Localhost DNS Cache

Is it weird to say that DNS is my favorite protocol? Because DNS is my favorite protocol. There's something about the simplicity of UDP packets combined with the power of a service that the entire Internet relies on that grabs my interest. Through the years, I've been impressed with just how few resources you need to run a modest DNS infrastructure for an internal network.

Recently, as one of my environments started to grow, I noticed that even though the DNS servers were keeping up with the load, the query logs were full of queries for the same hosts over and over within seconds of each other. You see, often a default Linux installation does not come with any sort of local DNS caching. That means that every time a hostname needs to be resolved to an IP, the external DNS server is hit no matter what TTL you set for that record.

This article explains how simple it is to set up a lightweight local DNS cache that does nothing more than forward DNS requests to your normal resolvers and honor the TTL of the records it gets back.

There are a number of different ways to implement DNS caching. In the past, I've used systems like nscd that intercept DNS queries before they would go to name servers in /etc/resolv.conf and see if they already are present in the cache. Although it works, I always found nscd more difficult to troubleshoot than DNS when something went wrong. What I really wanted was just a local DNS server that honored TTL but would forward all requests to my real name servers. That way, I would get the speed and load benefits of a local cache, while also being able to troubleshoot any errors with standard DNS tools.

The solution I found was dnsmasq. Normally I am not a big advocate for dnsmasq, because it's often touted as an easy-to-configure full DNS and DHCP server solution, and I prefer going with standalone services for that. Dnsmasq often will be configured to read /etc/resolv.conf for a list of upstream name servers to forward to and use /etc/hosts for zone configuration. I wanted something completely different. I had full-featured DNS servers already in place, and if I liked relying on /etc/hosts instead of DNS for hostname resolution, I'd hop in my DeLorean and go back to the early 1980s. Instead, the bulk of my dnsmasq configuration will be focused on disabling a lot of the default features.

The first step is to install dnsmasq. This software is widely available for most distributions, so just use your standard package manager to install the dnsmasq package. In my case, I'm installing this on Debian, so there are a few Debianisms to deal with that you might not have to consider if you use a different distribution. First is the fact that there are some rather important settings placed in /etc/default/dnsmasq. The file is fully commented, so I won't paste it here. Instead, I list two variables I made sure to set:


ENABLED=1
IGNORE_RESOLVCONF=yes

The first variable makes sure the service starts, and the second will tell dnsmasq to ignore any input from the resolvconf service (if it's installed) when determining what name servers to use. I will be specifying those manually anyway.

The next step is to configure dnsmasq itself. The default configuration file can be found at /etc/dnsmasq.conf, and you can edit it directly if you want, but in my case, Debian automatically sets up an /etc/dnsmasq.d directory and will load the configuration from any file you find in there. As a heavy user of configuration management systems, I prefer the servicename.d configuration model, as it makes it easy to push different configurations for different uses. If your distribution doesn't set up this directory for you, you can just edit /etc/dnsmasq.conf directly or look into adding an option like this to dnsmasq.conf:


conf-dir=/etc/dnsmasq.d

In my case, I created a new file called /etc/dnsmasq.d/dnscache.conf with the following settings:


no-hosts
no-resolv
listen-address=127.0.0.1
bind-interfaces
server=/dev.example.com/10.0.0.5
server=/10.in-addr.arpa/10.0.0.5
server=/dev.example.com/10.0.0.6
server=/10.in-addr.arpa/10.0.0.6
server=/dev.example.com/10.0.0.7
server=/10.in-addr.arpa/10.0.0.7

Let's go over each setting. The first, no-hosts, tells dnsmasq to ignore /etc/hosts and not use it as a source of DNS records. You want dnsmasq to use your upstream name servers only. The no-resolv setting tells dnsmasq not to use /etc/resolv.conf for the list of name servers to use. This is important, as later on, you will add dnsmasq's own IP to the top of /etc/resolv.conf, and you don't want it to end up in some loop. The next two settings, listen-address and bind-interfaces ensure that dnsmasq binds to and listens on only the localhost interface (127.0.0.1). You don't want to risk outsiders using your service as an open DNS relay.

The server configuration lines are where you add the upstream name servers you want dnsmasq to use. In my case, I added three different upstream name servers in my preferred order. The syntax for this line is server=/domain_to_use/nameserver_ip. So in the above example, it would use those name servers for dev.example.com resolution. In my case, I also wanted dnsmasq to use those name servers for IP-to-name resolution (PTR records), so since all the internal IPs are in the 10.x.x.x network, I added 10.in-addr.arpa as the domain.

Once this configuration file is in place, restart dnsmasq so the settings take effect. Then you can use dig pointed to localhost to test whether dnsmasq works:


$ dig ns1.dev.example.com @localhost

; <<>> DiG 9.8.4-rpz2+rl005.12-P1 <<>> ns1.dev.example.com @localhost
;; global options: +cmd
;; Got answer:
;; ->>HEADER<<- opcode: QUERY, status: NOERROR, id: 4208
;; flags: qr rd ra; QUERY: 1, ANSWER: 1, AUTHORITY: 0, ADDITIONAL: 0

;; QUESTION SECTION:
;ns1.dev.example.com.                   IN      A

;; ANSWER SECTION:
ns1.dev.example.com.    265     IN      A       10.0.0.5

;; Query time: 0 msec
;; SERVER: 127.0.0.1#53(127.0.0.1)
;; WHEN: Thu Sep 18 00:59:18 2014
;; MSG SIZE  rcvd: 56

Here, I tested ns1.dev.example.com and saw that it correctly resolved to 10.0.0.5. If you inspect the dig output, you can see near the bottom of the output that SERVER: 127.0.0.1#53(127.0.0.1) confirms that I was indeed talking to 127.0.0.1 to get my answer. If you run this command again shortly afterward, you should notice that the TTL setting in the output (in the above example it was set to 265) will decrement. Dnsmasq is caching the response, and once the TTL gets to 0, dnsmasq will query a remote name server again.

After you have validated that dnsmasq functions, the final step is to edit /etc/resolv.conf and make sure that you have nameserver 127.0.0.1 listed above all other nameserver lines. Note that you can leave all of the existing name servers in place. In fact, that provides a means of safety in case dnsmasq ever were to crash. If you use DHCP to get an IP or otherwise have these values set from a different file (such as is the case when resolvconf is installed), you'll need to track down what files to modify instead; otherwise, the next time you get a DHCP lease, it will overwrite this with your new settings.

I deployed this simple change to around 100 servers in a particular environment, and it was amazing to see the dramatic drop in DNS traffic, load and log entries on my internal name servers. What's more, with this in place, the environment is even more tolerant in the case there ever were a real problem with downstream DNS servers—existing cached entries still would resolve for the host until TTL expired. So if you find your internal name servers are getting hammered with traffic, an internal DNS cache is something you definitely should consider.

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Kyle Rankin is senior security and infrastructure architect, the author of many books including Linux Hardening in Hostile Networks, DevOps Troubleshooting and The Official Ubuntu Server Book, and a columnist for Linux Journal. Follow him @kylerankin