Caching Nameserver using dnsmasq

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How to prepare the system in order to run dnsmasq and also how to configure the latter as a caching-only DNS server. A configuration file is also provided as a drop-in replacement for the default dnsmasq.conf.

dnsmasq is a lightweight, open-source DNS forwarder and DHCP server. In this article we go through how to prepare the system in order to run dnsmasq and also how to configure the latter as a caching-only DNS server. A configuration file is also provided as a drop-in replacement for the default dnsmasq.conf that ships with your system. dnsmasq is available in most Linux distributions. This article was written while using CentOS, so it is safe to say that it also fully covers RHEL, Fedora and generally the whole Red Hat family of operating systems and possibly Novell’s SLES and OpenSUSE. Small modifications of the invoked commands may be needed for Debian, Ubuntu and other systems.

Is a caching nameserver really important?

There is some controversy about the real benefits of using a caching name server in a system, either desktop or server. In this article we keep controversy out of the discussion and focus on the performance improvement the caching of DNS information can offer to a system while performing specific tasks. For instance, a caching nameserver allows a web browser to acquire DNS information from the local DNS cache, provided that this information has already been cached, without the need to access any public DNS servers, which results in faster web browsing. Similarly, in a server environment, services like spam filters often need to perform many DNS queries for the same hostnames. The latency of the communication with the remote nameserver may add up to the total time of email processing.

BIND vs dnsmasq

BIND is the flagship of DNS servers with large deployments around the globe. I have used BIND for many years as a caching nameserver, even on my desktop, until I realized it is overkill to use BIND this way. There are lighter solutions, even all-in-one software like dnsmasq, that seem to be more suitable for setting up local DNS caching.

System preparation

So, let’s get started with the system preparation before going into the details of the dnsmasq configuration.

First of all, we need to install dnsmasq:

yum install dnsmasq

dnsmasq, when run as root, is designed to drop privileges and run as an unprivileged user. By default, this user is nobody. We use a dedicated system user to run dnsmasq.

Run the following commands as root to create such an unprivileged system user and group named dnsmasq:

groupadd -r dnsmasq
useradd -r -g dnsmasq dnsmasq

The above should be enough.

Configuration

All dnsmasq configuration options go into /etc/dnsmasq.conf. Here we write this file from scratch, so if you need to keep a copy of the original that ships with your distribution, do so with:

cp /etc/dnsmasq.conf /etc/dnsmasq.conf.orig

Now, let’s get started with adding our own dnsmasq configuration in /etc/dnsmasq.conf.

First of all, we set some options regarding the basic server operation like the interface and port on which it should bind, the unprivileged user that should run the service and a PID file:

listen-address=127.0.0.1
port=53
bind-interfaces
user=dnsmasq
group=dnsmasq
pid-file=/var/run/dnsmasq.pid

The bind-interfaces directive instructs dnsmasq to bind only to the network interface specified in the listen-address directive.

Next comes logging.

By default, dnsmasq sends its log messages to the DAEMON syslog facility (LOCAL0 when operating in debug mode). We go with the defaults here, but keep in mind that a separate log file can be set as it is shown in the configuration snippet below (currently commented out):

#log-facility=/var/log/dnsmasq.log
#log-queries

Logging to file requires some extra configuration for proper log rotation. For more information, please read Appendix II.

Finally, we set the options that configure dnsmasq’s name resolution and caching operations.

The following directives prevent dnsmasq from forwarding plain names (without any dots) or addresses in the non-routed address space to the parent nameservers.

domain-needed
bogus-priv

The no-hosts directive also instructs dnsmasq not to read any hostnames from /etc/hosts. In most systems, /etc/hosts is queried before a DNS service is used by the system for name lookups. So, all plain name to private IP mappings should normally be added in /etc/hosts. If this is not what you want, then take a look at the expand-hosts and domain directives.

no-hosts

Set the maximum number of concurrent DNS queries. The default value is 150. Adjust to your needs.

dns-forward-max=150

Set the size of the dnsmasq cache. The default is to keep 150 hostnames. By setting the cache size to 0 disables the feature (this is not what we really want). Again, adjust this value according to your needs.

cache-size=1000

The following directive controls whether negative caching should be enabled or not. Negative caching allows dnsmasq to remember “no such domain” answers from the parent nameservers, so it does not query for the same non-existent hostnames again and again. This is probably useful for spam filters or MTA services. By default, negative caching is enabled. To disable, un-comment the following directive.

#no-negcache

The neg-ttl directive sets a default TTL value to add to negative replies from the parent nameservers, in case these replies do not contain TTL information. If neg-ttl is not set and a negative reply from a parent DNS server does not contain TTL information, then dnsmasq will not cache the reply. Here we set the default TTL to 3600 seconds. Again, adjust to your specific needs.

neg-ttl=3600

Here we use a separate file where dnsmasq reads the IPs of the parent nameservers from. The syntax is the same as in /etc/resolv.conf. We do this to facilitate the manipulation of the parent nameservers that should be used by dnsmasq by using, for example, an external script. The filename we use here is resolv.dnsmasq, but this can be changed to your liking. We also set the no-poll directive here to prevent dnsmasq from polling the ‘resolv’ file for changes.

resolv-file=/etc/resolv.dnsmasq
no-poll

A full configuration file containing all the above configuration, which can can be used as a drop-in replacement of the default /etc/dnsmasq.conf, can be found in Appendix I.

Upstream Nameservers

We have used a separate file to store the IPs of the parent nameservers; that is /etc/resolv.dnsmasq. Using the same syntax as in /etc/resolv.conf add the nameserver IP addresses in resolv.dnsmasq. For example:

nameserver 192.168.0.252
nameserver 192.168.0.253
nameserver 192.168.0.254

Note that we still need to make a change in /etc/resolv.conf before the system starts using dnsmasq for domain name lookups. Read on…

Starting dnsmasq

In order to start dnsmasq, run as root:

/etc/init.d/dnsmasq start

Check the syslog or the dnsmasq logfile (if used) for any error messages.

If everything seems to be OK, set the dnsmasq service to start on boot:

chkconfig dnsmasq on

This command might be Red-Hat specific, so consult your distribution’s documentation about how to set services to start on boot.

Switch name resolution to dnsmasq

What we have done so far is set up the dnsmasq service. For hostnames that do not exist in /etc/hosts the system still uses the nameserver inside /etc/resolv.conf for name resolution.

To start using dnsmasq, edit /etc/resolv.conf, remove all nameservers and add only the IP of our dnsmasq service:

nameserver 127.0.0.1

From now on, the system will use dnsmasq for domain name resolution. You can un-comment the log-queries option in order to confirm the dnsmasq operation.

Appendix I – Full configuration file

This is the complete configuration file containing the configuration that has been discussed in this article. Note that it can be used as is to replace the default /etc/dnsmasq.conf.

#
# Configuration file for dnsmasq acting as a caching nameserver.
#
# Format is one option per line, legal options are the same
# as the long options legal on the command line. See
# "/usr/sbin/dnsmasq --help" or "man 8 dnsmasq" for details.
#
# Updated versions of this configuration file may be available at:
#
#   http://www.g-loaded.eu/2010/09/18/caching-nameserver-using-dnsmasq/
#

#
# Basic server configuration
#

listen-address=127.0.0.1
port=53
bind-interfaces
user=dnsmasq
group=dnsmasq
pid-file=/var/run/dnsmasq.pid

#
# Logging
#

#log-facility=/var/log/dnsmasq.log
#log-queries

#
# Name resolution options
#

domain-needed
bogus-priv
no-hosts
dns-forward-max=150
cache-size=1000
#no-negcache
neg-ttl=3600
resolv-file=/etc/resolv.dnsmasq
no-poll

This file is meant to be used both on servers and desktops.

Appendix II – Logging to file

Before dnsmasq starts logging to file it is required to set the path to the logfile in the log-facility option inside /etc/dnsmasq.conf.

log-facility=/var/log/dnsmasq.log

To ensure proper rotation of the log file you should use the following logrotate configuration:

/var/log/dnsmasq.log {
    monthly
    missingok
    notifempty
    delaycompress
    sharedscripts
    postrotate
        [ ! -f /var/run/dnsmasq.pid ] || kill -USR2 `cat /var/run/dnsmasq.pid`
    endscript
    create 0640 dnsmasq dnsmasq
}

Save the above configuration in /etc/logrotate.d/dnsmasq. Also, adjust the log filename or the path to the PID file in case you have used custom names, but make sure you do not change the USR2 signal that is sent to the dnsmasq process in the post-rotation script.

Final Thoughts

dnsmasq is a very lightweight service. Therefore, you can run it on any system, either server or desktop without any noticeable impact on system resources. In this guide we used it as an internal system service bound to the loopback interface, without permitting direct access from the outside. This along with the fact that dnsmasq is mature software that has been around for several years makes our setup rather secure.

Several people might argue that the performance improvement a local caching nameserver offers in terms of name lookup speed is insignificant. This might be true in some cases, but there are times that this performance improvement is noticeable, especially when the quality of the network connectivity between the current machine and the upstream nameserver is an issue, or when the upstream name server is overloaded. On the other hand, it is almost certain that a local caching DNS server can in no way make name resolution slower, unless perhaps a huge cache is being used. Generally, I find keeping such a service operational a good idea.

In this article we discussed about one of the dnsmasq features: DNS caching. dnsmasq is a lot more than just that. Check the whole feature set in the dnsmasq homepage. Perhaps, in the future, more guides covering other features of this software are published. Until then, enjoy local DNS caching!!!

Caching Nameserver using dnsmasq by George Notaras, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Copyright © 2010 - Some Rights Reserved

About George Notaras

George Notaras is the editor of G-Loaded Journal, a technical blog about Free and Open-Source Software. George is a GNU/Linux enthusiast, a self-taught programmer and system administrator. He strongly believes that "knowledge is power" and has created this web site to share the IT knowledge and experience he has gained over the years with other people. George primarily uses CentOS and Fedora and spends some of his spare time developing open-source software. Follow George on Twitter: @gnotaras

7 responses on “Caching Nameserver using dnsmasq

  1. Steve Permalink →

    I have been using this at the house for about three months. Really great and simple to setup!

  2. Keith Eckstein Permalink →

    I’m using Pdnsd for much the same purpose (see my article at http://www.internetaccelerationappliance.com/ for details) – I live in rural France and have noticed a significant improvement in response times as a result of using a caching DNS server (it sort of makes sense really?) – I chose PDNSD because it saved results to file but I was very tempted to go with DNSMASQ.

    I also cache net objects using Squid which also helps…

    And I restrict adverts as well…

    I can’t remember the address of the blog that persuaded me but.. it was by some guy in Africa who only had internet access via a very slow connection – it was the DNS timeouts that were killing him.

    All the best

    Keith

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