More about OpenDNS, including adult site filtering

Following up on the previous posting that introduced OpenDNS.

My previous posting was an introduction to both DNS and OpenDNS. Here, I offer a brief review of the features and services offered by OpenDNS.

First though, let's consider what happens when DNS breaks. As noted previously, the DNS system translates computer names into IP addresses. So if it breaks, it may seem that your Internet connection is broken when in fact, it's fully functional. That is, from your ISP's perspective everything can be working fine, all the lights on your modem and router* can be normal, but still, you can't get to any Web sites without DNS being alive and well.

To see if DNS is the problem, try to access a few Web sites by their underlying IP address. Here are some to try:

CNET.com       http://216.239.122.51
chow.com       http://216.239.116.39
google.com     http://64.233.167.99
opendns status http://208.67.219.60

Speed and reliability

OpenDNS claims to be fast. I don't doubt this is true, but this is probably not reason enough to switch. For one, it may or may not be faster than the DNS servers you now use. And even if it is faster, the speed boost may not be noticeable (it wasn't to me). Still, it's not hard to find people who claim the Internet runs faster after switching to OpenDNS [hereand here]

You can get a feel for the speed at SiteUptime, which offers a free Quick Check that can be used to compare the speed of OpenDNS with your current DNS servers. The OpenDNS DNS servers are 208.67.222.222 and 208.67.220.220. Its Getting Started page shows you how to determine your current DNS servers for many operating systems.

Take all these IP addresses to SiteUptime, chose the city closest to you, in the drop-down menu chose "DNS 53," and enter an IP addresses in the "HostName or URL" box. When I tried this, the two OpenDNS servers responded in 0.010 and 0.009 second, whereas my ISP's DNS servers responded in 0.025 and .027 second. Your mileage will vary.

Unlike speed, reliability may well be a reason, in and of itself, to switch. OpenDNS operates servers in five physical locations, two on the East Coast of the U.S., two on the West Coast, and one in London. This is likely a much more robust setup than that offered by your ISP. It also accounts, in part, for its speed claims--it responds to queries from the location closest to you.

Phishing

Phishing protection is perhaps the most defensive computing reason to use OpenDNS. Heck, anything that helps prevent ID theft is a plus.

Of course, the latest versions of Firefox and Internet Explorer also include phishing protection. There should be no conflict between the protection from your browser and from OpenDNS.

Neither Mozilla nor Microsoft say where their phishing data (the list of known bad Web sites) comes from. In typical corporate-speak, Microsoft says it comes from "several industry partners." OpenDNS gets its list of phishing Web sites from PhishTank, a sister company it describes as "...a collaborative clearing house for data and information about phishing on the Internet." Anyone can report suspected phishing Web sites to PhishTank. And you've got to love the name.

Typos

Another type of intelligence added to the DNS name -> IP address translation involves typing mistakes. OpenDNS fixes a handful of common mistakes and sends you to the place you probably wanted to go in the first place. For example, typing www.javatester.og (missing r) will take you to javatester.org. So, too, will wwww.javatester.org (four leading w's) take you to my JavaTester Web site.

Five w's at the front is too much though, that OpenDNS considers an error. But, the error page wisely asks if you meant to go to javatester.org. OpenDNS users can get to CNET using either cnet.cmo or cnet.comm. Not earth-shattering, but all in all, a nice feature to have.

Site blocking

If you sign up for an account at OpenDNS, then it can block Web sites for you. At home, this could be used to keep children from playing online games while they are supposed to be doing their homework. In a corporate setting, it can be used to prevent access to Webmail as a way of encouraging employees to use the corporate e-mail system. OpenDNS is able to, for example, block Yahoo e-mail (mail.yahoo.com), while still allowing access to the rest of Yahoo.

The bad news here is that I can't see how this blocking can be enforced. A knowledgeable computer user can simply change the DNS servers used by the operating system.

If you're dealing with children though, the "adult" Web site blocking might be very handy, and it's free. OpenDNS has partnered with the iGuard team at St. Bernard Software to provide it with a list of "adult" Web sites it claims is updated daily. How good is this list? Test it for yourself at opendns.com/support/adult/. If it blocks a Web site by mistake, you can override it using a white-listing feature.

Setting it up

The instructions for enabling OpenDNS on its site are pretty good, but they are click-here-type-this instructions and not defensively oriented.

One thing I would add to the instructions is to make a note of your current DNS servers so that, if need be, you can revert back to them. Also, if you have multiple computers on a LAN and want to kick the tires on OpenDNS before fully converting, then change only one computer to use the service.

Finally, you may think you have converted an entire network to OpenDNS, but all the ducks may not be in a row. Normally, computers on a LAN are assigned their DNS servers at the same time they are assigned an IP address, using a protocol called DHCP. Thus, the standard way to convert all machines to OpenDNS is by modifying the DHCP server software. In non-techie terms, this means making a configuration change to the router. However, it is possible for a computer to always use certain DNS servers regardless of DHCP. So after modifying the router, I suggest restarting each computer and verifying that it is, in fact, using OpenDNS.

Use OpenDNS

Its start page will tell you if OpenDNS is being used or not, as will itsbuttons page (see above).

Making money

All the services described so far are free, as are a couple I skipped over. So how does OpenDNS make money? Quoting its Knowledge Base:

"OpenDNS makes money by offering clearly labeled advertisements alongside organic search results when the domain entered is not valid and not a typo we can fix. OpenDNS will provide additional services on top of its enhanced DNS service, and some of them may cost money. Speedy, reliable DNS will always be free."

Time will tell how profitable this is, if at all. The founder, David Ulevitch, claimedthe company was "nearly profitable" in back in July.

Wrapping up

OpenDNS is a service worth paying for. My hope is that ISPs will pay for it and brag about it as a way to obtain or retain customers. This would be a win for the ISP, which no longer needs to be bothered doing its own DNS, a win for their customers and a win for OpenDNS. The only loser would be the bad guys.

If you take the OpenDNS plunge, you're not alone. Its home page shows how many name -> IP address translations it is doing per second. The last few days it has varied between 37,000 and 46,000. Multiplied out, this comes out to more than 3 billion requests a day. Five months ago, it was handling only 1.4 billion requests a day.

Even if you don't use OpenDNS now, it can come in handy as an emergency fallback, should something go wrong with your current DNS servers.

* I wrote The blinking lights on a router are talking to you back in July.

See a summary of all my Defensive Computing postings.

About the author

    Michael Horowitz wrote his first computer program in 1973 and has been a computer nerd ever since. He spent more than 20 years working in an IBM mainframe (MVS) environment. He has worked in the research and development group of a large Wall Street financial company, and has been a technical writer for a mainframe software company.

    He teaches a large range of self-developed classes, the underlying theme being Defensive Computing. Michael is an independent computer consultant, working with small businesses and the self-employed. He can be heard weekly on The Personal Computer Show on WBAI.

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