I own the mediawhole.com domain and when I recently stumbled across the Blogger publishing option to host this blog using my own domain name, I thought COOL! Instead of michhes.blogspot.com, I can use blog.mediawhole.com. All I had to do before turning on this feature in Blogger was create a new CNAME record pointing blog.mediawhole.com to ghs.google.com. And that’s where the adventure began... While I’ve configured name servers for my web sites before, I’ve never had to deal with CNAME records or any other type of DNS record for that matter.
My domain name registrar (Planet Domain) allows me to assign name servers and create child domains pointing to an IP address—basically an A record. As I wasn’t using Planet Domain for hosting the mediawhole.com site that’s all they would allow me to do, aside from renew my domain and update my registration details. A query to their helpdesk suggested my web host would be the best place to create CNAME record.
I was previously using atspace.com to host mediawhole.com. atspace provides free web hosting with no ads, FTP access, and POP3 email. Apart from those goodies, they also limit the size of file uploads to something ridiculous like 200KB. At any rate, the atspace interface allowed me to create the blog.mediawhole.com sub domain (what that resulted in at the DNS level, I’m not quite sure—I never checked).
While reading up on DNS and CNAME records, I came across a help page from Google Apps; little did I know my web master world would soon change instantly. What on earth is Google Apps, I asked myself, and proceeded to do what I could to find out. In typical Google fashion, the Google Apps homepage is a little blah and at first glance I figured it was a paid for service (a paid for service from Google? Isn’t everything from Google free?!?). Digging deeper, I discovered there is a free version and the major differences between the free version and the paid for version is the support on offer and the rather large limits on what you get (users, storage capacity, etc).
I signed up to have a looksee and soon realised Google Apps integrates a basic content management system, email via Gmail, calendars, IM, a user management system, a document repository that works with Google’s online document editing suite, and a few other goodies. Most of these features are all beta software. Apart from that, Google Apps gives you the opportunity to create and manage your very own (albeit, web-based) enterprise. You can effectively brand Google to a limited degree so it looks at home on your intranet, create user accounts with corresponding email addresses, create email lists and email address aliases, share your calendars, publish a public web site, and manage documents. The fancier offerings even offer a single sign-on feature.
The best feature of all is the option to use your own domain name for all of these services for a unified, professional appearance. Forget the blog, I was going to move my entire Google Apps suite to mediawhole.com! Just like blogger, Google Apps allows you to create various CNAME and MX records pointing to ghs.google.com (in the case of the CNAME records); the individual apps are then assigned to those URLs.
Planet Domain and atspace, I realised, weren’t going to help much with this. Planet Domain was a basic starting point for my name servers but I really needed control over all the DNS records for my domain. Although Google provides all the Apps stuff, they don’t provide any form of DNS management. Many of the Blogger and Google Apps instructions feature Go Daddy so I thought transferring my domain name to Go Daddy might also give me a better control panel for this sort of thing. They were also offering a free year of registration on top the time remaining on my current registration for seven bucks so I thought it might be worth it.
While I waited for Go Daddy support to reply to my email query, I Googled free DNS to see what might be available. I was in luck as I discovered, everyDNS.net, among other free DNS hosts. The web sites for these free DNS providers are atrocious (I’m not joking—they’re all very 1996) so I have no idea how reliable they or how long they’ll be around. Many DNS providers claim to host many thousands of records and offer globally distributed redundant records so I pretty much took a punt on everyDNS.net.
To get up and running, I firstly had to set my name servers to point to the everyDNS.net name servers. I did this through Planet Domain and was surprised to see how quickly the update took hold. Instead of twenty four to forty eight hours, my name server configuration changes were available almost immediately—within half an hour max. That was great as it allowed me to create my CNAME and MX records through the everyDNS.net interface and test my changes in real-time (with the name servers configured, all of my other records are resolved through everyDNS.net so any subsequent additions or modifications are instantaneous because everyDNS.net doesn’t have a waiting period for record propagation). One by one, I walked through the Change URL wizard for each of the Google Apps, creating DNS records as instructed in the very decent Google Apps help section. The mediawhole.com site now looks like this:
http://www.mediawhole.com – the Google-hosted content management system for the site
http://mail.mediawhole.com – the Google-hosted email system for the site
http://calendar.mediawhole.com – the Google-hosted calendar system for the site
http://documents.mediawhole.com – the Google-hosted document repository for the site
http://intranet.mediawhole.com – the Google-hosted, Mediawhole-branded search page for the site
http://blog.mediawhole.com – this Blogspot blog
As I worked, I used a handful of tools from some DNS-oriented sites to verify my changes.
networktools.com - DNS lookup, ping, and other useful tools
hscripts.com - DNS lookup and other bits and bobs
MxToolbox.com - Specific MX record lookup
The ping and tracert commands in Windows also come in handy. At one point I thought I also needed to flush my local DNS cache, for which I used ipconfig /flushdns
With email configured, I also set up a few email accounts for the people involved in mediawhole.com and some generic email aliases (support, helpdesk, info, sales, and a catch-all) delivering mail to my account.
Finally, I jumped into the web page editor, chose a template for the site, and started plugging in some basic content. The editor allows you upload pictures and files, edit the HTML directly, and add gadgets. It’s generally fairly basic (I haven’t come across a way to reuse content—like a footer—between pages) but the templates and three layout options do the trick. Unfortunately Google Apps doesn’t allow you to connect via FTP but in this day and age that’s a minor niggle.
This is a great tool for individuals, small businesses, schools, and community groups that might otherwise struggle to maintain the hardware and software to support a suite of functionality this comprehensive. I had the mediawhole.com site up and running in an evening (around four hours before sitting down to put in any real content). It will be interesting to see what new apps are added to Google Apps over time; the basics are all there now but I’m sure those Google heads will keep pushing.
Incidentally, Microsoft Office Live has also been rolled out in the US. The online marketing material suggests it’s a very similar offering but I haven’t been able to test it out as the beta is only open to residents of the US. If there are any other similar suites out there, please let me know.