Talking tech since 2003

As part of our continuing interview/Q&A session series, I got in touch with David Ulevitch, the Founder and CEO of OpenDNS.  If you’re not familiar with OpenDNS, I’d recommend you check out the review I wrote (video included) a while back.  However, in short, OpenDNS is company which provides DNS (Domain Name System) services for the Internet.  They offer several useful features and tools which you can’t get with boring old ISP DNS or even Google DNS.

Let’s see what he has to say.

Just a few days ago OpenDNS hit a new milestone and successfully resolved over 31 billion DNS requests in a single day (congrats by the way).  Can you describe how that makes you feel?

It’s very exciting to watch our company grow. DNS requests is just one metric we watch. Others are how many customers we have, how many Fortune 500 companies are using, our attrition rates and many of our customers who are using us like and would recommend OpenDNS to others. Hitting the milestone was fun, but there’s much more work to be done.

Also, while it’s accurate in the sense that it’s the number of queries we resolved, it’s a bit of a red-herring at times in that our operations and engineering teams have some influence over that number when they make changes to how we respond to DNS requests, retries, routing, abusive traffic, etc. – though that’s a whole different discussion.

You recently took back the reins, why did you return as CEO to OpenDNS?  Did you feel that things were not heading in the right direction?

I returned as CEO because the board of directors asked me to return as CEO (I had been CTO).  I was more than happy to take back the role as I thought it was the best way for me to help OpenDNS make the changes the company needed to make to be successful.

Of course, I had the benefit of hindsight. When I was CEO of OpenDNS for the first three years (as founder and CEO), there were things I hadn’t been doing as well as I could have — long term planning, focusing on delighting our customers, etc. Not being the CEO for a year allowed me to see the areas where I could be a better leader for OpenDNS than I initially was, so I was thrilled to be asked to take the reigns back.

OpenDNS is currently on a hiring spree, what are a few things prospective employees should know about OpenDNS?  And what’s the deal with the waffles?

We’re focused on innovating in a space that hasn’t really been touched in 25+ years. We’ve created the market around third-party DNS and are looking for engineers, web developers, network admins, sysadmins, marketing people and more to help us grow. We aren’t a Web 2.0 company, we aren’t a site where people can poke each other or comment on photos — we’re a company dedicated to improving the Internet. While we work hard, we also like to have a good time. We just returned from a company trip to Tahoe with all the employees and their families. I expect a lot out of the team and I try to make it a great work environment in return.  The waffles are part of that, too. Plus it encourages people to get into the office early. ;)

How big of a role, in your opinion, does content filtering have in the scope of office productivity?  Does the OpenDNS headquarters take advantage of your web filtering services?

We focus on providing the tools SysAdmins and IT heads need to provide Internet that meets their corporate needs and internal guidelines. For some environments, that’s just blocking security threats.  For others it may include removing content that’s inappropriate for their office setting, like adult websites. And some offices have bandwidth requirements, so they need to block video streaming and download sites. In our office, we don’t block content — I trust that employees will get their work done. If they want to look at Facebook or watch a YouTube video, that’s not a concern to me as long as they’re doing everything they’re supposed to be doing. I think it’s really important that admins have the best tools available to run their network which is why we focus on delivering the tools to give visibility along with the tools to take action.

What type of application is OpenDNS most used in?  Homes?  Small businesses?  Schools?  Enterprises?

OpenDNS is used by more than 1 percent of global Internet users — we see it used all over the world where people are looking for a better Internet experience. While our biggest segment of customers is home users, we’ve seen tremendous growth in both schools and businesses. OpenDNS is used by more than 1 in 3 K-12 public school districts in the US. Our Enterprise product is used by more than 1,000 customers, including a growing number of Fortune 100 companies.

How many phishing attempts has OpenDNS road-blocked in the last year or so?  Do you see phishing as a growing issue online?

OpenDNS is blocking roughly 300,000 phishes per month for our users, or 3.6 million per year. In addition, we also run PhishTank, the phishing data clearing house where anyone can submit and verify a phish. Data from PhishTank is used by Yahoo! Mail, the Opera Web Browser and many others.

In the past year, where we’ve seen a particularly large amount of phishing growth is around social websites. Facebook, Zynga and Habbo are all frequent targets of online scammers, something that wasn’t an issue only a few years ago.

How important is OpenDNS’s community (e.g. domain flagging, support, etc) to the overall operation?

Our community is hugely important to us. In addition to helping submit and verify phishes in PhishTank, our community forms the backbone of our domain tagging system. By crowd-sourcing our domain tagging and categorization, we’ve ensured that new sites are always being added to our database, leading to always up to date website data.

How do you feel about other third-party DNS services such as the one made available by Google?  Better yet, how do you think OpenDNS compares?

Essentially, I don’t think it’s a bad for us. Google DNS currently offers none of the choice and flexibility that our service does.   It’s only feature is DNS.  That’s fine for some people, but most find the value our service offers to be substantially higher than Google’s.  Since it’s launch, there’s been no iteration or improvement on their product. Having said that, it encourages us to keep making our service better. And ultimately, we’re a business that has been growing aggressively since we launched and has been competing in fair markets and winning. It raises awareness about the importance of DNS and it motivates us to continue providing world-class services to a global audience and to keep innovating.

If you had to choose, what’s your favorite feature of OpenDNS and why?

I love that we have built a global network and a platform for delivering amazing network services to people and that it’s a profit center for us.  That may not seem like a feature, but it is!  While we may be the iconic DNS company, we have the potential to be much more, and that gets me so excited. I love that as the guy running the ship, we can take our 14+ datacenters, hundreds of BGP peers, hundreds of servers and deploy new services on top of them to our tens of millions of end-users.  That’s a wonderful thing and it means we’re able to deliver powerful and exciting features to our customers faster.

Can you provide any information the future of OpenDNS?  Any new data centers or features we should be looking out for?

We’ll be opening up a Frankfurt datacenter shortly to help deal with the traffic we’re seeing in Europe. Other than that we’re going to continue to accelerate company growth. Part of that involves hiring the right people, so I’d encourage people to check out the positions we’re hiring for and get in touch if one looks like a match.

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