The Domain Name System (or DNS) converts human readable domain names (like: www.google.com) into Internet Protocol (IP) addresses (like: 173.194.39.78). Computers can only communicate using series of numbers, so DNS was developed as a sort of “phone book” that translates the domain you enter in your browser into a computer readable IP.

How it Works

This process happens in the blink of an eye. No really, we are talking a mere matter of milliseconds for DNS to match your domain name to its IP address. This process is so fast it tends to get overlooked by the majority of web surfers. That is, until something goes horribly awry.

Want to see the whole process in action? Watch our very own viral video that explains how the Domain Name System answers your queries.

What Happens When it Fails?

Have you ever tried to go to a website, but gotten an error message that the site’s DNS resolver could not be found?

Or there was a DNS error? These messages mean that the DNS for that domain has failed. This could be because you aren’t connected to the Internet, or the domain’s DNS provider is down, or a myriad of other reasons.

To better understand how DNS works (and also how it can fail), let’s break this system down into its smallest element: a query. Whenever you type a domain name into your browser, you are essentially asking the Internet a question… or in technical terms, a query.

Wait! It's about to get technical, but fear not, we've got your back. If at any point you don't understand a certain term or concept, take a look at our extensive DNS Terminology cheat sheet.

DNS Cheat Sheet

Path of a Query

A DNS query wants to know, “what is the IP address for this domain?” To find the IP address, you need to lookup the DNS Records for that domain. These records are stored in DNS Servers, which are responsible for storing parts of the database that contains all the IP addresses and their corresponding domain names for the Internet. These DNS servers go all the back to the dawn of the Internet, the first of which, are called the Root Name Servers.

So every time you send out a query, you are asking the root name servers, “where can I find the record for this domain name?”

root Server Lookup
DNS tree

The root name servers will then send your query to the appropriate Top Level Domain (TLD) name server. TLD's are the ending or suffix of a domain name, like: example.com or example.org or example.net.

From here, your query will ask the appropriate TLD name server "What specific name server is Authoritative for my domain?" These authoritative servers are usually hosted with your DNS provider or in some cases with your DNS Registrar. Your DNS Registrar is the service that sells domain names.

The Answer

Finally, the name server authoritative for your domain will lookup the record which contains the appropriate IP address for your domain. This information is sent back to your browser, and you will be connected to your desired website! You may start to notice a pattern here. DNS looks up records by going through a domain’s address backwards.

Path of a Query

There are a few other ways to answer queries, besides using Authoritative Name Servers. Check out our infographic, which explains how Resolving Names Servers and DNS caches answer queries differently.

DNS Hosting vs. Registration vs. Web Hosting

Now that we have a better understanding of what DNS is and how it works, you're probably wondering how this fits into the whole scheme of building and maintaining a website. Check out this quick article that explains the differences between the three services you will use.

Check it Out

Why is DNS Important?

As you have probably already figured out, DNS is the proverbial glue that holds the Internet together. With DNS, the Internet and the modern world as we know it would collapse.

Just take a minute to look at a few of these mind-blowing statistics. Right now, there are 3.4 BILLION Internet users. Yes, that is roughly half of the world’s population.

What Does This Mean for You?

Do you have a website, or is your business dependent on the Internet for clients, communication… do you have any Internet connected devices, like a Fitbit or a remote camera? All of these things are dependent on DNS.

So if the majority of our lives are dependent on DNS, how do we ensure its availability, performance, and reliability? That’s where DNS management comes in. To learn more about DNS management, learn more about what Services We Offer and the different Industries We Serve.

What is my DNS?

Now that we have a basic understanding of DNS and how the system works, how do you use this system for your own web surfing? Your laptop, phone, tablet, and any other Internet connected device all have their own IP addresses. But how do you find out what your own IP is?

You can find your IP address by going to your device’s network settings (see the table). Another way to do this is to use an NS Lookup. This requires the use of command line. You can use this tool to check the health status of your DNS servers or provider. If you don’t know how to use command line, you can download the free Sonar Lite app, which has variety of DNS tools including NS lookup.

Mac Go to your network interface settings
Windows Open your System Preferences, click Network, be sure your current network connection (with the green dot beside it) is selected, click Advanced, and click the TCP/IP tab
Smartphone (Wi-Fi) Check your network settings
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