One of the constants I’ve found working in a tech field is the regular need to explain tech concepts. It’s often surprising who stumbles on what concepts, and I’ve become sufficiently immersed that it’s become easy to forget what even counts as a genuinely basic concept.

Take hosting a website as an example. I was recently reminded just how arcane the whole system of domains and servers and web files appears to those outside of that realm, as I stumbled through explaining the interrelationships to someone.

At time like these, it’s helpful to have a ready metaphor to put it all into a more familiar context. This one is a few weeks too late, but would have been handy for explaining the whole system of web hosting. It goes like this:

A website is a lot like a holiday trailer. You can buy a trailer and fill it up with all the things you need for a vacation, but it doesn’t do you much good sitting in your driveway. If you ever plan on using it, you need a license plate to identify it, and you need somewhere out in the wider world where you can park it.

The trailer itself is all the pages and content of your website. If it’s sitting on your driveway, that’s just like the files that make up your website sitting on your home computer where no-one can see it but you.

The license plate is the web domain – just as the plate identifies the trailer as uniquely yours, the web domain is the address your visitors will look up to find all the information and images and pages and other stuff that makes up your website.

The parking spot is space with a hosting provider you’ve bought the right to occupy. It holds all the files that make up your website, and while you’re parked there, the only trailer passersby will see at that spot is the one matching your license plate.

Once you have a license and a trailer, you can put them in any parking spot you like. If you don’t like your current parking spot, you can pick up and move to a different one. You’ll have the same trailer and the same license plate – just the location changes. Websites move hosts all the time, and you as the visitor never notice the difference because you’re finding it by the address.

On a similar note, there’s nothing stopping you from getting a different plate to put on your trailer but keeping your parking spot. And, sometimes it’s necessary to replace a worn-out trailer with a new one; in that case, you simply switch the plate to a new trailer on the same parking spot. The first case doesn’t happen so often, but the second is basically the process of a company switching up its website – it’s at the same address, but they’ve changed the look and the pages.

This metaphor is far from perfect – no-one outside of a government agency or law enforcement would try to find a trailer by its plate – but I think it conveys the basics. We’ll see how it does in real life; the true test is whether it manages to do the trick in conversation.