A Guide to Understanding DNS
During the kickoff meeting for each of our website development projects, we ask the business owner where their domain is registered and where their DNS is hosted. I usually get a lot of blank looks and confused stares, so in this article I’ll give you a brief overview of how DNS works and share my famous drawing to make it easier to understand.
First Things First– Your Domain Is Not the Same Thing As Your Website
Many business owners know at least this part, but explaining it a little further can help understand the concept of DNS records. Your domain (also known as your website address or URL) is how people find your website online, but it is not the same thing as your actual website. Your actual website is made up of many different files that live on a website server, and that website server could be literally anywhere. So somewhere out in the universe there needs to be a record system that tells the world where to find the website files for your domain. We call this record system DNS which stands for Domain Name System.
DNS Is Completely Separate from Your Domain and Your Website
This is where people start to get tripped up. The DNS records for your domain are controlled by Name Servers. Name Servers are basically giant digital directories for all the stuff connected to your domain. So for example, if your domain is myawesomecompany.com, there must be a record somewhere that says, “Hey world! The website files for myawesomecompany.com can be found on this server over here!” If you have email at your domain, you need another set of records that say, “Hello! The email for this domain is on this other email server over there!”
To get a little more technical, Name servers have names like ns1.awesomeserver.com and ns2.awesomeserver.com. The individual DNS records have different types like A records for your website and MX records for your email.
To recap, your domain name points to a set of Name Servers, those name servers contain your DNS records, and those records point to different servers. Each of the colors represent a different location where these things can be.
DNS records are often located at the same place where the domain is registered. This is why many people think of them as the same thing. But they don’t have to be at the same place, and in some cases, you won’t want them to be at the same place. In other cases, you will need to move some of these pieces to support your growing business needs.
So What Is the Best Way to Set All This Up?
As a business owner, you can and should hire people to do things you don’t want to do, don’t have time for, or require special skills. However, your domain and DNS are essential digital assets, and knowing where they live and how to access them is very important to protect the longevity of your digital footprint.
Your Domain Registration
Often, business owners have tech-savvy employees or outside agencies register domains for them. Unfortunately, when you do this, you risk losing access to your domain if your relationship with them sours.
Additionally, many DIY website platforms offer domain registration services. It’s easy to say, “Cool! I can just get my awesome domain here!” You don’t even have to hear the word DNS because when you register your domain through these platforms, they will automatically create the DNS entries that point your domain to your website files. That works fine until you graduate from a DIY website and want to build a new website that lives somewhere else. You must then go through the process of moving your domain and your DNS records.
Ideally, your domain should be registered under your own business name and address. However, you will want to use a separate email address that you will always have access to, regardless of what happens to your business and employment. Keep a detailed record of where this domain is registered and file it with other essential business documents.
Suppose your domain is currently registered by a third-party, such as a website platform like WIX or Squarespace, or is controlled by a website development company, freelance website designer, or ex-employee. In that case, you will want to transfer the domain to your own domain registrar account.
There are many pros and cons of various domain registrars. You can certainly ask a professional in the industry for recommendations on where to register your domain or for help setting it up. Just make sure to keep a record of where the domain is registered and how to access it.
Transferring Your Domain
Transferring a domain is a multi-step process.
- First, the domain must be unlocked at the current registrar, and then an EPP transfer key is requested and sent to the email address associated with the domain owner. This is why you want to use a separate email address; if you lose access to your domain’s email address, it is difficult to get the transfer key.
- The new account receiving the domain enters the transfer key on their side.
- Then, an email is sent to both parties to approve the transfer.
- Once the transfer is approved, the domain is in the new account, and you can then set Name Servers or enter DNS Records.
- When transferring a domain, it is best to change only one variable at a time. So when the domain is transferred, you should utilize the previous Name Servers and keep all the existing DNS records in place for at least a week.
- After everything is humming along nicely, you can change the Name Servers.
Your Name Servers and DNS Records
Often we meet with a business owner who knows where their domain is registered but doesn’t know anything about their DNS. Since all your DNS records are public (remember, they are the directory telling the internet where to find things), we can use directory tools to look up the Name Servers for a domain.
The best place for your DNS records to live is a place where they can be managed independently from your various digital resources. As your business grows, so does your need to have connections to different services. You may have an IT company managing your email, a Digital Marketing agency managing your website, and a Tech company managing internal resources on a subdomain. Each of these connections will require a different type of DNS record. For this reason you will want to make sure that wherever your DNS records live, you know how they can be accessed so that changes can be made as your business needs evolve. Again, the important thing here is to keep notes of where things are and how to access them.
Changing Name Servers
If your domain uses Name Servers of another service that you no longer wish to keep such as a DIY website platform or another website agency, you will need to change Name Servers. This process is more straightforward than transferring a domain since both parties do not need to approve the transfer, but it is important to make sure that you move over all the records associated with your domain. For example, if you have MX records for your email, you’ll want to be sure to transfer those records. Some domain registrars allow you to preconfigure all the DNS records ahead of time so that all the records are already in place when you switch Name Servers.
I would also recommend changing only one variable at a time. If you need to change Name Servers and also update DNS records, don’t do everything all at once! Make a plan so that you are only editing one thing at a time.
Is This Article Over Yet?
If this all sounds complex and overwhelming, that’s okay. It takes years and years to fully understand DNS. You should certainly enlist a professional to make domain transfers or DNS updates on your behalf. Just make sure that they keep in mind what’s best for the longevity of your business and not what is quickest and easiest at the moment. Did I mention you should also be sure to keep accurate records of domain registration and DNS information.
Reach out to the team at Iceberg if you have any questions about the next steps for your domain or DNS during your new website development project.