By Joseph Moran
The network of servers known as the Domain Name System (DNS) provides a crucial function on the Internet — because DNS performs the essential task of translating a Web site’s familiar name (like www.practicallynetworked.com) into the IP address necessary to access the site, you pretty much can’t navigate on the Internet without it.
Most home and small office networks rely on DNS servers managed by an Internet service provider (ISP), but ISP-managed DNS servers aren’t exactly renowned for their performance or reliability. When it takes your browser an excruciatingly long time to find a Web site or it doesn’t reach it at all, there’s a good chance it’s because the DNS server took inordinately long to find its address.
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But there’s nothing that says you must use an ISP’s DNS servers just because you’re using its connection, and by switching to a free service called OpenDNS, you can bestow three major benefits to every computer on your network — speedier Web browsing, protection from phishing sites, and content filtering that will let you block access to certain sites.
All that’s required to get the first two benefits is a minor tweak to your broadband router’s settings that takes just a few seconds. OpenDNS works with virtually any router. Taking advantage of content filtering requires an extra step, but it’s quick and easy.
To set up your network to use Open DNS, first log into your router and then look for the DNS server settings, which are almost always displayed on the first page you see after you’ve entered your username and password. In the area provided for DNS server addresses, enter 126.96.36.199 and 2188.8.131.52; be sure to save the changes. Most routers will automatically reboot to apply the new settings, but if not you’ll want to reboot yours manually to ensure the new settings take effect immediately. (If you can’t find the DNS settings on your router, check this page for links to specific step-by-step instructions for over a dozen different router manufacturers.)
Once your router is back up and running with its new DNS configuration, you can verify it’s working by heading over to www.opendns.com. There, in green text in the upper right corner of the page, you should see a “You’re Using OpenDNS” message.
From this point forward you should experience quicker response times when you visit sites. If you type the wrong Web address by mistake (because you made a typo, for example) the OpenDNS Guide will either automatically correct it for you or present you with a page of search results it thinks are related to what you were looking for. Revenue from the search links helps OpenDNS provide their service gratis.
If you attempt to follow a link to a phishing Web site — a fraudulent site that masquerades as a legitimate one to fool you into giving up personal information — the site will be blocked, and you’ll see this warning page instead. OpenDNS maintains a frequently updated database of known phishing sites.
To take advantage of OpenDNS content filtering, you must take the extra step of setting up an account with the service (you can do that here as well). The account, which is free, allows the service to distinguish your network from those of others and apply custom settings to each.
After you’ve created your OpenDNS account, log into it. From the Dashboard page, click the Settings link to set up content filtering. You can either select one of four broad settings — Minimal, Low, Moderate or High (click the View links to see details on the site categories each setting will block), or choose the Custom option to pick and choose specific categories to block. Whenever you modify the content filtering settings, it can take as long as 5 to 10 minutes for them to take effect.
OpenDNS content filtering does have a limitation that’s worth keeping in mind. The content restrictions you put in place apply to the entire network, so when a site is blocked, it’s blocked for everybody, and the page you’re taken too when you try to access a blocked site doesn’t offer a way to override the block on an ad-hoc basis.
Another thing to be aware of is that if the public IP address your ISP assigns you changes periodically (as is often the case) OpenDNS content filtering will stop working because the service will have an IP address for your network that’s no longer valid. The simple fix to this problem is to download a special utility (available for Windows or Mac) that will monitor your network’s IP address and notify OpenDNS when it changes so the service can update its records. There is no need to install the utility on all your computers — one will do, as long as it’s one kept on all the time so an IP address change can be detected and reported right away. It will check every five minutes by default.
If you want a quick easy, and free way to enjoy more reliable and safer browsing, check out OpenDNS.
Joseph Moran is a regular contributor to PracticallyNetworked.