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What is DNS and How to Fix Common Issues

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Image of BrowserAs James recently pointed out, owning your domain name is crucial for establishing your identity online and building your brand.

However, with using your own domain name comes a new headache, DNS.

Though working with DNS may not be the biggest challenge that a blogger will face, especially if they register their domain from a good company, it is something that can be a nightmare when and if it goes wrong.

Simply put, without a properly working DNS, your site, your email (if hosted on your domain) and anything else you run off of your site will stop working. Even worse, DNS problems can often be very elusive and, in many cases, can take hours or even days to fully resolve.

As such, it’s well worth understanding what DNS is and what some of the more common sticking points with it are.

A little education on the front end can save you serious headaches later.

Understanding DNS

At the most basic level, DNS is an acronym that stands for Domain Name Service. DNS is an attempt to solve a problem that would make the Internet almost unusable without it.

To connect with one another, computers on the Web use IP addresses, a series of numbers that indicate where a computer is on the Web. Every computer or machine connected to the Web has one and you can see your public-facing IP address by going to What is My IP.

However, as great as IP addresses are for computers, they are hard for humans to remember so there needs to be a system for converting IP addresses into human-readable addresses, namely domains.

What the DNS system does is bridge this gap by converting domains into IP addresses. Basically saying that thedomainyouwant.com = xxx.xxx.xxx.xxx. This lets you remember or bookmark the domain for a site and rest assured that your computer will be able to get the site’s IP address and access it, even if the site moves to another server.

The system works through DNS servers, which are essentially giant directories of domains and their IP addresses. The Internet has a series of root DNS servers but most ISPs, in order to make the process faster and reduce the load on the root servers, have their own DNS servers that mirror what’s on the root server.

Whenever you register a domain or make a change to your DNS settings on your domain, your registrar updates your DNS information with the root servers. That change then propogates out to the other servers, usually over the course of several hours.

Problems, however, arise when this DNS information is incorrect. For example, if your domain points to an incorrect IP address. This can direct your visitors to the wrong site or, in many cases, to no site at all.

Since your DNS settings also detail how your mail is handled, you can find that you don’t get your mail and that your outgoing mail never arrives. Likewise, anything else you do with your domain will break.

This makes it crucial that you understand how DNS works and be able to fix troubles when and if they arise.

Common DNS Issues With You May Face

Most hosts, upon signing up, will present you with a pair of nameservers you should provide your registrar. By doing this, you are instructing the root DNS servers to check those nameservers, which are under your host’s control, for all of the DNS information on your domain.

This is done because hosts may have to routinely move your site to a new IP address (unless your site has a static one) and it is much easier to use a nameserver than to have to update your registrar’s DNS settings every time they need to make a move. This also improves reliability as it, at least potentially, puts your DNS information in mulitple locations so, if one goes down, your site stays online without trouble.

However, this also means that most of the DNS changes you’ll be making will be taking place on your host’s side, usually in the control panel.

For most sites, setting up the nameservers is enough as your host will automatically configure the DNS on their side to point to the correct server. So the first step is to follow your host’s configuration steps carefully and, for the most part, problems will be avoided.

That being said, there are still some tips and tricks you need to know to keep your site running smoothly.

  1. Learn How to Move Hosts: If you need to move to a new host, you need to learn how to do so without downtime. First, setup the new account and change your local DNS settings, meaning on your computer, to use the new site even as the Web sees the old one. Then, after you set up the new server you can change your nameservers and cancel your old account after a few days.
  2. Configure Email: If you don’t intend to use your domain as your email address, there’s no worry. Similarly, if you want to just use IMAP or POP3 on your server, there probably isn’t much to set up as it is already configured. However, if you want to outsource your email, as with Google Apps, it can be tricky. Setting this up is usually easy, just adding MX records in your control panel, but can be intimidating if you haven’t done it before.
  3. Setting Up Custom Nameservers: Setting up custom nameservers is probably the most difficult semi-common DNS-related task. If you want to use your domain as a nameserver, for example if you use a VPS that offers it, you can do so but ONLY if your registrar supports it. If your registrar doesn’t, your site will break to many, if not most, of your visitors.

All in all though, by far the most common DNS issue is the first item, moving to a new host. However, if you do it properly and don’t terminate the old account too soon, you likely won’t have any major problems.

If you have no idea what to do, most likely your new host has a setup or transition team that can help you.

Bottom Line

The good news is that, while DNS problems can be difficult to resolve and devastating when they happen, for most bloggers they are fairly rare. If you run a straightforward site on a basic host, DNS only really becomes an issue when you need to make some kind of change to your site, such as moving it to a new host, changing email providers, etc.

Still, without DNS your site wouldn’t work and if something goes wrong with your configuration it will go completely dark. As such, it’s an important technology to understand and an important tool to be able to troubleshoot.

After all, the last thing you want in addition to a DNS problem is being helpless in the face of it.

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