A little over a year-and-a-half ago a new DNS resolution service called OpenDNS was created and it has quickly grown into a value-added service that you might want to look into for your own network DNS needs whether you are a simple home user or a large company. For the purposes of this article I am going to focus on the home user and how you can use OpenDNS to add functionality to your home network that will allow you to do some very cool things.
What is DNS?
DNS or Domain Name System servers are a network of servers that are located all over the world and help to tell your computer where something is on the Internet. DNS is the system that “resolves” domain names into IP addresses which are what computers use to identify each other on the Internet. DNS servers are also used to cache content so that it can be distributed to many people who are requesting the same page with less actual traffic. This is done to make the retrieval of these pages faster since in a lot of cases you are getting the content from a server’s cached version in say Atlanta rather than having to go all the way to Seattle where the actual content resides.
All DNS are not created equal
Normally by default, DNS servers are given to you to use through your ISP and in many cases are actually owned and operated by your ISP. While DNS service is essentially the same no matter who is doing it, there is a lot of difference in performance depending on which DNS servers you are using.
There are three main factors in DNS:
Network Location – Obviously it is faster to retrieve content from a cache on a closer server than one farther away.
Size of Cache – while it is impossible to cache everything, the greater the size of the cache is the better the chance of the content you want being found on a cache server.
Age of Cache – because the Internet changes extremely quickly, the faster the DNS caches are updated the more likely that you will receive the most current version of the page your are looking for.
OpenDNS offers a network of strategically placed cache servers that have larger capacities than most ISP and network cache systems. They tout that using their servers rather than your ISP defaults will result in faster searching and retrieval. They also offer some features such spellchecking for misspelled domain names, anti-phishing protection, content filtering and even a new service called “shortcuts” which is basically what AOL users have known/used for awhile – the ability to enter a keyword and retrieve a website rather than having to type the complete url.
It’s all about the features
The main feature that I use a lot is the shortcuts feature. It allows you to set up your own “AOL type” keywords for websites that you go to. In my case, I have set one up for the keyword “todd” that goes to this website. I type in todd and instantly, my website loads without having to type in the complete url. This is a great feature and once you’ve set up a few of these for your own often-travelled sites, you’ll wonder how you ever got along without it. This service is also great for older and/or less tech-saavy people in your household such as your Grandma. You can set up Grandma’s internet banking website so that she just has to type in “BOA” and she quickly gets to her Bank of America account where she is bound to remember you when it comes Christmas time.
Speaking of banking; phishing is a global problem that doesn’t seem to go away and can often result in complete disasters when it comes to things like online banking or even just Ebay. OpenDNS offers anti-phising protection which works by having real people look at suspected sites and scams to verify legitimacy.
You can also block websites or filter content you’d rather little Timmy doesn’t see after school. You can control exactly what can be viewed or what can’t. You can block adult sites, drug-related sites and proxy bypassing sites so that even smart little Timmy can’t figure out how to get around them. If for any reason a site is blocked that you want to be able to access, there is a whitelist feature for you to allow sites you deem appropriate. This all takes place at a network level, so no matter what computer is being used, you can be assured that your network is only displaying the things that you want.
Typo correction will automagically transform your bad spelling into useable website urls and keep you from landing on one of those squatter websites that prey on misspelled urls. You can also autocomplete urls so that you don’t need to type .com after everything.
You can read all about the features that OpenDNS offer, here.
So what’s the catch?
OpenDNS earns its revenue by sending the users to an OpenDNS search page when a domain name has been entered that does not exist. Advertisements are displayed on these search pages, similar to the paid advertising links on Googles search results for instance. There is also a lot of information contained in your daily surfing routines. Where you go, what you look at and what you download. This is all information that is recorded for many people when they visit Google too, so keep that in mind. The main difference for me is that with OpenDNS you can actually go in and turn off the things you don’t want, or even delete your entire profile if you wish. This is not something that can be said for Google. To me the privacy concerns are not really that great especially since your ISP still sees everything anyways and there really is no such thing as anonymity on the Internet anymore. At least I have control with this system and I can purge things if I decide I don’t want to use the service anymore. I also don’t spend much time looking at bomb making websites or terrorist regime propoganda sites so I’m not too concerned that someone may figure out that I surf Engadget 10 times a day.
As with anything, your mileage may vary and you may not be willing to remove your tinfoil cap in order to gain these features from your network. But, I can attest that these features are worth it for me and of course the price is right, free.
So now what?
In order to take advantage of all this free network goodness, you simply need to replace your ISP DNS servers with the servers from OpenDNS. Their servers are:
Directions for changing these settings can be found here: