The Domain Name System (DNS) is vital to keeping the Internet in order and easily accessible. Every byte on the World Wide Web lives in (at least) one specific place on the planet, and it's mapped to that location with an IP address like 126.96.36.199 (IPv4) or 2607:f0d0:4545:3:200:f8ff:fe21:67cf (IPv6). DNS translates the domain names you know and love to the correct IP addresses, so without DNS, you would have to memorize a 32-bit or 128-bit IP address for your favorite websites. Remember the last time your cell phone died? How many phone numbers did you have memorized?
There are plenty of resources available online to explain How DNS Works, so in this post, we'll focus on the basics of how we use DNS. Here's the scenario: We want to register a domain — softlayer.com — and make it available to the masses.
1. Reserve and Register a Domain Name
The first thing we need to do is purchase and register our domain name. To do this, we need to choose a domain registrar and verify that our domain is available. Every domain registrar effectively provides the same service: It will reserve an available domain on your behalf, and it will let you dictate where that domain will live. There's not a lot of differentiation or value-add in that service, so many registrars offer cheap or free domains as loss-leaders for higher margin hosting or Web services. Be sure to check the fine print to make sure you're not committing to a year of hosting to get a $0.99 domain name. Some registrars make the process of updating and configuring where a domain resolves more difficult than others, but for the sake of this example we'll assume that your registrar allows the same easy accessibility SoftLayer provides our customers in the customer portal.
The domain name we want is softlayer.com, and in this example, that domain name is available for us to reserve. Once we go through the ordering process, we'll need to associate the domain with a set of authoritative name servers. Authoritative name servers are effectively the go-to address book for a specified domain. By default, your domain registrar will provide name servers for your domain, but they can be changed easily to meet your needs. You have four typical options when it comes to choosing your domain's name servers:
- Use the domain registrar's default name servers.
- Use you hosting provider’s name servers.
- Use a third party DNS service to manage your domain names.
- Run your own name servers on your server to manage your domain names.
Each of these options has its own pros and cons, but because we're just interested in getting our domain online, we'll use SoftLayer's DNS control panel to manage our new domain name.
2. Create DNS Records
When we access our hosting provider's DNS control panel, we see this:
This is an extremely high level view of DNS, so we’re just going to focus on what we must have in order to make softlayer.com reachable via browser. The first thing we'll do is add a DNS zone. This is usually our domain, but in some situations, it can be a bit different. In this example, we'll create a “softlayer.com” zone to be responsible for the whole softlayer.com domain:
With that zone created, we now need to add new "Address Records" (A Records) within that zone:
The terminology used in different DNS control panels may vary, so let’s breakdown what the four sections in those screenshots mean:
- Resource Type: This is our DNS record type. In our example, we have A records which link a hostname to our IP address. There are a number of DNS record types, each serving a different purpose.
- Host: This is the host node or owner name — the name of the node that this record applies to. Using the @ symbol in the A record allows visitors to reach our website without the leading www. If we wanted blog.softlayer.com to live at a different IP address, we'd make that happen here.
- Points To: This is the IP address of the host node. You might see this section referred to elsewhere as content, data or value. The standard term is RDATA — resource record data. This is specific to each data type.
- TTL (Time-to-Live): TTL dictates how long your name server should keep a particular record before refreshing for possible updates. Generally speaking, longer TTLs work well if you’re just adding new entries and or don’t anticipate frequent record changes.
Once we save these changes in our DNS control panel, we play the waiting game. Because these DNS changes have to propagate across our DNS servers to be accessible to the Internet as a whole, the process typically takes 24-48 hours, if not sooner. SoftLayer’s customer portal has DNS check built-in as one a few different network tools. If you aren't a current customer, you can use What's my DNS? This is what the SoftLayer tool looks like:
3. Create rDNS Records
The last step we want to take in setting up our domain is to create Reverse DNS (rDNS) records. These records do the same thing as DNS records, but (as the name suggests) they function in the opposite direction. With rDNS, we can assign an IP address to a domain name. This step isn't required, but I recommend it to help ensure better performance of online activities like email and website visitor tracking.
DNS is a central piece of the Internet as we know it, so by understanding how to use it, you'll have a much better understanding of how the Internet works. It seems challenging at first glance, but as you see from this simple walkthrough, when you break down and understand each step, you won't get overwhelmed. A wealth of DNS tools and tutorials are available for free online, and our DNS documentation might be a great resource to bookmark so you'll never get lost in domain translation.