Beware the Free DNS

When people first start publishing on the internet they often start by creating content on free services like Geocities or Blogspot. After a while they decide they need their own domain name to help separate their content from the other denizens of the free host.

When you register your domain name, most registrars will offer free mail and web redirection, so it is the easy to redirect mail on the domain to your free webmail service (e.g. Gmail) and redirect web page views to your free service. It does this by providing the Domain Name Server (DNS) for the domain on one of their servers. When another computer wants to contact your site, the DNS gives the address of one of their own machines, they also supply a web server that receives the initial request and forwards the browser on to the free service and mail server that receives incoming mail and sends it on to Gmail. Unfortunately free web hosts usually give away their free status, either through having ads as Geocities does, an obvious format like Blogspot has, the URL you use or they just aren't flexible enough for your site's needs as it grows.

The next step is to buy some cheap hosting and change your site to use the DNS supplied by the site. Here's where things suddenly go wrong. The DNS system works because the address information is cached in servers all across the net. When you change the DNS for a domain, it doesn't happen immediately, first there's a delay until the master DNS loads the new server address, then a much bigger delay before all the various caches expire and need to refresh themselves.

Your registrar has been quietly forwarding your email for a couple of years and sending people to your free website for just as long, but the moment you change your DNS to a different provider, they shut off this service. There's no technical reason for this, it's just the way that every registrar I've worked with handles the process.

The effect of this is your website will go dead and email for your domain will bounce back to the sender, making your site appear to have gone away. Typically this will last for anything up to 72 hours (or more), with some people being able to access you sooner. Ironically the more popular your site is, the higher chance that its address will be cached. If the email that goes missing is important business email you can lose whatever business this mail represents, at the very least you will appear less professional.

The easiest way to avoid this problem is to move off the registrar's DNS before your site becomes popular. If it's already too late for that, try and schedule the change for a holiday weekend. You can also check out their control panel to see if you can change the DNS to point MX (Mail) and A (Address) records at your new server. You'll still get some down-time, but not as long.


Bruce Clement is a keen domain name investor and commentator. You are free to copy this article under the http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/3.0/ licence as long as you publish it unchanged and link either to Bruce's blog ┬┐Que? at http://www.que.co.nz/ or to his hub site at http://www.clement.co.nz/

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