What do website owners need to know about DNS?

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a telephone reciever rests on a weathered wooden desk with an old-fashioned phone switchboard mounted on the wall behind it; cables criss-cross the front of the switchboard, connected to different inputs. This is meant to visually represent the Domain Name System
Over the past few weeks, we’ve been busy with migrating our support clients’ sites to a new hosting platform (shout out to Site District!). The site migration process for WordPress can be fraught unless you’re regularly neck-deep in things like domain management, server configuration, and PHP files (that’s why we’re so keen on managing hosting for our support clients). But the point that has most often proved frustrating for us in the past is DNS Management. This round of migrations has reminded us of just how important quality DNS configuration tools can be – and how easy it can be to ignore it most of the time! Since the topic’s front-of-mind for us, we thought we’d share a bit about DNS basics, along with some insight into our preferred method of management.

What is ‘DNS’ anyway?

DNS is an acronym for Domain Name System. Your website’s domain, which you “own” because you have paid a domain registrar in some fashion, has a lot of information associated with it. Not only does it have your name or your business’s name and contact information attached to it, it’s also got various types of settings that you can configure to accomplish different things, like telling an incoming email how to get into your inbox, or telling an internet user’s browser how to actually make it to your website. To steal a figure of speech from the folks at Cloudflare, it’s DNS settings are entries into the “internet phonebook” (the alternative to DNS settings on a domain would be using IP addresses, but it’s much easier for humans to remember “berry-interesting.com” than “192.168.1.1”, same as saying “Siri, call mom” instead of having to recall the 10-digit number)

Really all that you, the website owner, should remember – unless you’re a determined DIY’er or a developer – is that DNS settings are pieces of information associated with your domain that route different types of web traffic to the correct location. This way, when someone tells you that you need to update a DNS setting, you can say “my DNS is managed    [at my domain registrar / by my web developer / in a third-party tool]   

If you want to geek out a little on DNS, we recommend reading this post on DNS from the folks at Cloudflare.

Why DNS is easy to ignore… until it’s not

Depending on the level of complexity of your online activities, DNS settings can often be a set-it-and-forget-it kind of thing. If your website was originally built and hosted on Squarespace, and you planned for it to be there in perpuity, you or your developer likely configured DNS settings using the tools provided by your domain registrar when you launched the site and never looked back.

But businesses grow, and personal circumstances change. When Squarespace is no longer the right solution for you, you might be considering moving to a self-hosted WordPress site instead. Since Squarespace can’t host that for you, you’d need to build that site on a different host.

In order to get your domain name to send web traffic to the new hosting provider’s servers (instead of to Squarespace), changes need to be made to your DNS settings. What if you want to then set up an email address using your domain (like hello@berry-interesting.com)? You’ll need to update your DNS settings for that, too. As your business needs grow, the ways you use that domain will change or get more complex… so you’ll need a user-friendly and fast way to get those settings updated, so that you can go back to ignoring them!

How we prefer to manage DNS

Back in the early days of BIPi, our default was to manage DNS directly at the domain registrar. We were primarily using GoDaddy for both our domain registrations and DNS. For client sites, we’d use the DNS management panel on the client’s chosen registrar. Because we were interacting with DNS for web traffic (and not for, say, email traffic, site security measures, or verification for other tools), our approach was pretty naive: update a couple of DNS settings and wait until web traffic resolved at the site.

In those days, it was common for changes like this to take up to 48 hours. Today, that feels like an eternity – and 48 hours is certainly a long time to pause work just to wait on the “internet phonebook” to update, when we’re all used to having real time text exchanges with each other from different continents.

Some registars still require that 24-48 hour wait time… but at this point, that wait for us is excruciating.

That wait (well… the lack of a wait) was a huge factor in our desire for a better DNS management tool but, as we soon realized, the wait time was only part of a set of larger concerns (about security and speed) surrounding DNS management. That’s how we ended up using a service called Cloudflare.

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Why we use Cloudflare for ourselves and our clients

We first heard about Cloudflare at a WordCamp when talking shop with some other agency owners & developers. The appeal of near-instantaneous DNS updates was undeniable, as was the ability to manage DNS without actually touching a client’s domain registar account (which, we believe, ought to be wholly owned and accessed by the client alone whenever possible). One change at the registrar would result in our ability to easily make DNS changes regularly without ever logging into the registrar again.

What we then found was that Cloudflare, even at the free level, offers a bunch of speed security features that are pretty attractive (but are too technically complex to address here). On top of that, one Cloudflare account can grant managerial access to another, which means that our clients don’t need to share their cloudflare account credentials with us and can control our access at any time, giving them greater independence as website owners. Beyond the simple stuff, Cloudflare positions the client for growth – when more complex services are needed, they can be purchased.

The details on how BIPi sets up DNS management for clients

Today, our approach to domain and DNS management is this:

  1. The client – either on their own or via a screenshare with us – registers their domain at the registrar of their choice (we prefer google domains).
  2. Then, they set up a Cloudflare account at the level that makes sense for them (generally it’s the free level). As a part of this process, Cloudflare provides two Name Servers associated with the account.
  3. They update the Name Servers at their registar with the new Cloudflare Name Servers, and then they grant us access to their Cloudflare account.

After that, we can do all of the technical set-up and config we’d like, whenever we like, without bothering the client about it – the client never has to be involved in DNS settings again, until they move on from our services.

What to remember, as a layperson, about DNS

Understanding that your DNS settings = your entries into the Internet Phonebook is really all you need. Everything else can be handled by your website support partner or your developer.

We also want our clients to remember that it’s important to retain ownership of key tools whenever possible, and your domain name is the master key. If your domain is hacked or stolen, the theif can essentially steal your online identity. They can edit your website, take over your email, and redirect web traffic wherever they choose (meaning they could also steal your social media accounts and other online properties).

With the tools available to us today, there’s no benefit to letting anyone other than the key decision-makers at your company have ongoing access to your domain registration. Any subsequent/secondary tools – like a Cloudflare account, a hosting account, or a website dashboard – should always be accessible by you, and permissions to others should be revocable wherever possible. If you’re choosing to get services like hosting through a third party (like our Berry Interesting clients do), make sure that your agreement specifies that the site itself is your property (we also recommend having your own access to the hosting account). If you ever do decide to change service providers, make sure that you ask about any licenses or services that you’ll need to acquire for yourself going forward.

If you’re curious about how Berry Interesting Productions can help you set up your domain management with security and longevity in mind, we’re always happy to help! Drop us a line or book a consultation directly with our fearless leader, D’nelle. You can also sign up to get emails from Berry Interesting, and we’ll keep you in the loop.

by | Last Updated: Jun 22, 2022 | shop talk

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