A free service called OpenDNS can not only help your browser display Web pages faster it also offers some added fringe benefits such as address typo correction and phishing protection, plus site blocking, content filtering, and more.

by Joseph Moran

Have you ever pointed your browser to a Web site and had to wait an inordinately long time for the page — or at least the full page — to load? This kind of slow browsing experience can be traced to a variety of causes, but among the most common are problems with the servers that are responsible for actually locating all the sites you visit, your DNS (Domain Name Service) servers.

A free service called OpenDNS can not only help your browser display Web pages faster it also offers some added fringe benefits such as address typo correction and phishing protection, plus site blocking, content filtering and more. Before we delve into how to use OpenDNS, let’s briefly outline how the DNS system works for those who may not be familiar with it.

What’s the Deal With DNS?
Every time you type a Web site address like www.practicallynetworked.com into your browser, that “friendly” address needs to be translated into the actual IP address for the computer hosting that site. The job of the DNS server is to take the text address you type in, look it up against a database of IP addresses, and then return the correct address to your browser so the site can be accessed.

The DNS database is actually distributed across countless servers all over the Internet, but the specific DNS server(s) you use are generally provided by your ISP. When your router obtains its IP address information from your ISP (usually through DHCP), the addresses for the DNS servers are provided as well. These DNS server addresses are in turn passed along to each of your computers via DHCP on your own network so that they all know where to go to look up Internet addresses.

Long story short: If DNS servers get overloaded or experience other technical problems, they may take a long time to respond to lookup requests or they may not respond at all. Some ISPs are better than others when it comes to maintaining their DNS servers, but problems are not at all uncommon. Sometimes when your Internet connection seems to be down, it may be fine but simply appear down because your ISP’s DNS isn’t working properly.

But you don’t necessarily need to use your ISP’s DNS servers, which brings us back to OpenDNS. OpenDNS, which has been around for about 18 months, is a free DNS service anyone can use, and is more than likely faster and more reliable than the one you’re using now. (I’ve been using it for almost a year now and like many others have found the performance to be excellent.)

How to Use OpenDNS
So how can you take advantage of OpenDNS? All you need to do is go is update your router’s DNS settings via its administrator control panel. After you’ve logged into your router, look for settings related to DNS — the exact location will vary depending on your router, but you’ll often find it under the LAN heading or sometimes even on the first settings page you see.

When you find the DNS configuration area, you’ll probably see that it’s set to automatically obtain DNS servers from your ISP. Select the option that allows you to specify your own DNS server addresses, and then enter as the primary DNS and as the secondary DNS (as you might guess, the secondary is used if the primary isn’t available).

Your router may or may not reboot itself once you apply the new DNS settings, but in order to make sure each of your computers is using the OpenDNS servers, you should manually obtain a new DHCP address for each of them. An easy way to do this in XP is right-click your network connection’s tray icon and select Repair. In Vista, you can verify that a particular system is using OpenDNS if you see “You’re using OpenDNS” message when you browse to welcome.opendns.com.)

After some time spent using OpenDNS, you should notice that your browser generally takes less time to find and display Web sites. Even if you don’t see a perceptible increase in performance, you’ll still be able to benefit from a several security and convenience features. For starters, OpenDNS can fix typos in the URLs you type, so if you accidentally type www.practically networked.cmo — or .co, or .cm — you’ll still be taken to the site you intended instead of being greeted by error message, or worse, an ersatz site from Cameroon (which owns the .cm domain).

If you happen to type a nonexistent site name, instead of a not found error you’ll see an OpenDNS Guide page with suggested alternate links (as well as some sponsored ones, which help keep OpenDNS free). For example, I sometimes inadvertently try to access the PracticallyNetworked.com site by typing in “pracnet.com” (PracNet is an internal nickname for the site), and when I do, PracticallyNetworked.com is first among the OpenDNS suggested links. Last but not least, using OpenDNS also gets you automatic phishing protection, so if the site you want to go to is known for phishing, OpenDNS won’t take you there.

In addition to the benefits you enjoy just by using OpenDNS servers, when you take the extra step of opening up an OpenDNS account (still free) you also get the ability to block access to certain kinds of content or specific sites, usage logs, and customization features. We’ll explore these advanced OpenDNS features (and how to use them) in detail next week.


Joe Moran is a regular contributor to PracticallyNetworked.