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What are DNS settings and how do they work?

A Beginner's Guide to DNS Settings

What is DNS?

One of the key issues that most small business owners have when dealing with a website is DNS settings. This is often one of the first things we help new clients out with as they can often be confusing and when incorrect can cause all sorts of problems with your website and emails.

DNS, or Domain Name System, is a fundamental component of the internet that translates human-readable domain names into IP addresses, allowing computers to communicate with each other. For example our domain is splendidweb.co.uk but the server where our website lives has the IP address 185.181.117.52. If to visit our website you had to remember the IP address it would be fairly annoying and once at the server you would still need to use the servers internal routing to find the actual website you were looking for. This is where a domain name comes in. Not only does the domain name help people remember and understand your IP address with a nicely branded, human-readable name but it also routes internally at the server to the correct location.

DNS settings

Understanding DNS settings is crucial for anyone managing a website. The first port of call is to register a domain name. Use a domain registrar such as Fasthosts, GoDaddy or 123-reg to check the availability of your desired domain name and register it. Once you have registered your domain you will then have access to a control panel where you can manage various settings including DNS.

What about Nameservers?

Before getting started with DNS settings it is important to understand Nameservers. At a basic level Nameservers are used to direct a domain towards the place where its DNS settings should be managed. This is important...if the Nameservers for your domain are not pointed at the control panel where you are managing DNS settings then those settings will not work

It is possible to manage DNS both at the domain registrar account but also at your web hosting. For example for many of our website hosting clients we will point the Nameservers at our servers so that we can then manage the DNS for them via our own control panels. If you wish to manage your DNS at your domain registrar's account make sure the Nameservers are directed towards the domain registrar!

Types of DNS records

Once you are sure your Nameservers are pointing to the right place you can then go about managing your DNS settings. Understanding the different DNS records is essential for configuring your DNS settings. Here are some common types:

  • A Record (Address Record): Associates a domain with an IPv4 address. This is normally the one you want to direct your domain to your website.
  • AAAA Record: Similar to the A Record but for IPv6 addresses. Basically the same as above but a newer format to allow for more IP addresses...yep we need more!
  • CNAME (Canonical Name): Allows you to point one domain to another, often used for subdomains. This is normally an alias of your A record so be aware that any changes you make to your A record can sometimes affect CNAME records as well!
  • MX Record (Mail Exchange): Specifies mail servers responsible for receiving email on behalf of your domain. Allows you to direct mail to whatever mail service you would like to use, eg. Gmail, Office365 or your own hosted mailboxes.
  • TXT Record: Holds arbitrary text information, commonly used for verification purposes and to provide information to external sources. This is often important to help with email deliverability via verification records such as SPF or DKIM. If you are finding your emails are ending up in peoples spam boxes often the solutions is correct email verification via a TXT record.

It is worth noting that the reason behind all these settings is flexibility. A domain name can point various types of internet traffic in all sorts of different places. Your website and emails for example do not have to be in the same place, you can use a web hosting service and a completely separate email service. Don't feel you have to get tied into one place for everything.

Common DNS configurations

  • Pointing to Web Hosting: If you have a website, you'll need to set up A or CNAME records to point your domain to your web hosting provider's server.
  • Email Configuration: Configure MX records to direct email traffic to your email hosting provider.
  • Subdomain Setup: Use CNAME records to create subdomains, such as joel.splendidweb.co.uk.

Time-to-Live (TTL)

Time-to-Live indicates how long a DNS record can be cached by other devices or servers. Shorter TTL values mean quicker updates, but they can increase the load on your DNS server. Often it is simplest to leave these set at the default setting but there may be some instances where you need to make changes.

DNS propagation

Changes to DNS settings may take some time to propagate across the internet. This period is known as DNS propagation, and it can take up to 48 hours. During this time, users may see the old or new version of your site. We generally find that for most domain names this process can be completed in 4-5 hours but make sure you give yourself time for it to be longer and be patient when checking. 

It is also worth being aware about various caching levels here. When making changes to a new website for example if you make DNS changes you will often see your old site cached. This could be a cache at your browser level, or a deeper cache such as with your ISP (Internet Service Provider). Some good ways to check are to clear your browser cache, and try using a different internet connection such as your mobile 4g connection to check the site.

Troubleshooting DNS Issues

  • Check Configurations: Verify that your DNS records are correctly configured.
  • Check your domain license: Often sudden DNS issues are caused by a domain license running out, we recommending enabling auto-renew on your domain name and always having an active bank card setup to make payment so you never loose your domain name.
  • Propagation Status: Use online tools such as dnschecker.org to check the status of DNS propagation.
  • Clear Cache: If changes are not reflected, clear your browser cache or flush your DNS cache.

Conclusion

Understanding DNS settings is a valuable skill for anyone managing a website or emails. By grasping the basics of DNS records, configurations, and troubleshooting you can start to get a clear picture of any issues your website or emails might be having.

Splendid web homepage

Sounds a bit daunting?

Splendid Web managed hosting handles all of that for you!

If you don't have time or inclination to deal with any of that then our managed web hosting solution is perfect. We look after your hosting account and make sure that all your DNS is correct and valid, we will also make any changes required on your behalf and make sure that your email setup is correct and verified.