What is DNS?
The Domain Name System (DNS) is the phonebook of the Internet. Humans access information online through domain names, like nytimes.com or espn.com. Web browsers interact through Internet Protocol (IP) addresses. DNS translates domain names to IP addresses so browsers can load Internet resources.
Each device connected to the Internet has a unique IP address which other machines use to find the device. DNS servers eliminate the need for humans to memorize IP addresses such as 192.168.1.1 (in IPv4), or more complex newer alphanumeric IP addresses such as 2400:cb00:2048:1::c629:d7a2 (in IPv6).
How does DNS work?
The process of DNS resolution involves converting a hostname (such as www.example.com) into a computer-friendly IP address (such as 192.168.1.1). An IP address is given to each device on the Internet, and that address is necessary to find the appropriate Internet device – like a street address is used to find a particular home. When a user wants to load a webpage, a translation must occur between what a user types into their web browser (example.com) and the machine-friendly address necessary to locate the example.com webpage.
In order to understand the process behind the DNS resolution, it’s important to learn about the different hardware components a DNS query must pass between. For the web browser, the DNS lookup occurs “behind the scenes” and requires no interaction from the user’s computer apart from the initial request.
There are 4 DNS servers involved in loading a webpage:
- DNS recursor
– The recursor can be thought of as a librarian who is asked to go find
a particular book somewhere in a library. The DNS recursor is a server
designed to receive queries from client machines through applications
such as web browsers. Typically the recursor is then responsible for
making additional requests in order to satisfy the client’s DNS query.
- Root nameserver – The root server
is the first step in translating (resolving) human readable host names
into IP addresses. It can be thought of like an index in a library that
points to different racks of books – typically it serves as a reference
to other more specific locations.
- TLD nameserver – The top level domain server (TLD)
can be thought of as a specific rack of books in a library. This
nameserver is the next step in the search for a specific IP address, and
it hosts the last portion of a hostname (In example.com, the TLD server
- Authoritative nameserver
– This final nameserver can be thought of as a dictionary on a rack of
books, in which a specific name can be translated into its definition.
The authoritative nameserver is the last stop in the nameserver query.
If the authoritative name server has access to the requested record, it
will return the IP address for the requested hostname back to the DNS
Recursor (the librarian) that made the initial request.
What’s the difference between an authoritative DNS server and a recursive DNS resolver?
Both concepts refer to servers (groups of servers) that are integral to the DNS infrastructure, but each performs a different role and lives in different locations inside the pipeline of a DNS query. One way to think about the difference is the recursive resolver is at the beginning of the DNS query and the authoritative nameserver is at the end.
Recursive DNS resolver
The recursive resolver is the computer that responds to a recursive request from a client and takes the time to track down the DNS record. It does this by making a series of requests until it reaches the authoritative DNS nameserver for the requested record (or times out or returns an error if no record is found). Luckily, recursive DNS resolvers do not always need to make multiple requests in order to track down the records needed to respond to a client; caching is a data persistence process that helps short-circuit the necessary requests by serving the requested resource record earlier in the DNS lookup.