What you need to know about DNS

If you have a website, there’s a good chance you or someone you’ve hired has had to make some DNS changes. But what is DNS? How does it work? And how do you make changes?

What is DNS?

DNS stands for Domain Name System. Sometimes it’s referred to as the phonebook of the Internet. The DNS is what controls what your domain and basically, tells it what to do. The DNS tells your domain where your website is, where your email is, and where your subdomains are, if you have them.

DNS

The Makeup of DNS

A Record: An A Record is used to point a domain name, such as sumydesigns.com, to a specific IP address. Each website has a specific IP address, which is how the domain knows where your website files are.

CNAME Record: A CNAME record, or Canonical Name, maps an alias name to a true name. For example, my website sumydesigns.com also works as www.sumydesigns.com, and a CNAME record is in place to make sure that they both work. If you set up a subdomain, such as support.sumydesigns.com, then that is also set up using a CNAME record. Sometimes you want to use a third party application that is hosted on another server, and you can use a subdomain and CNAME record to point a segment of your site to another location.

MX Record: MX stands for Mail Exchanger. The MX records tell your domain where your email is. Why is this important? Because you don’t always have your email at the same location as your website. For example, a lot of people, myself included, use Google GSuite for email, but their site is hosted at a different location. If you have ever wanted an @domain.com email address, then you may need to change your MX records.

TXT Record: This one stands for text record (apparently, 4 letters was just too long so it had to be shortened to 3.) This is a record that doesn’t actually point to anything, but provides readable text a variety of uses. For example, some third party services will require you to add a TXT record to prove domain ownership. Other kinds of TXT records include SPF and DKIM, which are records that verify your domain for sending email (which helps identify spam.)

Where is my DNS controlled?

This is a great question and is often confusing for people who are just getting started. Your DNS is either controlled at your domain registrar, the place where you bought your domain OR at your web hosting company. If you bought your domain and web hosting together from one company, that simplifies things a bit.

What about NS (Nameservers?)

Nameservers, simply put, just tell your domain where your DNS is managed. A lot of times when you sign up for a web hosting account, the instructions will tell you to change your nameservers to something like ns1.webhosting.com and ns2.webhosting.com rather than pointing a specific record to their server. They do this because it’s a little less confusing for those that aren’t educated on DNS. However, when you change your NS, you are essentially changing the location of DNS control.

One of the big mistakes I see with DNS is when someone changes the nameservers for their domain but forgets to set up important records, like MX records. I knew a person who decided to switch their site to SquareSpace, and changed the NS to point to the SquareSpace server, and suddenly their GSuite email didn’t work anymore. Whoops!

My Recommendations for DNS

  • My first recommendation for DNS is to keep it managed at your registrar. That way, you can always easily move your website to a new web host if you need to simply by changing the A Record. It can take 24-48 hours for NS to propagate, but a simple A Record change is typically reflected within minutes. (Give or take.) This also means that you don’t have to set up new records every time you switch web hosts, your MX records and other CNAME records will all stay in place.
  • My second recommendation is don’t mess with your DNS records without professional help. It’s really easy to get in there and start making changes and screw up your site! And even professionals (cough cough) have been known to make mistakes with DNS that end up breaking a site or disconnecting someone’s email or third party app.

DNS can be scary and confusing, but fortunately if your site is working well, you probably never have to think about it.

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Amy Masson

Amy is the co-owner, developer, and website strategist for Sumy Designs. She's been making websites with WordPress since 2006 and is passionate about making sure websites are as functional as they are beautiful.

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