Understanding Nameservers

Posted by Steve Kenley on Aug 29, 2022 8:45:00 AM

Closeup on smartphone display screen with https and www url

Perhaps the most difficult thing to understand when it comes to making your new website live, is the DNS configuration. DNS helps your browser know where to go looking for your website content. Nameservers are where the DNS records are stored. The biggest challenge you can face when going live is knowing where your nameservers are hosted because they can be moved around by anyone with access to your registrar (GoDaddy, Network Solutions, etc.).

Here we'll cover the basics of nameservers as well as how to find and access your nameserver if you have lost that information. 

What is a nameserver?

Nameservers provide a connection between a URL like tributemedia.com and the IP address of the web server where the content associated with the URL is stored. Think of a nameserver as a phonebook for a certain city and that “phonebook” contains many entries that tell you where you can find specific information. 

What does a nameserver do?

To answer this, here's an example. When you enter tributemedia.com/about-tribute-media into your browser, the following process begins.

  1. First, your browser retrieves the nameservers for the domain tributemedia.com. The nameservers will tell your browser where to request DNS record values from.
  2. Then, your browser requests the A record that contains the IP address of the web server where the tributemedia.com website is hosted. An A record is a type of DNS record that stores IP addresses. You can learn more about DNS and the different types of records here.
  3. The nameservers return the value of the A record to your browser.
  4. Finally, your browser requests the website content from the IP address provided by the A record, retrieves the content for the page tributemedia.com/about-tribute-media and renders it for you to view.

Where are nameservers located?

Typically, when you purchase a domain, the nameservers for that domain will be hosted at the registrar you purchased the domain from, like GoDaddy or Network Solutions. However, you will often find that the nameservers are located somewhere other than your registrar. This is a very good reason to be diligent about understanding what the nameservers do, and where they are being hosted. 

It’s ideal to keep the nameservers with the registrar but that is not always possible. The most common scenario to have a nameserver hosted somewhere other than the registrar, is if you hire a third party to manage your IT infrastructure including email, remote file storage, etc. In most cases, the third party will want to host the nameservers to make their jobs easier. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it does make tracking down your DNS records a little more complicated. If you ever want to build a new website or change the location of your site, you’ll need access to the nameservers.

We strongly recommend that anytime you provide someone access to your registrar account, to make sure that you know exactly what that party is going to do with that access. You certainly wouldn’t give someone the keys to your house without knowing why and what they plan to do. Always keep a good record of what is being done with your domain and nameservers. Without an accurate record, you could find yourself locked out of your own “house.” 

How to find your nameservers

If for any reason you have lost track of where your nameservers are, the easiest way to find them is to use one of the many “whois” lookup sites on the internet, such as whois.com.

Open your browser, visit www.whois.com/whois, and enter your domain name. You’ll find your nameservers and other pertinent information on the resulting page as shown below for tributemedia.com.

screenshot of whois domain info for tributemedia.com

Accessing Nameservers

It’s not that uncommon for someone to have lost track of where those nameservers are and how to access them. The first step to take when preparing to go live is to find out where your nameservers are hosted and how they can be accessed to make changes to your DNS zone file. Without this knowledge, you will not be able to make the changes needed to make your site live. 

If you are unable to locate or access your nameservers, you should ask an IT professional for help. This could be your web developer, your registrar, or your in-house IT team if you have one.

Changing Nameservers at the Registrar

All is not lost if for some reason you can’t gain access to your nameservers, as they can always be changed at your registrar, but there are some risks to be aware of before you make that change.

  • Changing the nameservers will wipe your DNS zone file clean and you will be starting from scratch. Email or other third party web services associated with your domain could be interrupted. Make sure you know all the records you need for your zone file before you change your nameservers.
  • Changes can take several hours to complete but if you are able to duplicate all DNS records on the new nameservers, you won’t likely experience any down time. It is recommended to make the change during non-peak hours.

Conclusion

You're most likely to encounter issues with nameservers when you make changes to your  content management system, or as you are preparing to launch a new site. Preparing for nameserver access ahead of time will help ensure you don't delay taking your website live. 

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Steve Kenley

Written by Steve Kenley

Steve is a senior developer with a B.S. in IT Software Engineering and an M.S. in IT and Web Design. He's been keeping things running smoothly at Tribute Media since 2012.

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