If you own or manage a website, you undoubtedly know that there are many different systems and technologies operating in the background to make your site work. While you don’t need to be an expert on all of them, it’s a good idea to understand what they’re and the basics of how they work so that you can optimize your site, troubleshoot issues, and have a better overall experience as a webmaster.

One of the most important systems for web hosting is the domain name system (DNS). If the DNS stops working, your website becomes unavailable to most visitors. Despite the fact that the DNS is so critical, most people don’t understand what it’s or how it works. In this article, you’ll rectify that issue by learning the basics of DNS and how it can impact your website.

server rack
Source: HostInger

What Is DNS in Web Hosting?

Most people have heard of internet protocol (IP) addresses. These addresses are a series of numbers that are used to make each device or destination on the Internet unique. An IP address looks something like 192.168.0.1, which is the format used for version 4 of IP (IPv4).

While there are more than 4 billion possible addresses in IPv4, that wasn’t enough due the fact that the number of websites and devices were expanding so quickly.

This is why IPv6 is quickly becoming the standard. An IPv6 address looks something like this: 2001:0db8:85a3:2b73:0370:8a2e:0331:0adB. This new format uses eight segments of four alphanumeric digits, which technically allows for 340 undecillion addresses, although not all of them are currently available and likely never will be.

All of this is important to understand for one big reason. Most people don’t want to memorize the IP address (either IPv4 or IPv6) of every website they want to visit. This is where DNS comes in. The DNS technology takes the domain name that you’re familiar with, Digital.com, for example, and determines its IP address from a large database.

Without DNS, you would have to type the IP of a website manually to access it, which would be very difficult and inconvenient. While DNS runs behind the scenes, it does a lot that impacts your website that you should be aware of.

How Does DNS Impact Your Web Hosting?

In normal situations, the way that DNS impacts your website most is by telling computer systems that are trying to access it where it is. If you have never been to Digital.com before and you typed it into your browser’s address bar, it would first send a message to the DNS platform that’s nearest to you. The DNS platform would then go through a series of steps to determine where Digital.com is hosted, and it would let your computer know.

Your computer would then make a request to the Digital.com hosting server and begin communicating normally. It would also save a record locally on your computer so that, in the future, it doesn’t need to check the DNS servers to load the page. That record, however, needs to be updated occasionally.

While DNS is one technology, it’s spread out over many different servers and locations so it’s very resilient. Some potential issues your website could experience due to issues with DNS include the following:

  • DNS is down: If all of the DNS servers in a region are down, nobody from that area can access your site unless they have visited it in the past and still have an active DNS record saved. This is quite rare since there are many layers of redundancy built into DNS.
  • Slow DNS response times: More common, although still rare, is slowness on the DNS system. Normally DNS respond within tiny fractions of a second so users don’t even realize it is happening. If the server that a potential visitor is having issues, however, it may take several seconds to reply, making it appear as if your site is slow to respond.
  • Outdated DNS records: If you move your site to a new hosting company but don’t update DNS through nameservers (see below), the DNS continues to direct traffic to the old location, which may no longer be active.

Of these three potential issues, the third one is the most common and also the most avoidable since it’s directly controlled by the owner of the website.

DNS and Nameservers

One of the most important parts of the domain name system is the nameservers. In addition, they’re the components that you’re able to configure, at least in part. When you buy a domain, you’ll be given the option to update what nameservers are used for your website. The nameserver that’s used for a website is always found with the company that you used to register the domain, which may or may not be the company that you’re hosting the site with.

For example, GoDaddy is one of the most popular domain name registration companies. They also offer web hosting services, but many people choose to register their domain with GoDaddy and then figure out which hosting company is best based on their needs. If, for example, you register with GoDaddy and then have your site hosted with Bluehost, you need to update your nameservers on GoDaddy. In this case, you would log on to your GoDaddy account and edit the name servers to be “ns1.bluehost.com” and “ns2.bluehost.com.”

setting up ameservers
Source: Bluehost

While you can have more than two nameservers, almost all hosting companies will only provide you with two.

Once you have them updated, this information is propagated out through all of the DNS platforms so they all know where to send traffic that’s trying to reach your site.

Understanding DNS A Records

Another important thing to be aware of is DNS address records, which are typically called ‘A records.’ These A records are used to map various subdomains and other aspects of your site to the appropriate places. While there’s a lot that can be learned about A records, the main points are to at least be aware of include the following:

  • Type: There are many different types of A records, each of which is used to control something different. For example, an “MX record” is for a mail exchanger, which controls which email servers are used.
  • Host: The host field, or name field, indicates where the specific record’s information is hosted.
  • Value: The value is the IP address of the system that the A record is providing information about.
  • Time to live (TTL): This is essentially a timeout configuration. If you set the TTL to 12 hours, for example, a site that accesses that record won’t check for updates for 12 hours. If you make changes to your A record, anyone who accessed it within the 12 hours prior to the change will still be using outdated information, so keeping the TTL to a shorter length is often smart.

Fortunately, most A records can be left to their default values unless you have a specific reason for changing them. If you believe that you do need to change anything related to your DNS, other than the name servers on your domain name registration account, you can always reach out to the support team at your hosting company.

Only Make Changes If You Know What You’re Doing

DNS is an important part of the technologies used to run websites. People who configure and manage DNS for a living typically have to spend countless hours studying it and becoming certified to have their positions.

If you attempt to make changes to DNS without understanding what they’ll do, it could take your website completely offline. It could even make it so you cannot access your systems to change things back, so you would have to get your hosting company to fix it for you.

While it’s a good idea for any website owner or manager to have a good base level understanding of what DNS is, it’s also good to know that you shouldn’t make unnecessary changes because it could cause many problems.