What Is a DNS Zone? Zones & Zone Files Explained

What Is a DNS Zone? DNS Zones and Zone Files Explained

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A domain name system (DNS) zone serves as a defined section within the DNS namespace server, managed by an individual, a company, or an organization.

DNS zone consists of a collection of DNS records and it allows you to manage and control domain name resolutions, and other DNS data.

In this article, we will explore DNS zones in more detail and explain DNS zones and zone files


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  • A DNS zone is a section within the DNS infrastructure managed by an individual or a company
  • There are multiple DNS zone types – Primary Zone, Secondary Zone, Active Directory-Integrated Zone, Stub Zone in DNS and Reverse Lookup Zone
  • A DNS zone transfer is when one DNS server shares the entire DNS zone information with another DNS server

What Is a DNS Zone?

A DNS zone is a logical partition of the DNS namespace, allowing organizations to have granular control over the DNS records for a specific domain or subdomain.

Each DNS zone contains a collection of DNS records that belong to the domain or subdomain it represents. The records include essential information such as IP addresses, hostnames, mail exchange (MX) records, and other resource records.

Thanks to DNS zones, domain administrators can manage and customize the DNS data, ensuring that domain names within that zone can be resolved to their corresponding IP addresses.

DNS zones enable administrators to make efficient updates and conduct troubleshooting and maintenance of the DNS infrastructure.

What Is the Difference between a DNS Zone and a DNS Server?

A DNS zone and a DNS server are fundamental components of the DNS. Still, they have distinct roles.

A DNS zone contains a collection of DNS records for a single domain or subdomain. It helps define how domain names are resolved to IP addresses within a particular administrative boundary.

A DNS server is a component responsible for DNS resolution. It processes DNS queries, looking up IP addresses associated with domain names. There are two key types of DNS servers:

  • Authoritative – they hold zone data and respond to queries about specific domains
  • Recursive – they resolve queries by consulting authoritative servers

It’s worth mentioning that DNS servers can also host multiple zones, serving as authoritative sources for different domains, depending on their configuration and role.

What Is the Difference between DNS Zones and DNS Records?

DNS records are individual entries within a DNS zone, containing information that maps domain names to IP addresses or provides other DNS-related data. DNS records provide specific details about how domain names should be resolved.

DNS records are the actual data that DNS servers use to respond to queries. They’re stored in zone files and provide the necessary information for translating human-readable domain names into numerical IP addresses.

What Is the Difference between a DNS Zone and a Domain?

A domain name is a human-readable address used to identify a specific location on the internet, and the DNS zone is the set of configurations and records associated with that name.

Domains use a tree-like structure, with the top-level domains (TLDs) like .com, .org, or .netlocated at the highest level of the hierarchy.

You can register a domain through domain registrars and purchase it for a period of one or more years.

What Does a DNS Zone Do?

A DNS zone has several important functions in the domain name system. Those include:

  • DNS record management: DNS zones are used to organize and manage DNS records associated with subdomains or parts of a domain.
  • Isolation: Isolation of DNS records, ensuring that changes made to one zone don’t affect other parts of the domain. This is useful when multiple teams or administrators manage different subdomains.
  • Delegation: They enable delegation of authority for specific subdomains.
  • Load balancing: They can be configured to distribute traffic load among multiple servers or IP addresses for a specific subdomain
  • Security: They can have their own security settings such as access control lists (ACLs) and DNSSEC (Domain Name System Security Extensions)
  • Customizations: Custom DNS configurations, including setting Time-to-Live (TTL) values, recursion enabling and specifying authoritative DNS servers
  • Optimization: DNS zones can be optimized for different purposes such as email routing, web hosting, and service discovery
  • Scalability: They allow the distribution of DNS records across multiple authoritative name servers, reducing the risk of bottlenecks and improving DNS query performance
  • Troubleshooting: Using separate zones can make troubleshooting DNS issues easier

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DNS Zone Types with Examples

DNS zones help manage and distribute DNS information for a specific domain. Each zone can have different characteristics and purposes. In this section, we’ll discuss five different types of DNS zones with specific examples for each.

  1. Primary Zone

The primary zone, also known as the master zone, is the authoritative source for a particular domain’s DNS records. It has a read/write copy of the zone data, as well as the original DNS resource records for a specific domain.

DNS administrators can make changes directly to the records within a primary zone.

For example, a DNS server host.example.com hosts the primary zone for the domain example.com and contains all the DNS records for the domain. Any updates to the records for example.com are made on this server.


It’s worth noting that you need to have access to the Primary zone to modify the DNS zone. Otherwise, you won’t be able to make any changes to the DNS records if your Primary DNS server is inaccessible.

  1. Secondary Zone

The secondary zone, also known as the slave zone, is a read-only copy of the primary zone and serves as a backup and load-balancing mechanism for the DNS domain. Secondary zones are updated through zone transfers from the primary DNS server.

Secondary zones are used to avoid a single point of failure, and they help reduce the workload on the primary zone. The best advantage of the secondary zone is that it can respond to requests for the primary zone from its copy, even if the primary zone is unavailable.

If the primary DNS server is host1.example.com and it hosts the primary zone for example.com. The host2.example.com hosts the secondary zone for the example.com. It is synchronized periodically via zone transfers from the primary server.

  1. Active Directory-Integrated Zone

An active directory-integrated zone is a type of primary zone that stores DNS data in the Active Directory database. It provides enhanced security and replication capabilities when used in conjunction with Active Directory.

DNS records are stored as objects in the Active Directory and updates are made through active directory replication.

For example, an active directory-integrated DNS zone for corp.example.local stores DNS records within the Active Directory databases. Changes and updates to DNS records are managed through replication, ensuring consistency across all domain controllers.

  1. Stub Zone in DNS

A stub zone is a type of DNS zone that contains a list of authoritative DNS servers for a specific domain. It is also used to resolve names between different DNS namespaces and improve DNS query performance.

Stub zones don’t contain the actual resource records but only point to the authoritative DNS servers for that domain.

If we have a domain called example.com, a DNS server in the domain creates a stub zone that contains the list of authoritative DNS servers like ns1.example.com and ns2.example.com for the example.com domain. When resolving names in example.com, the DNS server refers to the authoritative servers for the actual DNS records.

  1. Reverse Lookup Zone

A reverse lookup zone maps IP addresses to hostnames. It is primarily used for reverse DNS lookups to resolve IP addresses to domain names. They contain PTR (pointer) records to associate IP addresses with corresponding hostnames.

Let’s visualize a reverse lookup zone named 1.168.192. in-addr.arpa created to map IP addresses within the subnet to hostnames. PTR records in this zone would associate IP addresses with their corresponding hostnames.

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What Is a DNS Zone File?

A DNS zone file is a plain-text configuration file used in the domain name system to store information about a specific DNS zone.

Here’s a breakdown of what information a DNS zone file typically includes:

  • Domain names: The zone file contains the domain names for which it is authoritative.
  • Start of Authority (SOA) record: Administrative information of the zone, such as the primary DNS server responsible for the zone, the email address of the zone administrator, and the serial number to track changes. Learn more about SOA records
  • Name Server Records: NS records specify the authoritative name servers for the zone. They answer queries related to the zone.
  • Host (A) records: A records map domain names to IPv4 addresses
  •  IPv6 Host (AAAA) Records: AAAA records perform the same function as A records, but for IPV6 addresses, allowing mapping of domain names to IPv6 addresses.
  • Mail Exchange (MX) records: MX records define the mail servers responsible for receiving emails for the domain
  • Canonical Name (CNAME) Records: CNAME records alias from one domain name to another. They’re used for creating aliases or subdomains.
  •  Pointer records: PTR records are used in reverse DNS lookup to map IP addresses to domain names.

DNS Zone File Location

DNS zone files are typically kept on DNS servers, which are the servers responsible for serving DNS information for a particular domain. The location of the zone file depends on the DNS server software being used.

For example for Windows DNS servers, zone files are stored in %SystemRoot%\System32\dns\.

If you use a cloud-based DNS service, the providers may use different methods and interfaces for managing zone files.

How to Find Your DNS Zone Records

The way you’ll find your DNS zone records depends on your DNS provider or hosting platform.

In this guide, we looked for DNS resource records for a DNS zone in the IPAM client console for Microsoft Windows Server.

Final: What Is a DNS Zone? DNS Zones and Zone Files Explained

Image Source: Microsoft Learn

  1.  Navigate to Server Manager and click IPAM
  2.  In the navigation pane, click MONITOR AND MANAGE and then DNS Zones
  3. In the lower navigation pane, select Forward Lookup and then select the zone you want to view
  4.  In the display pane, you’ll be shown the default view of the DNS servers of the zone
  5.  Click Current View and then Resource Records
  6.  You can also filter the records by typing the text you want to find in the Filter option
  7. You can also filter the records by record type, access scope, and other criteria

Final: What Is a DNS Zone? DNS Zones and Zone Files Explained

Image Source: Microsoft Learn

How to Set Up a DNS Zone

Step 1: Add a DNS Zone

Log in to your DNS hosting provider’s management console. The instructions depend on which web hosting or DNS provider you are subscribed to.

Navigate to the section where you manage your domains or DNS settings. Look for an option like “Add DNS Zone” or “Create Zone.”

Step 2: Create a New DNS Zone

Now you’ll need to complete a form or wizard to set up a new DNS zone. The options you’ll need to select depend on the DNS provider.

You’ll need to enter details like domain name, choose the type of zone, and configure the DNS Server settings like specifying the DNS server or hosting platform where you want to set up the zone. You’ll need to enter the server’s hostname or IP address.

Additionally, you may need to configure the zone options like TTL, depending on the DNS hosting providers. Finally, once you enter the required information click “save” or “create” the DNS zone.

Step 3: Upload a Zone File

In the DNS management console, find the section for managing DNS zones. Find the newly created DNS zone and find the option called “Import Zone” or “Upload Zone File”

After clicking on it, you’ll be prompted to upload a zone file in a specific format line BIND zone file. Confirm the upload and the DNS records from the zone file will be imported into your DNS zone.

Step 4: Export a DNS Zone

Again, locate the DNS zone you want to export and select the option like “Export Zone” or “Download Zone File.” Click on it to initiate the process. You will also need to select the type of file you want to export in such as BIND format. Click “Download” or “Export” and the file will be saved to your computer.

What Is a DNS Zone Transfer?

A DNS zone transfer is a process where one DNS server shares or replicates its entire DNS zone information with another DNS server.

This transfer typically involves copying all the DNS records, including A records, MX records, NS records, and more, from one authoritative DNS server (often the primary server) to another (usually a secondary server).

Zone transfers are crucial for maintaining redundancy, load balancing, and fault tolerance in DNS infrastructure.

They are used to ensure that multiple DNS servers across different locations have consistent and up-to-date DNS records for a domain, enhancing the reliability and availability of DNS services and reducing the risk of service interruptions.

Final Word

A DNS zone is a crucial part of the DNS namespace hierarchy. But, setting your domain zone for a specific domain is not enough to set your website online.

If you need help building a website, check our list of the best website builders, and make sure to check for a suitable web hosting service that will make a home address for your future website.


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Next Steps: What Now?

Learn More About DNS

Frequently Asked Questions

What type of DNS record is used to delegate a DNS zone?

DNS delegation is typically achieved using NS (Name Server) records. When a parent DNS zone delegates authority for a subdomain to another set of DNS servers, NS records in the parent zone specify the authoritative DNS servers for the subdomain.

What DNS resource record type is used to provide the IP address for the e-mail server for a zone?

MX (Mail Exchange) records are used to specify the mail servers responsible for receiving email messages for a particular DNS zone. These records include information about the mail server’s hostname and its associated priority value.

What command is used to configure a DNS zone?

The specific command used to configure a DNS zone depends on the DNS server software and operating system you are using. In general, for common DNS server software like BIND on Unix/Linux or the Windows DNS Server on Windows Server, you would use configuration files (e.g., named. conf for BIND) and a text editor to define and configure DNS zones.

Configuration commands and steps may vary, so it’s advisable to consult the documentation for your specific DNS server software for precise instructions on how to configure DNS zones.

Sonja Vitas
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Sonja Vitas
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