DNS Management: Registrars and Nameservers

If you’re reading this article, chances are great that you have about had it trying to understand how DNS records work. There is a ton of record types, places to point things, countless IP addresses, and many other things that just don’t make sense and seem inconsistent. Hopefully this series of articles will help clear up some of these things and help you understand why different record types exist and why using specific types are beneficial in certain situations.

The first article in this series will cover the basics of domain registrars, nameservers, and why they are the first two pieces of information that it is necessary for you to be familiar with.

Domain Registrars

Before anything else, it is important to know that your domain registrar is where the entire process begins. Your domain registrar is normally the place where you purchased/obtained your domain. Your registrar could be a business that only does domain registration or even your web host itself.

The registrar is the first piece of our puzzle because whenever a request for a domain is made, the registrar is the first place that gets referenced for information. As it pertains to loading a website, the most important part of the response is what set of “nameservers” the domain is pointed at.

Sample registrar information from who.is

Websites like http://who.is can help you identify your domain’s registrar.

Though we will not discuss it in this series of articles, you can change your domain’s registrar through a transfer process. In general, changing registrars is not necessary to modify your domain’s DNS records.

Nameservers

A domain’s nameservers are significant because they identify what set of servers any requests should reference in order to obtain a domain’s DNS records. Your domain should have it’s nameservers pointed to wherever you are intending to manage your site’s DNS records. For most people, their domain’s nameservers will point at their web host since a large majority of web hosts have measures in place to automatically set DNS records for their customers.

You can also point your domain’s nameservers anywhere that you can manage DNS, though. This means that if your domain’s registrar allows you to manage DNS with them, then you can point nameservers at your registrar’s nameservers and use their DNS management panel to set records. You could also use a service like DYN, DNSMadeEasy, DNSimple, and many others. If you are interested in having your DNS hosted somewhere other than your web host or registrar, then hosted DNS is a good solution for you if you can find a service offering that fits your need and capacity requirements.

For the purposes of this set of articles, we can rather safely assume that most people could rely on either their host’s or their registrar’s DNS management offerings.

Sample nameserver information from who.is

Websites like http://who.is can help you identify your domain’s current nameservers.

Most nameservers will come in sets of two or three and registrars will give you plenty of spaces to enter several nameservers for your domain.

Your domain’s nameservers will likely need to change in the following cases:

  • You have nameservers pointed at a web host that you are transitioning away from. It is necessary to change nameservers because closing your hosting account will also remove your DNS records at that host so you will want to point them elsewhere.
  • You have just purchased a domain and need to point nameservers at your web host. The default nameservers when purchasing a domain are normally the ones operated by the domain registrar. If you intend to manage DNS at your registrar then there is likely no need to change nameservers after purchasing a domain.
  • You are currently managing your DNS records at your registrar and want your host to manage them instead. This also applies the other way around if your host was managing DNS records and you would like to take full control elsewhere. Changing nameservers from host to registrar or vice versa will be necessary depending on your situation.

One of the most important things to note when changing nameservers is that they are a setting that can take a while to take effect across the world. In most cases, nameservers will take between 1 and 10 hours to spread across a majority of servers across the world, but you should allow as long as 36 hours for them to take fully. This is quite a vital piece of knowledge because it is entirely possible to have two different sets of DNS records on two different sets of nameservers. If nameservers have taken effect in some parts of the world, but not others, then you may have some visitors seeing the site on old DNS records and some on new ones. Unfortunately, the time it takes for these settings to take full effect is not something that can be controlled directly in most cases, so you will have to play the waiting game.

A good place to check and see the status of your nameserver changes is WhatsMyDNS. This website will allow you to enter your domain, specify a record type (NS for this part of the series), and then perform tests from around the world to check the status of your nameserver switch.

Final Thoughts

Having a solid understanding of the role your registrar and nameservers play in the DNS game will be helpful in the process of learning how to manage your DNS. If you do not know where your domain is pointed, you could potentially begin editing DNS records in a place that is not being referenced for information. Knowing how to identify your registrar and nameservers is helpful to knowing where to begin the process of management.

The next article in this series will cover the most basic types of DNS records and understanding how to properly set them with valid information.

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