When I graduated from Cornell in 1989, one of my primary worries was keeping Internet access. Since that time, a serious chunk of my professional life has been devoted to understanding how the Internet works and explaining it to others, through TidBITS, my Internet Starter Kit books, and in person. When I look back, I'm struck by how things have become ever easier.
Talking about ease of use with regard to running Internet servers has been tricky, though. Sure, I can set up a mailing list in LetterRip Pro in a few minutes, and new software like 4D Portal lets you create your own portal site quickly. But when I recommended that a friend looking for a new mailing list hosting provider try LetterRip Pro instead, he demurred, because he didn't want the responsibility of watching the server and performing related administrative tasks. It's hard to argue, since even I have let others handle many of those tasks for me over the years.
DNS Details -- In the last six months, though, I've taken control over one of those administrative tasks that so many people delegate to their ISP - domain name service (DNS) management. For those whose familiarity with DNS is primarily through the millions of dollars paid for coveted domain names during the Internet boom, the entire point of DNS is to translate between human-readable names like www.tidbits.com and the numeric Internet addresses that identify each computer on the Internet, such as 126.96.36.199. You start to care about DNS when you want your own domain name, which establishes your own presence on the Internet and offers the benefits of a custom email address. Once you start running your own servers, a domain name becomes essential for anyone trying to connect to your servers over the Internet.
One more bit of background. Historically, you could go to your ISP and ask for a domain name, and they would register it and manage it on your behalf for a fee. Those tasks, registration and management, are actually separate. For a long time, there were very few registrars, and only one handling the most common .com domains: Network Solutions, now owned by Verisign. That situation has changed, and now many different registrars will register a domain name for you for a fee. No matter who registers your domain name, you also need someone to manage it, which involves running multiple DNS servers, making arrangements for backup servers, and so on. ISPs are obvious choices for this task, but they're not always ideal, for the simple reason that if you decide to switch ISPs, you have to transfer control over your domain to another ISP along with everything else. Since transferring control involves changing settings with your registrar, it ends up being a multi-step process in which the penalty for mistakes is high - the loss of all email and Web accessibility.
Make DNS Easier -- Making DNS changes with Network Solutions, still the dominant registrar, is an arcane email-based process so slow, unpleasant, and fraught with errors that it's best described as Kafkaesque. If a change doesn't work (as has often been true for people we know), you often have to call Network Solutions for support, a telephone experience that often ranks with chatting with surly civil servants at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Actually, it's worse, since oftentimes no Web or email traffic can reach your domain for hours or days even after the problem is fixed. A number of the outages we've had over the years have been caused by (or exacerbated by) mistakes made at Network Solutions.
A few years back, a few guys equally as irritated at Network Solutions founded easyDNS to solve these problems. easyDNS can act as a registrar for Canadian domains (.ca); they work with another registrar to handle new registrations in the most common top-level domains; and you can transfer control of any domain to them for management, no matter where it was originally registered.
Management of DNS is where easyDNS shines, and where I've become addicted to their services. I've owned tidbits.com for many years, and Northwest Nexus managed it for us, which meant that every time we brought up a new machine or moved a server to a new IP address (a common occurrence, since tidbits.com machines live on four separate networks), we had to talk to a network administrator at Northwest Nexus. Although they were helpful and friendly until the company was acquired by Winstar Communications, even before that we couldn't always contact the necessary person, and occasionally a typo would sneak in, causing no end of consternation. Overall, we felt helpless.
When easyDNS approached me about sponsoring TidBITS, I jumped at the chance to test their services in a situation where I knew the people behind the company. Since moving the registration of the tidbits.com domain to OpenSRS (the registrar easyDNS uses) and transferring management to easyDNS from the unresponsive Winstar wasn't trivial, I felt better knowing I could talk with someone at easyDNS should anything go wrong. Happily, the process was easy and worked perfectly. Due to the way Winstar's servers were set up, easyDNS couldn't import my domain record automatically, which they can in some cases (if you have a lot of entries in your domain record, your ISP might export a zone file for you). Luckily, it wasn't hard to retype the 10 names I map to different machines.
Since then I've had several occasions to change which names map to which IP numbers, and a worrying task that used to require a phone call has become a matter of logging into easyDNS's secure Web site and making the change in a form. I especially appreciate how, after every change, easyDNS displays a confirmation page that tells you exactly how long it will be before your changes will be available to the world at large. Before using easyDNS, a large part of the stress involved with making DNS changes was never knowing how long before the changes would become available. Now easyDNS tells me exactly how long it will be, and if I know I'm going to be making some changes soon, I can lower the important time-to-live (TTL) setting to ensure changes propagate quickly.
I've also needed to update the whois information that identifies the administrative and billing contacts for a domain, something that's now simple to do via easyDNS for domains registered with OpenSRS. With Network Solutions, something as simple as an email address change required complex maneuvers - updating our information via easyDNS's forms is far easier.
Other easyDNS Services -- easyDNS provides numerous other DNS-related services, all of which are available in their DNS-Plus + Domain bundle, which costs $55 per year. Other packages offer smaller sets of features and cost less, down to $20 per year. These features include:
Email forwarding, both for up to 100 specific addresses and for any unspecified address in your domain. For instance, if your custom domain was example.com, you could forward <firstname.lastname@example.org> to <email@example.com>. Forwarding of unspecified addresses can also be useful, though it will likely collect a lot of random spam. You can also set up a "mail-to-all" address that sends mail to every address in your domain, which is helpful for warning users about scheduled downtime.
Control over mail exchanger (MX) records and a backup mail server. MX records define which mail server(s) handle mail for your domain. In our case, Eudora Internet Mail Server running on king.tidbits.com manages our mail traffic, but we can define backup mail servers to hold mail temporarily should king.tidbits.com become inaccessible. easyDNS also provides backup mail servers for you.
Forwarding of Web traffic to a specific URL. This feature lets you tell everyone to visit www.example.com, for instance, and then point that at your Web pages wherever they may live. "Stealth forwarding," an optional enhancement, uses frames to make sure that people see only your custom domain in their Web browser Address field. If you don't yet have your Web site online, easyDNS can display a "coming soon" page instead.
Support for round-robin DNS. One way of spreading particularly high traffic across multiple identical servers is to use easyDNS's round-robin DNS feature. When someone's Web browser tries to resolve your domain name into an IP number, easyDNS rotates between returning the different IP numbers you've specified to match the server's name.
Picking Tasks -- What I like the most about easyDNS is that I control my own DNS information, while they handle the administrative tasks of running domain name server software and secondary name servers. I could do that with Mice & Men's QuickDNS, but as with my friend who didn't want to run his own LetterRip Pro server, I don't want to be responsible for everything related to my domain name.
Most of the complaints I still have with my DNS setup aren't related to easyDNS, but with DNS's terminology and rigidity. For instance, "start of authority" settings are where you set how often your DNS settings are updated in different contexts, and without knowing that MX stands for "mail exchanger," it's easy to become confused. Luckily, easyDNS provides generally good help, both as tutorials and from the page where you enter information (click the question mark); the only exception was with round-robin DNS, which seems to be explained only in their FAQ. Plus, every time I've asked a tech support question, I've received a prompt answer. I haven't had to call, which you can do during business hours.
Are there other companies that provide services similar to easyDNS? Yes, of course, since Network Solutions's arcane system makes the need for friendly front-ends to DNS glaringly obvious. Nonetheless, when we first mentioned easyDNS in TidBITS, people on TidBITS Talk immediately spoke up to recommend the company, making me all the more comfortable with them. If you're looking for help with DNS management or email and Web URL redirection, you won't go wrong with easyDNS, and I'll certainly be using them for the foreseeable future.