Notes from DNS-OARC 36

By on 7 Dec 2021

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It’s conference and workshop season right now, and November has been unusually busy this year. At the end of the month was the DNS Operations and Research meeting, DNS-OARC 36. These are my notes from those presentations at the meeting that I found to be of interest.

Slack’s DNSSEC debacle

It’s a fairly conventional approach to change management in operational environments: Understand precisely what you want to achieve, and how you will observe that you have succeeded in making the change. At the same time, prepare a list of observable behaviours that will indicate the change has not gone according to the plan, and if you see any of these outcomes then be prepared to back out of the change, restore the original state, and take your time to work out what went wrong and why.

It’s a conservative and proven approach that works most of the time. Except, of course, for those times when it doesn’t. There are, from time to time, those nightmare scenarios where the change has created a state where you can’t back out, and if the change has gone astray, you are left with a broken service. In Slack’s case, the change on the 30 September 2021 produced a broken DNS outcome where the domain name was not resolving for 24 hours, and it simply couldn’t be undone during this period.

What they were trying to do was simple. They wanted to DNSSEC sign Their motivation is obvious. There are many forms of malicious attacks on the DNS, all of which attempt to deceive users and redirect them to the attacker’s resources.

Yes, if you are using TLS (and you really should be using TLS, no excuses anymore), then the domain name certificate is meant to protect the user from being deceived in this manner, but there are still two residual problems with using TLS. Firstly, users have an annoying tendency to click through the ‘This site looks like it’s a fake. The certificate does not match. Are you sure you want to proceed?’ warnings. Secondly, if you want to be a little more elaborate in your attack then you only need to pervert the DNS, as seen by a Certificate Authority (CA) and coerce that CA to issue a certificate for your fake credentials to make these often-disregarded warnings disappear.

DNSSEC-signing your domain name makes it harder for the attacker. It’s not perfect, and there are still many caveats in the effectiveness of DNSSEC, but it will work for 30% of the Internet’s user base and most CAs, so it’s better than doing nothing at all.

Except when it all goes wrong!

These days, it’s not fashionable — and perhaps more importantly it’s not even sensible — to run your own DNS infrastructure on your own servers. Serving a global user base requires a high capacity, widely distributed service platform that can not only serve normal DNS query traffic but can withstand all but the most extreme forms of hostile attack. So, like everyone else, Slack outsources its DNS to one of a small number of large-scale DNS hosting platforms. They chose Amazon’s Route 53 service. Their choice is not unusual by any means as Amazon is the ninth largest such provider in this space, serving a little over a million domains (see Table 1 below).

The next step was slightly risky, as increasing the number of external dependencies has its attendant risks, but their decision to use a different platform, NS1, to host some subdomains of is still fairly conventional.

In setting up signing for they devised a robust plan: External monitoring and alerting using the various open DNS resolvers, signature coherency monitoring using DNSViz and the Verisign DNSSEC Debugger, propagation checking using DNSChecker, and a staged rollout over a number of domain names operated by Slack, culminating in (Figure 1).

Figure 1 – DNSSEC signing timeline. Source.
Figure 1 – DNSSEC signing timeline. Source.

How do you ‘sign’ a domain name? It seems like an odd question, but in this case it’s an important question. It’s a sequence of operations. Firstly, generate a keypair (or two if you are using separate Zone Signing Keys (ZSKs) and Key Signing Keys (KSKs)) and add these keys to your zone as DNSKEY Resource Records (RRs). Secondly, assuming you are signing in advance, generate a signed zone by adding RRSIG RRs to all signable entries in the zone. Or, if you are using dynamic signing, then prime the front-end signer with the signing keys. At this point the domain is ‘signed’ but others are not able to rely on it yet. The final step is to pass a DS record to the parent domain. Once the DS record is in place, DNSSEC validation will take place for validation-enabled clients. If you are using a DNS hosting provider, then the sequence of steps is much the same, but the levers you need to pull to get the hosting provider to do this on your behalf may be a little more indirect.

So, in the first attempt, on 7 September 2021, immediately prior to pushing the DS record to their DNS registrar for inclusion into the .com zone, a large ISP outage in the US was already causing access issues for the Slack app, so the change was stopped.

The second attempt on the next day fell at the CNAME hurdle. If you use CNAME to map a DNS name to a canonical name, the only record associated with the name is the CNAME record and any DNSSEC signature records (RFC 2181). The implication is that a CNAME cannot be at a zone apex. Now many DNS admins ignore this stricture and place CNAME records at the zone apex and most of the time it just works. Many resolvers are tolerant of CNAMES at the zone apex and will follow the CNAME pointer to resolve the name in any case. Which is just as well as CNAMES are a critical part of the larger story of hosted content on CDNs.

However, as Slack found out, if the zone has DNSSEC signature records some resolvers apply a stricter check and fail to resolve a name that uses a CNAME at the zone apex, even if the DS record is not present at the zone’s parent. This is a common issue and despite previous attempts to provide a substitute for CNAME records (such as ANAME) nothing useful has been standardized so far. NS1 uses a locally defined synthetic record — an ALIAS record — that uses server-side aliasing to work around this issue. So, once more, Slack stopped the DNSSEC-signing process, backed out, then replaced the CNAME records with ALIAS records.

At this point, Slack had twice successfully backed out of the DNSSEC-signing process and appeared to have mistakenly formed the view that they could stop and back out at any point in the process if they encountered unforeseen issues in future signing attempts.

On 30 September 2021 they tried once more, enabling signature generation on all sub-zones of, performed the validation steps, and then passed the DS record to the DNS registrar to complete the process — by initiating the process to place the DS record into the .com zone.

At this point DNS breakage was being reported. Let me quote directly from Slack’s own account of what transpired and their response from their engineering note:

Soon afterwards, Customer Experience started getting reports from users seeing “ERR_NAME_NOT_RESOLVED” errors in Slack clients. Slack applications are based on Chromium and integrate a way to export a NetLog capture, which is incredibly helpful when debugging network problems and analyzing performance. NetLogs are extensively used by Customer Experience and Engineering at Slack.

‘ERR_NAME_NOT_RESOLVED’ type errors can have multiple causes. In this specific case, it was caused by NODATA DNS responses from some DNS recursive resolvers. Our engineering teams started to investigate.

During our initial investigation we saw most reports were from a private (corporate) DNS recursive resolver and Google’s Public Resolver ( This was surprising, as impact to Google DNS should mean a much larger impact than our monitoring and customer reports indicated.

At this point we decided to pull the DS record from the DNS registrar, effectively removing the DS record at the ‘.com.’ zone to ‘stop the bleeding’, and later focus on the ‘NODATA’ DNS responses reported by customers.

What Happened During Slack’s DNSSEC Rollout

The problem was that pulling the DS record from the DNS registrar is not an immediate cause and effect thing. Caching is taking its inevitable toll, and the timeline of the cached lifetime of the DS record is often far longer than one hour. Recursive resolvers have been known to interpret source-specified cache lifetime values as more like a guideline rather than a rule and cache the record for their own preferred time. Sometimes it may be shorter, other times it may be a lot longer.

For example, my local recursive name server running Bind 9.16 returns a TTL on a DS record for one of my signed names of 3,216 seconds, or a little under an hour, but when I ask Google’s public DNS server the TTL of the same record I get back a value of 21,600 seconds, or six hours. By default, the .com zone uses a 24-hour TTL value on DS records.

The next operational behaviour that contributed was: When you’re already Plan B and it’s not working then you find yourself heading off-plan and doing ill-considered things. Because, panic. In Slack’s situation they had expected the withdrawal of the DS record to take effect within one hour, as they had been led to understand that DS records were never cached. Withdrawal of the DS record from the .com zone would cause the zone to revert to being unsigned. But this was not happening. So, then they made it worse, with:

After nearly an hour, there were no signs of improvement and error rates remained stable, trending neither upwards nor downwards.

Our Traffic team was confident that reverting the DS record published in MarkMonitor was sufficient to eventually resolve DNS resolution problems. As things were not getting any better, and given the severity of the incident, we decided to rollback DNSSEC signing in our authoritative and delegated zones, wanting to recover our DNS configuration to the last previous healthy state, allowing us to completely rule out DNSSEC as a problem.

What Happened During Slack’s DNSSEC Rollout

Instead, they had a DS record out there with a 24-hour cache time, and by withdrawing the DNSKEY RR from all validating recursive resolvers were now encountering a validation failure and returning a SERVFAIL error code. At this point, they entered the next phase of incident management, otherwise known as clutching at straws! They seriously considered restoring the previously removed DS record. What stopped them was a Route 53 operational behaviour that did not keep a copy of the old ZSK value once the zone was no longer signed. If they had effectively re-signed the zone with a new ZSK, the presence of old cached entries would still hamper resolution. So, the resolution of the problem was ultimately to wait through the 24-hour cache period and wait for resolvers to pick up on the new unsigned state of

There is an underlying Time to Live (TTL) issue here, and some inherent problems with NS and DS records. These two records are ‘borrowed’ from the child zone and inserted into the parent zone to facilitate name server discovery in the case of NS record, and signature chaining in the case of the DS record. But in the process, the TTL values for these parent zone records are specified by the parent, not the delegated child zone. Even the use of CDS/CDNSKEY does not allow the child to specify the TTL of the parent zone DS record. Instead, these TTL values are defined by the parent.

The problem is that parent defined TTL values are always wrong! When the child needs to perform a change the TTL value is too long and slows the change through extended caching of the old value. When the child has an outage at the source then the TTL is invariably too short, and they give the child no time to repair the problem before the cache expires (just think of Facebook’s recent outage to see the implications of a short TTL to cause cascading failure).

To compound this problem, we have recursive resolver behaviours that reject the authoritative server’s value of TTL reality and substitute their own! There is no good value here for the parent to use.

Slack Engineering then performed a more detailed analysis of the original error. The analysis quickly centred on the behaviour of the Route 53 authoritative servers when returning NSEC records from The zone uses a wildcard so all names in, including should resolve successfully. Why then are we talking about NSEC records when there is a wildcard in the zone?

We now need to introduce the next contributory factor, namely the lack of IPv6 address records for For ‘reasons’, is an IPv4-only service. If you ask for a AAAA RR for you get a NODATA response. NODATA means that the name itself exists in the zone, but the query type you have asked for does not exist. If the zone is DNSSEC-signed, then there needs to be a way to respond with a signed NODATA response. The DNSSEC design achieves this by using the same NSEC form of response that would be used if the domain name did not exist at all.

In this case, the NSEC record that is generated for the signed NODATA response has the query name as the target name in the NSEC response, rather than the lexicographically prior name in the zone file that would be used for an NXDOMAIN response. In the wildcard case, this is the wildcard name record. All NSEC records used in responses (both NODATA and NXDOMAIN responses) include a bit vector that maps to the RR types that are defined for the label. In the case of the NODATA response this is critical, as the NSEC record then ‘proves’ that the name exists in the zone, even if it’s a wildcard, and the signed RR bit vector proves that there is no such RR set for this name by listing all the RRs that do exist for the name. If a RR type is not listed in this NSEC response, the client can safely assume that this RR type is not defined for this name in the zone.

Now you can lie with NSEC records, as Cloudflare has shown with their DNS Shotgun mechanism, where the signed NSEC NODATA response claims that every RR type, except for the one being queried, exists. But what a server should never do is return an empty bit vector in the NSEC record. Because some resolvers, including Google’s Public DNS service, interpret an empty NSEC bit vector as claiming that there are no RRs at all for that domain name. This is not a Google DNS bug. It’s a perfectly legitimate interpretation of the DNSSEC specification. The problem that Slack encountered was that the Route 53 server was returning a NSEC response with an almost empty RR type bit vector when the wildcard entry was used to form the response and the query type was not defined for the wildcard resource. This was a bug in the Route 53 implementation.

To complete the issue, we need to understand the behaviour of dual-stack clients and Happy Eyeballs (RFC 8305). Clients use the DNS to figure out whether they can use IPv6, so they query first for an AAAA record, then they subsequently query for an A record. If the AAAA answer comes first, they will use it. Even if the A answer comes back up to 50ms after the AAAA answer, they still prefer the AAAA record. But what if the response to the AAAA query primed the recursive resolvers to believe that there are no records at all for this name, including A records? The resolver will simply not resolve the name at all.

The original bug that was exposed when the DS record for was placed into the .com zone file was a Route 53 bug, triggered by the wildcard in When clients asked for a AAAA record, a validating recursive resolver would receive an NSEC record to indicate there was no AAAA records in the wildcard. However, the Route 53 bug meant the NSEC response omitted the entire RRset bit vector for the wildcard, claiming that not only was there no AAAA record, but no RR set at all was associated with this wildcard name.

This was exacerbated by the increasing number of dual-stack end clients who have IPv6 — who are asking for AAAA records — and Slack’s position where the service was only defined on IPv4.

Now we add the next compounding factor. This situation was further exacerbated by recursive resolvers using so-called aggressive NSEC caching (RFC 8198) that reuse cached NSEC responses with NSEC-type bitmap inheritance. Once the ‘no RR-type’ field is associated with a name in the cache then it’s going to be used for all further queries for this query name until the cache lifetime expires. So, it takes just one AAAA query to poison the cache and then all subsequent queries return the same NODATA no RR signed NSEC record from the local cache for the cache lifetime.

The ability to back out of the mess by yanking the DS record was thwarted by the setting of a 24-hour cache expiry time on this DS record, so the problem persisted for as long as resolvers’ caches contained this record.

Has Slack tried once more to DNSSEC-sign

Not yet.

I guess it’s still a tender subject for them!

Slack’s report on this outage is available, and I applaud them for their openness in reporting this incident.

NSEC compliance survey

The major problem at the heart of the Slack outage was an error in the NSEC type bitmap produced by the Route 53 server for wildcard domains, which falsely denied the existence of all RR types for a domain name, causing some resolvers to reuse this cached NSEC record, and falsely respond that some RR types did not exist. This is a problem for any resolver that is using a local NSEC cache (RFC 8198).

How common is this form of error? What other forms of misrepresentation exist in signed domain names? ISC’s Petr Špaček combed through the Tranco 1M domain name list looking for domains with a DS record, and found 35,668 of them, or 3.57% of the total set. These names are then analysed with DNSViz to identify instances where the NSEC bitmap asserts that no such RR set exists for this name, but the RR set with an RRSIG exists for the domain name. 187 instances were found with this type of failure, or 0.52% of signed domains.

These NSEC problems were found in the hosting services operated by ArvaCloud (17%), DNSimple (75%), Alibaba DNS (6%) and (which had one such instance and was fixed in two hours!). A similar issue is also apparent in F5 load balancers.

Measuring DNSSEC via web content

How do you ‘measure’ the DNS? If you are wanting to make a measurement claim, such as ‘20.3% of DNS names are signed using a red pen’, then how do you collect these DNS names in the first place? The most common approaches are to use the Alexa or Tranco Top domain name lists and apply your measurement to these names. But in so many ways this does not correspond to actual DNS use. For example, you might go to a popular website, but that web page references a whole set of other resources, many of which are in different DNS domains. If you considered all these ‘secondary’ names in web content would this change some of the conclusions that were based on measurements conducted using the simple Alexa or Tranco lists?

The crawl data of websites is assembled at Common Crawl. The analysis task was a case of applying a taxonomy to the web source, looking at domains used in scripts, images, and other forms of embedded content. In this study they analysed 13.5M web sites, spread across 1,113 different Top-Level Domains (TLDs). In a division that is perhaps reflective of the domain name usage, 58% of these websites used the original .com/.net/.org TLDs, 37% used Country Code Top-Level Domains (ccTLDs), and just 5% used other Generic Top-Level Domain (gTLDs).

Some 70% of these websites used up to five different content domains, while 20% used between 5 and 10 content domains, and the remainder had more than 10.

7.7% of the website domain names were DNSSEC signed, using either RSA/SHA-256 or ECDSA P-256. When we also look at the DNSSEC-signed status of the content domains, the picture changes somewhat. Only 1.6% of websites have all their content domains also DNSSEC-signed, while the other 6.1% had at least one unsigned content domain.

Anycast in the DNS

These days, anycast is a prevalent approach to scaling DNS infrastructure, but it wasn’t always so. The progress of the draft that led to the publication of Operation of Anycast Services (RFC 4786), in December 2006 was anything but straightforward. There were doubts about the stability of TCP sessions with anycast servers, doubts about the ability to predict the load balanced outcome across anycast instances and doubts about the manageability of the anycast server constellation.

Anycast is now commonplace, and we appear to be confident in managing it. It has been incredibly useful in scaling the DNS, and it’s hard to see how we could’ve achieved the same outcome with unicast solutions.

Increasing the number of name server records for a domain or increasing the number of A and AAAA records for name server names does not directly result in better load bearing capacity, or faster DNS responses. It increases the depth of failover alternatives, and in theory, increases service resiliency — but at the cost of resolution speed. These days, the primary engineering objectives are speed and capacity, so anycast is the logical tool of choice for the DNS infrastructure.

In the world of TLDs, 97% of these domains are served with anycast authoritative server constellations, and the populations of each of these constellations are increasing over time. It’s not just the TLDs, and moving one level down to Second-Level Domain (SLDs), some 62% of the 187M SLDs surveyed use anycast servers.

Does this imply a diverse set of hosting solutions enterprises that use anycast services, or a small set of hosting enterprises that dominate the hosting market? The answer is self-evident in today’s highly centralized Internet where the top 10 anycast domain hosting services have 92% of the anycast adoption (Table 1).

OrgSLD Count%
1&1 IONOS4,808,6005.9%

Table 1 — Top 10 Anycast Hosting Providers and Domain Counts, Characterization of Anycast in the DNS, by Raffaele Sommese and others.

The advantages of anycast lie in scalability and improved response times, and the denser the anycast constellation, the greater the query capacity and the faster the responses times, on average. But the finer details of how to optimize an anycast deployment to maximize query capacity and minimize response times still appears to be a dark art, rather than a precise engineering exercise.

Enhancing DNS cookies

Some years ago, OARC meetings were dominated by various approaches to mitigate DDoS, with various forms of rate limiting, cookies, and similar, being used to discard what is assumed to be attack traffic and still answer conventional queries. This work had been focused on the server, be it an authoritative server or a recursive resolver, where the server profiles the query traffic and forms models of what it considered abuse traffic that can discard when under extreme load.

Casey Deccio presented an alternative approach to this profiling exercise, where the client can assist the server by flagging its intention to use DNS cookies in its UDP queries. Queries made using the clients IP address that do not use queries can then be assumed to be source-address spoofing attack traffic and can be safely dropped by the server.

I must admit to a certain degree of cynicism here. The reverse DNS space has been a solution looking for a problem since its inception. For me, this is not that problem. It seems to shift the onus of work (registering their query profile in reverse DNS records) onto a set of clients who have no particular motive to perform the work in the first place. It’s the servers that have the problem here, not the clients, but the client is being asked to do the heavy lifting. Personally, I just can’t see this idea gaining traction.


The set of presentations for OARC 36 can be found at DNS-OARC’s website. Recordings of the meeting usually appear on the OARC YouTube channel a few weeks after the meeting.

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The views expressed by the authors of this blog are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of APNIC. Please note a Code of Conduct applies to this blog.

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