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What Is a DNS Server?

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Question: What Is a DNS Server?
The Domain Name System (DNS) is a standard technology for managing the names of Web sites and other Internet domains. DNS technology allows you to type names into your Web browser like compnetworking.about.com and your computer to automatically find that address on the Internet. A key element of the DNS is a worldwide collection of DNS servers. What, then, is a DNS server?
Answer: A DNS server is any computer registered to join the Domain Name System. A DNS server runs special-purpose networking software, features a public IP address, and contains a database of network names and addresses for other Internet hosts.

DNS Root Servers

DNS servers communicate with each other using private network protocols. All DNS servers are organized in a hierarchy. At the top level of the hierarchy, so-called root servers store the complete database of Internet domain names and their corresponding IP addresses. The Internet employs 13 root servers that have become somewhat famous for their special role. Maintained by various independent agencies, the servers are aptly named A, B, C and so on up to M. Ten of these servers reside in the United States, one in Japan, one in London, UK and one in Stockholm, Sweden.

DNS Server Hierarchy

The DNS is a distributed system, meaning that only the 13 root servers contain the complete database of domain names and IP addresses. All other DNS servers are installed at lower levels of the hierarchy and maintain only certain pieces of the overall database.

Most lower level DNS servers are owned by businesses or Internet Service Providers (ISPs). For example, Google maintains various DNS servers around the world that manage the google.com, google.co.uk, and other domains. Your ISP also maintains DNS servers as part of your Internet connection setup.

DNS networking is based on the client / server architecture. Your Web browser functions as a DNS client (also called DNS resolver) and issues requests to your Internet provider's DNS servers when navigating between Web sites.

When a DNS server receives a request not in its database (such as a geographically far away or rarely visited Web site), it temporarily transforms from a server to a DNS client. The server automatically passes that request to another DNS server or up to the next higher level in the DNS hierarchy as needed. Eventually the request arrives at a server that has the matching name and IP address in its database (all the way to the root level if necessary), and the response flows back through the chain of DNS servers to your client.

DNS Servers and Home Networking

Computers on your home network locate a DNS server through the Internet connection setup properties. Providers give their customers the public IP address(es) of primary and backup DNS servers. You can find the current IP addresses of your DNS server configuration via several methods:

  • on the configuration screens of a home network router

  • on the TCP/IP connection properties screens in Windows Control Panel (if configured via that method)

  • from ipconfig or similar command line utility
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