Understanding the Layers of Your WordPress Website

A stack of zen rocks

It can sometimes be confusing for the non-technical website owner to understand all of the pieces of a website, and how they fit with each other. Domain registrars, name servers, hosting providers, and software all have integral roles to play in presenting your message to the world, but where one ends and another begins can seem difficult to distinguish. This is especially true when different service providers have similar names, or when one service provider can—but not necessarily must—serve multiple roles.

In this article, we will explain the various layers of the technical stack, or the layers of services upon which a website—specifically a WordPress website—is built.

Domain Registrar

At the very foundation of this stack is the domain registrar, for without a domain, you don’t have a website. Whether you want a .com, .org, or a specialized top-level domain (or TLD) keyed to a topic or geographic region, you need to register the domain you want with one of the multitude of domain registrars authorized for the TLD of your choosing. Once registered, the domain name needs to be renewed, often annually, but can usually be renewed for multiple years at a time. The rules and costs vary for different TLDs, and how to choose the best domain name for your organization is a topic for a later article.

Name Server

Once you have your domain registered, you need to tell the Internet where that domain name should point to; that is, the numeric address where your website will live. (I explain how this process works in our article “DNS Demystified”.) Often your name server will be the same provider as your domain registrar. Of course, often is not always, and there are many reasons why an organization may opt to decouple these functions.

Web Host

In order for a name server to accurately point traffic to your website, your website needs a home on the web in the form of a web host. This is where things can get murky, because some domain registrars can also be web hosts, but hosting with a different service provider is a very popular option with many potential benefits.

Web hosts for WordPress websites generally fall into one of two camps: managed and unmanaged. Managed WordPress web hosts will configure their servers to optimize WordPress performance, and often offer additional benefits such as pre-installation of the WordPress core software, automated backups, and automated core and plugin updates.

Unmanaged hosts, however, are usually nothing more than a space on the web where you can dump the files necessary to run your website, including connecting to a database. They are often no-frills, and may be very cheap. However, you get what you pay for, and you are often at the mercy of what other websites are sharing your particular web server’s resources to determine how well your website performs.

Pantheon—our preferred managed WordPress web host and of which Taupecat Studios is a Premier Partner—does not act as a registrar nor a name server, so those services must be acquired separately. Another popular WordPress managed web host—WP Enginedoes offer these functions, allowing you to bundle everything together.

Some web hosts offer both managed and unmanaged WordPress hosting products, so inquire as to what options are available and which makes sense for your organization in terms of cost, reliability, performance, and ease of maintenance.


You have the domain name, you have your DNS set up, and you have a home for your website, but until you install the software that powers your website, all you will have is a blank page with nothing on it (except perhaps an error message). This is where software like WordPress comes in.

There are two different flavors of WordPress: WordPress.org, which is the downloadable software package that must be installed (or deployed) on your selected web host, and WordPress.com which is a “hosted” version of WordPress. Both use the same code base, but WordPress.com acts as the web host and manages all of the code for you. The drawback is that your options on what you can do with your website are limited, and you have to pay for higher and higher tiers to gain capabilities such as premium themes, ecommerce, or specialized plugins. Custom website development on the WordPress.com platform is not within the pricing reach of most small businesses and nonprofits.

WordPress.org, on the other hand, is free to download and install, and once installed, allows limitless options for customizing your website. Those customization options can come with a higher initial price tag, depending on how far you want to go with your customizations, but once deployed can settle into a smaller and more reasonable monthly or yearly cost.

Navigating Your Options

The right mix of service providers depends greatly on the objectives you have for your website. If navigating all of these layers to get your website out into the world seems daunting, we got you. Get in touch, and let Taupecat Studios help you with every step from domain registration, DNS management, hosting, design, and development of a truly custom WordPress-based website.

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