Julia Evans

A toy DNS resolver

Hello! I wrote a comic last week called “life of a DNS query” that explains how DNS resolvers work.

In this post, I want to explain how DNS resolvers work in a different way – with a short Go program that does the same thing described in the comic. The main function (resolve) is actually just 20 lines, including comments.

I usually find it easier to understand things work when they come in the form of programs that I can run and modify and poke at, so hopefully this program will be helpful to some of you.

The program is here: https://github.com/jvns/tiny-resolver/blob/main/resolve.go

what’s a DNS resolver?

When your browser needs to make a DNS query, it asks a DNS resolvers. When they start, DNS resolvers don’t know any DNS records (except the IP addresses of the root nameservers). But they do know how to find DNS records for you.

Here’s the “life of a DNS query” comic, which explains how DNS resolvers find DNS records for you.

we’ll use a library for parsing DNS packets.

I’m not going to write this completely from scratch – I think parsing DNS packets is really interesting, but it’s definitely more than 80 lines of code, and I find that it kind of distracts from the algorithm.

I really recommend writing a toy DNS resolver that actually does the parsing of DNS packets if you want to learn about binary protocols though, it’s really fun and it’s a totally doable to get something basic working in a weekend.

So I’ve used https://github.com/miekg/dns for creating and parsing the DNS packets.

DNS responses contain 4 sections

You might think of DNS queries as just being a question and an answer (“what’s the IP for example.com? it’s 93.184.216.34!). But actually DNS responses contain 4 sections, and we need to use all 4 sections to write our DNS resolver. So let’s explain what they are.

Here’s the Msg struct from the miekg/dns library, which lists the sections.

type Msg struct {
        MsgHdr
        Compress bool       `json:"-"` // If true, the message will be compressed when converted to wire format.
        Question []Question // Holds the RR(s) of the question section.
        Answer   []RR       // Holds the RR(s) of the answer section.
        Ns       []RR       // Holds the RR(s) of the authority section.
        Extra    []RR       // Holds the RR(s) of the additional section.
}

Section 1: Question. This is the section you use when you’re creating a query. There’s not much to it – it just has a query name (like jvns.ca.), a type (like A, but encoded as an integer), and a class (which is always the same these days, “internet”).

Here’s what the Question struct miekg/dns looks like:

type Question struct {
        Name   string `dns:"cdomain-name"` // "cdomain-name" specifies encoding (and may be compressed)
        Qtype  uint16
        Qclass uint16
}

Section 2: Answer. When you make a request like this:

$ dig +short google.com
93.184.216.34

the IP address 93.184.216.34 comes from the Answer section.

The Answer, Authority, and Additional sections all contain DNS records. Different types of records have different formats, but they all contain a name, type, class, and TTL

Here’s what the shared header looks like in miekg/dns:

type RR_Header struct {
        Name     string `dns:"cdomain-name"`
        Rrtype   uint16
        Class    uint16
        Ttl      uint32
        Rdlength uint16 // Length of data after header.
}

“RR” stands for “Resource Record”.

Section 3: Authority. When a nameserver redirects you to another server (“ask a.iana-servers.net instead!“), this is the section it uses. miekg/dns calls this section Ns instead of Authority, I guess because it contains NS records.

Here’s an example of an record in the Authority section of a DNS response.

$ dig +noall +authority @h.root-servers.net example.com 
com.			172800	IN	NS	a.gtld-servers.net.
com.			172800	IN	NS	b.gtld-servers.net.

The Authority section can also contain SOA records but that’s not relevant to this post so I’m not going to talk about that.

Section 4: Additional. This is where “glue records” live. What’s a glue record? Well, basically when a nameserver redirects you to another server, often it’ll include the IP address of that server as well.

Here are the glue records from the same query above.

$ dig +noall +additional @h.root-servers.net example.com 
a.gtld-servers.net.	172800	IN	A	192.5.6.30
b.gtld-servers.net.	172800	IN	A	192.33.14.30

There are other things in the Additional section as well, not just glue records, but they’re not relevant to this blog post so I’m not going to talk about them.

the basic resolve function is pretty short

Now that we’ve talked about the different sections in a DNS response, I can explain the resolver code.

Let’s jump into the main function for resolving a name to an IP address.

name here is a domain name, like example.com.`

func resolve(name string) net.IP {
   // We always start with a root nameserver
   nameserver := net.ParseIP("198.41.0.4")
   for {
      reply := dnsQuery(name, nameserver)
      if ip := getAnswer(reply); ip != nil { // look in the "Answer" section
         // Best case: we get an answer to our query  and we're done
         return ip
      } else if nsIP := getGlue(reply); nsIP != nil { // look in the "Additional" section
            // Second best: we get a "glue record" with the *IP address* of
            // another nameserver to query 
         nameserver = nsIP
      } else if domain := getNS(reply); domain != "" { // look in the "Authority" section
            // Third best: we get the *domain name* of another nameserver to
            // query, which we can look up the IP for
         nameserver = resolve(domain)
      } else {
         // If there's no A record we just panic, this is not a very good
         // resolver :)
         panic("something went wrong")
      }
   }
}

Here’s what that resolve function is doing: 1. We start with the root nameserver 2. Then we do a loop: a. Query the nameserver and parse the response a. Look in the “Answer” section for a response. If we find one, we’re done a. Look in the “Additional” section for a glue record. If we find one, use that as the nameserver for the next query a. Look in the “Authority” section for a nameserver domain. If we find one, look up its IP and then use that IP as the nameserver for the next query

That’s basically the whole program. There are a few helper functions to get records out of the DNS response and to make DNS queries but I don’t think they’re that interesting so I won’t explain them.

the output

The resolver prints out all DNS queries it made, and the record it used to figure out what query to make it next.

It prints out dig -r @SERVER DOMAIN for each query even though it’s not actually using dig to make the query because I liked being able to run the same query myself from the command line to see the response myself, for debugging purposes.

-r just means “ignore what’s in .digrc”, it’s there because I have some options in my .digrc (+noall +answer) that I wanted to disable when debugging.

Let’s look at 3 examples of the output.

example 1: jvns.ca

$ go run resolve.go jvns.ca.
dig -r @198.41.0.4 jvns.ca.
   any.ca-servers.ca.	172800	IN	A	199.4.144.2
dig -r @199.4.144.2 jvns.ca.
   jvns.ca.	86400	IN	NS	art.ns.cloudflare.com.
dig -r @198.41.0.4 art.ns.cloudflare.com.
   a.gtld-servers.net.	172800	IN	A	192.5.6.30
dig -r @192.5.6.30 art.ns.cloudflare.com.
   ns3.cloudflare.com.	172800	IN	A	162.159.0.33
dig -r @162.159.0.33 art.ns.cloudflare.com.
   art.ns.cloudflare.com.	900	IN	A	173.245.59.102
dig -r @173.245.59.102 jvns.ca.
   jvns.ca.	256	IN	A	172.64.80.1

We can see it had to make 6 DNS queries, 3 to look up jvns.ca and 3 to look up jvns.ca’s nameserver, art.ns.cloudflare.com

example 2: archive.org

$ go run resolve.go archive.org.
dig -r @198.41.0.4 archive.org.
   a0.org.afilias-nst.info.	172800	IN	A	199.19.56.1
dig -r @199.19.56.1 archive.org.
   ns1.archive.org.	86400	IN	A	208.70.31.236
dig -r @208.70.31.236 archive.org.
   archive.org.	300	IN	A	207.241.224.2
Result: 207.241.224.2

This one only had to make 3 DNS queries. This is because there was a glue record available for archive.org’s nameserver (ns1.archive.org.).

example 3: www.maths.ox.ac.uk

One last example: let’s look up www.maths.ox.ac.uk. There’s a reason for this one, I promise!

dig -r @198.41.0.4 www.maths.ox.ac.uk.
   dns1.nic.uk.	172800	IN	A	213.248.216.1
dig -r @213.248.216.1 www.maths.ox.ac.uk.
   ac.uk.	172800	IN	NS	ns0.ja.net.
dig -r @198.41.0.4 ns0.ja.net.
   e.gtld-servers.net.	172800	IN	A	192.12.94.30
dig -r @192.12.94.30 ns0.ja.net.
   ns0.ja.net.	172800	IN	A	128.86.1.20
dig -r @128.86.1.20 ns0.ja.net.
   ns0.ja.net.	86400	IN	A	128.86.1.20
dig -r @128.86.1.20 www.maths.ox.ac.uk.
   ns2.ja.net.	86400	IN	A	193.63.105.17
dig -r @193.63.105.17 www.maths.ox.ac.uk.
   www.maths.ox.ac.uk.	300	IN	A	129.67.184.128
Result: 129.67.184.128

This makes 7 DNS queries, which is more than jvns.ca, which only needed 6. Why does it make 7 DNS queries instead of 6?

Well, it’s because there are 4 nameservers involved in resolving www.maths.ox.ac.uk instead of 3. They are:

  • the . nameserver
  • the uk. nameserver
  • the ac.uk. nameserver
  • the ox.ac.uk. nameserver

You could even imagine there being a 5th one (a maths.ox.ac.uk. nameserver), but there isn’t in this case.

jvns.ca only involves 3 nameservers:

  • the . nameserver
  • the ca. nameserver
  • the jvns.ca. nameserver

real DNS resolvers actually make more queries than this

When my resolver resolves reddit.com., it only makes 3 DNS queries.

$ go run resolve.go reddit.com.
dig -r @198.41.0.4 reddit.com.
   e.gtld-servers.net.	172800	IN	A	192.12.94.30
dig -r @192.12.94.30 reddit.com.
   ns-378.awsdns-47.com.	172800	IN	A	205.251.193.122
dig -r @205.251.193.122 reddit.com.
   reddit.com.	300	IN	A	151.101.129.140
Result: 151.101.129.140

But when unbound (the actual DNS resolver that I have running on my laptop) resolves reddit.com, it makes more DNS queries. I captured them with tcpdump to see what they were.

This tcpdump output might be a little illegible because well, that’s how tcpdump is, but hopefully it makes some sense.

Unbound skips the first step, because it has the address of the com. nameserver cached. Then the next 2 queries unbound makes are exactly the same as my tiny Go resolver, except that it sends its first query to k.gtld-servers.net instead of e.gtld-servers.net:

12:38:35.479222 wlp3s0 Out IP pomegranate.19946 > k.gtld-servers.net.domain: 51686% [1au] A? reddit.com. (39)
12:38:35.757033 wlp3s0 Out IP pomegranate.29111 > ns-378.awsdns-47.com.domain: 8859% [1au] A? reddit.com. (39)

But then it keeps making DNS queries, even after it’s done resolving reddit.com:

12:38:35.757033 wlp3s0 Out IP pomegranate.29111 > ns-378.awsdns-47.com.domain: 8859% [1au] A? reddit.com. (39)
12:38:35.757396 wlp3s0 Out IP pomegranate.31913 > ns-1775.awsdns-29.co.uk.domain: 54236% [1au] A? ns-378.awsdns-47.com. (49)
12:38:35.757761 wlp3s0 Out IP pomegranate.62059 > g.gtld-servers.net.domain: 28793% [1au] A? awsdns-05.net. (42)
12:38:35.757955 wlp3s0 Out IP pomegranate.34743 > b0.org.afilias-nst.org.domain: 24975% [1au] A? awsdns-00.org. (42)
12:38:35.758051 wlp3s0 Out IP pomegranate.8977 > a0.org.afilias-nst.info.domain: 53387% [1au] A? awsdns-00.org. (42)
12:38:35.758285 wlp3s0 Out IP pomegranate.11376 > j.gtld-servers.net.domain: 41181% [1au] A? awsdns-05.net. (42)
12:38:35.775497 wlp3s0 In  IP ns-378.awsdns-47.com.domain > pomegranate.29111: 8859*-$ 4/4/1 A 151.101.1.140, A 151.101.129.140, A 151.101.65.140, A 151.101.193.140 (240)
12:38:35.775948 lo    In  IP localhost.domain > localhost.34429: 4033 4/0/1 A 151.101.1.140, A 151.101.129.140, A 151.101.65.140, A 151.101.193.140 (103)
# now it's done -- it returned its DNS response!
# but it keeps making queries about reddit.com's nameservers...
12:38:35.843811 wlp3s0 Out IP pomegranate.44738 > ns-706.awsdns-24.net.domain: 14817% [1au] A? ns-1029.awsdns-00.org. (50)
12:38:35.845563 wlp3s0 Out IP pomegranate.55655 > ns-1027.awsdns-00.org.domain: 3120% [1au] A? ns-1029.awsdns-00.org. (50)
12:38:36.017618 wlp3s0 Out IP pomegranate.53397 > ns-775.awsdns-32.net.domain: 32671% [1au] A? ns-557.awsdns-05.net. (49)
12:38:36.045151 wlp3s0 Out IP pomegranate.40525 > ns-454.awsdns-56.com.domain: 20823% [1au] A? ns-557.awsdns-05.net. (49)

So that’s kind of interesting. I guess it makes sense that unbound would want to cache more nameserver addresses in case it needs them in the future. Or maybe that’s what the DNS specification says to do?

is this a “recursive” program?

DNS resolvers are often called “recursive nameservers”. I’ve stopped using that terminology myself in explanations, but as far as I can tell, this is because the resolve function is often a recursive function.

And the resolve function I wrote is definitely recursive! But I ran this program on 500 different domains, and these are the number of times it recursed:

  1. Sometimes 0 times (the function never calls itself)
  2. Sometimes 1 time (the function calls itself once, to look up the IP address of one nameserver)
  3. Very rarely 2 times (like for example to resolve abc.net.au. right now it needs to look up r.au., then eur2.akam.net. then abc.net.au.)
  4. So far, never 3 times

Maybe there’s a domain that this function would recurse more than 2 times on, but I don’t know.

You definitely could write this program in a way that recurses more, by replacing the loop with more recursion. And then it would recurse 3 or 6 or 7 or 9 times, depending on the domain. But to me the loop feels easier to read so I wrote it with a loop instead.

a bash version of this resolver

I wanted to see if it was possible to write a DNS resolver in 10-15 lines of bash, similarly to this short “run a container” script

The program I came up with was kind of too long in the end (it’s about 36 lines), but here it is anyway. It uses the exact same algorithm as the Go program.

https://github.com/jvns/tiny-resolver/blob/main/resolver.sh

The bash version is even more janky and uses grep in very questionable ways but it did resolve every domain I tried which is cool.

It actually helped me write the Go resolver (which I actually started back in November but got stuck on) because bash’s limitations forced me to simplify the design and simplifying it fixed a bug I was running into.

how is this different from a “real” DNS resolver?

Obviously this is only 80 lines so there are a lot of differences between this an a “real” DNS resolver. Here are a few:

  • it only handles A records, not other record types
  • specifically it doesn’t handle CNAME records (though you can easily add CNAME support with just another 12 lines of code)
  • it always only returns one A record even if there are more
  • it has absolutely no ability to handle errors like “there were no A records” (the Go program just panics)
  • the way it handles the glue records is a bit sketchy, probably it should check that they match the nameservers in the “Authority” section or something. It seems to work though.
  • DNS resolvers are usually servers, this is a command line program
  • it doesn’t validate DNSSEC or whatever
  • it doesn’t do caching
  • it doesn’t try a different nameserver if one of the domain’s nameservers isn’t working and times out the DNS query
  • like we mentioned above, unbound seems to look up the addresses of all the nameservers for a domain
  • probably there are other bugs and ways it violates the DNS spec that I don’t know about

tiny versions of real programs are fun

As usual I always learn something from writing tiny versions of real programs. I’ve written this program before but I think this version is better than the first version I wrote.

In 2020 I ran a 2-day workshop with my friend Allison called “Domain Name Saturday” where all the participants wrote DNS resolvers. Basically the idea was that you implement the algorithm described in this post, as well as the binary parsing pieces that the miekg/dns library handles here. At some point I want to write up that workshop so that other people could run it, because it was really fun.

One question I still have is – are there domains where the resolve function would recurse 3 times or more on? Obviously you could manufacture such a domain by making it intentionally have to go through a bunch of hoops, but.. do they exist in the real world?

Reasons for servers to support IPv6 The multiple meanings of "nameserver" and "DNS resolver"