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The NSD Authoritative DNS Server: What, why, and how

In a previous blog post, I explained how to setup unbound, a recursive resolving DNS server. I demonstrated how to setup a simple split-horizon DNS setup, and forward DNS requests to an upstream DNS server - potentially over DNS-over-TLS.

Recently, for reasons that are rather complicated, I found myself in an awkward situation which required an authoritative DNS server - and given my love of explaining complicated and rather niche concepts here on my blog, I thought this would be a fabulous opportunity to write a 2-part series :P

In this post, I'm going to outline the difference between a recursive resolver and an authoritative DNS server, and explain why you'd want one and how to set one up. I'll explain how it fits as a part of a wider system.

Go grab your snacks - you'll be learning more about DNS than you ever wanted to know....

DNS in a (small) nutshell

As I'm sure you know if you're reading this, DNS stands for the Domain Name System. It translates domain names (e.g. starbeamrainbowlabs.com.) into IP addresses (e.g. 5.196.73.75, or 2001:41d0:e:74b::1). Every network-connected system will make use of a DNS server at one point or another.

DNS functions on records. These define how a given domain name should be resolved to it's corresponding IP address (or vice verse, but that's out-of-scope of this post). While there are many different types of DNS record, here's a quick reference for the most common one's you'll encounter when reading this post.

A tale of 2 (DNS) servers

Consider your laptop, desktop, phone, or other device you're reading this on right now. Normally (if you are using DHCP, which is a story for another time), your router (which usually acts as the DHCP server on most home networks) will tell you what DNS server(s) to use.

These servers that your device talks to is what's known as a recursive resolving DNS server. These DNS servers do not have any DNS records themselves: their entire purpose is to ask other DNS servers to resolve queries for them.

At first this seems rather counterintuitive. Why bother when you can have a server that actually hosts the DNS records themselves and just ask that every time instead?

Given the size of the Internet today, this is unfortunately not possible. If we all used the same DNS server that hosted all DNS records, it would be drowned in DNS queries that even the best Internet connection would not be abel to handle. It would also be a single point of failure - bringing the entire Internet crashing down every time maintenance was required.

To this end, a more scaleable system was developed. By having multiple DNS servers between users and the authoritative DNS servers that actually hold the real DNS records, we can ensure the system scales virtually infinitely.

The next question that probably comes to mind is where the name recursive resolvers DNS server comes from. This name comes from the way that these recursive DNS servers ask other DNS servers for the answer to a query, instead of answering based on records they hold locally (though most recursive resolving DNS servers also have a cache for performance, but this is also a tale for another time).

Some recursive resolving DNS servers - such as the one built into your home router - simply asks 1 or 2 upstream DNS servers - usually either provided by your ISP or manually set by you (I recommend 1.1.1.1/1.0.0.1), but others are truly recursive.

Take peppermint.mooncarrot.space. for example. If we had absolutely no idea where to start resolving this domain, we would first ask a DNS root server for help. Domain names are hierarchical in nature - sub.example.com. is a subdomain of example.com.. The same goes then that mooncarrot.space. is a subdomain of space., which is itself a subdomain of ., the DNS root zone. It is no accident that all the domain names in this blog post have a dot at the end of them (try entering starbeamrainbowlabs.com. into your browser, and watch as your browser auto-hides the trailing dot .).

In this way, if we know the IP address of a DNS root server (e.g. 193.0.14.129, or 2001:7fd::1), we can recurse through this hierarchical tree to discover the IP address associated with a domain name we want to resolve

First, we'd ask a root server to tell us the authoritative DNS server for the space. domain name. We do this by asking it for the NS record for the space. domain.

Once we know the address of the authoritative DNS server for space., we can ask it to give us the NS record for mooncarrot.space. for us. We may repeat this process a number of times - I'll omit the specific details of this for brevity (if anyone's interested, I can write a full deep dive post into this, how it works, and how it's kept secure - comment below) - and then we can finally ask the authoritative DNS server we've tracked down to resolve the domain name peppermint.mooncarrot.space. to an IP address for us (e.g. by asking for the associated A or AAAA record).

Authoritative DNS servers

With this in mind, we can now move on to the main purpose of this post: setting up an authoritative DNS server. As you might have guessed by now, the purpose of an authoritative DNS server is to hold records about 1 or more domain names.

While most of the time the authoritative DNS server for your domain name will be either your registrar or someone like Cloudflare, there are a number of circumstances in which it can be useful to run your own authoritative DNS server(s) and not rely on your registrar:

Other situations certainly exist, but these are 2 that come to mind at the moment (comment below if you have any other uses for authoritative DNS servers).

The specific situation I found myself was a combination of the latter 2 points here, so that's the context in which I'll be talking.

To set one up, we first need some software to do this. There are a number of DNS servers out there:

As mentioned Unbound is my favourite, so for this post I'll be showing you how to use it's equally cool sibling, nsd (Name Server Daemon).

The Name Server Daemon

Now that I've explained what an authoritative DNS server is and why it's important, I'll show you how to install and configure one, and then convince another recursive resolving DNS server that's under your control to ask your new authoritative DNS server instead of it's default upstream to resolve DNS queries for a given domain name.

It goes without saying that I'll be using Linux here. If you haven't already, I strongly recommend using Linux for hosting a DNS server (or any other kind of server). You'll have a bad day if you don't.

I will also be assuming that you have a level of familiarity with the Linux terminal. If you don't learn your terminal and then come back here.

nsd is available in all major distributions of Linux in the default repositories. Adjust as appropriate for your distribution:

sudo apt install nsd

nsd has 2 configuration files that are important. First is /etc/nsd/nsd.conf, which configures the nsd daemon itself. Let's do this one first. If there's an existing config file here, move it aside and then paste in something like this:

server:
    port: 5353

    server-count: 1
    username: nsd

    logfile: "/var/log/nsd.log"
    pidfile: "/run/nsd.pid"

    # The zonefile directive(s) below is prefixed by this path
    zonesdir: /etc/nsd/zones

zone:
    name: example.com
    zonefile: example.com.zone

...replace example.com with the domain name that you want the authoritative DNS server to serve DNS records for. You can also have multiple zone: blocks for different (sub)domains - even if those domain names are subdomains of others.

For example, I could have a zone: block for both example.com and dyn.example.com. This can be useful if you want to run your own dynamic DNS server, which will write out a full DNS zone file (a file that contains DNS records) without regard to any other DNS records that might have been in that DNS zone.

Replace also 5353 with the port you want nsd to listen on. In my case I have my authoritative DNS server running on the same box as the regular recursive resolver, so I've had to move the authoritative DNS server aside to a different port as dnsmasq (the recursive DNS server I have running on this particular box) has already taken port 53.

Next up, create the directory /etc/nsd/zones, and then open up example.com.zone for editing inside that new directory. In here, we will put the actual DNS records we want nsd to serve.

The format of this file is governed by RFC1035 section 5 and RFC1034 section 3.6.1, but the nsd docs provide a simpler example. See also the wikipedia page on DNS zone files.

Here's an example:

; example.com.
$TTL 300
example.com. IN     SOA    a.root-servers.net. admin.example.com. (
                2022090501  ; Serial
                3H          ; refresh after 3 hours
                1H          ; retry after 1 hour
                1W          ; expire after 1 week
                1D)         ; minimum TTL of 1 day

; Name Server
IN  NS  dns.example.com.

@                   IN A        5.196.73.75
example.com.        IN AAAA     2001:41d0:e:74b::1
www                 IN CNAME    @
ci                  IN CNAME    @

Some notes about the format to help you understand it:

Once you're done, all that's left for configuring nsd is to start it up for the first time (and on boot). Do that like so:

sudo systemctl restart nsd
sudo systemctl enable nsd

Now, you should be able to query it to test it. I like to use dig for this:

dig -p 5353 +short @dns.example.com example.com

...this should return a result based on the DNS zone file you defined above. Replace 5353 with the port number your authoritative DNS server is running on, or omit -p 5353 altogether if it's running on port 53.

Try it out by updating your DNS zone file and reloading nsd: sudo systemctl reload nsd

Congratulations! You now have an authoritative DNS server under your control! This does not mean that it will be queried by any other DNS servers on your network though - read on.....

Integration with the rest of your network

The final part of this post will cover integrating an authoritative DNS server with another DNS server on your network - usually a recursive one. How you do this will vary depending on the target DNS server you want to convince to talk to your authoritative DNS server.

For Unbound:

I've actually covered this in a previous blog post. Simply update /etc/unbound/unbound.conf with a new block like this:

forward-zone:
    name: "example.com."
    forward-addr: 127.0.0.1@5353

...where example.com. is the domain name to forward for (WITH THE TRAILING DOT; and all subdomains thereof), 127.0.0.1 is the IP address of the authoritative DNS server, and 5353 is the port number of the authoritative DNS server.

Then, restart Unbound like so:

sudo systemctl restart unbound

For dnsmasq:

Dnsmasq's main config file is located at /etc/dnsmasq.conf, but there may be other config files located in /etc/dnsmasq.d/ that might interfere. Either way, update dnsmasq's config file with this directive:

server=/example.com./127.0.0.1#5353

...where example.com. is the domain name to forward for (WITH THE TRAILING DOT; and all subdomains thereof), 127.0.0.1 is the IP address of the authoritative DNS server, and 5353 is the port number of the authoritative DNS server.

If there's another server=/example.com./... directive elsewhere in your dnsmasq config, it may override your new definition.

Then, restart dnsmasq like so:

sudo systemctl restart dnsmasq

If there's another DNS server that I haven't included here that you use, please leave a comment on how to reconfigure it to forward a specific domain name to a different DNS server.

Conclusion

In this post, I've talked about the difference between an authoritative DNS server and a recursive resolving DNS server. I've shown why authoritative DNS servers are useful, and alluded to reasons why running your own authoritative DNS server can be beneficial.

In the second post in this 2-part miniseries, I'm going to go into detail on dynamic DNS, why it's useful, and how to set up a dynamic dns server.

As always, this blog post is a starting point - not an ending point. DNS is a surprisingly deep subject: from DNS root hint files to mDNS (multicast DNS) to the various different DNS record types, there are many interesting and useful things to learn about it.

After all, it's always DNS..... especially when you don't think it is.

Sources and further reading

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