Over the past two decades, technological developments have dramatically improved internet speeds. Back when dial-up was the standard method to connect to the internet, even waiting for a low-res image to load gave you time to go make a coffee. These days, broadband and fiber connections have created lightning fast networks where even HD media can be loaded in a just a few seconds. That’s not to say there isn’t room for improvement.
While network speeds are constrained by our ISPs, there are a number of changes we can make to improve them. These range from Windows tweaks, replacing your ISP’s router, or switching between Wi-Fi and Ethernet connections.
Changing your DNS settings is often cited as one of the easiest ways to optimize your internet speeds—but what exactly is the DNS and how does changing it improve your speed?
What Is DNS?
When you enter a website’s URL into your browser, it needs to be translated into the site’s IP address in order to send and receive data. The Domain Name System (DNS) is the digital equivalent of a phonebook, providing a number (IP address) for a given name (URL). For example, if you were to enter “www.makeuseof.com” into your browser, the DNS server will translate that into an IP address—in this case 188.8.131.52.
With over a billion websites currently online, it wouldn’t be practical to maintain a list that large. Instead, your DNS server will have cached the data for a range of websites. If you try to access a site that isn’t already cached, then your DNS server will request the entry from another server. Your default DNS server is likely to be provided by your ISP, and isn’t guaranteed to be the best performing server.
Fortunately, there are other DNS servers available to you.
A Question of Geography
The infrastructure which supports the internet is a series of cables—either copper or optical—which connect servers around the world. Data is carried across these cables in the form of electromagnetic waves, with a speed limited to the speed of light. While we can’t do anything to increase that speed, we can reduce the distance these waves have to travel. If a DNS server is located far away from you, then your browsing speeds will be impacted.
However, the reality of the internet is more complex than simple distance calculations would have you believe. Google Public DNS is one of the most popular DNS server alternatives and uses two IP addresses (184.108.40.206 and 220.127.116.11). These are known as anycast addresses, with multiple servers around the world responding to requests from these addresses. The servers responding to the requests vary throughout the day depending on network conditions and traffic. Despite responding to your queries from servers around the world, it is consistently ranked as one of the fastest DNS servers
They have achieved this by working with Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) to attach location data to DNS requests. In most cases, if you were to use a Canadian DNS server, then the CDNs would assume that you are in Canada. This has an impact on loading speeds, and the content you see will be optimized for a Canadian audience. Google, along with OpenDNS, now attach your IP address to the DNS requests. This means that the data is loaded from a server local to you, which improves your overall internet speed.
DNS Route Optimization
When planning a trip with Google Maps, you’ll be presented with a number of different travel options. Some of the routes will take less time, even if they cover a greater distance. This could be due to a number of factors like traffic, transport changes, and average speed. When selecting a DNS server to increase your internet speeds, you’ll be faced with a similar range of factors. Choosing the most advantageous path is known as route optimization.
Some DNS servers, like those provided by ISPs, will experience heavy traffic, especially during peak times. Some servers may have outdated records, or inefficently route your data. The connection between the DNS server and your machine is only one part of the puzzle. This is because the site you want to access may require data from other sites like adverts or videos.
The complex interplay between servers and connections makes route optimization integral to improving your internet speeds. Your ISP’s DNS server may be located close by. However, their one-size-fits-all approach is unlikely to offer you the best performance. This is where a tool like Google’s Namebench comes in handy. Namebench analyzes your connection, and recommends the best DNS servers tailored specifically to you.
The Need for DNS Speed
Under the management of Dave Brailsford, the British Olympic Cycling team became one of the most successful of all time. They ultimately won seven out of ten gold medals at both the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. The secret to their success was Brailsford’s commitment to the principle of marginal gains. This is the principle that many small improvements bring about significant overall improvement.
While there is no silver bullet to improve internet speeds, we can make numerous smaller tweaks and improvements. These improvements work together to increase our overall internet speed—and the DNS servers play a important role. Changing your DNS server isn’t a one-trick pony either. Alternative DNS servers can even offer greater security and privacy than your default options.