With Net Neutrality gone, and privacy issues very much in the news, you might be forgiven for overlooking one of the other primary functions of an Internet Service Provider or ISP: Regulating the speed of the network connections that they make available to their subscribers.
While you may have been cursing your ISP for their grindingly slow connections and the hour it seems to require to load a single web page, your service provider may not be entirely at fault.
And there’s a simple tweak that you can perform on your own machines which has the potential to speed up and improve your overall internet experience – namely, changing DNS or your Domain Name System server.
The Domain Name System or DNS is rather like the Yellow Pages (remember them?) or telephone directory of the internet.
The global digital network is built on a binary framework of code made up of 1’s and 0’s. For convenience, this is translated into Arabic numerals (0, 1, 2, 3, 4, etc.), which are less bulky and easier for developers to deal with.
Under the DNS, each location (website, blog, etc.) on the internet is assigned an Internet Protocol or IP address, which consists of a sequence of such numbers identifying the unique entries on the DNS directory.
When you type in a web address or URL (Uniform/Universal Resource Locator) on your browser, chances are that you’ll do so in letters representing the name of the website, like www.pcworld.com or PCWorld.com. It’s the job of the Domain Name System and its DNS servers (a.k.a., name servers or nameservers) to translate this text into the numerical IP address corresponding to that specific location.
So, for example, www.pcworld.com yields the IP address 126.96.36.199.
Each time you enter the URL into your browser or web-enabled app, your system or device sends a look-up request to a DNS name server, to resolve the text into numbers and find the IP address of the server (or cluster of servers) that hosts the website associated with that particular domain name.
Applications like browsers and email clients will often have a pre-set list of domain name/IP address matches cached within them. But if an IP address isn’t already cached, your system has to send out a request to one or more DNS name servers, until one of these machines replies with the correct address.
Depending on where these external DNS servers are located relative to you, how well they’re configured, and how quickly they respond, this request and reply process may take more or less time. And it’s for this reason that tweaking and optimizing your DNS settings can have an impact on the speed at which pages load into your browser or app.
Google and Geography
In general it’s true to say that physical distance is a factor in how quickly a DNS server can respond to your system’s request to resolve an IP address. But the physical geography of the internet isn’t quite that simple. This can be illustrated by the case of one of the most popular alternatives to ISP-dictated systems, Google Public DNS.
Google’s DNS offering uses two IP addresses (188.8.131.52 and 184.108.40.206), which work in conjunction with Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) to attach location data to DNS requests coming from multiple servers across the globe.
Google (and the popular open source alternative OpenDNS) attaches your IP address to the DNS requests you make from your machine. This gives a “location stamp” that can be used to direct your request to the DNS servers that are geographically closest to you. But it’s a dynamic system, with servers rotating duties throughout the day in response to network conditions and data traffic.
Optimizing the route to your DNS server is critical to improving your internet speed, so it’s important to identify the best DNS servers which are available from your location.
A good DNS server will have security protocols in place, and mechanisms for blocking spam, or filtering and blocking access to sites with a documented history as vehicles for fraud, or the siphoning off of user data.
So your ideal name server should strike a balance between safety, and speed of access.
Finding the Best DNS Server
As you can imagine, with a global population to cater for, there are a lot of DNS name servers out there. So finding the best one for you isn’t a task that you can easily perform, yourself.
That’s where software and automation come into the picture. There are a number of free DNS benchmarking and location tools available to assist. Most often recommended are GRC’s DNS Benchmark (for Windows and Linux/Unix), and namebench (for Windows, Mac, and Linux/Unix).
Once downloaded and executed (both products are self-contained, and require no installation), the software will run a series of tests through your internet connection, assessing the response of all the DNS name servers on its internal list.
DNS Benchmark is the more complex and thorough of the two, running a 37-minute (more or less, depending on your system and connection speed) analysis of over 4,000 unique servers, before delivering a table of results from fastest to slowest, and making recommendations as to what you should do next.
Among these options is changing DNS settings that you currently use, to direct your internet requests to a more responsive name server. This can be done for a number of different use cases.
Changing DNS for Your Computer
On a desktop system or laptop, making changes to the network settings of your operating system gives you the option of changing your designated DNS name server to the best alternatives (primary, and backup) suggested by the DNS benchmarking software.
For Microsoft Windows systems, this may be accomplished through the Control Panel interface. There are several online tutorials and guides on how to do this, which will take you through the process step by step.
Similar resources exist for Linux users, and for changing DNS settings on the Mac.
Changing DNS For Your Router
If you’d prefer to change the DNS settings for all the devices on your home or office broadband network, then tweaking your router is the better option. In most cases, there’s a web interface provided for accessing your router’s system settings.
Again, there are comprehensive “How to” guides and video tutorials available online, walking you through the necessary procedure.
Changing DNS For Your Mobile Device
Online developers forums offering code and tutorials on how to change DNS settings for mobile devices are also available.
But the easier option is to download and install a dedicated app – with the standard precautions about studying the permissions it asks for and getting it from an official app store. There are apps available for devices with root permissions (as much of the software requires root access), and for non-rooted devices. Look for names like DNS Changer.
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