An epic treatise on DNS, magical and otherwise

Xe Iaso and Avery Pennarun on
Photo of Xe Iaso
Photo of Avery Pennarun

Naming products is hard. One of Tailscale’s key features, MagicDNS, has long been a source of armchair grammar controversy. To wit: Some people think we should call it Magic DNS because Apple calls their flagship keyboard and mouse the Magic Keyboard and the Magic Mouse.

But have you noticed that Apple also calls their laptops MacBooks and their wireless headphones AirPods? The reason they do this is because of an obscure (and nerdy) rule of the English language that says if removing the adjective from a noun phrase would change the meaning of the noun, you can remove the space and make it a compound word. A Magic Keyboard without the magic is still a keyboard. A MacBook without the Mac is not a book. MagicDNS is one word because without the magic, it wouldn’t just be DNS; it wouldn’t be anything. Tailscale already has DNS and split DNS (two words!) configurations; but MagicDNS isn’t just DNS, it’s something different.

An image of Xe
<Xe> They also can do this for trademark reasons! It’s easier to get trademark status on non-generic words than it is for things like “bread,” “keyboard,” “book,” or “pods.”
An image of Avery
<Avery> On the other hand, to avoid the trademark minefield, sometimes big companies name products in the form <Trademark> <Generic>, like Microsoft Word or Google Mail. If a product name contains your company name, you can be pretty confident nobody else called their product that.

Tailscale lets you manage your machine’s DNS configuration. This lets you set what DNS servers machines should prefer for either the entire internet or anything matching a specific domain (split DNS). This is neat, and it makes local DNS configuration work more like people often expect it to when they optimistically add multiple DNS resolvers to /etc/resolv.conf.

But that’s not MagicDNS — that’s just DNS a little bit better. MagicDNS builds on top of these features. It makes DNS safe for new use cases by totally flipping around how name resolution works. It’s a building block that Tailscale and your infrastructure can build on top of.

Today we’re going to take a look at the problem space of DNS, how complexity has been layered on over the years, and how MagicDNS cuts through all that complexity and makes everything more reliable in the process.

The tragedy of DNS: naming things, but with cache invalidation

DNS is one of those services that sounds simple. It’s a mapping of names to numbers, right? Yet it’s one of the more complicated things underlying the modern internet. It predates the modern internet, but let’s not get into that today.

Basic DNS

A diagram explaining how DNS works. The laptop asks the DNS server what the IP address for tailscale.com is and gets back 82.58.46.8.

An image of Xe
<Xe> If you want to learn more about how DNS lookups work in a more visual way, see this explanation by Pingdom. The important takeaway is it’s complicated, and there are many separate delegation steps, which we’ll discuss more below.

We can think of DNS as the first globally distributed database. DNS is designed to be globally convergent (read: Over time the entire system will agree what names point to what IP addresses), so that looking up google.com will always point to the same IP address regardless of whether the request originates in Ottawa, San Francisco, Seattle, or Palau.

An image of Avery
<Avery> Okay, actually google.com is probably one of the worst examples on the internet, since they play so many anycast and DNS tricks that you never quite know what IP address you’re going to get. But for our purposes, let’s imagine that Google uses DNS like normal people do.

DNS is globally convergent because over time, as caches expire, every DNS server on the internet can eventually agree on the same answers to the same queries. Every DNS record has a time-to-live (TTL) setting that specifies how long the answer is valid. Unfortunately, DNS clients and servers may choose to ignore the suggested time-to-live value and use their own time-to-live instead. Some ISPs claim to do this in an effort to “reduce network traffic,” but violating the DNS RFC like this ends up creating subtle problems that are very hard to debug.

An image of Avery
<Avery> By the way, any kind of polling-based (as opposed to push-based) cache with static time periods will always have this problem: What cache timeout should you choose? If you make it too short, you add query latency and overload servers. If you make it too long, changes take ages (sometimes hours or days!) to propagate. That’s why intermediaries jump in and try to “fix” the problem by messing with the TTLs. But they always just end up creating different problems.

This model of one name to one set of IP addresses worked fine when the internet was only one continent large, and didn’t get rewired very often. But it fails when you have servers all over the world and you want users to be directed to the nearest one, or to ignore regions that happen to be down right now. So operators have pulled DNS servers into their load balancing infrastructure, pointing users to the closest application servers rather than any kind of One True Right Answer.

DNS servers provide sometimes provide a different IP address depending on your location

A DNS server providing different answers for two laptops physically located in different areas of the planet. One laptop gets one answer, the other gets another.

That sometimes causes problems with overzealous caching resolvers set up by your ISP that gives you routers without the ability to use a resolver that actually follows the specification, or when you use a DNS server hosted elsewhere that doesn’t get the best localized answer from the load balancer. But overall it works out more often than not.

An image of Xe
<Xe> Of course this is assuming that your government, ISP, or local cafe WiFi skiddie isn’t hijacking DNS and up to no good.

As a society, we gave up the rule that every DNS name always maps to the same IP address everywhere in the world. In practice this mostly doesn’t hurt us, except when we’re trying to debug it. Then it can be either easy or very hard and make you want to reconsider your career aspirations and wonder how much it would cost to get into farming. Cows are surprisingly expensive!

An image of Xe
<Xe> It is a common misconception to call the way that DNS changes are observed by people around the world “propagation.” This is technically incorrect. Most of what you are waiting for is caches to expire and then for your next request to get forwarded to upstream DNS servers to have accurate information. This is why people call DNS “globally convergent”: Over time the entire internet will gradually converge on a set of answers for what names point to which IP addresses. However, in practice — considering how the data actually moves around the internet — it’s not entirely wrong to say that the DNS queries have the effect of propagating out from the origin DNS server. It’s all a matter of perspective.

DNS encryption (it isn’t)

DNS is an unencrypted, unauthenticated protocol. Queries and responses are sent over plain text on the internet. This means that whoever and whatever can get an IP address just by sending the right name.

An image of Xe
<Xe> The privacy risks of publishing your private hostnames in public DNS can be minimized by setting up private DNS servers — often called “split horizon” DNS — that have a different set of domain name responses than the public internet. You can wire those through your VPN (such as via the Tailscale admin console in the DNS section), but then you lose out on the global convergence and caching features of DNS. In many cases, you can get by with returning private IP ranges in public DNS servers, but it depends on your level of paranoia. And sometimes public DNS servers helpfully reject private IP ranges as a security feature, yay.

Because there is no encryption or signing of DNS replies, you are also never quite sure if the DNS response you got has been tampered with in-flight. An attacker could easily sniff the wires and race back a packet that points google.com to the IP address of badgooglephish.com. Your iPhone would be none the wiser. There is a set of extensions called DNSSEC that tries to fix a lot of these problems using fun cryptography that I’m nowhere near qualified to explain, but this is where the warts really reveal themselves. Slack recently had a pretty terrible production outage that was wholly traceable to trying to enable DNSSEC support, apparently for FedRAMP compliance reasons.

A DNS server being hijacked. Bob's laptop normally gets to the DNS server directly, but if the DNS packets are hijacked an attacker could send an intentionally wrong result to his laptop. This can be bad.

A DNS server being hijacked, showing that the hijacker can mess with DNS results.

An image of Avery
<Avery> DNSSEC is not as good as it sounds. @tqbf has a detailed rant called Against DNSSEC that systematically refutes every reason you might have for using DNSSEC. Except FedRAMP, I guess.

DNSSEC doesn’t look like it will ever be widespread. So in that vacuum, there are some new protocols that at least carry (part of) DNS over an encrypted channel. But as part of that process, your machine typically creates an HTTPS session to Google, Cloudflare, or whomever else. That intermediary will be able to see (and, in theory, be able to tamper with) the DNS requests and responses in plain text. Depending on your threat profile, that may not solve all your security and privacy concerns.

An image of Xe
<Xe> There are new projects like GNS that enable end-to-end request privacy, but they have other disadvantages and aren’t very widely deployed. It’s great for the people who use it, but most people don’t use it.

So in normal deployments, DNS has no in-flight encryption, veracity, or authentication mechanisms. This also means that there’s no way to tell if a client is authorized to access a given DNS record or not. There is no native way to establish an identity associated with a DNS request. This means that updating DNS records (for example, for dynamic DNS) can’t be done over DNS itself and instead has to be delegated to some kind of third party, which then uses a not-standardized API. There are no good APIs to automate DNS modification; there are only APIs we tolerate because we have no other choice.

An image of Xe
<Xe> There are things like DNS UPDATE requests which do allow you to update DNS records over DNS, but at this point, this is used almost exclusively in Active Directory with Windows deployments. It also does not fix the problems with authentication credentials being sent in plain text, so this is only really usable from within a private corporate network. It’s not a generally usable building block for the internet.

Delegation (can be dangerous)

When you register a domain name with a registrar, they create a record that lets them delegate responsibility for your domain to some other name server under the authority of a top level domain such as .com. (This is just how domain registration and lookups work.) You could then delegate responsibility for a subset of that domain name to another third party, who themselves would need to set it up with their registrar. For example, you register your website example.com with your DNS registrar, and they delegate it to the .com registrar. But, you want to delegate control over a subset of your domain, say cdn.example.com, back to your CDN vendor so they can make whatever changes they need as soon as possible without having to involve you. Then cdn.example.com will have its own DNS record.

Alice's laptop asking for the domain tailscale.com and being told to look elsewhere for it. Alice's laptop gets the correct IP address after consulting the second DNS server.

DNS delegation in action. These round-trips are measured in tens to hundreds of milliseconds. Imagine how this can add up.

Most people reading this have probably never heard of delegating sub-subdomains like this, because in practice it’s so complicated and fragile that it’s rarely done unless DNS is a core competency of both parties involved. When big companies do farm out a domain to another company, they usually use an entirely separate top level domain name such as googleusercontent.com or similar, partly to reduce confusion. This also helps prevent reputational damage if something at a partner company gets breached and leads to some random person using a subdomain of facebook.com to send out astronomical amounts of spam.

An image of Avery
<Avery> Sub-subdomains have also gone out of fashion because of accidental sharing of HTTP cookies between trusted parent and untrusted subdomains. Plus, every level of subdomain delegation in DNS incurs an extra network round trip to do the recursive name resolution, which increases latency. It ends up being more trouble than it’s worth.

Reverse DNS (is another whole DNS)

Then comes the fun with reverse DNS. Reverse DNS translates from IP address back into a domain name. In email, reverse DNS is still used as part of risk assessment for spam filtering, because most well-configured email servers have the forward DNS name match the reverse DNS name. This is also a large part of how internet service operators can tell whether IP addresses are residential addresses or not.

An image of Avery
<Avery> Don’t forget about rlogin, the predecessor to SSH! And TCP Wrappers. In the olden days, we used to accept or reject connections based purely on the answer from (unencrypted of course) reverse DNS. We also used to think that binding to ports less than 1024 was more secure. Network security has come a long way!

It used to be that every company had a whole IPv4 subnet delegated to them, so they also owned their own reverse DNS domain. When the Internet Fairy gave your company an IP address block, it fell into one of three classes:

These classes are not used anymore, but you can see the vestigial remains of them in the way reverse DNS is implemented.

IPv4 addresses are 32 bit numbers that are commonly written as a series of eight-bit numbers separated by full stops. Consider this address:

82.58.46.8

This used to denote a strict hierarchy from the root of the internet to the owner of the 82.0.0.0/8 block, the owner of the 82.58.0.0/16 block, and finally the owner of the 82.58.46.0/24 block. This same hierarchy is used with DNS delegation to distribute the ownership of reverse DNS names. In order to delegate this out, you have to reverse the IP address like this:

Reverse DNS reverses each octet of an IP address to construct a DNS name. 1.2.3.4 becomes 4.3.2.1

Reverse DNS reversing the order of the octets of an IP address.

This is the core of how reverse DNS lookups work and why we’re calling it another whole DNS. It’s the same semantics as DNS, but backwards. It’s a lot of fun to implement.

An image of Xe
<Xe>

Tailscale does implement reverse DNS lookups in MagicDNS. However, Tailscale doesn’t use one of those old classful addresses. We use 100.64.0.0/10, which is two bits smaller than a /8. This conflicts with the ways subnet delegation works because it only does 8-bit jumps. To work around this, we set a bunch of reverse DNS routes. You can see them by running resolvectl on a machine running Tailscale and systemd or scutil --dns on a Mac running Tailscale. Here’s the output of my developer machine:

DNS Domain: 
telethia-pirhanax.ts.net example.com.beta.tailscale.net
~0.e.1.a.c.5.1.1.a.7.d.f.ip6.arpa ~100.100.in-addr.arpa ~101.100.in-addr.arpa ~102.100.in-addr.arpa
~103.100.in-addr.arpa ~104.100.in-addr.arpa ~105.100.in-addr.arpa ~106.100.in-addr.arpa
~107.100.in-addr.arpa ~108.100.in-addr.arpa ~109.100.in-addr.arpa ~110.100.in-addr.arpa
~111.100.in-addr.arpa ~112.100.in-addr.arpa ~113.100.in-addr.arpa ~114.100.in-addr.arpa
~115.100.in-addr.arpa ~116.100.in-addr.arpa ~117.100.in-addr.arpa ~118.100.in-addr.arpa
~119.100.in-addr.arpa ~120.100.in-addr.arpa ~121.100.in-addr.arpa ~122.100.in-addr.arpa
~123.100.in-addr.arpa ~124.100.in-addr.arpa ~125.100.in-addr.arpa ~126.100.in-addr.arpa
~127.100.in-addr.arpa ~64.100.in-addr.arpa ~65.100.in-addr.arpa ~66.100.in-addr.arpa
~67.100.in-addr.arpa ~68.100.in-addr.arpa ~69.100.in-addr.arpa ~70.100.in-addr.arpa
~71.100.in-addr.arpa ~72.100.in-addr.arpa ~73.100.in-addr.arpa ~74.100.in-addr.arpa
~75.100.in-addr.arpa ~76.100.in-addr.arpa ~77.100.in-addr.arpa ~78.100.in-addr.arpa
~79.100.in-addr.arpa ~80.100.in-addr.arpa ~81.100.in-addr.arpa ~82.100.in-addr.arpa
~83.100.in-addr.arpa ~84.100.in-addr.arpa ~85.100.in-addr.arpa ~86.100.in-addr.arpa
~87.100.in-addr.arpa ~88.100.in-addr.arpa ~89.100.in-addr.arpa ~90.100.in-addr.arpa
~91.100.in-addr.arpa ~92.100.in-addr.arpa ~93.100.in-addr.arpa ~94.100.in-addr.arpa
~95.100.in-addr.arpa ~96.100.in-addr.arpa ~97.100.in-addr.arpa ~98.100.in-addr.arpa
~99.100.in-addr.arpa

But nowadays, with IP addresses being scarce and frequently reallocated, the reverse DNS domain for a set of IPs is usually owned by your cloud provider, not you. So providing “correct” reverse DNS answers requires a lot of coordination that many people do not want to bother with.

An image of Avery
<Avery> And don’t forget, with the HTTP Host: header and TLS SNI, a single IP address can have many names! With forward DNS that’s no problem: You just set up multiple DNS names that translate to the same IP. But with reverse DNS, every IP can only translate back to a single name. It doesn’t work well on the modern internet.
An image of Xe
<Xe> There were a sizable number of people who would go through all that pain to have an amusing reverse DNS name visible on IRC to show up as something like gimme-your.nickserv.pw or something else equally amusing. This is a dying art form as IRC slowly fades from public consciousness.

It’s always DNS

All of this doesn’t even begin to cover DNS client configuration on every device and OS. DNS client configuration is unique for every platform and can range from trivial to Sisyphean, depending on which platform you use and how many people have had opinions about how this should be configured in the past. Most of the time you hopefully don’t have to care about it. The next big bucket is when you do have to care, and there’s an OS native API for it. The last bucket is when you have to dynamically figure out what is going on with the OS on the fly and then piece everything together to make things Just Work™️ like people expect it to.

All of this madness is why, when you see a big website go down, it’s often because everything is down because the DNS servers fell over again. When your private internal network is acting weird or slow, it’s often a local DNS failure (or old cached values, or mismatched DNS configuration between nodes, or tidal forces affecting undersea fiber optic cables due to the literal phase of the moon).

DNS has led to many memes, artistic creations, and philosophical documents about the nature of downtime, such as the following:

Cherry blossoms on parchment with the inscription 'It's not DNS, there's no way it was DNS, it was DNS' credited to SSBroski

MagicDNS is DNS, but different

MagicDNS uses DNS as its query protocol, so you might think it would have all the same flaws. But in MagicDNS, the equation is totally flipped.

In Tailscale, the coordination service has a list of everything on your tailnet. You have end-to-end encryption, so you can generally trust that a machine owned by a person is actually being used by that person, and packets coming from that machine are related to that person. You only have access to machines that you have permission to see with Tailscale’s cryptographically enforced ACLs. User authentication is done by your identity provider, which prevents entire classes of attacks. All that together makes the network layer secure —

An image of Avery
<Avery> …like we used to pretend it was back in the days of rlogin and TCP Wrappers!

— yes, like in the old days. But then, once the network is secure, we can build more cool mechanisms on top.

MagicDNS sets up a relatively rare feature of DNS client configuration called search domains. This allows you to connect to individual machines in your tailnet by simple hostname instead of by IP address or fully qualified domain name. If your main staging server is named pandoria, you can connect to pandoria directly instead of to the fully qualified domain name pandoria.example.com.beta.tailscale.net (or if you have HTTPS configured, pandoria.telethia-pirhanax.ts.net). This makes it easier to connect to machines you care about without all that extra typing. You don’t need to set up SSH aliases, you just ssh pandoria and you’re in.

MagicDNS automatically uses a device’s machine name as part of the DNS entry. If you change your device’s name, the MagicDNS entry will automatically change. If you have a specific name you’d like to use to reference your device, then you can edit the machine name.

Adding a new device to your Tailnet

MagicDNS is fed by Tailscale’s control server, so the requests never need to leave your machine.

Every machine is its own DNS server

One of the big reliability downsides of classic DNS is that if a DNS server goes down, clients can’t look up hosts on that DNS server anymore, unless the names are cached. Then, when the caches expire, everything runs into even more issues. This turns small outages into big ones that get you on the front page of CNN and Reddit.

MagicDNS fixes this by running the MagicDNS server locally, on every machine on your tailnet, at the virtual address 100.100.100.100. The DNS server can’t go down. It can’t fall over from load (unless your own machine also does), and when your machine does fall over for some reason every other machine is unaffected.

Because MagicDNS always runs locally, you don’t even need to trust end-to-end encryption: MagicDNS traffic never leaves your machine. It’s a virtual service on a virtual network.

Laptop communicating with the MagicDNS virtual service

If your browser asks for pandoria without a top level domain attached, the OS could try any number of these domains in order to get something working.

An image of Xe
<Xe> You don’t have to worry about the DNS server going down when the DNS server is running on every machine in your network! If your device’s DNS is down, it’s because your own device doesn’t work — and then you have bigger problems. Hopefully not problems with fire. Fire is never good for computers.

MagicDNS uses delegation for Tailscale-specific DNS names, but all the delegation happens internally on your own box, which means delegation latency is effectively zero, and you can’t configure it wrong.

MagicDNS never needs to worry about authorizing updates or tampering: Updates come from a secure channel through the control plane.

In MagicDNS, reverse DNS works by default, because every Tailscale machine gets its own unique private IP, and MagicDNS handles the reverse DNS domain for that subnet.

MagicDNS doesn’t suffer from latency issues. The latency is as low as your device allows for sending packets to localhost.

A diagram explaining that MagicDNS has all its records on-device, so it can return results in fractions of milliseconds instead of tens to hundreds of milliseconds

MagicDNS records are always on your device, so you never need to wait for a DNS server to reply.

Transparently upgrading your OS’ capabilities

Because Tailscale runs a local DNS server on every machine, MagicDNS can normalize and upgrade the DNS capabilities of every machine on your tailnet.

For example, MagicDNS can transparently upgrade as many DNS queries as possible to DNS-over-HTTPS so that DNS requests to the outside world can’t be tampered with or sniffed in-flight. This doesn’t protect you against Google, Cloudflare, Quad9, or any other DNS-over-HTTPS provider being technically capable of viewing every DNS query you make, but it should protect your non-MagicDNS queries from your ISP or a local script kiddie on a coffee shop WiFi network. And this works even if a machine’s underlying OS is too old to support DNS-over-HTTPS, such as Windows 7.

An image of Xe
<Xe> Yes, we do support Windows 7!

This local DNS server can also delegate subdomains if you create a split DNS route, even if your OS doesn’t support that natively. When you configure split DNS in the admin console, these routes will automatically be pushed out to all devices in your tailnet, and allow you to route traffic as you want to any subdomains or virtual top-level domains. For example, you can also use this to access AWS VPC domain names from your non-AWS Tailscale nodes. Even on Windows 7.

Push-based cache invalidation

As the cherry on top, MagicDNS fixes the cache invalidation problem completely because our control plane pushes updates immediately to every device, where DNS would periodically poll for changes. And because it runs on your device directly, we eliminate the possibility of middleboxes messing up the caching parameters. This means you can trust your internal DNS to always be up to date right now, and never have to worry about configuring another internal DNS TTL.

An image of Avery
<Avery> It also means that MagicDNS can be used as a service discovery tool. Push your code to a server named git. Share text at http://pastebin. There are entire startups doing new service discovery mechanisms that are mainly working around the limitations of DNS. We’ve been trained not to trust DNS for service discovery, but it was never the DNS protocol that was the problem. It was caching, latency, and polling.

The details are invisible

Some may be tempted to say things like, “Oh, this is just a dynamic DNS server. I could implement this all in a weekend with at least half of the code these chuckleheads wrote.” But without running the DNS server on every machine like MagicDNS does, update latency becomes an issue again. Security and cache invalidation become issues again. The uptime and load of the DNS server become an issue. It becomes a point of failure, not a point of resilience.

Regular DNS, over the decades, has evolved toward being a single point of failure, even when you balance the load. We haven’t fixed the design flaws in DNS for nearly 40 years, and we are not likely to fix those issues for the next 40 years, either. MagicDNS addresses the key issues in surprising depth, with surprisingly little code.

So that’s why we call it MagicDNS: Because without the magic, it’s not just DNS. MagicDNS is built on totally different fundamentals that eliminate most of DNS’s problems. Just like magic.

Share via

Subscribe for monthly updates

Product updates, blog posts, company news, and more.

Too much email? RSS Twitter