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What is DNS?

What is DNS? DNS or Domain Name System serves as the fundamental addressing system for the Internet, functioning akin to a phonebook. It establishes a connection between web browsers and websites by translating human-readable hostnames into IP addresses (name resolution) and vice versa (reverse lookup). Furthermore, DNS designates the servers holding reference DNS information and specifies the communication protocol for queries and data transfer.

The DNS Hierarchy

Organization of DNS is based on a naming system called domain namespace, a hierarchical, highly-extensible tree structure in which each domain is a node. The internet domain namespace is made up of several levels including the root level domains and top level domains (TLD). Every node in the DNS domain tree is identified by a Fully Qualified Domain Name (FQDN) as a concatenation of the various names on the branch path up to the root of the DNS hierarchy. The DNS hierarchy has been designed to be able to contain a very large amount of domains. The top level domains cover original subjects (commercial with .com, organizations with .org or education with .edu), a list of the 255 countries (France with .fr, Chile with .cl, or Singapore with .sg) and more recently some more generic ones (eg .berlin, .horse or .lol).

What is Dns and Dns Hierarchy
What is DNS? and DNS Hierarchy

DNS Primary/Secondary

When it comes to managing a DNS zone, name servers are defined as either primary or secondary. The secondary’s main role is to ensure redundancy and spread the load from the clients and other DNS servers. The primary zone holds the original copy (the master record) of the database, while the secondary zone holds a copy of it.  Zones on the primary server are provisioned by the network administrator ideally through an IPAM solution, whereas zones on the secondary are automatically populated via zone transfer. The three types of zones used are recursive lookup zone, forward lookup zone and conditional forwarder zone. Data stored in the zone files are in the form of Resource Records (RR), with example RR types including A, AAAA, CNAME, MX and SOA.

DNS Workings and Processes

DNS operates through a series of processes, involving various components such as DNS records, caching, top-level domains (TLDs), queries, root servers, DNS clients, and authoritative name servers.

Root Server

At the top of the DNS hierarchy, the root server furnishes information about authoritative name servers for TLDs, guiding the resolution process.

Top-Level Domain (TLD)

TLDs represent the highest level in the hierarchical DNS structure, including .com, .org, and .net. Each TLD is managed by a specific registry, overseeing domain registrations within that domain extension.

TLD Nameserver

Integral to the DNS hierarchy, the TLD nameserver manages authoritative name servers for specific top-level domains. It plays a pivotal role in directing DNS queries to the correct authoritative servers, facilitating efficient resolution.

DNS Zone

A DNS zone is a segment of the DNS namespace managed by specific authoritative name servers. Zones can be recursive lookup zones, forward lookup zones, or conditional forwarder zones, each serving distinct purposes in the resolution process.

DNS Records

DNS records encapsulate essential information about a domain. Common record types include:

  • A (IPv4 Address): Associates a domain with an IPv4 address.
  • AAAA (IPv6 Address): Associates a domain with an IPv6 address.
  • CNAME (Canonical Name): Creates an alias for a domain.
  • MX (Mail Exchange): Specifies mail servers for a domain.
  • SOA (Start of Authority): Contains crucial information about a DNS zone.

DNS Query

A DNS query initiates when a user enters a domain name in a web browser. The DNS client, usually managed by the Internet Service Provider (ISP), sends a query to a recursive DNS server, which then resolves the domain by querying authoritative name servers.

DNS Caching

Crucial for efficiency, DNS caching enhances the resolution process. When a DNS server resolves a query, the result is stored in its cache for a specified Time-To-Live (TTL). This minimizes the need for repeated queries to authoritative servers, optimizing overall performance.

DNS Services

DNS services encompass various functions, including domain registration, management of authoritative name servers, and DNS hosting. These services are provided by entities like registrars, DNS hosting providers, and authoritative DNS server operators.

DNS Security Measures

Despite being integral to Internet functionality, DNS’s “open by design” nature exposes it to cyber threats. To ensure a secure DNS ecosystem, several DNS security measures must be implemented.

Authoritative DNS Server

Authoritative DNS servers house the original records for a specific zone, responsible for providing accurate information about domain names within their jurisdiction. Security measures include regular updates, monitoring, and adherence to best practices.

Recursive DNS Servers

Essential to the resolution process, recursive DNS servers query authoritative name servers on behalf of DNS clients, providing a complete response. Securing recursive servers involves implementing DNSSEC, filtering malicious traffic, and monitoring for abnormal query patterns.

Time-To-Live (TTL)

The TTL, associated with cached DNS data, specifies how long the data can be stored in the cache. Effective TTL management contributes to DNS security by controlling the duration of cached data, minimizing the risk of serving outdated or compromised information.

DNS Requests

Initiated by DNS clients, DNS requests traverse the DNS infrastructure. Securing DNS requests involves encryption (DNS over HTTPS or DNS over TLS), preventing eavesdropping and man-in-the-middle attacks.

Internet Service Provider (ISP)

ISPs play a crucial role in managing DNS clients. Ensuring the security of ISP-managed DNS clients involves implementing measures to protect against DNS-related attacks and providing secure DNS resolution services.

Error Messages

Understanding DNS error messages is crucial for diagnosing and resolving issues promptly. Common error messages include “NXDOMAIN” (non-existent domain), “SERVFAIL” (server failure), and “REFUSED” (refused query). Analyzing these messages aids in troubleshooting and improving DNS security.


In conclusion, a profound understanding of DNS intricacies, coupled with robust security measures, is essential for maintaining a secure and reliable Internet infrastructure. Regular updates, proactive monitoring, and the implementation of advanced security protocols contribute to a resilient DNS ecosystem.

The DNS resolution process involves intricate interactions between DNS clients, recursive servers, and authoritative name servers. DNS records, caching, TLDs, root servers, and zones collectively contribute to the efficient functioning of DNS. A well-managed DNS infrastructure ensures quick and accurate resolution, enhancing user experience and enabling the growth of online services.

As security threats evolve, measures like DNSSEC, encryption, and effective TTL management become imperative. Authoritative and recursive DNS servers must be fortified against DDoS attacks, cache poisoning, phishing attempts, and other potential risks. ISPs, as custodians of DNS clients, play a critical role in securing the end-to-end DNS resolution process.

In essence, safeguarding the integrity of DNS is not just a technical necessity; it is paramount for the continued growth and functionality of online services. The collaboration of network administrators, DNS operators, registrars, and ISPs is crucial in maintaining a secure DNS ecosystem that serves as the foundation for a safe and reliable digital landscape. With an ever-expanding Internet, the commitment to ongoing security practices remains vital for the sustained success of DNS and the broader online community. As the digital world continues to evolve, so must the strategies employed to secure DNS, ensuring a resilient and trustworthy foundation for the interconnected world.For a more visual explanation, watch the explanatory video on DNS here.