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When setting up a new site, or moving a site to a new host, you must make sure your DNS settings are correct to keep your site up and running without interruption.
What It Is
For the most part, as a Web publisher, you don't have to worry about the Domain Name System (DNS) when managing a website. It comes into play when you're first setting up a new website, or when you're moving to a new host.
The DNS is a system which basically allows users to see Web addresses in text form rather than as a series of numbers connected to a site's IP address. Think of the difference between the GPS coordinates for your home or business and the address you use for sending and receiving mail. Both represent the same location, but one is far more user-friendly.
The DNS system works in much the same way. Each computer or device on the Internet is assigned an IP address, similar to GPS coordinates. In most cases, that's all that's needed. Just as you don't need an address to receive mail and deliveries when backpacking in the mountains, most devices connected to the Internet don't need to be easily found and accessed.
Web servers, the computers that host and run websites, are a different story. Just as your house or business needs an easy-to-find address, a website needs an easy-to-find URL, rather than forcing users to remember an IP address.
This is where DNS records come into play. They serve to map IP addresses to the more user-friendly website addresses commonly used today, ensuring that when you type an address in your Web browser's URL field, you arrive at the proper location.
This distinction between numeric addresses and text addresses also make it much easier to move websites without affecting the end user. For example, if you decide to move your website to a new host, you will change the DNS entries to match the new host. While that transfer is taking place on the back-end, your users can still access your site with the text address, and are unaware of any change taking place.
Changing the DNS for your site from one host to another is a fairly simple process, and the actual transfer is usually carried out within 24 to 48 hours. Be aware, though, that if your current hosting expires, and you haven't changed your DNS to match your new host, your site will become unavailable until that change is made and the transfer is completed.
An effective way of ensuring a smooth transition is to set up your new hosting account before submitting the changes. This would include recreating any email accounts on the new host, uploading your website files, as well as backing up and migrating any databases and installed Web applications. Your goal is to completely duplicate your current setup on the new host before submitting the DNS changes. Once you have done so, and the DNS changes propagate through the Internet, Web traffic and email will be automatically diverted to the new host without your customers ever realizing a change was made.
How to Do It
To submit changes to your DNS information, you will need to use the tools provided by your domain name registrar. This is the company through which you originally registered your domain name. Most, if not all, domain registrars provide a control panel that gives you access to your DNS records.
You will need to verify with your hosting company what the DNS records for your domain should be. Often, it will be a string of letters and numbers, such as "DNS01.HOSTINGCOMPANY.COM." Your hosting company should provide at least two DNS strings, a primary and a backup. Once you have the correct information, you make the changes in your domain registrar control panel.
How long does it take DNS setting to update?
Unfortunately, the answer varies based on who you select as your hosting provider. If your hosting provider is simply a reseller of hosting space issued by third provider, the process of updating your DNS records could take a period of days. Think about it… when you update your records with a hosting reseller, that information has to pass through their hands to the main host, who then have to update the record before the new connections are completed in web browsers, whois records, etc.
When you are dealing directly with a major hosting provider, the process is typically much faster - a matter of hours as opposed to a day or longer.
When it comes to updating your DNS records, the important takeaway is to monitor where the site information is loading from for a day or two after you make the update. Also, it is a good idea to wait on removing your site files from the previous hosting provider until you can confirm on multiple browsers from multiple locations that your DNS record is up to date.
Points to Remember
DNS records are one of the primary components of the Internet that we take for granted. Without it, the complexity of the Internet, and especially browsing the Web, would increase exponentially.
Although it may require rolling up your sleeves and learning about a portion of the Internet's underbelly, having a working knowledge of DNS records, and how to make changes to them, is an invaluable resource that will serve you well.
DNS Zone File Editor Hosting Frequently Asked Questions
If I self-host, what should I enter for my DNS information?
Technically, your DNS should point to your IP address, but most IP addresses change regularly. To get around that, there are plenty of dynamic DNS providers that allow you to point your name server to a subdomain of their site, which then points to your IP address. Since your IP address is always changing, you’ll need to set up scripts that regularly report you new IP address to dynamic DNS service.
What is a DNS cache?
To reduce calls to the external servers, most computers automatically store DNS records for visited websites. This means if you frequently visit WhoIsHostingThis.com, your computer doesn’t have to contact a DNS server to figure out where our server is located. Instead, your computer will do a quick search of the DNS cache, see that you’ve been to WhoIsHostingThis.com before, and grab our IP address from your cache. That way you reach all our great content even faster!
If DNS records are supposed to take users to my IP address, why do I enter my host’s information?
When a user types in your website address, their computer contacts its DNS server to figure out your IP address. The DNS server may or may not know the IP address. If it does, the user is taken to your site right away. If not, the DNS server will reach out to another DNS server, working its way up a hierarchical system of DNS servers until it finds the correct IP address. The name server you entered for your site (typically containing your host’s name), is the one name server that is guaranteed to know your IP address.
What should I do if I get a DNS error when trying to access my own website?
This is usually a problem with your computer configuration. Try using a different device to access the site, or a different browser. If that doesn’t work, you may need power cycle your internet modem and router. It could also be that your DNS cache (as saved list of known IP addresses) has the wrong information stored in it. If you recently changed servers, this is likely the issue. Check your OS documentation for instructions on flushing your DNS cache.
Does it matter where my DNS information is stored?
Yes. Many hosts offer premium DNS packages, which place your domain’s DNS information on local servers around the world. This matters, because the DNS system is hierarchical. If your site is only known by the top-level databases, it’s going to take longer for users to reach your site. However, if several lower-level DNS servers have your IP address stored, users will reach your site faster.
How can I find out my site’s IP address?
Several searches are available to retrieve the DNS information for an entered website. In addition, most operating systems include a command line search tool that will provide the IP address for any website you enter.
If I change the DNS information for my website, will it change for my email as well?
Yes. While it’s possible to host your email and website separately (even while using the same domain), in most cases if you update the DNS information for your website it will also change the DNS information for your email. This is important to consider, particularly if you are using a separate host for both.
If more than two DNS records are provided by my host, do I need to enter them all with my registrar?
Probably not. Two records should be more than enough for the DNS system to identify and locate your website.
If I know a website’s IP address, can I just enter that into my browser?
That may or may not work. For sites on a shared hosting plan, it probably won't work, because those sites share IP address. Even for sites with a unique address, it won’t save you any significant amount of time. Typing its website address will work just as well, because your computer automatically caches IP addresses for websites it visits. So whether you type the IP address or the web address, your computer will go directly to the website without contacting a DNS server (at least, after the first time). Plus, if the site’s IP address ever changes, entering the web address will continue to get you to the website.
If I move my site to a new host, all I need to do is update my DNS entries, and everything should work?
Provided you copied your original site and uploaded it onto the new server before submitted the DNS change, your users should not notice any difference going from your old server to the new one. However, some software may need to be updated to reflect the new DNS entries. You should review all of your installed applications to ensure a smooth transition.
Where do I find my DNS information?
Typically it will be somewhere on the front page of your hosting control panel. If not, it should be easy to find either under settings or account information.
If it takes up to two days to transfer my DNS information, will my site be down during that time?
As long as your account with the original host has not yet expired, all traffic directed at your website’s URL should be routed to the original server up until the point of the DNS transfer. As soon as that happens, all traffic will be routed to your new server. This is why you don’t want to wait until the last day of your contract to switch to a new host.