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DNS Monitoring

DNS Anycast: Concepts and Use Cases

Across the vast expanse of the Internet, countless devices effortlessly talk to each other over great distances. This activity is facilitated by the Domain Name System (DNS), which converts user-friendly domain names into machine-readable IP addresses. DNS is the unsung hero that allows us to access websites, send emails, and engage with online services effortlessly. As the digital world evolves, the efficiency and reliability of DNS become increasingly paramount, driving innovation to ensure seamless user experiences and swift data transfers.

In this article, we talk about something cool that enhances this essential service: DNS Anycast, an ingenious method that elevates DNS performance and robustness. DNS Anycast has arisen as a beacon of enhanced responsiveness and persistent availability by strategically distributing DNS servers across diverse geographic locations. Anycast lets users connect to the nearest DNS server automatically, so websites load faster and services stay dependable.

Summary of key DNS Anycast concepts

Here is a brief summary of the topics related to DNS Anycast covered in this article.

What is anycast?

Before we dive into the details of using anycast in the DNS realm, it’s essential to understand that anycast is a versatile routing technique that extends its influence far beyond the boundaries of domain name resolution. It introduces a unique paradigm where multiple endpoints share the same IP address, creating a network of synchronized devices ready to serve incoming requests.

In this communication method, each device within an anycast group advertises the shared IP address, and routing protocols determine the optimal destination for each incoming request. This dynamic approach enables environments using anycast to make real-time decisions, routing traffic to the nearest and most efficient endpoint regardless of the network’s complexities.

In the illustration below, the client, represented by the purple circle, seeks access to an anycast service (dark blue circles) through an IP address. This connection initiates with the “nearest” node among the array of dark blue circles, as dictated by routing protocols (the light blue circles are just other devices). In the event of a disruption, such as the original servicing node failing, the art of routing dynamically guides the client towards the next closest node in the network.

Anycast illustrated

Differentiating anycast from unicast, broadcast, and multicast

In the complex world of network communication, different traffic types dictate how data flows between devices based on the requirements of protocols and applications. Let’s take a closer look at the distinct characteristics of unicast, multicast, broadcast, and anycast traffic flow.

Unicast

Unicast is like a private conversation between two points: It’s a one-to-one communication type where data travels directly from the sender to a single recipient. While not always the most scalable option, unicast excels in situations involving only two communicating points. When there’s a straightforward dialogue between specific devices, unicast emerges as the optimal choice.

Broadcast

Broadcast is a one-to-all communication type where data is sent to all devices on the network segment, whether they are interested or not. The Address Resolution Protocol (ARP) is a classic example of broadcast traffic: ARP messages are sent to the local broadcast address, obliging all receivers to process them. Broadcast is considered inefficient when confronted with numerous uninterested receivers and is unsuitable for use on the Internet due to its enormous scope.

Multicast

Multicast is designed to broadcast information to a group of recipients. It’s a point-to-multipoint (one-to-many) or multipoint-to-multipoint (many-to-many) type of communication.

In multicast, there is a packet with a single destination address, which is a special group address that represents a set of receivers. This packet is replicated at the edge node, which can be a router or switch that supports multicast routing protocols and functions. The edge node replicates the packet based on the multicast group membership information and forwards it to the appropriate interfaces or tunnels.

Multicast is intended to be a more intelligent option for one-to-many communication than the “shotgun approach” of broadcast. This efficient distribution method optimizes bandwidth usage, making it an ideal choice for applications such as video streaming, online gaming, and software updates, where reaching multiple subscribers simultaneously is critical.

Anycast

As we explained earlier, anycast revolutionizes IP address deployment by introducing a unique approach. In this method, multiple devices share the same IP address and subnet mask, and data is routed to the topologically nearest point within the anycast group, guided by routing protocols such as the Border Gateway Protocol (BGP). This strategic operation ensures that data takes the shortest route to its destination, optimizing both speed and efficiency.

Comparison of network addressing methods.

Summary

The table below summarizes the different message addressing methods discussed below.

Definition of DNS Anycast

The foundation of DNS Anycast is that each DNS server on the network advertises the identical /32 (or /128) subnet that represents the selected IP address for DNS operations. However, these DNS server instances also have unique IP addresses intended for management and identification purposes within the network.

Whenever clients initiate DNS queries to the anycast address, the core network takes the initiative and orchestrates a seamless journey. Using the optimal anycast route metric, the network routes the query to the closest available DNS server, ensuring minimal latency and optimized response times.

Comparison between traditional DNS unicast operation and anycast

Most people seamlessly use DNS Anycast as part of their daily activities through their interactions with the DNS root servers, which play a critical role in the DNS resolution process. Currently, all 13 DNS root servers use anycast addressing routing techniques—some of them with hundreds of instances around the world—to improve both reliability and accessibility. According to root-servers.org, as of late August 2023, the root server system consists of 1,730 instances operated by the 12 independent root server operators.

How DNS Anycast works

Imagine a scenario (illustrated below) where a client initiates a DNS request to resolve a domain name into an IP address. Suppose we have two instances of DNS resolvers, Server A and Server B, in different geographical locations. Their paths are different due to the underlying routing configuration.

Network diagram for anycast example.

Here’s how the DNS resolution process would work in this case:

  1. Client initiates DNS query: The client initiates a DNS query to resolve the domain name. The client’s request is sent out into the network.
  2. DNS Anycast routing decision: We have different routing paths for each identical DNS resolver instance, and the routers direct the client’s query to the topologically nearest instance. In this situation, the routers are equipped with BGP configurations that install routes to the anycast IP 34.51.16.200 and choose the best route based on route metrics (such as hop count or cost).
  3. Client query directed to Server A: In this case, the anycast routing decision is based on hops and leads the client’s DNS query to Server A via R2. This route is directed through R2 due to the lower count of BGP hops from this client compared to the path through R3. Note that while R2 becomes the primary path, the route from R1 to 34.51.16.200 via R3 remains available as a backup route.
  4. DNS resolution and response: Server A processes the query and sends back the IP address as a response to the client’s query.
  5. Data Transfer: The client now has the IP address it needs and can establish a connection with the desired web server.

Supplementary factors in routing decisions

Anycast predominantly functions at Layer 3, and as such, the BGP-calculated best route serves as the primary factor guiding the process. Nevertheless, certain implementations introduce additional degrees of insight into the determination process. These techniques can add a layer of intelligence to the routing process, enhancing the responsiveness, availability, and resilience of anycast deployments.

Some providers incorporate load balancers behind endpoints to actively assess the health of nodes. These load balancers examine incoming requests, dynamically redistributing traffic based on the status of a node or the applications/services running on it. If a node becomes inactive or an application/service experiences downtime, the load balancer withdraws the associated BGP route and installs a backup route, rerouting the traffic to an operational server instance.

Another intriguing approach involves the utilization of ExaBGP. This tool can announce reachability information for DNS services while simultaneously monitoring service health through a script. ExaBGP continually assesses service status, dynamically adjusting routing announcements in response. Essentially, ExaBGP facilitates health checks for remote servers or services, ensuring adaptability to changing conditions, including load balancing and failover mechanisms.

Benefits of DNS Anycast

Here are some of the advantages of DNS Aanycast in terms of improving the efficiency, reliability, and overall effectiveness of the DNS infrastructure:

  • Reduced latency and faster response times: DNS Anycast’s proximity-based routing significantly reduces round-trip DNS resolution time, resulting in faster response times and a better end-user experience.
  • Increased reliability and fault tolerance: DNS Anycast enhances redundancy by distributing server instances across diverse geographic locations. In case of server failures, traffic automatically reroutes to the next nearest operational instance, ensuring continued DNS service operation.
  • Load distribution: DNS Anycast facilitates automatic load distribution among multiple server instances. As user demands fluctuate, traffic is efficiently distributed, preventing any single server from becoming overwhelmed. 
  • DDoS attack mitigation: Anycast inherently provides a level of mitigation against distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks. Since attack traffic gets distributed across multiple server instances, the impact on any single server is minimized, ensuring uninterrupted DNS service.
  • Scalability and maintenance: New server instances can be added to the network relatively easily, as the routing mechanism automatically integrates them into the anycast scheme. Similarly, during maintenance, traffic can be rerouted without impacting service availability.

Challenges with DNS Anycast

Implementing DNS Anycast introduces several challenges and limitations that require careful consideration to ensure its successful operation. Some of those key challenges include the following:

  • Consistency and synchronization: Maintaining consistent and synchronized data across multiple anycast server instances is crucial. Any discrepancies in DNS records or configurations among the instances can lead to inconsistent responses and user confusion.
  • Health monitoring for failover: Continuous health monitoring of server instances is necessary to detect failures promptly. Ensuring quick and accurate failover to operational instances requires sophisticated mechanisms that can accurately detect server unavailability and reroute traffic.
  • Troubleshooting: The assessment of DNS Anycast service performance and accessibility through data collection and analysis poses a challenge. The difficulty lies in effectively monitoring and troubleshooting DNS Anycast due to the need to identify the specific node that handled a particular query. This identification can be obscured by factors such as caching, load balancing, or alterations in routing. There are several technologies that can be used to determine the exact DNS server that is providing the responses. However, implementing these technologies requires additional configuration and support from DNS vendors as well as specialized tools.
  • Deployment complexity: Deploying a full anycast infrastructure can be a complex process that requires additional hardware, reliable upstream providers, and careful traffic routing. Furthermore, you might need to own or lease a /24 IPv4 or /64 IPv6 block, so you can advertise the DNS server subnet with the upstream ISP and make it visible over the Internet.
  • Potential impact of routing issues on DNS: Because anycast relies heavily on dynamic routing protocols, any routing complications can potentially compromise the reliability and operational effectiveness of the DNS service. In cases where routing stability hasn’t been consistently optimal, choosing DNS Anycast may not be the best choice for your environment.
  • Split Path Routing: Anycast TCP deals with split path routing, a scenario where a client is equidistant from multiple anycast nodes. Due to load balancing, packets to the anycast address may alternate between nodes, posing the challenge of consistent packet delivery. Solutions to this challenge include efficiently handling packets at the correct anycast node without increasing the TCP protocol overhead and detecting and rerouting packets that have reached the wrong anycast node without relying on excessive state information.
  • Network Topology Changes: It occurs when a client communicates with an anycast node, but the network topology shifts. This may lead to a different anycast node becoming the closest, redirecting the client's packets. An effective Anycast TCP solution must adapt to such changes by efficiently determining the correct Anycast node for the packet. Solutions involve stateless mechanisms, allowing the local anycast node to send the packet correctly without extensive knowledge of the TCP state of the entire anycast cluster.

DNS Anycast use cases

The following are some use cases where DNS Anycast is used or may be appropriate to consider.

Anycast for authoritative DNS

Registrars, business service providers, and hosting companies often extend authoritative DNS services, overseeing DNS records across multiple domain tiers and subdomains. By integrating anycast into their infrastructures, authoritative DNS providers can deliver fast and trusted DNS resolution to their customers. With anycast, the process of resolving lookup requests is streamlined, with the closest authoritative DNS server taking charge, resulting in impressively low latency and optimal operational efficiency.

Content delivery networks (CDNs)

Anycast is the technology of choice for most CDN providers looking to improve the user experience and minimize downtime. CDNs use anycast to intelligently route traffic to their distributed, nearest available edge servers—points of presence, or PoPs—ensuring fast content delivery and uninterrupted access. There are many CDN providers that use anycast to route traffic to their edge servers, including Cloudflare, Akamai, Amazon CloudFront, StackPath, Fastly, and others.

DNS root servers

The entirety of the Internet root nameserver system is structured as groups of hosts utilizing anycast addressing. All 13 root servers (A–M) are implemented as multiple instances, with 11 even spanning across different continents. Through anycast address announcements, these servers deliver a decentralized service. This has accelerated the process of deploying physical (as opposed to logical) root servers outside the United States, increasing query performance, enhancing redundancy, and implementing effective load-balancing strategies.

Anycast for DNS resolvers

Anycast is a game changer for DNS resolvers, significantly improving their efficiency and performance. Instead of relying on a single DNS resolver, anycast enables a network of distributed resolver instances. When a DNS query is initiated, it is routed to the nearest available resolver in the network, ensuring minimal latency and fast responses. 

Consider a scenario where we have multiple instances of the same DNS resolver in different cities, such as Austin, Hong Kong and London. Now suppose a user in Atlanta wants to find the IP address of a particular domain or fully qualified domain name (FQDN). In this case, the DNS resolver that will return the answer is the one in Austin. This is because the resolver in Austin is the topologically closest server instance to the user. Similarly, if a user in Tokyo makes a request, the DNS resolver closest to him - in this case, the one in Hong Kong - will respond. This geographic proximity approach optimizes the DNS resolution process, providing faster responses and better performance for users in different parts of the world.

Conclusion

In an era when speed and reliability are non-negotiable, DNS plays a pivotal role in delivering faster responses and ensuring the accessibility of critical online services. In this article, we introduced DNS Anycast, a clever technique that disperses DNS servers across diverse locations and routes requests to the closest server. By leveraging the robustness of routing protocols like BGP to ensure fast responses and persistent service availability, DNS Anycast provides numerous benefits: reduced latency, enhanced redundancy, and fortification against DDoS attacks.

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