The Domain Name System (DNS) has a tree structure or hierarchy, with each non-RR (resource record) node on the tree being a domain name. A subdomain is a domain that is part of a larger domain; the only domain that is not also a subdomain is the root domain. For example, west.example.com and east.example.com are subdomains of the example.com domain, which in turn is a subdomain of the com top-level domain (TLD). A "subdomain" expresses relative dependence, not absolute dependence: for example, wikipedia.org comprises a subdomain of the org domain, and en.wikipedia.org comprises a subdomain of the domain wikipedia.org. In theory, this subdivision can go down to 127 levels deep, and each DNS label can contain up to 63 characters, as long as the whole domain name does not exceed a total length of 255 characters. But in practice most domain registries limit at 253 characters.
Subdomains in this context are defined by editing the DNS zone file pertaining to the parent domain. However there is a lively debate over the use of the term subdomain when referring to names which map to A (host) and various other types of zone records which may map to any public IP address destination and any type of server. Certain groups insist that it is inappropriate to use the term subdomain to refer to any mapping other than that provided by zone NS (name server) records and any server-destination other than that of a domain name server. Notwithstanding the terminology debate, many prominent public DNS providers use the term subdomain to refer to names which map to A (host) records which may map to any type of host or destination-server.
In the United Kingdom, the third level domain names are standard and branch off of the second-level domains, for example:
- .ac.uk - academic (tertiary education, further education colleges and research establishments) and learned societies
- .co.uk - general use (usually commercial)
- .gov.uk - government (central and local)
- .judiciary.uk - courts (to be introduced in the near future)
- .ltd.uk - limited companies
- .me.uk - general use (usually personal)
- .mod.uk - Ministry of Defence and HM Forces public sites
- .net.uk - ISPs and network companies (unlike .net, use is restricted to these users)
- .nhs.uk - National Health Service institutions
- .nic.uk - network use only (Nominet UK)
- .org.uk - general use (usually for non-profit organisations)
- .parliament.uk - parliamentary use (only for the UK Parliament and the Scottish Parliament)
- .plc.uk - public limited companies
- .police.uk - police forces
- .sch.uk - Local Education Authorities, schools, primary and secondary education, community education
Subdomains are also used by organizations that wish to assign a unique name to a particular department, function, or service related to the organization. For example, a university might assign "cs" to the computer science department, such that a number of hosts could be used inside that subdomain, such as mail.cs.example.edu or www.cs.example.edu.
A vanity domain is a subdomain of an ISP's domain that is aliased to an individual user account, or a subdomain that expresses the individuality of the person on whose behalf it is registered.
Depending on application, a record inside a domain, or subdomain might refer to a hostname, or a service provided by a number of machines in a cluster. Some websites use different subdomains to point to different server clusters. For example, www.example.com points to Server Cluster 1 or Datacentre 1, and www2.example.com points to Server Cluster 2 or Datacentre 2, etc..
Subdomains v. directories
example.com/yn points to a directory within the example.com domain, not to a subdomain of example.com.