the available attack points.
  • Use a system firewall to permit only the traffic you need, both in- and out-bound.