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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.