Whether you’ve heard of them or not, nameservers are vital to the internet’s architecture and functionality.
In simple terms, nameservers make life easy for web surfers and internet users. Without them, you would have to enter the actual Internet Protocol (IP) address of any website you hope to visit—and nobody wants to do that.
For example, if you had to remember a string of digits like 18.104.22.168 (Quick Sprout’s IP address) every time you wanted to read one of our posts, you’d probably never visit our website again. It’s just too cumbersome and user-unfriendly.
However, with a nameserver working in the background to translate the IP address on your behalf, all you have to do is remember the domain name.
That’s what nameservers are for in a nutshell—making sure you don’t have to memorize IP addresses. But there’s more to nameservers than meets the eye.
What Is a Nameserver?
A nameserver is a directory-like application that translates domain names into their corresponding IP addresses. When a user enters a URL query into a web browser, for instance, a nameserver links that query to the requested site by connecting its domain name with the IP address of the web host.
However, to fully understand a nameserver, you must explore some of the more technical aspects of internet technology that are not very public-facing, despite being essential.
Nameserver vs. DNS
To understand nameservers, you must first know how the Domain Name System (DNS) operates and how a nameserver fits into its framework. First of all, a domain must be supported by a nameserver that stores its DNS records. This process is initiated when you register your domain with a domain registrar.
This is because the domain registrar specifies the nameserver(s) used by your website. Typically, the best domain registrars provide a control panel to edit and perform administrative functions on your domain’s nameservers.
From a macro perspective, the DNS is an online database that records domain names as a catalog of web devices, computers, and servers, along with their corresponding IP addresses. As a result of this identification mapping, one of the best ways to describe the DNS is that it operates like an old-school phone book for the internet.
The primary role of the DNS is directing web traffic on the internet. Therefore, while the DNS represents the underlying infrastructure used to route internet traffic, nameservers direct the user-entered domain to its web server.
Furthermore, nameservers also store, organize, and connect DNS records to facilitate the function of directing you to the right site when you type an address.
Altogether, the DNS comprises the following elements:
- Domain registrar
- DNS records
- Web-based services like web-hosting platforms
Among other things, DNS records contain the server IP addresses of the websites from which user search requests seek to retrieve information. Meanwhile, nameservers store and organize individual DNS records.
As you can see, the DNS is the complete system, while the nameserver is an important part of that system. Nameservers keep track of the records associated with the domain, such as A records (IP addresses), CNAME records (aliases), NS records (nameservers), MX records (mail servers), and TXT records (textual data).
Why Nameservers Matter
Nameservers matter because they are a crucial factor in the success of your website (or any website, for that matter).
In practical terms, nameservers (or DNS servers) exist in data centers as servers with DNS software installed on them. This software is equipped to manage the DNS records of all the domains hosted by the company that operates or owns the data center. The companies that own the physical DNS servers are typically web hosting platforms.
Nameservers are important because they perform the process of DNS resolution—which, again, simply allows them to type in URLs instead of IP addresses. The web is much friendlier and accessible to ordinary users because of this DNS resolution. Furthermore, nameservers also make it possible for the browser to display the sites requested by the user in the first place.
However, the average user isn’t typically familiar with nameservers because they don’t normally come up in everyday conversation. Not everyone works in a technical career that requires configuring servers or setting up domains.
Nevertheless, if you are in the process of migrating your website to a new hosting provider, it’s important to know the basics, as nameservers are vital for your domain registration.
A brief overview of how nameservers work
Just as a home typically has an address, every device connected to the internet also has a unique address to identify it. For websites, PCs, laptops, smartphones, and IoT devices, this is known as its IP address.
While IP addresses are essential for device identification, they constitute an unmitigated mess for human comprehension. Fortunately, nameservers come to the rescue, providing a layer of abstraction that shields users from the need to type in cumbersome strings of digits.
So, instead of entering an IP address into your browser when you want to visit a website, you provide its domain name. This is just like having a mailing address that’s easier to remember than GPS coordinates.
The DNS is part of a larger ecosystem that facilitates how computers communicate with private networks and the internet, comprising Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and the IP.
The user doesn’t observe what’s happening behind the scenes, but a mechanism exists to connect the domain name to the site’s IP address. If you have a reliable internet service, the requested website almost always comes up instantaneously.
However, it also requires a multi-step process of pinging the nameserver, getting a response, and subsequently connecting you to the desired destination.
To accomplish this, the browser must connect to the target site’s domain registrar, upon which the registrar subsequently points to the site’s hosting provider—such as GoDaddy, Hostinger, HostGator, InMotion, and so on. Once at the web host destination, the browser attempts to locate the correct nameserver.
This is why domain pointing is such a vital function of the DNS ecosystem. If the DNS successfully locates the nameserver for the domain, it retrieves the associated DNS record that contains the requisite IP address and returns it to the browser.
On the other hand, if it fails to accomplish these steps, you’ll receive an error message such as, “This site can’t be reached.”
When Do You Need To Know Your Website’s Nameservers
It isn’t really a necessity to know your website’s nameservers. Generally, you can ignore them without much consequence if you purchased and registered your domain from the same company.
However, in addition to mapping domain names to IP addresses, nameservers also define who manages your domain’s DNS zone.
This information tends to be relevant in the future. There are several scenarios where you might want to look up your website’s nameservers, including the following:
- When you are changing your domain’s nameserver.
- When you’re pointing your domain name to a new web hosting service.
- During the troubleshooting of DNS issues like partial DNS failure.
- When domain names are moved from one registrar to another, which requires the identification of the DNS records currently associated with the domain name.
- When you’re customizing nameservers.
Your web hosting account will likely provide you with information to locate your domain’s existing nameservers. Customarily, hosting accounts allow you to manage, edit, update, and replace your current nameservers.
However, suppose you registered the domain with a new web host company, third party, or domain registrar. In that case, you won’t be able to update it unless you access the account of that other organization.
In essence, pointing your domain to a different web host is what it means to change nameservers. People typically take this approach when they want to move their site to another hosting provider but their domain name is still tied to the previous hosting company. The advantage of this process is that it allows you to keep your domain name while moving your site to another hosting provider.
If you only want to change your domain’s nameservers, it typically requires you to log into your domain registrar’s website and locate the DNS management section (or its equivalent). You then select the domain for which you want to change the nameservers.
Many domain registrars allow you to select two options at this stage. The first recommendation is for you to choose or use their existing nameservers. Alternatively, you can change nameserver(s) by entering whichever ones you prefer instead.
After clicking the submit button, and once all of the DNS zone files and management files are transferred, your domain starts to use the nameservers outside of the original web host.
Keep in mind that these changes might not take effect right away because DNS propagation usually takes about 24 hours to 48 hours to complete. Likewise, this can also differ depending on the steps of your domain registrar.
Domain registrars such as GoDaddy and Namecheap provide the capability to customize nameservers. These custom or vanity nameservers are commonly used for branding purposes. Thus, you can proceed with customization once you have a registered domain and the IP addresses of its nameservers.
Subsequent steps of this process will depend on the particular requirements of the domain registrar for handling custom nameservers. However, it usually suffices to contact support or search the organization’s knowledge base to obtain relevant information on updating your DNS records with the change.
How to Look Up the Nameservers of a Website
A WHOIS search offers additional information like the domain name owner’s personal details, name, and email address. Other hosts and domain registrars provide more stringent domain registration privacy and therefore don’t display this information.
Using the Google Dig tool’s nslookup option, we were able to explore quicksprout.com. To do this, we typed quicksprout.com in the search bar with the NS (nslookup setting) button selected, and it instantaneously yielded nameserver information.
If you select the Raw View button, the interface will display even more information. In our case,
the general information conveyed is that the quicksprout.com domain has four nameservers:
- NS ns-124.awsdns-15.com.
- NS ns-1440.awsdns-52.org.
- NS ns-1819.awsdns-35.co.uk.
- NS ns-696.awsdns-23.net.
There are other ways in which you can obtain nameserver information, too. Some of these methods allow you to execute commands locally from your system’s terminal or command prompt.
If you use Linux or macOS, for example, you can type dig +short ns yourdomain.tld as a command in your terminal. This should display similar information as before—that is, unless your firewall or router prevents the dig command from working.
Websites that have lots of traffic typically have multiple nameservers for load-balancing. This approach is adopted because relying on only one DNS server is often detrimental to performance. Moreover, distributing the traffic across several nameservers provides resiliency and redundancy to overcome the problem posed by having a single point of failure.
Using nslookup commands
Many users are satisfied with the results of the previous methods, but if you’re looking for even more information, you can run a domain lookup locally using the nslookup command instead.
To do this, open Powershell or your terminal’s command prompt and type the following syntax: nslookup -type=ns yourdomain.tld.
Once again, we did so for quicksprout.com.
The information provided by this nslookup command is more comprehensive than previous commands. Primarily, it differentiates between authoritative and non-authoritative DNS servers.
Authoritative servers are equipped with DNS zone files that enable them to provide definitive answers to user DNS queries, returning DNS A records that map website IP addresses. Meanwhile, their non-authoritative counterparts are used for caching previously requested records from former DNS lookups.
In addition to improved performance and reliability, having multiple nameservers also improves security. This is because hackers will have to target more than one single nameserver for a malicious attack to be effective.
To bolster redundancy, most domain registrars request primary and alternate nameservers. This allows one of the domains to pick up the slack whenever any of them goes offline.