Domain Names and Servers and Hosts, Oh My!

If you're the owner, director, or head of marketing for a business or nonprofit, sooner or later the following questions will arise in connection with a Web project:

  • What is DNS?
  • Where is my DNS hosted?
  • How do I administer the DNS records?

Even if you already have an established website – and perhaps especially for an established website – these questions can present an unexpected obstacle to launching your spiffy new site.

In our experience building websites, it's often the oldest domains where the hosting and administrative info has been lost in the mists of time, was under the control of a staff member who has since left the firm, or any of a number of similar scenarios.

What is DNS infographic

Domain Nameservers (DNS) and DNS Hosting

What’s to prevent the owner of a Web hosting business from putting up a website and broadcasting to the Internet, “this is llbean.com”? She could steal L.L. Bean’s traffic and commerce, and even their good name. So, that’s not how it works.

How does the Internet know that a certain bunch of files and code on the Web host’s server is truly your website, if it doesn’t get that information from the Web host itself?

YOU tell it, by configuring the DNS for your domain name. You (or your designated agent) provide the details to the worldwide network of domain nameservers. But the system has to know that you’re entitled to do so, otherwise – chaos.

What Details?

Primarily, an “A record.” That’s usually one or two IP addresses (in the form 000.000.000.000), that correspond to the specific server at your Web host. Back before the dawn of time, when your first dot-com site launched, this was set up, by someone, somewhere.

So it’s not L.L. Bean’s host servers broadcasting to the world, “hey, I’m llbean.com.” It’s all the world’s DNSs – and there are more than 99,000 of them – constantly sharing with each other that correspondence: “if you get a request for llbean.com, send it to 216.151.49.63.”

There might be other details, which we don’t need to worry about for our purposes here except to note that they might exist; MX records, CNAME records, etc., that provide DNSs with special handling instructions for email, ftp, telnet, and other protocols, but all associated with your domain name and its subdomains.

Altogether, these details occupy a zone file, and the authorized zone file is kept – wait for it – by your DNS host. And that’s the information your agency of record will want from you when it’s time to go live.

Where is your DNS hosted? infographic

Where’s my DNS Host?

Nobody knows! Well, I’m only half kidding. The fact is, it’s extremely difficult to find someone’s DNS host from outside the system. It is not even directly divulged in your domain’s WHOIS record, which can be quite confusing, given that a standard WHOIS record has a line for “Name Server.” This can provide a hint, but is not definite even if you can tell that “NS3.WORLDNIC.COM” is one of Network Solutions’ nameservers.

The Domain Registrar – Probably

The fact is, it’s probably your domain registrar, and that’s a great place to start. There are lots of reasons why this fact presents problems in the real world, though:

  • If you bought your domain a couple of years ago, and haven’t had to renew it yet, you may not have diligently kept track of the keys. TIP: Go get a password reset and make sure it works. On the registrar’s site you should see separate areas for “Domain Names” and “Domain Management.” You want Domain Management.
  • Your domain may actually be hosted at the domain registrar – all the big domain registrars offer hosting packages, and if you’re in this situation, the DNS hosting is actually invisible. They take care of it automatically. TIP: Look for instructions at the registrar website that fit your situation, e.g., How do I move my site to a new host?
  • At larger companies, the person who maintains the domain name might be in the finance department or the IT department – not in the marketing group that is actually responsible for the website. We’ve worked with nonprofits where these departments are actually part of a separate parent organization. TIP: Reach out to the division responsible for domain administration, and alert them that you’re planning a Web project that will involve moving hosts (and thus editing of the DNS records). They may give you the passwords, or they may require that you alert them at the right time so they can do it.

The Web Host – Maybe

If you draw a blank with the domain registrar, the DNS records might have been moved to your Web host, making them both Web host and DNS host. This is much less common nowadays, but if the site was launched 5-10 years ago, it’s possible.

The good thing is, you’re more likely to be able to reach live support at your web host, and they should be able to tell you if they’re hosting your DNS.

TIP: Make it part of your plan to move it back to your domain registrar. Most domain registrars make this easy, but not every method also moves that zone file we talked about. If you have special settings for email, like a special Outlook server, you may need to find out what they are so you can replicate them at the new DNS host.

A Former Web Host – Rarely

In some odd cases the zone file might have been left behind with a previous host when your site was moved the last time.

The funny thing with this is that DNS hosting is the one service you never actually pay for as such, so that previous Web host has no incentive to maintain it. They will probably be trying to reach out to you to unload it. In fact, this scenario is the main reason people now favor leaving the DNS with the domain registrar – that way you can always shop for the best Web host and migrate your website freely with every new upgrade and relaunch, without having to move the DNS hosting with it.

Wherever your DNS resides, you'll need to track it down because you – and your friendly neighborhood creative agency – still need access to it on launch day...