What Is DNS? | What To Do When Something Goes Wrong

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The Domain Name System (DNS) is an essential component of the Internet infrastructure that enables users to connect to websites using domain names instead of IP addresses. In this article, we will delve into the workings of DNS, exploring its purpose, how it functions, and the difference between authoritative DNS servers and recursive DNS resolvers.

What is DNS?

DNS, short for Domain Name System, acts as the phonebook of the Internet. It translates human-readable domain names (e.g., nytimes.com) into computer-friendly IP addresses (e.g., This translation allows web browsers to load Internet resources and eliminates the need for users to memorize complex IP addresses.

DNS works on a hierarchical structure, with multiple DNS servers involved in the process. Each device connected to the Internet has a unique IP address, which other machines use to find it. DNS servers eliminate the need for humans to memorize IP addresses, making it easier to navigate the Internet.

How Does DNS Work

The process of DNS resolution involves converting a domain name into an IP address. When a user wants to access a webpage, their web browser initiates a DNS lookup behind the scenes. This lookup involves a series of steps and interactions with different DNS servers:

a) DNS Recursor

The DNS recursor acts as a librarian, receiving queries from client machines (e.g., web browsers). Its role is to make additional requests to satisfy the client’s DNS query. It serves as an intermediary between the client and other DNS servers in the lookup process.

b) Root Nameserver

The root server is the first step in resolving domain names into IP addresses. It can be compared to an index in a library, directing requests to more specific locations. The root nameserver serves as a reference for other DNS servers.

c) TLD Nameserver

The top-level domain (TLD) nameserver represents a specific rack of books in a library. It hosts the last portion of a hostname (e.g., “.com” or “.org”) and helps in the search for a specific IP address.

d) Authoritative Nameserver

The authoritative nameserver is like a dictionary on a rack of books. It holds the DNS resource records for a particular domain and provides the IP address associated with the requested hostname. It is the final stop in the nameserver query and serves as the source of truth for certain DNS records.

Authoritative DNS Server vs. Recursive DNS Resolver

Both authoritative DNS servers and recursive DNS resolvers play crucial roles in the DNS infrastructure, but they have different functions and positions within the DNS query pipeline.

a) Recursive DNS Resolver

The recursive resolver responds to a client’s recursive request and tracks down the DNS record. It acts as a middleman between the client and authoritative DNS servers. The resolver starts by querying the root nameserver, which directs it to the appropriate TLD nameserver. The resolver then queries the TLD nameserver, which further directs it to the authoritative nameserver. The recursive resolver may cache DNS records to speed up future requests.

b) Authoritative DNS Server

The authoritative DNS server holds and serves DNS resource records. It is responsible for providing the IP address associated with a domain name. When a recursive resolver queries the authoritative nameserver, it responds with the requested DNS record. The authoritative server is the final source of truth for certain DNS records and can satisfy queries from its own data without needing to query another source.

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What are the steps in a DNS lookup?

DNS lookup is a process that translates domain names into IP addresses. Here is a detailed analysis of the steps involved in a DNS lookup:

1. User Request

When a user enters a domain name (e.g., example.com) into a web browser, it initiates a DNS lookup process to translate the domain name into an IP address. This IP address is needed to establish a connection with the desired website.

2. DNS Recursive Resolver

The DNS recursive resolver is the first point of contact for the user’s query. It acts as an intermediary between the user’s device and the DNS infrastructure. The resolver receives the query from the user’s browser and is responsible for handling the DNS lookup process.

3. Querying the Root Nameserver

The DNS recursive resolver starts the lookup process by querying a DNS root nameserver. The root nameserver is the starting point for resolving domain names and provides information about the Top Level Domain (TLD) nameservers.

4. Response from Root Nameserver

The root nameserver responds to the resolver’s query with the address of the TLD nameserver responsible for the requested domain’s TLD (e.g., .com or .net). This information is crucial for further resolving the domain name.

5. Querying the TLD Nameserver

Using the information obtained from the root nameserver, the resolver queries the TLD nameserver specific to the requested domain’s TLD. For example, if the domain is example.com, the resolver queries the .com TLD nameserver.

6. Response from TLD Nameserver

The TLD nameserver responds to the resolver’s query with the IP address of the domain’s authoritative nameserver. The authoritative nameserver is responsible for storing the DNS records for the requested domain.

7. Querying the Authoritative Nameserver

Armed with the IP address of the authoritative nameserver, the resolver sends a query directly to the authoritative nameserver for the requested domain. This query requests the IP address associated with the domain name.

8. Response from Authoritative Nameserver

The authoritative nameserver responds to the resolver’s query with the IP address of the requested domain. This IP address is crucial for establishing a connection with the desired website.

9. Returning IP Address

The DNS resolver, having obtained the IP address from the authoritative nameserver, sends the IP address back to the user’s web browser. The browser can now proceed to establish a connection with the website using the provided IP address.

10. Making the HTTP Request

With the IP address in hand, the web browser makes an HTTP request to the IP address. This request is sent to the server associated with the IP address, requesting the desired webpage.

11. Returning the Webpage

The server at the IP address receives the HTTP request from the web browser and responds by returning the requested webpage. The browser then renders the webpage for the user to view and interact with.

What Is DNS Resolver

The DNS resolver is a crucial component in the DNS lookup process. It receives the initial query from the user’s browser and is responsible for handling the DNS lookup process. The resolver acts as an intermediary between the user’s device and the DNS infrastructure. It performs the necessary queries to resolve the domain name into an IP address.

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Types of DNS Queries

There are three types of DNS queries involved in a typical DNS lookup:

1. Recursive Query

In a recursive query, the DNS client (resolver) requests a DNS server to respond with the requested resource record or an error message if the record is not found. The resolver is responsible for recursively querying the necessary DNS servers to obtain the final answer.

2. Iterative Query

In an iterative query, the DNS client allows a DNS server to return the best answer it can. If the queried DNS server does not have a match, it returns a referral to a lower-level authoritative DNS server. The process continues until an error or timeout occurs. The resolver is responsible for iteratively querying the DNS servers until it obtains the final answer.

3. Non-recursive Query

In a non-recursive query, the DNS resolver client queries a DNS server for a record that it has access to, either because it is authoritative for the record or the record exists in its cache. Non-recursive queries help reduce bandwidth consumption and load on upstream servers.

DNS Caching

DNS caching is an important mechanism that helps improve the performance and efficiency of DNS lookups. Here are the different levels of DNS caching:

1. Browser DNS Caching

Modern web browsers cache DNS records for a certain period of time. This allows for quicker retrieval of DNS records and reduces the need for additional DNS queries. The browser checks its cache before initiating a DNS lookup.

2. Operating System (OS) Level DNS Caching

The operating system’s DNS resolver, also known as a stub resolver or DNS client, caches DNS records. It stores the DNS records in its cache to reduce the response time for subsequent DNS queries. The OS resolver checks its cache before sending a query to a DNS recursive resolver.

3. ISP Recursive Resolver Caching

Internet Service Providers (ISPs) often have DNS recursive resolvers that cache DNS records. These resolvers cache frequently accessed DNS records, reducing the load on upstream DNS servers and improving response times for subsequent DNS queries.

DNS caching helps reduce the latency and network traffic associated with DNS lookups. It improves the overall efficiency and speed of the DNS resolution process.

What is DNSSec: Securing DNS with Digital Signatures

DNSSec (Domain Name System Security Extensions) is a security protocol designed to protect the DNS infrastructure from attacks and ensure the authenticity and integrity of DNS data. It achieves this through the use of digital signatures.

How DNSSec Works

DNSSec employs cryptographic techniques to sign DNS records, creating a chain of trust from the root DNS servers down to the authoritative nameservers. Each level of the DNS hierarchy has its own set of cryptographic keys.

Authenticity and Integrity

By digitally signing DNS records, DNSSec enables resolvers to verify the authenticity of received DNS data. This prevents attackers from injecting false or malicious DNS responses, safeguarding users from DNS cache poisoning attacks. Additionally, DNSSec ensures data integrity by detecting any tampering with DNS data during transmission.

Challenges and Adoption

DNSSec implementation has faced challenges, including the need for DNS operators to sign their DNS zones and deploy DNSSec-validating resolvers. Moreover, DNSSec introduces computational overhead and increases DNS response size due to the inclusion of cryptographic signatures. Despite these challenges, efforts are underway to promote wider adoption of DNSSec.

What is DNS over HTTPS (DoH): Encrypting DNS Traffic

DNS over HTTPS (DoH) is an alternative approach to secure DNS communication, leveraging the existing security measures of the HTTPS protocol.

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How DoH Works

DoH encrypts DNS queries and responses within HTTPS requests, encapsulating DNS traffic within a secure and encrypted channel. This prevents eavesdropping and tampering of DNS traffic, enhancing privacy and security.

Privacy and Security Enhancements

By encrypting DNS queries, DoH protects the confidentiality of DNS requests, preventing unauthorized access to users’ browsing habits. It also mitigates DNS-based attacks, such as DNS cache poisoning and data interception.

Controversies and Challenges

The adoption of DoH has raised concerns related to network management and security practices. Some argue that DoH’s ability to bypass traditional DNS monitoring and filtering mechanisms can make it difficult for network administrators to enforce acceptable use policies, block malicious domains, and detect potential security threats within the network.

1. Bypassing DNS Monitoring and Filtering: One of the main controversies surrounding DoH is its potential to bypass traditional DNS monitoring and filtering mechanisms. Since DoH encapsulates DNS queries within HTTPS, it can make it difficult for network administrators to monitor and filter DNS traffic. This raises concerns about the ability to enforce acceptable use policies, block malicious domains, and detect potential security threats within the network.

2. Impact on Parental Controls: DoH can also pose challenges for implementing parental controls and content filtering. With DNS queries encrypted through DoH, it becomes harder for parents to monitor and control their children’s internet usage, potentially exposing them to inappropriate content.

Adoption and Implementation

The adoption of DoH has been relatively slow, with major browser vendors like Google and Mozilla starting to implement it in their browsers. However, it can be turned off by end-users, and many ISPs have not yet enabled DoH on their end. Organizations have the option to disable DoH or implement strategies to manage its usage within their networks.

What to Do When Something Goes Wrong with DNS

While the DNS generally works smoothly, there can be occasional glitches or issues that affect its functionality. Here are some steps to take when encountering DNS-related problems:

1. Flushing DNS Cache

If there is a caching issue causing incorrect or outdated DNS records, you can flush your DNS cache to start fresh. This can be done by opening the Command Prompt in Windows or Terminal in macOS and running a command to delete the cached websites, forcing your computer to look up web addresses on the DNS server again.

2. Switching DNS Servers

If the problem lies with the DNS servers themselves, such as slow response times or misconfigured servers provided by your ISP, you can manually switch to alternative DNS servers. This can be done at the device level or router level, by entering the IP address of the desired DNS server, such as Google’s Public DNS ( or Cloudflare’s DNS (

Finding Your DNS Server

By default, your DNS server is typically set by your ISP when you connect to the internet. However, you can check which DNS servers you are currently using by using web utilities like browserleaks.com. If desired, you can change your DNS server to a public DNS server, such as Google’s Public DNS (, for improved security and performance.

DNS Vulnerabilities

DNS has been exploited by hackers in various ways, highlighting the need for enhanced security measures. Two common DNS vulnerabilities are:

1. DNS Cache Poisoning: This attack involves injecting false data into the DNS cache, redirecting users to malicious websites hosting malware. DNSSec helps mitigate this vulnerability by ensuring the authenticity and integrity of DNS data.

2. DNS Tunneling: DNS tunneling is a technique used by attackers to hide malicious software within seemingly innocent DNS traffic. This allows them to establish command and control connections with target networks. Regular monitoring of DNS traffic can help detect and prevent DNS tunneling attacks.



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