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Improve your DNS usage
by Rick Smith (September 2, 2003)

Introduction
Improve your DNS usage

You may not know what DNS is, or if you do know, you may figure that it's someone else's job to control and manage it. The DNS or Domain Name System is a service that uses a series of distributed servers to translate "easy to read and type" domain names into Internet protocol (IP) addresses.

Without DNS, the Internet becomes very difficult to explore or to even send email. When I began to learn how powerful DNS technology was, I began to figure out better ways to use this technology to our strategic advantage.

For over five years, I let someone assume the responsibility for the DNS on the ReviewsOnLine.com web server and then one day that DNS broke -- No one could reach the ReviewsOnLine.com web server but there was nothing wrong with the ReviewsOnline.com server. The hosting provider's DNS has stopped functioning, due to the work of an industrious hacker.

After that DNS outage, I began to learn more about this somewhat mysterious technology which is an essential and critical part of Internet functionality.

My goal for improving my DNS was not to simply "react" to problems or eliminate the DNS errors, but to be ready for problems all the time, by anticipating some of the problems that may occur. I wanted to be able to solve these problems quickly and even be able to "switch servers" remotely in only few minutes. I no longer wanted to be dependent on a "single source" provider. To do that, I had to separate the job of providing DNS away from my web server hosting provider. I needed better control.

I then began to experiment with several DNS providers and had mixed results. I had started out with the free DNS providers, because an incorrect decision there wasted only time and not both time and money. Since paid DNS services range from under a dollar a year (if you buy dozens of them) to hundreds of dollars a year for a single domain, using a free service wasn't a bad place to start. Who knows? I might get lucky and find a good free provider.

Quickly, I found that each DNS provider had their own strengths and weaknesses and while they all accomplished the same task of converting a domain name to an IP address and assisting with email routing, I decided to write down my goals and objectives. This would be the only way to separate the acceptable from the unacceptable. Your usage may be different, but these are characteristics to look for in DNS providers:

  • Easy access - login without complexity. I wanted to be able to set my own login name (assuming it was available) and my own password.

  • Reliable access - login over and over without difficulty or problems. I didn't use a site that is often unavailable, difficult to reach or has "errors" showing.

  • Easy, fast Setup - setup a domain with web server and email in a matter of minutes. I wanted to set up the DNS of a single domain quickly and easily.

  • Easy updates - easy modifications to existing records. I wanted to be able to make edits and changes to DNS records easily, without having to create completely new records and then have to delete the old records.

  • Fast updates - new data available in minutes -- I wanted the domain information to be instantly available at ALL of that provider's nameservers (preferably within seconds or a few minutes later)

  • Functionality - DNS had to work. I was using an external provider because I wanted to get increased reliability. I needed to get valid results every time I checked the DNS of a domain.

  • Full control - full access to DNS -- I wanted full control of all the common DNS records. This would allow me the greatest flexibility and allow me to make DNS provider changes fast, if I encountered any problems.

  • Distributed Servers - servers spread out geographically -- I didn't want to have all the name servers sitting next to each other in the same room, ready for the next power failure or other catastrophe.

    As I began experimenting with non-critical domain names, I found that I was unable to achieve ALL of these features from free providers that I tried. Like most things in the world, I couldn't get exactly what I wanted and needed to try to for the best I could get. So, I began to make trade-offs.

    The first item to eliminate was simplicity and ease of use. What good is it to be about to easily change a DNS server that is unreliable? So the following features were tossed out:

  • Easy access
  • Easy, fast Setup
  • Easy updates

    Reliability wins over simplicity. Since I would make changes infrequently, I could learn the best way to make changes and do the extra work to gain better reliability and faster speed.

    Many of the free DNS providers gave only partial access to DNS and several didn't tell your their geographic location, so the features to go next were:

  • Distributed Servers
  • Full control

    This left only:

  • Reliable access
  • Fast updates
  • Functionality

    The service HAD to work, work quickly and I had to be able to make changes, no matter how hard they were to make. I also needed "just enough" control to access a web server (at a fixed IP address) and use email.

    If I couldn't access the DNS provider's site and get started, that provider was immediately removed, so "fast updates" was the first feature that I could start to measure. I would make a change and then look to see if their own name servers provided me changed information. I didn't use a stopwatch, since there was no need. If I made a change and "saved" it, I should be able to see that change at the provider within a minute. Some providers were so fast, that I could not save the change in one window and move to the test software in another window, before update had been made to ALL their servers. That was the speed I was looking for.

    If I couldn't get a response in a minute or so, this provider was eliminated for me as a contender. (If you absolutely KNOW that you will never change your IP addresses or mail servers, then a "slow change" DNS service might work well for you. Realize however that IF any changes ARE needed, and you have a slow DNS provider you will have to wait.) While some people don't mind a few hours of downtime or a day or two of lost mail -- I DO mind and don't want that to happen.

    To check out the DNS servers, I used the "DNS Query" tool from the extremely powerful DNS Expert Professional software package from Men and Mice. Look for an upcoming review in Reviews OnLine. From the few months of experience that I have had using it, I can highly recommend it for anyone running Windows that needs to examine or diagnose DNS problems. (If you have control over a domain and you want to know what's really going on with DNS, then DNS Expert Professional is a required software tool to have.) Men and Mice also has a version for the Macintosh computers as well.

    In the upcoming part of this article, I will provide results from the DNS providers I tried.

    Introduction

    Copyright 2003 Rick Smith All rights reserved.

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