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Tasks you should automate: Managing DNS

The less manual work you have to do with DNS zone files or the DNS interface, the better -- and there are tools designed to automate most of the process of dealing with DNS.

Managing DNS isn't always a set-it-and-forget-it operation. If you run a hosting company -- even a small one -- your DNS (domain name system) zone files are going to need constant updating as people add and remove domain names from your service. The less manual work you have to do with zone files or the DNS interface, the better, and there are a bunch of tools (some free, some commercial) that will automate most of the process of dealing with DNS.

A good source of commercial DNS tools is a company called Men & Mice; the experts in this company write DNS utility software and nothing else. The most broadly useful of their tools is the DNS Module, which works interchangeably with conventional Unix BIND and Microsoft DNS servers. DNS Module helps automate simple, repetitive tasks such as adding hosts, mail routes or new domains through wizard-driven interfaces that greatly reduce the chances of error. Every change is given a corresponding audit trail that makes it easy to find out who changed what and when. Also, the administrator can enforce detailed access controls. In other words, a user in a given IP block can only make certain changes in certain DNS zones. Mass-editing functions let you make global updates across all zones in the same manner as a search-and-replace action.

Men & Mice also makes DNS Expert, an OS-independent troubleshooting utility that automates diagnosing and managing common problems with DNS servers. These include security issues, zone health checks and other snafus arising from human error (such as a zone file inherited from a previous administrator). The company's utilities are not freeware/open source, but you can download 30-day trial versions of their products from the Men & Mice Web site.

If you're on a tight budget, check out some of the free tools out there. One of the most straightforward is dnswalk, which attempts to initiate zone transfers for a given zone and inspects all the returned records for inconsistencies with other data. The tool is written in Perl and therefore requires the Perl engine to run, but it uses standard I/O libraries to accomplish all its functions so it can run on just about any platform (Windows included).

A slightly more sophisticated zone-testing suite is ZoneCheck. Although there is no Windows version of the tool yet (only Linux and BSD binaries are available), if you have programming experience, you could probably compile a Win32 version. You can download dnswalk here..

One of the more ambitious projects I've seen in the DNS space is Ganymede, a generic network-directory management tool written in open-source Java. It may be a little too ambitious for casual use, but it's worth mentioning. Like the Men & Mice packages, it supports delegation and can be used to track and log all changes made to a given directory. DNS is just one of many possible directory types that can be managed through Ganymede, so while it may not be an out-of-the-box management solution, it's a daring way to kill many different birds with one stone.

Serdar Yegulalp is editor of the Windows Power Users Newsletter. Check it out for the latest advice and musings on the world of Windows network administrators -- and please share your thoughts as well!

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