What Are DNS Records? What You Need to Know
If you’ve migrated from one web host to another, then you’ve had to update your DNS records. Although the process itself is painless, many people may not stop to consider what DNS records are, besides accepting that tech support says they need changing.
We’ve assembled a quick guide to remedy that and let you know not just what DNS records are, but also what role they serve on your website. If you want to know more about web hosting, make sure to check out our guide on the best web hosting providers, many of which will help you through any DNS record changes.
What Is DNS?
DNS stands for Domain Name System, and it is used to point an incoming website domain toward the IP address of the server. So, when you enter “cloudwards.net,” the DNS records fetch the IP address of our server and serve you the site.
This allows you to change web hosts without changing domain names. Each website has a specific IP address, and the DNS records pair that IP address to the domain name so users don’t need to remember the numeric line.
DNS records hold information about every single website on the internet. There’s no way around it, unlike some other areas of web hosting. Although you may never update yours, they still exist regardless.
Information migration is an integral part of DNS records. Updating the DNS records and pointing your domain to a new nameserver is all that a web host requires for transfer, minus slight propagation time. Now that we’ve spewed some tech jargon, you may be wondering what a nameserver is.
What Is a Nameserver?
A nameserver is a server inside a data center with DNS software installed on it, designed to manage the records of all domains hosted by the company. “Nameserver” and “DNS server” are often interchanged terms, but they mean the same thing, so don’t get too confused if your provider uses different terminology.
A host installs DNS software on each server as a means to transfer the data from the DNS records. Basically, the server is like any other in the data center, but the software installed on it is what makes it a “nameserver.”
Each web host has a set of nameservers purpose-built for routing data through the center. Two servers may handle domains with shared plans, and another may route WordPress traffic, for example.
A nameserver is like the mailroom of a data center. All incoming information arrives there before being routed to its intended domain destination. In the same way, the DNS records serve as an address book to know where the mail (data) needs to go.
DNS, Nameservers and Your Website
Tying the two together is what allows your website to get online. A typical stream would start by you purchasing a domain name from a registrar, such as GoDaddy (read our GoDaddy review for more on this service). Once you own that domain name, your web host must store its information within the DNS records to serve it up when the domain is entered.
This is a relatively straightforward process. All you need to do is specify which nameserver your domain should point to. A user enters your domain name, which triggers the DNS records to look up the IP address and then sends the website data from the server back to the user.
You can find DNS settings within the control panel of your domain registrar. Most web hosts will give you their nameserver addresses when you sign up, but a quick call to support can clear up any confusion if you can’t find it.
Nearly all domain registrars require a primary and alternate nameserver in the event one goes offline. For example, shared plans at A2 have the nameservers “ns1.a2hosting.com” and “ns2.a2hosting.com” (read our A2 review). Each web host organizes this a little differently, so make sure you consult your hosting provider.
Types of DNS Records
There are a few different types of DNS records you can modify at your domain registrar. Typically, all you need to do is update the nameserver, but knowing the different types of DNS records can help if you need to change something down the line.
An A record is what points domain names to IP addresses. “A record” stands for “address record” and is the purest form of DNS. An A record allows users to type in an easily recognizable domain name and still get pointed to the IP address.
CNAME, or “canonical name,” redirects one domain to another, allowing you to only update one A record each time you make a change. For example, the CNAME record allows “cloudwards.net” to fetch up “www.cloudwards.net” with the “www” in front.
A “mail exchanger entry,” or MX entry, is a record that directs email to a different server despite being a subdomain. Essentially, the record specifies how email should be routed when sent to an address at your domain.
This is a bit of a catch-all record, not intended to direct any traffic, but instead to provide information to external sources. A TXT record serves several different purposes depending on your needs.
An AAAA record is the same as an A record, but this record allows you to point a domain to an IPv6 website address instead of an IPv4 one.
Don’t worry if all of this seems overwhelming. Routing domain data is complex, and these base descriptions barely scratch the surface. In most cases, you’ll never need to touch these records and, if you do, most hosting support can handle it for you.
Web hosting is very intricate. Automating computers to route and reroute millions of domain requests within fractions of a second requires some serious engineering. Even so, we hope that this broad look at DNS records helped clear some confusion.
If you want to learn more about web hosting, we dive into the specifics of each host so you can find the one that’s right for you. We also have a comprehensive guide on how to change DNS servers for better privacy, security and speed. If you’re looking for the top cloud storage providers or best VPN provider, we’ve got you covered there, too.
Are you more confident with DNS (domain name system) records? Do you understand the differences between DNS records, like the CNAME record or TXT record? Let us know in the comments below and, as always, thanks for reading.