Data Doctors: Q. What is www.opendns.com, how does it work, and is this an effective security tool? - Jim
Q. What is www.opendns.com, how does it work, and is this an effective security tool? - Jim
A. OpenDNS is a company that offers an alternative way for your computer to get “directions” on the Internet and control exactly what is allowed to be accessed by your home or business network. This is one of those tools that has value for some and creates privacy concerns for others.
DNS stands for Domain Name System, and it is what translates our requests in plain English into the numeric Internet Protocol address system that the Internet works on. In other words, early on in the development of the Internet someone really smart realized that it would be much easier for us humans to remember names than numbers to access the information we sought.
Telling you to visit my Web site at DataDoctors.com has much greater value than telling you to visit my site at 220.127.116.11, although if you type those numbers in your browser you will also be taken to our Web site.
Think of the DNS servers as “traffic cops” that are giving all of us directions on how to get to our desired location on the Internet. Whenever you type a Web address into your browser, the first place that request goes to is to your primary DNS server so it can translate your request into an IP address and send you on your way.
By default, your primary DNS server is provided to you by your Internet Service Provider (ISP), and depending upon the size of the ISP, you may notice some performance increases by changing which “traffic cop” you go to.
One pitch for using OpenDNS.com is to speed up Internet access, because the service claims to perform the translation tasks quicker than bogged-down ISPs.
Another reason to consider OpenDNS.com is that you can control exactly what the DNS server will allow to be accessed by your computers. OpenDNS also automatically blocks known phishing sites, can resolve commonly misspelled URLs and is starting to block known botnet agents such as those spread by the Conficker virus.
A home user who has three computers and wants to filter what the kids see can change the DNS configuration on their broadband router and then log into their OpenDNS account to decide what each computer can and cannot access. This makes it much easier for both home and business users to control content across all computers from a single point.
Putting DNS control at the router level also eliminates the possibility that users can figure out how to bypass a locally installed filter or parental control program.
OpenDNS is really best used in the hands of a tech savvy network administrator. Trying to understand what all the settings do and how to set them isn’t for newbies. If you’re interested in using this service but lack the technical background, I highly recommend you get a trusted tech savvy friend or service provider to help you understand how best to use it in your situation.
Critics of this service seem to be most vocal about concerns surrounding privacy and advertising. This is a free service to the user. That’s because the information they gather from users’ surfing habits along with opportunities to insert advertising is how they make money.
If you have multiple computers on your network and want to see if changing the DNS would increase your speed, you can easily do a side-by-side test by changing just one of your computers to the OpenDNS servers. If you see a noticeable difference in getting to your primary Web sites, it may be worth converting your entire network over.
If you are more interested in the content controls you can also do a side-by-side test by changing only one computer, setting your filtering preferences, and then go about your business for a week or so. If the filtering configuration does not cause problems, you can modify the DNS settings on each computer (especially if you want different filtering levels for different computers) or make the changes global by modifying your router’s DNS settings.
Ken Colburn is president of Data Doctors Computer Services and host of the “Computer Corner” radio show, which can be heard at www.datadoctors.com/radio. Readers may send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org