Domains and DNS – What are they and how do they work?

dns and domain names explained

If you are a new webmaster (or even a moderately experienced one) there is a very good chance you've struggled with getting your domains and DNS set up before. Or at the very least you've certainly come across these two terms when you were registering a domain, using dedicated services for landing pages or playing around with email marketing. And you can be forgiven for finding the whole thing quite confusing…DNS set up can be fairly simple, but it can also get complicated quite quickly.

The good news – this article is here to help. We'll go over how these 2 elements work together. The bad news – you may want to settle in and get comfortable as it tends to get complicated rather quickly.

If we don't answer your question below please hit us up in the comments and we'll try to help.

What is a Domain Name?

This is a pretty basic one, but it's important we get right. A Domain Name is an identifier, used as a simple, easy to remember, reference to look up the location of an internet resource; most commonly a website, but equally a domain name could be used to look up any connected device that has an IP address, e.g. your cell phone or your smart TV.

Domain Names are organized into groups called subdomains. There are Generic Top-Level Domains (gTLDs), such as .com, .net, .org, .info, .edu. Then there are Country-Code Top-Level Domains (ccTLDs), like .ca, .co.uk, .de, .ie, .com.au etc.

These have been with us for a while, but the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), keeps proposing and approving more every day – .samsung, .sky, .adult, .legal.

Newest Top-Level DomainsOne last thing to clear up before we move on to DNS: domain hacking. Not actual hacking, but more like bending the rules of internet domain names to get a unique and memorable URL. This started back in 1990 and two notable examples are inter.net and del.icio.us. This last one is interesting, because “.us” is the Country-Code Top-Level Domain for the United States, “icio.us” is the actual registered domain name and “del” is a subdomain of that website. Quite a bit of trouble for a simple website name, but it might've payed off – Yahoo! bought it in 2005 for a sum between $15 million and $30 million.

Other domain hacks include youtu.be (using Belgium's ccTLD), goo.gl (using Greenland's ccTLD) and instagr.am (using Armenia's ccTLD). So called domain hacking has become a popular way to get memorable and brandable domain names as all the best standard TLDs are taken up.

What is DNS?

DNS stands for Domain Name System. It's a network system used by computers to “translate” your intended website (such as google.com) – into an IP address, something that a computer understands and can use further. The simplest way to think of DNS is as the internet phone book…you enter a domain name, and the domain name system forwards your request to the appropriate IP address (like a phone number).

You can actually by pass DNS servers just by entering the IP address of a given website into your browser address bar (if you happen to know it). You can try it…go to 173.194.113.18 and see where you end up…This works because that is the IP address of Google. DNS servers are useful because we aren't always great at remembering numbers. Advertising a website address like 173.194.113.18 isn't very memorable, so having a domain name like Google.com makes it easy for anyone to remember how to get to the website in question. Like the phone book, Domain Name Servers look up the domain name you requested and send your request towards the IP address.

How A Domain Name Server Works

The great thing about DNS is that it's all done automatically. You don't have to think of IP addresses, nor do users need to update anything when you change your host, for example. Which brings us to the last piece of this website puzzle.

What is a Host?

A web host provides you with space on a server for your site to be accessible on the World Wide Web. Your rented web server is connected to the internet and has it's own IP address where it can always be found.

Together with your domain name and DNS settings your site is accessible to visitors:

  1. A visitor wants to access YourWebsite.com. Just by typing that into the address bar of his browser, there's a bit of connectivity going on.
  2. That website gets translated by a DNS Server into an IP Address.
  3. Once the request for YourWebsite.com is made to the right IP address your server will be able to load your site.

And all that happens at incredible speeds – you don't even get a chance to blink and you've reached your destination. How fast your web server can load your site once a visitor reaches it is a whole other question. You can start here if you are interested in that topic.

Configuring DNS

So how do you keep the Domain Name System up to date? What if you are setting up a new site or if you move hosts and have a new IP address?

In practical terms when you create a new website (or move web hosts for that matter) you need to connect your domain name to a domain name server usually associated with the hosting company. Domain name servers are where the record of your domain name and IP are stored.

If you are setting up a new website or moving to a new host, the hosting company will typically give you two domain name servers which you will need to update with your domain registrar. If you registered your domain with the hosting company at the same time as setting up your account then you won't need to update anything as they'll ensure the records are appropriately set up for you.

The domain name server records provided by your host will look something like this:

  • ns1.yourhostingcompany.com
  • ns2.yourhostingcompany.com

Update those with the domain registrar and the Domain Name System will then know where to send visitors. The WordPress hosting companies domain name server will connect those DNS records to the IP address of you web server.

Keep in mind, if making an update to your DNS (say you move hosts) it can take up to 48 hours for those changes to propagate across all domain name servers on the web, which is why such updates are not necessarily visible to everyone in real time.

Wait…is that it?

We have tried to keep this post focused on the basics, mostly because the nuances and advanced DNS stuff can get very complex quickly and trying to cover this all would make for an impenetrable blog post of doom. If you do have more questions please post them below and we'll try to answer them as best we can.

We don't know everything there is to know about network administration, but we've been through this more times than we care to remember so we have a fair bit of experience to call on, so ask away…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

close

Copy and paste this code to display the image on your site