Yesterday, Google announced a new service, somewhat out of the blue. I’m referring, of course, to Google Public DNS, which for the majority of the world’s computer users will undoubtedly be met with overwhelming indifference. And yet, this is a pretty significant development in planet Google. Before I explain why, though, let me give you an extremely simple explanation of DNS. Feel free to skip down to the meaty stuff if you are already familiar with the Domain Name System.
What is DNS?
If you followed the link above to the Wikipedia article on DNS then your head is probably swimming now. The simplest way I can describe DNS is that it’s a bit like addresses and postcodes (ZIP code in the US). There is a slight difference, in that every house in the UK or US does not have it’s own postcode or zip code, but the basic principle of converting a long-winded but human-readable address into a shorter, more computer-friendly code still applies.
In fact, every device on the internet can be located by mean of an IP (Internet Protocol) address, normally in the form nnn.nnn.nnn.nnn (e.g. 188.8.131.52 – which is one of Google’s IP addresses). Whilst converting an IP address such as the one just mentioned into a more human-friendly form (in this case “google.com”) is very useful for web-browsing, it is actually used for all sort of other internet tasks, one example being FTP. The service that does the translation is DNS.
There is an awful lot more to DNS, but the rest is pretty irrelevant for this article, and probably of less interest to Google too.
The meaty stuff
So now that you have an idea what DNS is, let’s explore why Google is offering a free DNS service. To start with, who provides DNS services at the moment? Well, there is a hierarchy within DNS, with some pretty meaty servers at the centre that act as the definitive view of the DNS world. The core servers manage a part of the internet world, so typically there is a core for the “.com” Top Level Domain (TLD), a core for the “.org” TLD, and so on. From this core, the definitive DNS tables are propagated out to what are essentially more regional DNS servers. This propagation continues until you reach the level at which you, as an internet user, queries DNS to convert domain names to IP addresses. For domestic users, the DNS servers will normally be run by an Internet Service Provider. Larger companies may decide to have their own DNS servers.
Until fairly recently, this was the way DNS worked for all. Then along came OpenDNS, which offers a full-featured DNS service for free. In fact, it adds to the basic DNS service by allowing you to filter queries so that undesirable results (e.g. porn, gambling) are blocked. This is quite a compelling offer, enough to prompt significant users to switch from their ISP’s DNS to OpenDNS. As yet, I can’t see Google’s service, despite having their name behind it, getting very many people to change. However, the forthcoming ChromeOS might end up with the Google DNS servers enabled by default. Stranger things have happened.
Google’s service doesn’t appear to compete with OpenDNS on features, at least not for now. Given that the only potential benefit to users would be to marginally increase the speed of DNS resolution, it seems a strange thing for Google to do. But just think about the data that Google receives. Instead of getting information on search queries, Google potentially will be able to see where any browser activity is directed. That’s pretty big, so big I’m going to repeat it. In bold! Google will be able to see every website that you visit, whether via search (through Google or any other competitor) or going direct!
Now Google have promised they will not keep that data any longer than is needed to offer a great DNS service. And I’m inclined to believe them as I’m sure the last thing they want is to be perceived as a new Big Brother, something Microsoft never really avoided. However, they will undoubtedly aggregate that information so they can understand where, for instance, Bing is giving more accurate search results, or which sites people bookmark rather than search for.
Will this improve the Google service, almost certainly. Do I have a warm, fuzzy feeling about it? Well, suffice to say that I will be sticking with OpenDNS for the time being. I’m a big Google fan, but this may be one step too far.