Monday, February 07, 2005

Changing Website Hosts Can Be Easy

It used to be that making any change to your domain configuration was complicated and confusing. I remember trying to change DSN servers for one of my first websites. Since everything back then went through "InterNIC" (or maybe it was Network Solutions -- it was never clear who was who), you were pretty much at the mercy of their ridiculously cumbersome system. And it usually took at least two days to finalize any change at all.

Now things are very different. You can make changes to your domain registration and configuration without ever having to talk to a real person or wait more than about 10 seconds.

The most serious change a webmaster has to make is moving a domain from one host to another. Even this procedure is pretty straightforward these days, although you'd better be prepared for some glitches along the way.

How the Process Works

Here is the bare minimum you should understand before starting:

- Your current host - This is the company that "hosts" your website -- the location where your website actually resides. It is likely a third party, but you could be hosting your site yourself. Either way your host will have assigned an ip address to your site, and will have DNS (name server) entries that relate your domain name to the actual (ip address) location.

- Your new host - This is the location where you want to move your website.

- Your domain registrar - This is the outfit that tells the world where your domain name servers are, and spreads this information around the web. When you registered your domain you might have used a 3rd party site like, or NetworkSolutions. Or you might have used the registration service of your original host. Either way your domain registrar is separate from your host. To change hosts you have to logon to your domain registrar and tell them who your new host is going to be.

Step 1. Get Your Information Together

The first thing you should do is collect the information you are likely to need along the way, and keep it handy -- preferably in a print out of some kind rather than in an email message or series of webpages scattered over three or four screens on your computer. Here is the minimum you will need:

- The address and logon information (id and pw) of your domain registrar. This is where you point to your host's DNS servers. Everything starts here.

- The address and logon information of your current web host. You may not actually need to make any changes here -- other than to eventually cancel your account -- but it is good to have this information available.

- The address and logon information of your NEW web host. If you have not already chosen a new host, you must do so before proceeding. Check out possible hosts. One good source of information is one of seveal web host "review" sites that compare web hosts in terms of cost, reliability, customer service, and so on.

Step 2. Sign Up With a New Host

Once you have selected a new host, sign up with them and create an account. Normally this involves selecting a "plan", registering your domain name with them, and paying them an initial amount.

"Registering" your domain in this case is not the same as the original registration of your domain name with your registrar. Here all you are doing is telling them to create a spot on their servers for this domain. At this point there will actually be two locations for your domain, but since you have not officially switched your host, only your old one will work.

Once you have registered with your new host you should be able to logon to the Control Panel for your new site. This is a good time to connect to your Control Panel and configure your new site. Normally you will be able to do things like enable Front Page extensions, and add email accounts even before you officially switch. But if your new site is not yet fully accessible, don't panic. I give you a method of "tricking" your computer to let you in even before your new location is completely made public. (see below)

Step 3. Back Up Your Site

Before you proceed you want to make sure you have the most up-to-date version of your website files. If you work with a program like Front Page, you should "publish" your entire site to a location on your local computer. If you work on your pages locally and then upload them by using ftp, your local version should already be up-to-date. If you are not sure, then just connect to your site and download all the files to your local hard drive.

Be sure to maintain the same file names and directory structure when you create your backup. Your new site should be an exact copy of your old one. The pages should all have the same file names and directory structure. If it doesn't then chances are many of the links will not work, and -- just as important -- you will have lost all the Page Rank and Search Engine rankings you have built up over the years. And searches will point to pages that no longer exist.

Step 4. Upload the Files to Your New Host

Ideally, you should upload all your files before you tell your domain registrar to point to the new site. That way there will be absolutely no downtime.

The problem is, however, that you may have no straightforward way of connecting to your new location. When you try to connect to (for example), you will be connected to your old site. Many hosts will give you a temporary address that will get you into your new site. But if they don't you will have to make the official host change before you can proceed.

Step 5. Make the "Official" Change

Now you are ready to make your change "official". Don't be intimidated by this. All you have to do is make one change -- you have to point your registrar's name servers at the new host rather than the old one. Your new host should have given you this information when you signed up with them. There should be at least two name servers and you should have both a name and an ip address for both of them. They should look something like this: ip address: ip address:

(Note: Don't use these names. Thye are just "dummy" names and addresses, but may actually exist.)

Once you have made this change it will usually take a few hours to spread the change around the web. During this period web surfers will continue to access your old site (which you left intact), so you have a few hours to get your new site into shape.

Step 6. Tricking Your Own Computer to See the New Address

At this point you will still not be able to access your new site using ftp or Front Page. Until your new host address is "propagated" you will still be pointed to your old one.

One way to get immediate access to your new site using your domain name is to change the primary name server entry on your local computer to point to one of the name servers of your new host. They will already have the change (assuming you have already registered your domain with them), so there should be no delay.

To do this (with Windows), find where your "connection" information is configured. On my system it is called "Local Area Connection Status", because I am on a small network behind a firewall. Once you find your active local connection, click on "Properties" and then "Internet Protocol". There should be a place where you can enter "DNS Server Addresses".

Now enter one of your host's name server addresses in here. Then close it up and test to see if it is working. With XP and NT/Win2000 you don't have to reboot to make this change effective. It might be good to close all browser windows before trying your domain. You may have to "flush your dns cache" as well to get rid of references to your old host address. To do this, open a "Command Prompt" window and type at the prompt:

ipconfig /flushdns [Enter]

Now type:


...where "" is the name of your domain.

This will "ping" your domain -- send a little message to it and ask for a reply. You should get a reply telling you which ip address it is sending the message to. If it is sending the message to your new host (you recorded this information earlier), then you are in business.

You should now be able to connect to your new site with ftp to upload your files. You should also be able to connect to your Control Panel using your domain name. Now you have a few hours to upload all your files and get your new email accounts working.

Good Luck!