OpenDNS Web Filter Review

We start our OpenDNS web filter review by looking at how OpenDNS started, discussing what OpenDNS evolved into, and explaining the changes to its web filtering capabilities since the acquisition of OpenDNS by Cisco Systems Inc.

Every computer, website, or app connected to the Internet is assigned an IP address – a string of numbers (IPv4) or alphanumeric characters (IPv6) separated by periods. IP addresses are hierarchal identifiers (*) that enable Internet users to communicate with each other, find websites, and interact with online applications.

Most Internet users do not use IP addresses. They usually type a web URL into a browser, or click on a link, icon, or shortcut to reach their intended destinations. Thereafter, the Domain Name System (DNS) takes over – first by translating the request to visit a website or app into an IP address, and then by connecting the user to the domain the IP address relates to.

(*) A hierarchal IP identifier consists of characters that first identify the network the website exists on, then the sub-network, and then the host server, and then the website itself.

The Road to OpenDNS Content Filtering

OpenDNS was originally developed as a recursive DNS resolver – a program that extracts information from name servers in response to user requests. At the time it was launched in 2006, commercial content filtering solutions were crude and imprecise due to blocking content by keyword or phrase, and it was often the case genuine webpages were blocked in error.

Using the recursive DNS resolver to filter content by IP address was identified as a more reliable alternative to name-based content filtering. The program was redesigned in 2007 to facilitate content filtering by category, blacklists and whitelists, and regularly updated lists of sites known to be harboring malware or created for phishing attacks.

Initially free-to-use for individuals and funded by advertising revenue, two premium OpenDNS content filtering services with more advanced features were launched in 2009 – Home VIP and OpenDNS Enterprise. These launches were followed by a free Family Shield plan in 2010 which enabled parents to prevent children accessing adult content when connected to the home router.

Subsequently, further capabilities were added to the OpenDNS Enterprise content filtering service; and, in 2012, the service was rebranded as OpenDNS Umbrella to reflect its capabilities of protecting users regardless of what network they connect to. The potential for further expansion was not lost on Cisco Systems Inc, who acquired OpenDNS in 2015 for $635 million.

Cisco Divides OpenDNS´ Filtering Services

The acquisition of OpenDNS by Cisco resulted in OpenDNS´ filtering services being divided into two operations. Personal and Home services remained under the OpenDNS banner, while the Enterprise “Umbrella” suite was rebranded with the Cisco name and further extended. There are now four Umbrella plans from which businesses can choose.

With regards to the remaining OpenDNS services, the free-to-use service for individuals (“OpenDNS Home”) and the free Family Shield plan remained in place. Additional features were added to the VIP Home plan to attract personal subscribers, and a new “Prosumer” plan suitable for home offices and small teams was added to the portfolio. Currently, the features of each plan look like this:

OpenDNS Web Filter Review

Plan-by-Plan OpenDNS Web Filter Review

OpenDNS Family Shield

The Family Shield plan is the most basic of the OpenDNS content filtering plans, being pre-configured to block adult content but offering little in protection against web-borne threats such as malware and phishing. In terms of providing faster, more reliable home Internet, OpenDNS compares well against some ISPs, but is not the fastest in the world.

OpenDNS Home

The Home plan offers more than the Family Shield plan inasmuch as users can block more than just websites featuring adult content – for example those promoting slimming products or religious fundamentalism. The difference between the two free plans is that you have to register for the Home plan and provide OpenDNS with your contact details.

OpenDNS VIP Home

The advantage to subscribing to the VIP Home plan (price is per home) is that parents can block access to every website and app except those which are specifically whitelisted. This is a good option for parents that want to control their child´s access to the Internet, but it may prompt children to find other, unsafe ways to access the Internet.

OpenDNS Prosumer

Although ideal for a home office, the Prosumer plan could be beneficial to a small business as it covers up to five users connected through the same network and allows each user to connect three devices (i.e., workstation, laptop, and smartphone). The issue is that, for the price, you can get far better deals with “real-time” protection against malware and phishing.

OpenDNS Web Filter Review Verdict

Most web filters have their pros and cons. At the bottom end of the web filtering market, you have products such as OpenDNS Family Shield and OpenDNS Home, which although offering free DNS filtering, are extremely limited in their capabilities. Further up the market, web filtering solutions such as Microsoft Family Safety offer far more capabilities but are harder to configure.

Once you get into the premium market, users are looking for solutions that offer more protection against web-borne threats. Unfortunately, the OpenDNS Home and Prosumer plans don´t offer adequate protection for some due to the frequency at which the threat database is updated. Furthermore, for the price, you can get far more for your money than offered by OpenDNS.

It seems as if the revenues from the premium OpenDNS web filter plans pay for the provision of a free DNS filtering service. While this might be of benefit to users with limited technology skills who can take advantage of OpenDNS´ ease of use, it means that subscribers to either premium service are not getting value for money and should look elsewhere.

OpenDNS Web Filter Review FAQs

What is the consequence of providing OpenDNS with your contact details?

The consequence of providing OpenDNS with your contact details when you register for the free Home plan is that you will receive occasional emails inviting you to upgrade to the Home VIP or prosumer plan. You may also be sent links to security-related blogs – many of which are written to highlight problems that upgrading to a premium plan will resolve.

How might children find “other, unsafe ways to access the Internet”.

The OpenDNS content filtering service only works for devices connected to the home network. If your child connects to a different network (i.e., public Wi-Fi), you no longer have control over what they can access and they have no protection from malicious websites. Furthermore, any websites you child visits while not connected to the home network will not be recorded on statistics reports.

What is “real-time” protection against phishing and malware?

“Real-time” protection against phishing and malware is when malicious websites are added to real-time block lists via continuous updates rather than periodic, retrospective updates. It has been estimated around 50,000 phishing sites are created every day; so, if a phishing database is updated once a week, customers are more at risk than if they use a solution with real-time protection.

What other free DNS filtering services exist?

There are dozens of alternatives to OpenDNS that provide a DNS filtering service with a free entry level. Microsoft Family Service was mentioned in the article, but you might also want to look at Clean Browsing, NX Filter, Guardio, or Cold Turkey. Please note these are not recommended suggestions because free plans are often feature limited and may not be suitable for all users.

What is the best DNS filtering service for families?

The best DNS filtering services for families are most often premium packages that have the same (or better) capabilities as Cisco Umbrella DNS Advantage, with off-network coverage included at no extra cost and real-time protection against phishing and malware. The ease of use and configuration may also be important to you, so take advantage of free trials whenever possible before committing to a subscription.