For all intents and purposes, DNS can be considered almost like the internet’s phonebook. At least that’s how it’s most often metaphorically explained. However, your domain’s DNS zone is slightly less like an old yellow pages and much more like the saved contacts list within your cell phone. You enter a phone number and a name to go with the phone number, hit save and then you can promptly forget the phone number because you’ll only ever need to search by name. Right?
For a DNS zone though, the name would actually be a domain name, subdomain, or service (like email or FTP) and the phone number would be an IP address. The concept is still the same though, so long as you enter the correct information then a DNS zone is very much a set it and forget it situation. Let’s dig in a learn a bit more about it.
The DNS Zone
Much feared, and often misunderstood, the Domain Name System zone truly is simply a way for you to direct your domain’s visitors to the correct page or service under your domain. With just a basic understanding of a few things, you’ll actually be able to manage your own DNS zone like a total pro.
Explaining how the entire internet works is slightly beyond the scope of this blog post, so for now let’s just start with nameservers. If you’ve ever registered a domain and had to point that domain to your hosting server, then you’ve interacted with nameservers. Nameservers exist solely to direct traffic from the internet to your actual website anytime someone types your domain into their web browser (or otherwise click on a link to your website).
Nameservers look exactly like a regular URL (in fact, they basically are simply a domain name created via A RECORD, which we’ll get to momentarily), and you would provide them at the domain registrar level in order for any request for your domain to be routed from the internet at large to your hosting server, which is where your actual domain’s DNS zone will take over. For example, here are the nameservers for cpanel.net:
What those nameserver do is ensure any traffic under the cPanel.net domain gets routed to the the point where the DNS zone for that domain will take over, depending on if the visitor wants to view the main website, or perhaps https://cpanel.net/store or even https://cpanel.net/blog. Each subdomain will have its own entry in the DNS zone to direct traffic appropriately. But how? The answer lies in the actual entries in the DNS zone.
There exists four basic types types of DNS entries that we will discuss here:
- A RECORD – Think “A for Address,” as in an IP Address, because what an A RECORD does is point a domain or subdomain directly to an IP address. This will generally be the point of entry to your website, as your domain will be here translated from domain into the actual IP address on the hosting server. You can also use A Records to point traffic for specific subdomains to entirely different servers, if you choose.
- CNAME – The “C” stands for “canonical” and what a CNAME does is point a domain or subdomain to another domain or subdomain. For example, if (for whatever reason) you wanted to create a subdomain called “google” and direct it to google.com, then using a CNAME entry in your DNS zone, you would point the subdomain “google” to the domain “google.com” and as a result anyone who entered google.yourdomain.com into their browser would automatically be taken to Google’s website. Of course, there’s many other more practical uses for a CNAME entry, but that is exactly how they function.
- MX – This is the “Mail eXchange” and exists specifically to direct email, basically these entries are the literal mailmen of the internet.
- TXT – This is simply plain text that can be entered into the DNS zone, commonly used to prove ownership of a domain. This can be needed for a variety of reasons, but normally for proving to a third party (such as Google analytics) that you own a particular domain. They provide you the text to place in your DNS zone, you create the TXT entry, then they scan your DNS zone to verify, thus proving your ownership.
Using the above DNS entries, virtually all internet traffic is routed appropriately which causes the correct websites to load in your browser. Much of this exists in order to translate things back and forth between human readable (domain name) and computer readable (IP address) formats. Exactly like your cell phones stores your contact names for you, while keeping your contact phone numbers for its own use when you select the name.
Additional DNS Entries
There are other DNS entries that can potentially exist. For example:
- NS – These would be nameserver records, they largely function exactly like A Records, in that they point to an IP Address.
- SPF – A Sender Policy Framework entry exists to help prevent email spoofing. These are essentially just a special type of TXT entry.
Although the best way to learn how to manage DNS is by actually doing it, the above serves to inform you about the different types of records that you will generally encounter. When in doubt, or just to be on the safe side, you may want to consult your host or provider before making any changes as incorrect entries and cause your website to become unavailable.
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