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Published: 8 March 2024
Contributors: Chrystal China, Michael Goodwin

What is managed DNS?

Managed DNS is a third-party service that enables businesses to outsource Domain Name System (DNS) administration and management.

As the “phonebook of the internet,” DNS translates human-readable domain names and hostnames into computer-readable IP addresses. When a user enters a URL, DNS systems progressively query primary—and if necessary, secondary—servers to locate the appropriate information and DNS records. The process continues until the DNS finds the right answer from the authoritative DNS server that is associated with that domain.

Every query in the DNS follows the same logic to resolve IP addresses. And if a business runs its website using a self-managed DNS (that is, without a managed DNS solution), it’s directly responsible for answering each one of the authoritative DNS queries that correspond to its domain name. It’s certainly possible to self-manage an authoritative DNS, but managed DNS services simplify the process significantly.

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How managed DNS works

Managed DNS solutions automate server management and DNS zone orchestration processes. With a managed system, the DNS provider handles all the configuration, maintenance and security protocols for an organization’s DNS servers, and the client uses provider infrastructure to manage domain names. In this case, when a user enters a business’s URL, they’re redirected from the company domain name server to the provider’s servers, which fetch all the resources and respond to the user.

In addition to managing the authoritative DNS and deploying recursive resolvers (responsible for caching and data retrieval), managed DNS can provide businesses with:

Automated DNS failover and disaster recovery

Managed DNS features can distribute traffic across secondary DNS servers (using zone transfers) if the primary server fails or encounters unplanned downtime or latency issues.

Enhanced server security

Managed DNS services provide real-time threat detection and response capabilities that protect servers against malware, phishing and other malicious traffic like distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks.

Global load balancing

Managed DNS can distribute web traffic across different servers based on server performance and location.

Advanced server analytics

With a managed DNS system, teams can receive real-time updates about DNS infrastructure health, so they can promptly identify and address system disruptions.

Anycast DNS

Anycast enables a group of servers to automatically respond to a single IP address, increasing uptime for DNS resolution and minimizing the impact of latency issues and server outages.

Managed DNS vs. self-managed DNS

Choosing between self-managed and managed DNS services depends on several organizational factors, including size, complexity of DNS needs, budgetary constraints, in-house expertise, and required level of DNS data control. Naturally, the self-management approach has its own benefits.

Self-managed DNS gives organizations complete control of DNS configuration, so they can fully customize DNS settings to their exact specifications, apps and services once domain registration is complete. Self-managed DNS can also provide cost savings, since managed DNS involves paying ongoing DNS management and maintenance fees to service providers. And because self-management means keeping more data in-house, it can reduce the risk of security and data breaches. 

However, managing your own DNS can also come with significant risks. DNS traffic patterns can vary widely and are often unpredictable, making it extremely challenging to anticipate spikes in volume and manage load balancing protocols.

If a business chooses self-management, it also must manage its own response to DDoS attacks, which overwhelm targeted servers with a barrage of internet traffic. Without the DNS security extensions (DNSSEC), authentication protocols and DDoS protections a managed service provides, teams might be similarly overwhelmed with security and risk mitigation tasks.

Furthermore, with queries coming in from around the world, networks need to deliver responses within milliseconds to meet user experience expectations. Since internet queries can only travel so fast, delivering a high-performance site requires a global DNS (called “points of presence”) that deliver answers to DNS queries at scale, which can be a significant investment for some companies.

And for many organizations, the cost of building a global network of data centers with enough capacity, security, and resilience to meet the demands of today’s internet—combined with the cost of training personnel—is prohibitively expensive.

Organizations should weigh the risk and benefits carefully and with consideration for their long-term strategy, the criticality of DNS to their online presence, and any potential security risks. Some businesses might benefit from a hybrid approach, allowing them to manage critical domains with self-managed DNS while leveraging the benefits of managed DNS for less sensitive or secondary domains.

Benefits of managed DNS

Managed DNS providers—like Microsoft Azure DNS, Google Cloud DNS, Oracle Dyn, Cloudflare and IBM NS1—offer secure, high-availability, high-redundancy systems that deliver lightning-fast DNS lookup and optimized DNS functions. Since the early 2000s, DNS vendors have provided a standard set of services to organizations that prefer external hosting for their authoritative DNS.

Maximum uptime

Today, most premium managed DNS services offer 100 percent uptime with a resilient, worldwide anycast DNS network that keep sites up and running.

Fast response times

Relying on content delivery networks (CDNs)—a group of servers that cache DNS lookups closer to end users—within managed services helps apps and websites deliver results faster.

Streamlined observability

Advanced managed DNS platforms enable fine-grained observability, giving teams access to control panels, dashboards, and metrics that help visualize and optimize system performance.

Pay-as-you-go pricing

The pricing of premium managed DNS services is reasonably standardized across providers; it’s based on usage, allowing customers to pay only for what they use (instead of paying for capacity).

The future of managed DNS

Though DNS solutions have evolved significantly since their introduction, managed DNS providers continue to expand and advance DNS technologies to keep pace with the dynamic nature of internet traffic management.

For example, managed DNS now goes beyond basic load balancing to optimize performance, control costs and provide a streamlined app experience. Modern DNS platforms—like IBM NS1—can even make query routing decisions based on specific use cases.

Forward-thinking managed DNS platforms can also deploy infrastructure as code, which can provide a significant advantage in today’s API-based DevOps, edge computing and serverless IT architectures. Managed platforms can enable—rather than block—these systems by using simplified REST APIs with pre-configured architectures. And integration with tools like Terraform can make integrating managed DNS features into existing systems even easier.

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Resources What is the Domain Name System (DNS)?

The DNS makes it possible for users to connect to websites using URLs rather than numerical Internet protocol addresses.

What is a DNS server?

DNS servers translate the website domain names users search in web browsers into corresponding numerical IP addresses. This process is known as DNS resolution.

What are DNS records?

A Domain Name System (DNS) record is a set of instructions used to connect domain names with internet protocol (IP) addresses within DNS servers.

What is a CNAME record?

A CNAME record, or canonical name record, serves as an alias within the Domain Name System (DNS), redirecting one domain name to another.

What is primary DNS?

A primary DNS server is the first point of contact in query resolution and serves as the definitive source for information about a domain, storing original copies of all the domain's DNS records.

What is a DNS zone?

A DNS zone is a distinct logical entity within the domain namespace of the Domain Name System (DNS), delegated to an administrator, organization, or other legal entity responsible for managing it.

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