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Glossary of DNS terms

Updated on September 16th, 2021

When working with domain names, there are seemingly countless terms and acronyms that you may come across along the way. Not sure what a TTL is, or how a CNAME relates to your DNS? That’s ok, we’re here to help!


Table of Contents

1. Introduction
2. DNS
3. Domain Registrar
4. Nameservers (NS Records)
5. DNS editor
6. DNS record types: A Record
7. DNS record types: CNAME Record
8. DNS record types: MX Record
9. Other record types
10. DNS propagation
11. Time To Live (TTL) settings


Introduction

Before we dive in, let’s answer a basic question:

What happens when I type a domain into a URL bar and press enter?

Your request generally goes to the company being paid to provide you with internet access, your Internet Service Provider (ISP).  Each ISP has a couple phone-books-of-the-internet called DNS Servers which regularly pull in records from a Central Registry. If a record exists for the domain you typed in, you’ll be matched up with the server that is hosting that website or web service.

Getting your domain changes out into the world

If we want to make changes to settings for a particular domain, we need to make sure that our changes get to the central registry (think of it as a master copy of the phone book of the internet). Changes to the central registry then roll out to your internet service provider and everybody else’s internet service provider until everybody around the globe has the correct records.

This central registry periodically scoops up changes to domain records from the various companies it has authorized to sell and manage these domains.  So if you bought the rights to use a domain from a company, that company’s website will be the first place we want to start when figuring out where everything is being handled for your domain.

Note

We’re keeping our explanations pretty basic in our introduction of DNS lookups. There is a lot more detail to all of this if you are interested in learning more.

DNS

DNS stands for Domain Name System. This system serves as the “phonebook” of the internet. DNS records tell your web browser at what IP address it can find the website requested.


Domain Registrar

Simply put, this is the company that you used to purchase and register your domain. Some popular registrars include GoDaddy, Tucows, Hover, Network Solutions, eNom, and Google Domains. Some other web hosting companies also offer domain registration through their services as well.

Domain Registration Example

Once you’ve purchased your domain, these services will typically offer up settings for managing your domain. In most cases, inside these settings, you’ll have the ability to control whether you want to manage your domain through their system or through a third party. The fields that control this particular setting are called Nameservers.


Nameservers (NS Records)

Name server settings (sometimes displayed as NS Records) establish which server on the internet contains the records for your particular domain. These servers typically belong to a specific company. More often than not with most domain registrars, the default name servers are set up to servers managed by this registrar, which means that if you’re logged in to your registrar’s website, you’re probably just a few clicks away from the control settings for your domain.

Once you know your Name servers (and by extension which service is handling your DNS), it’s time to navigate over to the DNS editor to make actual changes to where the various components of your domain are routed.

Note

You can look up your NS/Name server record values using this WHOIS DNS lookup tool.   If the result is unfamiliar, use the search engine of your choice to ask something like “which company uses the name server [insert name of your name server here]“.

Hover Nameserver Settings

Examples: If GoDaddy is managing your DNS, your name server is likely some variation of domaincontrol.com. If Cloudflare is managing your DNS, your name server is likely some variation of cloudflare.com. 

Warning

If you change your DNS Name servers, the settings for your domain will usually not transfer over automatically. You’ll have to reconfigure your DNS editor on the new service. For that reason, we highly recommend, configuring your DNS editor in a new system before changing over to that system’s Name servers.

The DNS Editor

Domain Name Systems (DNS) are servers with software installed that handle a lot of the major functions affiliated with a domain. DNS editors allow users to match up domains and subdomain variations of that domain to the servers where each website is hosted (more on that when we delve into the record types down below). You can also control which service is managing your email, or create records that help you establish ownership of this domain to third parties.

Every service calls the page where you do the actual editing something different. Most just call it “DNS” though others call it the “DNS Editor,” “Domain Editor,” “DNS Zone Editor,” or even just “Zone Editor.” For most services, it looks a bit like a spreadsheet.

Hover DNS Editor

DNS editor example from Hover.com

For each existing record, there’s usually an Edit button or a pencil icon to indicate that it’s editable. Others simply let you click on a cell like you would in a spreadsheet to begin editing.  For more on how to edit your domain’s DNS settings for hosting on Flywheel, check out our help doc.

Warning

Be extra careful when editing DNS for your domain (especially MX records if your domain is handling email). It never hurts to take a screenshot before you start making changes in case you need to change things back. If you’re just looking to change where your website is hosted, there’s a solid chance all you’ll need to edit are your A Records for the domain. This “How Do I Set Up DNS” article will be your best bet on getting your website set up on Flywheel.

DNS Record Types: A Records

A Records link up a domain or subdomain to a web hosting server. To edit these records, you’ll need to enter in two key pieces of information: which version of the domain you wish to edit, and where you want that domain to steer traffic.

Here are those two fields (note that your DNS editor may have different labels for each):

Name / Host Name:

This is the version of the domain you’re looking to control.

So if this record has a name of blog, then what you’d actually be controlling here is the traffic to blog.exampledomain.com.

If you’re looking to edit the traffic to your raw domain (a domain without any prefix), how you enter that will vary between DNS editors. Some require you to enter in the whole domain name here. Others use placeholder symbols (see help note below).

DNS Zone Editor A Record Highlight NAME

Record / Address: 

This field is where you’ll enter in the IP Address for the service hosting this particular website. It works a lot like the mailing address for your home. It tells traffic where to go and gives directions to an actual piece of hardware out there on the internet.

Most IP addresses entered in the DNS editor are in the IPv4 format. These addresses consist of four numbers, each of which contains one to three digits, with a single dot (.) separating each number or set of digits.

DNS Zone Editor A Record Highlight

By entering both parts of an A record and saving this record, you’re telling the rest of the web that this particular version of a domain should route all traffic to a particular server on the web.

Note

Some registrars may use placeholder symbols to represent parts of DNS. Here is a quick cheat-sheet of these symbols and what they mean in some DNS editors:

@ This represents the root version of your domain. In our example above, @ would be a placeholder for example.com without any subdomain or www before it.

* This is a wildcard record. It means that it doesn’t matter what subdomain you type into your browser(www.example.com, shop.example.com, dolphins.example.com). All are going to be directed by this * value.

star record meaning

Additionally, some registrars do not require you to type in the entire domain for every field. For most, simply typing in www in the name field will mean you are creating a subdomain that is actually www.example.com.


DNS Record Types: CNAME Records

CNAME or Alias records simply mean that this record follows another record on this page or follows another web address.

Like with the A records, there are two basic pieces this record:

Name / Host Name:

This is the version of the domain you’re looking to control.

So if this record has a name of www, then what you’d actually be controlling here is the traffic to www.exampledomain.com.

DNS Zone Editor CNAME Record Highlight


Record / Target: 

This field is where you’ll enter in the domain that you’d like this record to follow.

Using the example from above, if this record has the name www and you want this version of your domain to go to the same website as the raw domain (the non-www version of the domain) then you’d want to enter in exampledomain.com  (or @, depending on your DNS editor – see note on placeholder symbols) in the record / target field.

DNS Zone Editor Record Highlight

Check with your registrar for any further formatting rules and conditions for CNAME records.


DNS Record Types: MX Records

These records control which mail service is handling email for this domain. Please note that Flywheel does not offer personal or business email inbox hosting for your domain. For that reason, we strongly advise against deleting or editing any MX records for your domain unless advised to do so by your email provider.

Note

Emails that are sent out from your WordPress site are managed by Flywheel for all plans.
The kind of email handled by the MX records inside your DNS editor would be the type that you’d use in an email inbox platform like Gmail or Outlook.

Other DNS Record Types

There are several other types of DNS records available to different DNS editors, depending on the system in use.  These fields control a host of more niche domain functions, few that are relevant to hosting on Flywheel. We recommending consulting the support of any service requesting edits these other field types.


DNS propagation

Changes made to your domain, such as updating the A record values or nameservers, will usually complete with in a hour or two. However, this can sometimes take up to 72 hours, depending on certain factors (such as TTL settings, see below).

This timeframe is called DNS propagation.

The timing of this process will vary because ISPs (Internet Service Providers) around the globe need to update their caches with the DNS changes you’ve made. These updates are made at different rates determined by each individual ISP. There is no way to “speed up” propagation due to this fact.


TTL (Time to Live) settings

If your DNS editor has control settings for something called TTL (Time to Live),  it’s essentially a number specifying of how long your domain registrar should wait before it refreshes your record(s) and publishes any changes that have been made since it last refreshed.

The logistics of how TTL settings work are a bit complicated. This field is best avoided by beginner and novice web developers.  For the brave of heart or eternally curious, we recommend our help document on TTL that can help you on your journey.

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