What Is a DNS Server?

One of the most important jobs in technology is translating between computers and humans. The pretty pictures you see on your screen, the easy-to-read menus, and the colorful icons you tap or click are all translated into numbers in one way or another, so the computer or another device can understand them. Much the same thing happens when you interact with the internet, which is just an enormous collection of computers talking to one another. Every time you bring up a webpage, you're doing it through a "translator" called a DNS server.

What Is a DNS Server?
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What Is a DNS Server?

As far as your computer is concerned, there's no such place as www.techwalla.com or www.google.com. Those sites have numerical addresses, a double-digit series of numbers called an Internet Protocol, or IP, address. Computers process those numbers in a flash, tracing them from a top-level server – one that contains every .com address, for example, or every .gov address – to the actual site, wherever it's hosted. That's fine for a computer or smartphone, but not so good for humans. Imagine if you had to find your way to somebody's house by memorizing its exact latitude and longitude, and you get the rough idea of the complexity. It's much easier for humans to remember a catchy or informative site name than a number, but catchy names don't work for the computer. A DNS server is the piece of software that translates the name you know and type into its numerical IP address.

It's Done for You

If you don't remember ever telling your computer what DNS server to use, there's a good reason for that. Your internet provider usually has its own DNS servers and server settings. When you set up your internet connection, those were filled in as part of the process. More often than not, the settings are entered automatically through the Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol or DHCP. That doesn't prevent you from changing them or choosing a different DNS server if you're having problems with your current DNS server or hope to improve performance by switching.

How Do You Check Your DNS Settings?

You can check your DNS settings on any device, although the process differs from one operating system to another. On a Windows computer, for example, you open the Network and Sharing Center, right-click your current network, choose "Properties," and then click "Edit IP Settings" to see your current DNS server settings. If it's in automatic mode, you see DHCP selected. Otherwise, you see a series of numbers separated by decimal points. On a Mac, you go to the Apple menu, choose "System Preferences," and then click "Network." Choose your current network from the list at the left, and look at the DNS Server field. In some cases, you need to click the "Advanced" button to find your DNS server.

Why Might I Want to Change My DNS Server?

One obvious reason to change your DNS server is that you're having problems with the current one. If a site takes a long time to load when you type in its name but loads in a heartbeat when you enter its numeric IP address, something's not right. You might also find that you get faster service from a server that's different from the one your internet provider uses. In a worst-case scenario, your DNS settings might have been changed by malware to redirect you to dubious or criminal sites. Changing them manually is one way to improve your situation.

How Can I Reset My DNS Server?

To reset your DNS server to something different, you first need to choose a different server and get its IP addresses. Google's public DNS servers, for example, can be found at 8.8.8.8 and 8.8.4.4. Go back into your device's IP settings, following the same process you did to check your current DNS settings. In Windows, for example, if it's currently set for DHCP, you click the "Manual" button instead. Below that button are two boxes where you can enter the primary and secondary IP addresses for your server. They're grayed out while DHCP is selected but become "live" when you click Manual. After you enter the new DNS server's IP addresses, click to save the new settings and exit. The final step is to flush the old DNS settings from memory; otherwise, your computer continues to use them. On a Windows system, that means choosing "Run" from the Start menu, then typing in "ipconfig /flushdns" without the quotes and clicking "Enter."

What Is the Best DNS Server?

When you commit to the idea of changing your DNS server, the obvious next question is which DNS server is the best? Unfortunately, the real-world answer to that question is "it depends." You'll find plenty of lists online to tell you which DNS servers offer the best performance, but what's best for someone else won't necessarily be best for you in your specific location. Usually, the most reliable way to decide on a DNS server by using a DNS server evaluation program such as DNS Jumper, DNS Benchmark or Namebench. With one of those programs loaded, you can test servers against one another and evaluate which one gives you the best results. At that point, you can pick one you're comfortable with – a U.S. server operated by a reputable company, ideally – and enter its IP addresses into your network settings.

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