Frequently Asked Questions
What’s the difference between a DNS host and domain registrar?
Should I use the DNS hosting from where I registered my domain?
If I buy a domain name, does it come with hosting?
My registrar says my site is hosted on your DNS hosting service. So doesn’t that mean my files are there, too?
What’s the difference between a web host and a DNS host?
If you can’t answer these questions confidently… you should definitely read this post. Our support staff and sales team answer questions like these on a daily basis. Everyone from developers to designers, business owners, and sys admins ask these questions. Don’t feel embarrassed, instead take the next five minutes to learn the difference and then tell all your friends… because they might not know either.
What is DNS?
DNS is usually compared to a phonebook. When you want to call someone, you look up their number in the phonebook. Easy as pie. Well, it’s a little more complicated than that.
I like to think of DNS like the telephone systems from way back when you had to phone the local operator who would use a switchboard to connect you to the person you were trying to reach. This way, you didn’t have to even look at a number, you were just connected.
How does this apply to DNS? Computers can only communicate using numbers, which are called IP addresses. Each address is 16 numbers, which is very difficult for humans to remember. So we created system that “mapped” IP addresses to domain names. When you enter a domain into your web browser, you will reach the homepage without ever seeing an IP address. That’s all thanks to the Domain Name System.
When you type a website into your browser, you are actually performing what is called a query. If your browser doesn’t have the IP address for the website stored in its cache (pronounced like cash) then it will look to the resolving name server which is usually your local ISP (Internet Service Provider). This server is like a telephone operator that will have all the local names and numbers. Any websites that were recently queried will have their maps stored in the server’s cache, and you will be connected almost instantly.
If the resolving name server doesn’t already have the mapping, then it will ask the root name servers. These servers are the heart of the Internet and store the maps to all of the IP’s and domain names on the Internet. That’s a lot of information, considering there are 4,294,967,296 possible IPv4 addresses and 340,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 possible IPv6 addresses. So instead of holding the complete maps for all the domains, the root name servers will point queries towards the name server that corresponds to the addresses’ Top Level Domain (TLD). The TLD of a domain is the .com or .net part of a domain.
Once you find the right TLD name server, you will be pointed to the authoritative name server for the domain. This server will answer with the domain name that comes in front of the .com you got from the TLD.
Now let’s bring this back to our telephone operator analogy. If you wanted to make a long distance phone call from DC to New York City, your local operator wouldn’t be able to directly connect you. Instead, the operator would ask the regional operator on the East Coast (root name server), who would ask the local operator in New York state (TLD), who would ask the even more local operator in New York City (authoritative name server) to connect you.
If you want to see all this in action check out this video.
Domain Registrar vs DNS Hosting
Now that we have a basic understanding of what DNS is, let’s talk about domain registrars. If you have ever bought a domain name before, you should be familiar with registrars. A domain registrar is the company you purchase your domain from. Once you purchase your domain, the registrar will (usually) also host your IP address on their name servers. This is called DNS hosting. Your DNS host is responsible for holding the map that connects your domain name to your IP address.
We typically advise against keeping your DNS hosting with your registrar, because the free (or low cost) hosting service will only offer bare minimum IP to domain name resolution. This also violates a DNS best practice that discourages the bundling of services or using multiple services from a single provider. In the past, we have seen this lead to catastrophic results, even among some of the largest brands on the web.
Think about it this way, if your DNS host has an outage, there is no way for clients to map your domain name to your IP address. Your site is essentially non-existent.
Let’s go back to our phone operator analogy again. Say you want to call your local florist, you would call your operator and ask to be connected. Now let’s say your florist’s telephone is using an unreliable network. If their network is down, there is no way you can connect to them and you’ll likely call another florist.
DNS Hosting Best Practices
Once you’ve made the decision to outsource your hosting, we recommend looking at businesses that specialize in DNS hosting. These companies have networks engineered specifically for DNS, not for web hosting, not for anything else, just DNS.
When evaluating providers look for:
- Redundancy: many points of presence (PoP)
- Reliability: partners with top tier data and bandwidth providers
- Security: multi-factor authentication
- Support: availability and thoroughness
Now that we have a better understanding of the Domain Name System, registration, and hosting… let’s dig into web hosting. This is likely the part you are the most familiar if you’re a developer or designer. This is also the part of the Internet you see the most when you’re surfing the web.
If we think about our phone operator metaphor, web hosting is like the storefront you rent to show off the awesome stuff you have. You have to make monthly payments, renew your lease every year or so, and you want to make sure your landlord (provider) is reliable when it comes to maintenance and availability.
Once you have a domain registered and you’ve moved your DNS hosting to a specialized provider, you will want to pick a web host. Right now if anyone goes to your domain, they won’t see anything. That’s because you don’t have a place to put your website. You web hosting provider will give you a part of a server or cloud to host your website content.
But there is still a problem. How do you connect your domain to your website content? Each provider will do this differently, but essentially you will have to point your IP to your web-hosting server. You will need to create a DNS record through your DNS hosting provider that points to your web hosting server’s IP address.
Now here is where it all comes together. When someone types in your domain, they will be connected to your IP address via your DNS host, you DNS host will then point them to your web hosting servers where they will finally access your website. All of that in the blink of an eye.
Also published on Medium.