What are registrars, hosts, nameservers, and DNS records?

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This is a question that I get asked about all the time. What are registrars, hosts, nameservers, and DNS records? And more importantly, how do they actually affect me and my website?

Recent update: There is now a video to go along with this

Registrars

Registrars the most basic thing you need to understand, and as a website owner the most important thing for you to have.

Think of registering a domain much like renting a post office box. Anyone can go to the post office and rent a box. They can use that box for themselves, or for a business. In fact, they can even get a post office box for someone else to use.

And you don’t just have to go to the post office to get a box. The UPS Store and some other locations also have boxes available.

Now, for how that translates to the web.

Anyone can go to a registrar and register a domain. Yes, anyone. Your two year old could go register a domain as long as they got a hold of your credit card or PayPal account. It’s actually much easier to get a domain than a post office box, because there’s no ID check. The internet just cares that you have a valid form of payment. Once registered, you can then change the owner info on the domain whenever you’d like to.

When you go to a registrar and get a domain, you’ll need to have an account with that registrar. This account will be a login ID and a password. Whoever has this login can access and change the listed owner of the domain. And if there is ever an “uncertainty” about who owns the domain, whoever has their email address listed as the contact, that’s the owner.

It’s very important to remember that your domain has contact information listed for it AND your account at the registrar has contact information listed. These pieces of information don’t have to be remotely the same. There is also no limit on the number of domains that a particular registrar account can have. And none of the contact info for those domains has to be the same.

A number of web development companies will “take care” of registering your domain for you. That means it goes into their registrar account and therefore they are the only ones who can make any changes. Sure, they will list your info on the domain contact info, but you don’t have the registrar account, so the domain is really theirs.

If the domain isn’t registered on your own registrar account, then it’s not your domain. It belongs to someone else. It’s also very important to be careful who has access to your registrar account, as anyone with full access can change the info on file and take your domain (and yes, this has happened).

Many registrars allow delegate access to be setup. This allows you to give access to your domain without giving someone your personal login. And it also means you can revoke that access.

Always make sure that your registrar allows delegate access so that you don’t give away your login credentials to other people.

Once you have your domain registered with a registrar, it’s important to keep your billing information up to date.

What is domain renewal?

Domains have a yearly fee. Just like a post office box, you have to prepay the fee. You can prepay several years in advance, but at some point, you’ll need to renew. And just like a post office box, if you don’t pay the fee, you lose it.

If you have auto-renew enabled on your account, then the registrar will attempt to automatically charge your payment method on file. If this charge goes through, your domain gets automatically renewed.

If your payment method fails or you don’t have auto renew, then your registrar will contact the account holder. This is NOT the info listed for the domain ownership, this is the information associated with the login ID and password for the registrar account. This why it is so important for your domain to be registered in your own account.

If they contact you and you update the payment info and renew the domain, then your domain is secure for a while longer.

If no payment is received by the domain expiration date, then all services for the domain will be turned off. Most registrars then place you in a redemption period. The length of this period varies by the registrar, typically 30-90 days. During this time you can still reactivate your domain, but you may be charged additional fees (up to about $200).

When your redemption period expires, the domain becomes available. This means anyone can purchase it.

As far as registrars go, I generally go with Namecheap.com as they are well known, and have better rates than a number of other locations. Plus their DNS management is pretty easy.

If you want to go with the largest registrar out there, go with GoDaddy. GoDaddy is known for being a jack of all trades and master of none. That means you can have everything all at the same company, but you won’t get the best service or value for anything.

Nameservers

Nameservers tell the world how to reach your domain.

You can think of your nameservers as a receptionist. Anyone arriving at your domain, trying to send you email, etc contacts your nameserver. Your nameserver then gives them directions.

If your nameserver is ever not reachable, then no one can contact you. No website, no email, no nothing.

This is why it’s very important to have a highly reliable nameserver. You don’t want a small company to handle your nameserver as if their hardware goes down, the world will not be able to reach you.

Your nameservers can be at your registrar, at a cloud solution like Cloudflare, or at a hosting company. The important part is that they be reliable.

If you ever have a web developer helping you with something, they will likely need to access the location of your nameservers.

DNS Records

At your nameserver is where all of your DNS records are setup. If your nameserver is your receptionist, the DNS records are the sheet of info they use to give out directions.

Your DNS records tell email how to reach you, they tell people with a web browser where to go to get your website, and they can do some other things too.

The very basics are:

  • A record tells visitors how to reach your website
  • MX records tell people how to reach your email
  • TXT records provide supplemental information
  • CNAME records are typically subdomains (like https://something.mydomain.com)

Things can get a lot more complex than that, but as a business owner that’s about all you need to know.

Hosts/Hosting Companies

There are a lot of different types of hosting companies out there. Some will host your website, others your email, and some do everything.

Hosting companies provide you with servers in which to store data. Hosting companies rely on your nameservers and the DNS information to send visitors to your domain and the specific domain services they host. This is why hosting companies will frequently give you specific data they need added to your DNS records.

The hosting companies who specialize in just one thing, such as email only hosting require that you have another provider for your nameservers and registrar. 

For example, you may have Namecheap as your registrar and use CloudFlare as your nameserver. Then you may have your website hosting through a managed WordPress provider like Flywheel and your email through Google Suite. This is a common setup in today’s world.

For those who don’t want all of these different moving parts, they may elect to register their domain through a multi-purpose company.

For example, you may use SiteGround as your registrar, have your nameservers through SiteGround, and have your website and email hosted there as well. This setup used to be very common but is less popular today as it makes it harder to change hosting companies.

As a general rule of thumb, you can frequently get a better quality service by selecting website hosting and email hosting independently. But, this usually requires more initial setup.

Can registrar, nameserver, DNS & hosting be the same company?

Absolutely. GoDaddy is the largest for this. They’ll do pretty much everything. But, you won’t get the best quality or value with GoDaddy.

What’s the best setup?

That’s basically like asking me what’s the best car. It’s not what is best, but what is best for your situation. And just like cars, that can change over time.

As a general statement, I like Namecheap as a registrar. I generally keep nameservers with the registrar or run them through CloudFlare. I like Google for email, and SiteGround for web site hosting. But that can change greatly depending on a given business’s needs and budget.

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