This is the 4th and final part in a series about website system administration. The previous topics I presented were website security, data backup, and server monitoring as common tasks for the everyday average System Administrator. These topics are meant to enlighten you to the important background tasks that make your website run, and so you can appreciate the work that your IT staff does to keep your online business running.
The last topic in this Nugget Series is Domain Name Management.
Many people view their domain name as something simple that you pay for through a popular Registrar like GoDaddy, Enom, Tucows, or Network Solutions one time and then renew year after year. Choosing your domain name has more to do with marketing and branding, and really has no bearing on the routine management of a domain name. Here are the domain name management tasks that your System Administrator should be in charge of:
1. DNS setup
2. Email Configuration
3. Renewals and transfers between Registrar Companies
The top Registrars I mentioned above have automatic Domain Name Systems (DNS) so your newly registered domain name will appear online within a matter of hours, sometimes even minutes. The DNS is a translation system between human words and computer numbers, like a telephone book. Your domain name will initially appear with a placeholder page provided by your Registrar. Your system administrator will have to change the initial default settings so your domain points to the actual website you created.
Once you set up you website you should also set up email addresses that match your domain name. Some email systems will use software on your computer like Thunderbird or Outlook, while other email systems run through webmail software that you access through a web browser. But before your emails will even reach your desktop computer your system administrator needs to add a few configuration settings to your DNS.
Email configuration is tricky because many security measures have been put in place to prevent spamming. Most of the email problems I've saw throughout 2011 and 2012 were related to incorrectly configured email settings in a DNS. If email settings are misconfigured in your DNS you will occasionally get a bounce back email. Bounced emails usually indicate a problem on the recipient's side, but in this case the problem is because your DNS was wrong. Only your system administrator would know for sure, and you would have to show them the message in the bounce back.
I don't want to get too technical, but just know that the email settings relating to your domain name use this jargon: MX records, SPF, RDNS
Domain name renewal is an aggravating topic for me. The popular and reputable Registrars listed above use email notifications to alert you when it's time to renew your domain name. The email notifications are sent to the email addresses associated with your domain name, so make sure that your current email address is always listed in your account.
The reputable registrars do not send paper invoices, but there are many non-reputable registrars that will send you a very official looking paper invoice in hopes to trick you into transferring your domain to them. Many court cases have stemmed from registrars attempting to trick small businesses into paying fees to "renew" or "protect" their domain name when in fact it was a scam to transfer your domain name away from your legitimate registrar. They'll typically argue it was just a solicitation but many people see those invoices, panic, and renew. Others just aren't paying attention to who their web company is and won't think about signing a form.
The latest domain name scams I've seen in 2012 include "protection" against DNS outages which warn you that you should have more DNS servers. Although the idea to have a 3rd and 4th redundant DNS is appealing, and it lessens the potential for outages explained below, you should never pay anyone for that service unless your own system administrator is managing it.
The last domain name concern for your system administer involves outages. As I write this, according to http://whois.sc/ there are 106,303,481 dot-COM domain names registered. Considering that number it's surprising that outages don't happen more often than they do. Outages happen when your DNS computers break. You are required to have a primary and a secondary DNS working for you, but sometimes they both malfunction at the same time.
Symptoms of a DNS failure include bounced emails and intermittent website outage, which are similar to software and hardware failures. DNS servers are normally so reliable that system administrators don't even consider looking for problems there.
As a reminder for myself I actually have a sign above my desk that says "If all else fails, make sure the DNS servers are still running." Your system administrator should have a sign like that too.