IPv6, the DNS and Happy Eyeballs

By on 17 Nov 2023

Category: Tech matters

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There was a draft that caught my attention during the DNSOPS Working Group session at the recent IETF 118 meeting on the topic of ‘DNS IPv6 Transport Operational Guidelines‘.

   In order to preserve name space continuity, the following
   administrative policies are recommended:

      - every recursive name server SHOULD be either IPv4-only or dual

         This rules out IPv6-only recursive servers.  However, one might
         design configurations where a chain of IPv6-only name server
         forward queries to a set of dual-stack recursive name server
         actually performing those recursive queries.

      - every DNS zone SHOULD be served by at least one IPv4-reachable
        authoritative name server.

         This rules out DNS zones served only by IPv6-only authoritative
         name servers.

   Note: zone validation processes SHOULD ensure that there is at least
   one IPv4 address record available for the name servers of any child
   delegations within the zone.

The draft that proposes to update this guidance is nowhere as clear or succinct as RFC 3901. Buried in the verbiage of the 3901bis draft is the guidance that:

… it is RECOMMENDED that at least two NS for a zone are dual-stack 
name servers. 

Every authoritative DNS zone SHOULD be served by at least one
IPv6-reachable authoritative name server

I must admit that I’m very uncomfortable with this level of advice in the context of using the DNS over IPv6 transport in such strongly worded terms. This recommendation obviously plays well to the set of highly vocal IPv6 enthusiasts out there, but there is some room for doubt here. Is the strongly worded direction in this draft a sensible recommendation for the DNS at this point in time? 

Has anything changed, other than the increased intensity of strong opinions from IPv6 enthusiasts, since the publication of RFC 3901 in 2004? Does this warrant the elevation of IPv6 support in the recursive-to-authoritative DNS to a ‘SHOULD’ in this draft? Let’s have a look.


Firstly, a word or two about terminology, because words matter. One of the more frequently cited RFCs within the entire set of RFC documents published by the IETF is RFC 2119. It’s a definition of keywords to use in RFCs, authored by Scott Bradner in 1997. The document contains a set of words that, in my view, have become the most commonly abused words in the world of RFCs.

This RFC document defines the intent of the terms MUST, MUST NOT, SHOULD, SHOULD NOT and MAY. They definitely should not be used casually in RFCs, As RFC 2119 says:

Imperatives of the type defined in this memo must be used with care and
sparingly.  In particular, they MUST only be used where it is actually
required for interoperation or to limit behaviour which has potential
for causing harm (e.g., limiting retransmissions)  For example, they
must not be used to try to impose a particular method on implementors
where the method is not required for interoperability.

And also:

3. SHOULD   This word, or the adjective "RECOMMENDED", mean that there
   may exist valid reasons in particular circumstances to ignore a
   particular item, but the full implications must be understood and
   carefully weighed before choosing a different course.

For me, that says that one SHOULD NOT use the term SHOULD when the RECOMMENDED behaviour can be a source of harm, where harm includes needless retransmissions. Yet needless retransmissions and heightened likelihood of resolution failure is precisely the operational problem we see with the use of IPv6 as the UDP substrate for DNS responses in the recursive-to-authoritative DNS realm.

IPv6, UDP, and large DNS responses

The issue here is that using DNS over UDP over IPv6 encounters a problem with one of the few protocol adjustments made in the IPv6 specification from IPv4. In the case of large DNS responses over IPv6, the reliability and efficiency of passing large payloads over UDP and IPv6 decrease as a consequence of this design decision in IPv6.

The underlying issue is that IPv6 does not permit forward fragmentation. It’s as if the IPv4 DON’T FRAGMENT bit has been set to ON all the time. If an IPv6 packet is too large to be forwarded to the next link the IPv6 router must generate an ICMP6 Packet Too Big message addressed to the source address of the original packet. Upon receipt of this message, the original sender should cache this revised MTU size for that particular destination address for a period (commonly some 15 minutes).

What this message does not do is trigger retransmission of the packet using packet fragmentation. That is left to the upper layer protocol to detect the packet drop and perform some form of recovery if it can.

In the context of TCP, if a packet is lost, TCP initiates a recovery process by retransmitting the lost packet, and the revised destination Maximum Transmission Unit (MTU) should cause either the TCP session to recalculate the session Maximum Segment Size (MSS) value or allow the outgoing TCP packet to be fragmented at the source to match the new MTU size.

However, no such transport protocol retransmission is available for UDP. The offending large packet never gets resent, and it is left to the upper-level DNS application to timeout and for the DNS client to repeat the query to the DNS server.

This has some consequences and undermines the robustness of this process:

  • Firstly, the DNS timers are very conservative as the DNS does not maintain round trip estimates, so implementations use a static timer to determine if a response has been dropped. If these are too short, then the DNS client will needlessly resend queries and potentially swamp the DNS server. If they are too long, then this will impact the elapsed time to resolve a DNS name. Different DNS implementations have chosen different values for the timeout interval, and commonly seen values are 375ms, 400ms and 1s.
  • Secondly, ICMPv6 packets are commonly filtered as a security risk. They are essentially unverified packets and the malicious injection of such packets could be used to disrupt a communications session. If the ICMPv6 Packet Too Big never makes it back to the source, then the timeout and repeat will suffer the same fate.
  • Thirdly, the use of DNS anycast can disrupt this signalling. It is feasible for the ICMPv6 message to be sent to the wrong server.

The IPv6 problems with packet fragmentation don’t stop there. The IPv6 protocol design uses the concept of an optional set of extension headers that are placed between the IP header and the UDP header. This means that the UDP transport header is pushed back deeper into the packet. Now the theory says that this is irrelevant to the routers in the network as the network devices should not be looking at the transport header in any case. The practice says something entirely different.

Many paths through the Internet today use load distribution techniques where traffic is spread across multiple carriage paths. In order to preserve the order of packets within each UDP or TCP flow the load distributor typically looks at the transport header to keep packets from the same flow in the same path. Extension headers and packet fragmentation make this a far more challenging task to perform at speed as the transport header is no longer at a fixed offset from the start of the header but at a variable location based on unravelling the extension header chain. Some network devices push such packets away from the ASIC-based fast path and queue them up for CPU processing. Other devices simply discard IPv6 packets with extension headers. This happens at quite significant levels in the IPv6 network.

It appears that UDP packet fragmentation and IPv6 don’t go well together. So perhaps we should just avoid fragmented DNS packets altogether in IPv6. However, that might be easy to say, but it’s easy to find large DNS responses in UDP.

When the client times out due to non-reception of the response to its query it may repeat the query. If the ICMPv6 message has been generated and received, then the outgoing response packet will be fragmented according to the revised MTU value. We then may encounter the next issue, namely that many systems consider fragmented packets to represent an unacceptable security risk and are often dropped. Fragmentation itself in the DNS is best avoided.

In contrast, IPv4 handles large responses in a slightly different manner. Large UDP packets can be fragmented in flight. There is no need to send a reverse signal back to the packet sender and no necessary need for the client to timeout and re-query. Of course, all this assumes that fragmented packets will reach their intended destination, and will be successfully reassembled at the destination, but this is no different to the IPv6 situation at this point.

So large payloads in the DNS and the use of the UDP transport protocol create a less efficient outcome in IPv6 as compared to IPv4.

Large responses and IPv6

I have examined this topic in some depth in July 2020, so I will not repeat the outcomes of that study here, but the conclusion is important:

In a measurement performed at the end of April 2020, we performed this experiment some 27M times and observed that in 11M cases the client’s DNS systems did not receive a response. That’s a failure rate of 41%. … How well does IPv6 support large DNS responses? Not well at all, with a failure rate of 41% of user experiments.


Clearly, things within the DNS will need to change if we ever want to contemplate an IPv6-only DNS, as such a significant failure rate for large DNS responses over IPv6 renders IPv6 as simply not viable.

What causes large DNS responses? DNSSEC.

Now there has been a significant push in DNSSEC circles to evolve from prime-number-based crypto algorithms to elliptical curve algorithms as they offer shorter keys and signatures as compared to prime-number cryptography of equivalent strength. Indeed, with ECDSA P-256 and by using some subtle changes in the denial of existence responses it’s possible to ensure that all DNSSEC responses will comfortably fit in a payload of under 1,400 bytes. But, of course, this is assuming that we will never need to shift to a post-quantum computing world.

So, we could ditch DNSSEC and contemplate a robust DNS operating over IPv6 using UDP. Or if we want to keep DNSSEC, then the considerations of efficiency and robustness of the DNS tend to say we better have IPv4 at hand and use it as a preferred protocol, and IPv6 is simply an option — which is what RFC 3901 already states.

Current behaviours in the DNS

On one day, 9 November 2023, the APNIC advertisement (ad) measurement system collected some 46,447,008 distinct query names/query type couplets for a single category of DNS measurement. The system collected the sequence of queries, and the timing of these queries that ensued in resolving this query name. The DNS query names contained uniquely generated label components, so there was no DNS caching that would assist in the resolution function and all queries were passed to the authoritative name server, where the queries were recorded.

In this work, we will not count the actions of individual recursive resolvers but look at the total behaviour. The reason for this choice is that not all resolvers are equal, and a resolver with just a single client should not have the same weight in an aggregated measurement as a resolver service with a few million clients. By measuring DNS behaviour using query sequences, we are in effect performing a query-weighted view of resolvers, weighting the measurements of each resolver’s behaviour by the intensity of use of that recursive resolver.

The basic question here is whether recursive DNS resolvers perform ‘Happy Eyeballs’ (RFC 8305) when resolving a name using authoritative name servers. Here’s the current definition of this behaviour as it relates to the DNS:

Section 3.1 of RFC 8305, Happy Eyeballs v2 reads:

3.1.  Handling Multiple DNS Server Addresses

   If multiple DNS server addresses are configured for the current
   network, the client may have the option of sending its DNS queries
   over IPv4 or IPv6.  In keeping with the Happy Eyeballs approach,
   queries SHOULD be sent over IPv6 first (note that this is not
   referring to the sending of AAAA or A queries, but rather the address
   of the DNS server itself and IP version used to transport DNS
   messages).  If DNS queries sent to the IPv6 address do not receive
   responses, that address may be marked as penalized and queries can be
   sent to other DNS server addresses.

   As native IPv6 deployments become more prevalent and IPv4 addresses
   are exhausted, it is expected that IPv6 connectivity will have
   preferential treatment within networks.  If a DNS server is
   configured to be accessible over IPv6, IPv6 should be assumed to be
   the preferred address family.

Between recursive resolvers and authoritative DNS servers, there is a visible preference to start the DNS resolution process using IPv4. Some 65% of these 46M query sequences started with a query over IPv4, so clearly, we are not off to a good start! It is unclear if this Happy Eyeballs advice in RFC 8305 relates only to the edge of the network where stub resolver clients query recursive resolvers, or should also apply to the inner parts of the DNS where recursive resolvers query authoritative servers. In the former case, where most stub resolvers do not perform DNSSEC validation and should not really ask for DNSSEC signatures, then the consequent constraint on DNS response sizes means that IPv6 should be as robust as IPv4 for DNS over UDP.

The authoritative service in this measurement is a dual-stack service and uses a 6-node distributed service configuration to minimize latency. It would be reasonable to expect that the name would be resolved on the first query, as the DNS servers were available throughout the 24-hour period. Yet the average query sequence count per unique name to resolve was 2.1 queries. The distribution of query sequence lengths is shown in Figure 1, illustrating that some 46% of query sequences are of length 2 or more. This is somewhat surprising given that the authoritative name servers are fully available and are not placed under heavy query pressure.

Figure 1 — Distribution of length of query sequences.
Figure 1 — Distribution of length of query sequences.

Of these query sequences, let’s now look at the first two queries. The Happy Eyeballs algorithm would suggest that the first DNS query should be performed over IPv6 and the second over IPv4 shortly after. As shown in Table 1, this preference to use IPv6 for the first query, then use IPv4 for the second query occurs in only 22% of the collected query sequences. The major query pattern is to use IPv4 for the first two queries.

First querySecond queryProportion
Table 1 — First two queries.

More generally, in looking at all the query sequences of length 2 or greater (168,091,904 sequences) some 39% of such sequences use IPv4 for all their queries, and 10% exclusively use IPv6.

The Happy Eyeballs approach appears to prefer IPv6 for the first query, but to closely follow that initial query with the same query over IPv4, so that if the transaction over IPv6 fails, there is an IPv4 transaction occurring in close succession. Figure 2 looks at the distribution of the elapsed time interval between the first two queries.

Figure 2 — Distribution of the elapsed time between the first two queries.
Figure 2 — Distribution of the elapsed time between the first two queries.

There are several preset time intervals between resolver re-queries that are evident here. Some resolvers use a 375ms re-query timer, some at 400ms and some at 1s. We can look more closely at the first 20ms to see if there is any preference for tightly coupling the first two queries, and again no such preference is visible (Figure 3). There is a very slight presence of a 10ms timer.

Figure 3 — Distribution of the elapsed time between the first two queries for the first 20ms.
Figure 3 — Distribution of the elapsed time between the first two queries for the first 20ms.

It’s clear that this recursive resolver / authoritative service DNS environment is aligned to RFC 3901 where IPv4 is still relied on for robust behaviour for resolution, particularly for large responses.

DNS Flag Day 2020

While IPv4 can be more robust than IPv6 in coping with large responses over UDP, there are still failure cases. The most common problem is fragment filtering within the network.

The conventional response from DNS resolvers is to re-query using a smaller EDNS buffer size that is unlikely to cause fragmentation, or even query with no buffer size at all, which implies a response must be no larger than 512 bytes. If the response cannot fit within this size, then the responder sets the truncated bit in its response. This is a signal for the client to perform a re-query using TCP.

… A good compromise may be the use of an EDNS maximum payload size of
4096 octets as a starting point.

   A requestor MAY choose to implement a fallback to smaller advertised
   sizes to work around firewall or other network limitations.  A
   requestor SHOULD choose to use a fallback mechanism that begins with
   a large size, such as 4096.  If that fails, a fallback around the
   range of 1280-1410 bytes SHOULD be tried, as it has a reasonable
   chance to fit within a single Ethernet frame.  Failing that, a
   requestor MAY choose a 512-byte packet, which with large answers may
   cause a TCP retry.

   Values of less than 512 bytes MUST be treated as equal to 512 bytes.

The issue with this approach was that when fragmented responses are being dropped by the network it takes a timeout interval to conclude that the response has been dropped before re-querying with the smaller buffer size.

The response in 2020 was to propose a DNS Flag Day to drop the default EDNS buffer size value to 1,232 on all DNS implementations, ensuring that all packets, IPv4 or IPv6 would fit within the minimum MTU used by IPv6. This way the initial response passes through the network unfragmented. If the response was greater than 1,232 bytes then the truncated bit would be set in the response, allowing the client to immediately switch to re-query using TCP. This avoided the client having to wait for a timeout interval.

If all DNS implementations have set this default buffer size parameter down to 1,232 the concerns with the operational fragility and the significant IPv6 failure rates would be mitigated and we could once more contemplate a change to RFC 3901 to RECOMMEND dual-stack servers for authoritative name servers and dual-stack recursive resolvers, as in the 3901bis draft. It could even go further and recommend an ‘IPv6 first’ approach to queries, along the lines of Happy Eyeballs, as the operational problems with IPv6 lie in the convoluted and fragile handling of fragmented packets IPv6.

Let’s take the same data for one day and look at the offered EDNS buffer sizes. This is shown in Table 2

Table 2 — Distribution of EDNS buffer sizes in measurement queries.

The cumulative distribution of these numbers is shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4 — Cumulative distribution of ENDS buffer sizes used in recursive to authoritative queries.
Figure 4 — Cumulative distribution of ENDS buffer sizes used in recursive to authoritative queries.

With 43% of observed DNS queries still using an EDNS buffer size of 4,096 octets some three years after DNS Flag Day 2020, then I can only conclude that in large parts of the DNS world folk have just stopped listening. Some 47% of IPv6 queries use the old default value of 4,096 bytes, whereas a slightly lower proportion, 39%, use this value.

In IPv6, some 69% of queries used an EDNS buffer size greater than 1,232. When accounting for the overheads of the 8-byte UDP header and the 40-byte IPv6 header, this means that just 31% of queries used a buffer size that assuredly avoided DNS fragmentation in the case of IPv6, and with a very high degree of probability in the case of IPv4.

Considering that the de facto MTU of the public Internet is 1,500 octets, then the EDNS buffer size value that avoids fragmentation is 1,472 in IPv4 and 1,452 in IPv6 (accounting for the 20-byte difference in the IP header size). Some 40% of DNS queries over IPv4 use a buffer size greater than 1,472 and a higher value, namely 49%, of IPv6 queries use a buffer size greater than 1,452.

In the case of IPv4, there is a chance that the network will fragment the packets but a reasonable likelihood that the fragments will get delivered in any case. Using a buffer size above 1,472 is perhaps foolhardy but not completely bonkers!

The same cannot be said about fragmentation and IPv6. The observed failure rate of 41% in DNS resolutions where IPv6 was forced into fragmentation says that fragmentation in IPv6 is just a very time-consuming way of saying to the client: ‘Better use IPv4!’.

What can we do about this?

Writing drafts that proclaim that the DNS SHOULD use IPv6 in such recursive to authoritative DNS scenarios is counterproductive in my view without some further qualification. It simply makes a difficult problem worse for operators who want to advance the state of the IPv6 transition in the DNS.

Rather than meeting the intention of the use of a normative SHOULD, this 3901bis draft as it stands advocates an operational profile that exacerbates an operational problem with IPv6 and packet fragmentation.

What’s the answer?

Well, ‘Don’t fragment IPv6 packets’ is the obvious answer.

The way this can be achieved in the DNS with the highest level of assurance is to use an EDNS buffer size value of 1,232 in IPv6 DNS configurations. But maybe you might feel that such a setting would be triggering a transition to TCP too early, and an EDNS buffer size of 1,452 would achieve the same outcome without unnecessarily moving some queries to TCP.

In any case, maybe the 3901bis draft should read:

In using IPv6 as the platform for DNS queries, DNS implementations SHOULD
use an EDNS Buffer Size value of 1,232 bytes. An operator MAY use a greater
value for this parameter, but only if they are confident that this local
setting will not result in IP packet fragmentation being required to pass
a DNS message to its intended recipient.

Of course, all DNS software developers, vendors and operators read assiduously all the DNS RFCs all the time. So, a reminder that support for TCP as a MUST in the standard DNS specification, as per RFC 9210, is unnecessary in this context. Or maybe not!

At that point, we might want to consider what form of Happy Eyeballs we might want to adopt for the DNS. A practice of sending an initial query over IPv6 and following this ‘closely’ (before a response is received to the first query) with the same query over IPv4 represents just piling in unnecessary query load onto the DNS.

In my view, such a generation of extraneous DNS load via these additional queries falls far short of the objectives of a normative SHOULD. In the worst case, it would double the load on the DNS to no major benefit whatsoever.

A close coupling of the initial two DNS queries, used in Happy Eyeballs in the application world, is a poor model to follow for the DNS itself. If we are using EDNS buffer size values that lift the level of assurance that a DNS response will be received to all queries, then perhaps a simpler form of protocol management is sufficient, namely, to order the list of servers that could be queried to prefer to use an IPv6 query as the initial query. And this simple measure would be sufficient for the DNS to support IPv6 in the context of the broader IPv6 transition within the overall Internet.

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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.


  1. Marco Davids

    What is the take of the author on RFC7720, which says, under ‘protocol requirements’:

    “MUST support IPv4 and IPv6 [RFC2460] transport of DNS queries and responses.”

  2. Geoff Huston

    You are referring to the root servers, and the root servers worked on the EDNS buffer size settings many years ago – see https://www.potaroo.net/ispcol/2016-12/6thstar.html


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