Domains, DNS, Nameservers & A Records – A Technophobes Nightmare…
by Sam Davis
As a person who develops websites for small to medium sized businesses, most of my clients are invariably not familiar with the logistics of creating of websites and understanding the technical requirements of setting things up. In this blog post, I aim to give a clear explanation of how to set up a website, specifically focusing on domain names, DNS records, and how they connect to your hosting.
Firstly, it’s worth me clarifying there are two major elements that are required in order to create a website. The domain name, and the hosting (often referred to as the “server”).
The domain name is the address you type in your browser to access a website. Mine is websiteright.co.uk, the BBC’s is bbc.co.uk, and B&Q’s is diy.com. You can purchase domain names from companies like GoDaddy, 123Reg, and Names.co.uk. Just like when you type a postal address in your Sat-Nav, typing in a web address will take you to a pre-determined destination.
That destination will be a hosting server, which is the location of your website – the place where the photos, the videos, the pages and the database – all reside. This is a physical storage device which is always online, which can be reached at any time once they type in your web address. The web address is a very user-friendly way of telling your browser to find the server that your site sits on.
At this point there are a few things that it is worth you knowing:
- It is possible to purchase one without the other. For example, you can purchase a domain name without buying hosting, however you won’t have a website to display – as you’ll have simply reserved the web address.
- Similarly you can purchase hosting without a domain name, however you won’t be able to have a simple and easy to remember web address for the public to access it. The hosting company may provide you with an address, but it’ll be long, unmemorable, and horrible.
- You do not have to have a domain name and hosting provided by the same company. Indeed, some companies just specialise in selling domains independently, the same goes for hosting.
- When you buy a website address, if a company does offer both domains and hosting, they may try to persuade you into using their hosting service or push you into using their own website builder. You do not have to do this. You will need hosting, but you don’t have to use them!
After Purchasing Your Domains
Once you have bought your domain name, you will be given access to a control panel which will give you access to manipulate a number of settings for your domain.
The most important of which will be your nameservers and your DNS, and this is where is starts to get a *little* bit technical. But hold tight, I will explain it as best I can.
So what Are Nameservers?
Nameservers are some settings which are entered in the control panel of the registrar where you bought your domain. The settings determine where all traffic should be sent when someone types in your address. It won’t send the traffic it receives directly to your website though, it will send all requests to a virtual phonebook (or a Domain Name System – often abbreviated as DNS), which then will determine which precise location to send all visitors to.
In a way, it’s similar to when I type in an international phone number. If I am dialling abroad, depending on the first few digits I type in, it will direct me to the relevant country. At this point it will then consult the phone book of said country and subsequently route me to the correct person accordingly. Therefore, the nameserver (which is entered at the registrar’s end) is a setting which simply guides me towards the correct phone-book (or DNS location), which then directs me accordingly to exact location of my website!
What is DNS?
The Domain Name System (DNS) is the phonebook of the Internet.
By default, when you buy a domain, the registrar will have the domain set to use nameservers which point to it’s own DNS. Therefore, you’re likely to see a DNS area within your control panel which gives you the access to manipulate the locations that your visitors should be sent to.
If you were to change the nameservers to point to a domain name system which is not managed by your domain registrar, the DNS in your control panel would become inactive and would not be available to you to manipulate.
What Happens When I Buy Hosting?
When you purchase the web hosting service you require, the provider will give you a number of options including the ability to:
- Purchase a domain name through them (not required if you already have one)
- Use their own web address (which will be long and horrible)
- Use an existing web address that you already purchased from another company
If you go for the third option, you will be asked to type in the domain name that you wish to connect to your hosting. As a result of doing this, they will automatically add an entry on their Domain Name System which lists your domain name as well as a reference to the IP address (or… a “telephone number”) of the server it should connect to to find your site. You won’t see this, it just *happens*.
They will also give you the IP address of your server where your website lives, and the nameservers that you will need to enter at your registrar, which will enable your domain to contact the aforementioned Domain Name System, which then will lookup your website address, and tell them which part of its network it needs to visit in order to pull up your website.
Should I Use The Nameservers of the Registrar or the Hosting Company?
There are a couple of options you will have once you have purchased the domain and the hosting. You can either retain the nameservers that the registrar had in place, OR you can use the nameservers that your hosting company will provide.
- If you choose to use the registrar’s nameservers, you will need to edit the DNS settings within your domain control panel. By default, these DNS settings will be set to use the registrar’s own services, which includes email (if they provide it). Similarly, as you won’t have hosting in place, if you type in the website address, you’d be likely to see a page telling the public that “this address has been registered” and little more! To adjust it so that the domain points to your hosting, you would need to specify the IP address of your server, which will dictate where to send the traffic that the domain name receives.
- If you choose to use the nameservers provided by your hosting company, the DNS within your registrar’s control panel will cease to work, and you will be able to manipulate the DNS from within your hosting control panel. 99.9% of the time you will find that the DNS settings are already correctly set – therefore your website will be good to go!
How Do I Edit My DNS?
Your DNS will contain a number of settings where you can manipulate what traffic goes where. The two main types of record you’ll need to worry about are:
An A Record (Address Record) which points a domain or subdomain to an IP address. Also, an MX Record, which directs email to a particular mail server.
By all means, you can opt to utilise the DNS of your registrar and set the “A Record” to be the IP address of your hosting server, and this will rightfully direct all web traffic to your website no problem at all. However, by solely changing the record and not touching the MX records, this means that any email addresses would not be running through the server, so therefore any addresses that you required would need to be set up within the control panel (you should check to see whether your registrar allows you to do this). Alternatively of course, you can make sure the MX record points to your server too!
This however does mean that if your hosting company re-configures its servers and allocates your website to another IP address, your website would stop working, because the DNS at your registrar’s end is pointing to an IP address that is no longer housing your website!
For this reason, it’s better to use external nameservers…
Using external nameservers – ie: those provided by your hosting company, has a number of benefits. These include…
- Email addresses will all be set up through your hosting company’s Control Panel, ensuring total flexibility (some registrars do not allow fully-fledged mailboxes and just forwarders only).
- If there’s an IP address change for your website, because of the fact the DNS (or virtual phonebook) will be managed by your hosting company, it will automatically change your listing, so there’s no danger of downtime.
- Many hosting providers (like me) provide free SSL certificates if you use their nameservers, whereas if you use the nameservers of the registrar, you’ll have to pay to install one.
There are even companies who just specialise in offering DNS services like ZoneEdit on their own, which means you can have a “middle man” between your domain and your hosting and manipulate the settings with an independent control panel.
Without getting overly complicated, these services have a number of benefits for the technical user, including the ability to track your websites uptime, and if any failures are spotted, the DNS can automatically point to another IP address which contains a mirror of your site (something you’d have to organise), thus preventing your website having any downtime.