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What Are Custom MX Records?

Custom MX records are used to specify the routing of email messages, and are of particular use to those who have their website hosted by one provider, but their email by another. They also provide a redundant and efficient mail filtering system that helps improve message retention and reduce spam by processing thousands of messages at once across multiple servers.

Custom MX records allow a website owner to receive email at a mail server other than the one tied to their web hosting.

MX (Mail Exchanger) records are a DNS resource record that specify what mail server should be used for email messages sent to a particular domain. They can also specify multiple domains and preferences.

By default, MX records send email to the same server that hosts the domain's website. But this is not required.

Custom MX records are used to specify the routing of email messages, and are of particular use to those who have their website hosted by one provider, but their email by another. This would be needed whether you are running your own mail server at a another hosting provider (or on your own machines), or if you are using a third-party mail system such a Google Apps (Gmail) with your own custom domain.

What do MX records do?

Have you ever thought about what happens when you send an email? How does it get to its intended recipient?

When an email is sent, the sending mail server, or Mail Tranfer Agent (MTA), queries the Domain Name System (DNS) for the MX records of each domain, and uses that information to control the path your message takes.

MX records specify both the mail servers to be used, as well as their relative priority.

Assigning multiple servers with different priorities is similar to setting up multiple phone numbers. If someone can't reach you on your cell, they might try you at home, and then the office, and so on.

MX records work in much the same way.

The primary reasons for specifying multiple MX servers, and assigning different priorities to each, are load balancing and redundancy.

Load Balancing with MX Records

If you specify multiple mail servers in your MX records, and assign them the same priority, mail agents sending mail to you will select one of them at random. This random selection automatically distributes incoming mail across your several mail servers, decreasing the likelihood that any one of them will be overloaded and fail.

Backup Mail Reception

If you specify one or more servers as being a lower priority (note: higher "preference numbers" denote lower actual priority), they will only be tried in the event that the higher priority server fails.

This allows you to specify one server as your primary mail server and another as a backup.

Don't Plan for Failover

If your multiple mail servers are equally capable of delivering mail to you, and there is no real reason to prefer one over the other, it's generally a bad idea to then specify one as primary and the other as secondary. This is poor resource management, as you are setting yourself up for a fail-over situation in the case of high volume.

Assuming both servers can and will get mail to your inbox, it is a much better strategy to assign them the same priority and allow for automatic load balancing. Your user experience will be the same, and your fail-over potential will be much lower.

Using one of the servers as a backup system only makes sense if there is some reason that it is less capable of getting mail to you directly — for example, if you would need to manually release mail from it to your primary server in order to see messages in your inbox.

Who needs Custom MX Records

If you are like most web hosting customers, chances are good that your website hosting provider is also your email provider.

However, many businesses, either because of their size or their business model, rely on high-volume messaging. Others may require greater redundancy (that is, multiple servers) to reduce latency and improve the chances a message will be delivered.

In both of these cases, a separate email server (sometimes at a second hosting company) is often a business requirement.

If this is the case with your site, or you simply want to improve mail performance, then you will need to have the ability to customize your Mail Exchange (MX) records.

How to Customize Your MX Records

Customizing your MX Records is usually very easy. They are typically available for editing in the domain manager portion of your control panel. If you have your hosting account and your domain registration with two different companies, you'll edit your MX records with the company that handles your domain name registration and routing, not your web host.

The MX Records are a part of your domain's DNS record, so if you can't find how to edit your MX records, try looking for your DNS records. They are usually all in the same place.

Hosting for Custom MX Records

Most users will never have to reconfigure their MX records, but if you do, it's generally supported as a standard service with your host, and shouldn't affect your plan pricing. Because the number of available servers and priority schemes vary, however, always check with your host for full details.

Custom MX Records Hosting Frequently Asked Questions

  • In 10 words or less, what is an MX record?

    A domain record directing email to a specific mail server.

  • Is a mail exchanger the same thing as a mail server?

    Yes. The terms mail exchanger, mail transfer server, mail server, and MX host all refer to the same thing: a server with software that allows the server to receive email. A mail exchange (MX) record is added to a domain to direct mail addressed to that domain to a specific mail server.

  • Where do I find the addresses to use for custom MX records?

    The email service provider you're going to be using to receive your email will provide the addresses for your custom MX records. Typically, you can find them by accessing the email provider's knowledgebase documentation.

  • Where do I add custom MX records?

    You will add the custom MX addresses as MX records to your domain. In order to do this, access the account where you purchased your domain name — this may be your hosting provider or a separate domain name registrar — locate the DNS editor and add the addresses making sure to use "MX" as the record type.

  • What is TTL?

    When you add MX records to your domain, you will see that you must specify a TTL or "Time to Live" value. This value is used to tell Domain Name System (DNS) servers how frequently to check for updates to the MX records. In many cases, 3600 seconds or 1 hour is used, but some DNS providers may require that you use a longer interval such as 4 hours or even a day. As long as you don't change your MX records very frequently, you shouldn't be too worried about this value. However, if you do anticipate changing MX records frequently, then a lower value will ensure that changes to MX records propagate throughout the DNS system more quickly.

  • Why should I care what the TTL value is?

    Let's say that you use a TTL value of one week for your MX records. Things are going great, but six months later there's some sort of kerfuffle and you must quickly change email providers, so you update your MX records and wait, and wait, and wait. Unfortunately, since you used such a long TTL value, it could be as long as a week before the new MX records propagate throughout the DNS system, and during that interval, email will continue to be sent to your old email provider. In other words, TTL values matter when you need to change your MX records.

  • What is the priority value associated with an MX record?

    If you specify multiple custom MX records, the priority determines which record will be used as the default mail server. Think of priority as a place in line. The record with the lowest value, typically 1, is at the front of the line and has the highest priority. This allows you to either specify a hierarchy of mail servers to follow in the event that the primary mail server fails, or it allows you to specify multiple MX records with the same priority so that the load of email is spread evenly between all servers.

  • Do I have to use the priority values provided by my email provider?

    Let's say that your email provider gives you three addresses to use as MX records with priorities of 1, 5, and 10, respectively. You think to yourself "Well, I'll just use 1 for all of them to load balance the mail servers." Bad idea. When email service providers tell you to use specific priorities, there's a good chance the backup servers are only designed to hold mail in a queue until the primary server comes back online. Use the priorities your email provider tells you to use.

  • When can I use the same priority for all MX records?

    Only when your email service provider says you can. Alternatively, if you're setting up your own mail server(s), you're free to configure them any way you like, and using the same priority is one way to help balance the load between the servers.

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