Web Hosting - Domain Name Changes
Matt Williams - 20th April 2010
How They Affect You
New domain names are registered all the time, and ones previously registered expired. Sometimes that's the result
of simple neglect. The owner of the name chose not to renew his or her ownership, so the name became available for
someone else to use. In rare cases, a highly original mind managed to think of a new one. In the other common
scenarios, someone chose to just let it go or sell it.
When you choose to change your domain name, there are actually two separate steps involved: releasing the old name,
and adopting the new one. But, just as the postal system can have difficulty forwarding your letters when you
change your personal name, changing your domain name brings certain difficulties.
One of the most prominent is the fact that any name change requires a change to thousands of DNS Servers around the
globe. DNS (Domain Name System) is the set of software/hardware components that allows domain names to map to IP
addresses. IP addresses are what are actually used 'under the covers' when one computer communicates with
Note that there isn't always a 1:1 correspondence between a name and an IP address. One IP address can serve
multiple domain names and one domain name can have multiple IP addresses. For the sake of simplicity, we'll stick
to the common case here.
DNS servers around the world maintain internal databases that match the name to an IP address. Not all servers have
all pairs of names/addresses. A series of complex routines allows a request to be forwarded when the particular DNS
server doesn't have a needed record. When you acquire a domain name that used to be associated with a given IP
address, the odds of you acquiring the same IP address are extremely low.
In the unlikely case, for example, that you acquired the domain name yahoo.com, you would almost certainly not get
the IP address that was matched with it (unless you bought the Yahoo! company). So, as a result of the change, the
name/IP address pair is no longer what it was.
A similar circumstance exists when you retain your IP address, but want to change the domain name associated with
it. In either case, the pairing has changed.
The catch is this: when the change takes place, those DNS databases are not all updated instantaneously around the
Even apart from the limited speed with which computers and networks operate, (and neglecting the human factor
if/when the change is made manually to more than one server) the reason is something called caching.
In order to communicate efficiently, DNS servers are designed to assume that changes will be relatively rare. Just
as with the postal system, you don't move your address or change your name every minute. Since that's true, in
general, the name/IP address pair is cached. A cache is a set of stored information that is reused so that fresh
information doesn't have to be communicated with every request for a web page or data.
A chain of DNS servers pass requests to the last known address. There is usually more than one system between your
computer and the server you want to communicate with. Most of the time, that's your current name/address. When you
change the name, that pair is no longer valid. In order to propagate the new name/address pair (so the terminology
goes), that cache has to be refreshed.
Something similar happens when you establish an entirely new name. That name is first associated with an IP address
and that pair has to be communicated to DNS servers around the world in order for you to be able to reach any one
of them at random.
But DNS servers don't do that until they are requested to do so by your action of asking for information from a
remote server. Because of that, but chiefly because of caching, it can take quite a while for the new pair to
become known around the Internet. Caches can expire and get refreshed in a few minutes or a few hours. It
That time can be as short as an hour or less, if the path between your computer and the web server is very simple
and only one DNS server needs to be updated. Or, it can take up to 48 hours or more. Though the 'official' range is
often given by registrars as 24-48 hours, the average is closer to about six hours. But that's an average. The
actual time in any given case can (and does) vary widely.
In the meantime, a number of effects can occur. The most obvious is that, since the name/IP address pair can't be
resolved properly, you don't reach the server you want. Your browser points to the old one (in the rare case it's
still accessible by that name and address), or it simply reports there's no such name at that address.
So, when registering a new name or buying an old one, you should establish the site, but not advertise it for at
least a couple of days. Better to wait to get visitors than to turn them off by being 'not at home' when they
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