Aug 02 2009

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dns failure – a cautionary tale

I recently moved one of my domains between two registrars. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but on reflection it was both foolish and unnecessary. Unnecessary because my main requirement for moving it (greater control of my DNS records for that domain) could have been met simply by my redelegating the NS records from my old registrar’s servers to the namesersvers run by my new provider; foolish because it lost me control over, and usage of, that domain for eleven (yes eleven) days. This particular domain happens to host the mailserver (and MX record) for a bunch of my other domains. So the loss of that domain meant that I also lost email functionality on a bunch of other domains as well as the primary domain in question. Not good. Had I been running a business webserver on that domain, or been completely reliant on the mail from that smtp host I could have been in deep trouble. As it was, I was simply hugely inconvenienced (neither of my two main domains were affected because I kept the mail for those domains pointed at a different mailserver).

So what happened?

My new provider offers greater granularity of control over DNS records than my main registrar. Moving my DNS to them would give me complete control rather than being limited to creation of a restricted number of subdomains and new MX records. I like control. What I didn’t think through carefully enough was whether I (a) really needed that additional control and (b) really needed to actually change registrar to gain that control. As it turns out, the answer to both those questions is no – but hey, we all make mistakes.

Anyway, having convinced myself that I actually did need to move my domain to the new registrar, the following series of events lost me the domain for those eleven days.

Firstly I tried to use my new registrar’s control panel to inititate the transfer. This failed – for some technical reason which the registrar identified and fixed later. This alone should have forewarned me of impending difficulty, but no, I pressed ahead when the tech support team offered to initiate the transfer manually. I accepted,

Secondly, I created the necessary new DNS records on the new registrar’s DNS servers ready for the transfer. Naively, I believed that once the old registrar surrendered control, my new registrar’s servers would be shown as authoritative and I would have control. I also believed (again naively and incorrectly as it happens) that my old registrar would maintain its view of my domain until the delegation had switched.

Thirdly, I used my old registrar’s control panel to initiate cancellation of registration at their end and transfer to my new registrar. This is where things started to go seriously wrong. As soon as my old registrar had confirmed cancellation at their end, they effectively switched off the DNS for that domain. Presumably this is because they were no longer contractually responsible for its maintenance. But the whois records continued to show that their nameservers were authoritative for my domain for the next six days whilst the transfer was taking place. I confess to being completely bemused as to why it should take so long for this to happen, but I put that in the same category of mystery as to what happens to my money in the time I transfer sums electronically between two bank accounts – slow electrons I guess.

So now the old registrar is shown as authoritative but doesn’t answer. The new registrar has the correct records but can’t answer because it is not authoritative.

Eventually my new registrar is shown in the whois record as the correct sponsor, but the NS records of my old registrar are still shown as authoritative. Here it gets worse. The control panel for my new registrar is still broken and I have no way of changing the NS records to point to the correct servers. So I email support. And email support. And email support. Eventually I get a (deeply apologetic) response from support which says that they were so busy fixing the problem highlighted by the failure uncovered in their automatic process that they “forgot” to keep me (the customer) informed.

Now, whilst neither company concerned covered themselves in glory during this process, on reflection I am reluctant to beat them up too much because I have come to the conclusion that, technical failure aside, much of the trouble could have been avoided if I had thought carefully about what it was I was trying to achieve, and had read and carefully considered the documentation on both company’s sites before starting the transfer. Documentation about registrant transfer is fairly clear in its warning that the process can take about five or six days. It is also not unreasonable that a company losing contracted responsibility for DNS maintenance should cease to answer queries about that domain (after all, they could be wrong…) OK – the new registrar failed big time in its customer care, but they did apologise profusely and (so far) they haven’t actually charged me anything for the transfer.

What I should have done before starting the transfer was to redelegate authority for the domain from the old registrar’s nameservers to my new registrar’s servers. That way I would not have had the long break in service. In fact, if I had thought about it carefully, I could have simply left it at that and not started the transfer of registrar at all. After all, once authority was redelegated, I would have complete control on my new servers.

Lesson? Once again, read the documentation. And think. I really ought to know better at my age.

Permanent link to this article: http://baldric.net/2009/08/02/dns-failure-a-cautionary-tale/