Secondary nameserver overview

Secondary and Primary DNS explanations

First let us look at the big picture of the stealth master configuration of a DNS server

  • LARGE, SMALL, MEDIUM show the computing capabilities of the server.
-------------------                  -----------------------              ---------------------
|    (SMALL)      |    NOTIFY        |     (MEDIUM)        |   (internal) |    (LARGE)        |
|    Personal     | ---------------> |     Secondary DNS   |<------------>|   Public facing   |
|      VPS        | <--------------- |       server IP     |              |     DNS server    |
|     [ip1]       |    AXFR request  |       [ip2]         |              |      [ip3]        |
-------------------                  -----------------------              ---------------------
       |                                                                            ^  |
       ---------------------------------------------------                          |  |
          two way communication between VPS and user      |                         |  |
                                                          |                         |  |
              -------------------  primary NS query --------------                  |  |
              |     (LARGE)     | <---------------  |    (USER)  |  domain ip query |  |
              |    Registrar    | --------------->  |     user   | ------------------  |
              |                 |   ip3 as primary  |            |<---------------------
              -------------------        NS         --------------     ip1 as address
                                                                          of domain

Quick overview of DNS

DNS stands for domain name server/system and is the first step in establishing communication with a host.
DNS is the method to translate a name of the form https://openbsd.org to an ipv4 address, which can be of the form 129.128.5.194 or an ipv6 address, which is a lot more complex, of the form dead:beef.

DNS flow overview

A user does not necessarily store all the translation information in their local server.
The way a user gets this translation is by querying primary nameservers of the domain and making query for the ip of the domain.

Primary nameservers

Primary nameservers are the one which answer the users query for the ip of a domain.
These are queried millions of times a second from different places for different domains, hence they are hosted on highly powerful computers.

For the first step, even before communicating with the server, the user must know the ip address of the primary nameservers.
The user gets the primary nameserver by querying different registrars for the primary nameserver of a domain.
There are a lot of registrars and they have their own methods of making sure that the information between registrars is in sync. Typically, you update the ip addresses of the primary nameservers at your registrar, where you bought the domain name from, and this information is synced all throughout the world very soon (we don’t cover explaining recursive dns and other complex things here).
This way it is fairly fast for a user to get the primary nameservers of your domain.

Secondary nameservers

But how does the primary nameserver get the information?

The answer to that is the stealth master configuration.
The DNS service provider will query your personal VPS for all the information and then will start answering the queries of users.

But the DNS provider does not do this through the same servers that it answers queries from.
It is done via other medium sized servers, which are called secondary nameservers, who query your VPS in two ways

  • Either by doing queries periodically, or
  • Your VPS sends a notification (NOTIFY) to the secondary nameserver, informing them that some change has happened and it should query you asap.

The second method is called the NOTIFY from your VPS to the secondary DNS.
Hence it is vital to get the DNS service from a provider who supports the NOTIFY protocol.

The query made by the secondary nameserver is called a zone transfer, AXFR, query, wherein it asks your VPS for the full zone file of the domain.
This method to query for the zone file of a domain from a computer has been exploited to do DDOS attacks and needs careful adjustment to only allow the proper IPs to make AXFR requests.

Now the DNS providers secondary nameserver will take your zone file and then update the public facing nameservers fairly soon (typically <5 mins).

Stealth master

For the DNS provider to get the full zone info, it first needs the IP address of your VPS.
This is one of the reasons why hosting services at home is a tough situation as your home address is fairly fickle.

Hence your VPS is the master provider of the DNS information, but because it is a small server, we delegate the responsibility to answer the users queries to the LARGE servers from your DNS service provider.

None of the users ever know that the actual authoritative information is coming stored in a different location, your VPS server, hence it is called a stealth master.

Excision setup

Excision does this automatically provided that you give the ip2 and ip3 in the configuration.

  • ip2 - This is the address that is allowed to make AXFR requests and also the address that NOTIFY updates are sent to
  • ip3 - This is added in the zone file for a cross check with your registrar to make sure that the proper nameservers are used.

Typically, when you buy a DNS service, they will have the information of the public facing nameservers and the secondary namerservers, somewhere in their web ui.
Just take the two lists of ip addresses and add them in the appropriate place in the vars.yml file.