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Security

Don't get screwed by Microsoft Office Live Small Business

How to insure that your domain is, in fact, your domain

In todays' New York Times, David Pogue reviewed an updated version of Microsoft's Office Live Small Business, a suite of online services for making Web sites (I'm simplifying a bit).

He failed to point out an important defensive computing aspect of any Web site, divorcing it from the domain name registration. In addition, trusting Microsoft to handle domain registration is not your best option. To fully understand this, some background is required.

A domain name, such as CNET.com or JavaTester.org is a unique name on the Internet, one that is used for both e-mail and a Web site. Conceptually speaking, all domains are registered in a big master file in the sky. Hundreds of companies, called registrars, are authorized to register domains into this huge master file. Registrars offer many services, but simply registering a domain name ranges from roughly $9 to $35 a year.

Associated with each domain is a pointer to the computer running the Web site and a pointer to the computer that receives e-mail sent to the domain. The pointer system is called DNS, for Domain Name System. The pointers are indirect. That is, rather than pointing directly to the computer(s) with the Web site or e-mail, they point instead to server computers running DNS software.* A company that hosts Web sites is obliged to run a DNS server computer to handle the finger-pointing for all the Web sites under its control.

A small business setting up a new Web site is likely to be tempted by the one-stop shopping offered by Office Live Small Business. Many registrars host Web sites and any company hosting a Web site will also register a domain name. But, you are better off getting these services from different companies.

My JavaTester.org Web site, for example, is hosted at a company called A2 Hosting and the domain is registered with GoDaddy. A2 runs a pair of DNS server computers, ns1.a2webhosting.com and ns2.a2webhosting.com, which GoDaddy associates with the domain in the big master file in the sky. (If you want to impress your friends, the ns1 and ns2 computers are technically referred to as authoritative name servers.)

For one thing, using two companies makes it easier to switch Web site hosting companies in the future, should the need arise. More importantly though, it insures the domain is yours.

There have been times when a Web site hosting company registered a domain in their name rather than in the name of their customer. For example, instead of my JavaTester.org Web site being registered to me in the big master file, it would be registered to A2hosting.** In this case, it is not my domain, even though I paid for it. For a small business, this can be a really big deal.

What about e-mail? Companies hosting Web sites can also provide e-mail, as can most registrars. Then again, you don't need either one, you can have a third party handle e-mail for your domain.

Pogue on Office Live Small Business

The first Web site I ever created was hosted on a computer run by a school. The name was something like computerdeptserver.someuniversity.edu/~michael. Everyone in the class was assigned a userid on the server, and that formed the rightmost part of the Web site address.

From what Pogue says, Office Live Small Business does a similar thing, giving out names like bobsfleabag.accommodations.officelive.com (his example) to customers only interested in free services. Using your own domain, instead of one that ends with officelive.com, is what Pogue means when he refers to "customized domains." I point this out because the term "customized domain" has no real meaning--all domain names are unique.

If you want to use your own domain name with Office Live Small Business, Pogue's review said that Microsoft charges $15 per year after the first year. While the price is certainly fair, having Microsoft handle domain registration scares me.

The Defensive Computing Approach

If you are interested in using Office Live (which I have no experience with) to create a new Web site, first go to a registrar and register your own domain. The two registrars I recommend are GoDaddy and DirectNIC. GoDaddy is cheaper ($9 per year) but DirectNIC ($15 per year) is easier to use.

If you already have a Web site, but it was registered by the hosting company, I suggest first moving the registration to GoDaddy or DirectNIC before getting started with Office Live, or start over with a new domain name. For more on this, see my posting from last month on How to fire a Webmaster.

Microsoft's documentation

Registration of a domain is too important to trust to a company, such as Microsoft, that does it as a sideline rather than it being its core business.

Consider what its FAQ page had to say after Pogue's review came out:

"Will I be charged a fee when my domain name comes up for renewal?
Domain names are renewed on an annual basis. Microsoft will automatically renew your domain name for you, and you will not be charged a renewal fee. If you already own a domain name and transfer it to Microsoft Office Live, Microsoft will pay for any future renewals."

This directly conflicts with Pogue's account and I believe Pogue.

Also, it appears that Office Live Small Business domains are renewed on an annual basis. This is an accident waiting to happen. A real registrar can lock it up for many years.

The Microsoft Office Live Small Business FAQ also refers to "redirecting" a domain and "domain redelegation." The two terms are used interchangeably. But for what? I've dealt with domains and Web sites a lot. If you asked me yesterday what these terms meant, I would have given a different definition for the first term and couldn't have guessed at the meaning of the second.

The Office Live Small Business folks use these terms to mean changing the DNS server computers associated with a domain. For an existing domain with an existing Web site, that is how you point the world to the new Web site (at Office Live Small Business).

Good news, bad news

The bad news about changing DNS servers is that the actual procedure differs for each registrar.

The good news is that Microsoft provides instructions for making the change at a number of popular registrars. See How to set up your new Web site with an existing domain name.

The bad news is that the instructions for GoDaddy don't exist. Clicking on the link results in a Page Not Found error. The instructions for register.com are also missing. In fact, all the "redelegation" instructions are missing. Maybe they were filed under changing DNS servers.
Update. February 16, 2008: The instructions now exist, there are no more "page not found" errors.

* That the Internet grew to the extent it has over the years is due, in part, to the distributing of the responsibility for maintaining these pointers. No one company can screw everything up.
** I don't know that A2Hosting does this, I haven't tested it. This is only an example.

See a summary of all my Defensive Computing postings.