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DNS lookups are not normally something that you need to worry about. Sometimes you should!

If your home or office’s ISP has slow nameservers or your server is performing lots of lookups, then you need a local caching DNS server.

How will a caching DNS server help me?

A caching DNS server works by performing all the DNS queries that your system makes and then saving, or caching, the results in memory. Once that the results are cached in memory any time that you make a duplicate request for a domain, the result will get served almost instantaneously from memory.

This may not seem too important, but if your ISP’s DNS servers are taking their time to respond, it will slow down your internet browsing considerably. For example, the home page for the US news channel MSNBC needs to contact over 100 unique domains names to load correctly. If your ISP’s name servers are taking even a 10th of a second longer than normal to respond, that means that the page will take 10 seconds longer to finish loading.

A local caching DNS server will not only help in your home or office it will also help on your server. If you have an application that makes lots of DNS lookups, for example, a busy email server running anti-spam software it will receive a speed boost from a local caching DNS server.

Finally, systemd-resolved supports the very latest, secure DNS standards DNSSEC and DNSoverTLS or DoT. These help keep you secure and retain your privacy online.

Which local caching DNS will we use?

The local caching DNS server that we will enable and configure in this guide is systemd-resolved. This tool is a part of the systemd suite of system management tools. If your system is using systemd, and almost all of the major Linux distributions are, then you will already have systemd-resolved installed but not running. Most distributions do not use systemd-resolved even though it is present.

systemd-resolved works by running a small local caching DNS server which we will configure to start on boot. We will then re-configure the rest of the system to direct their DNS queries to the local caching systemd-resolved DNS.

How to check if you are already using systemd-resolved?

Some Linux distributions are already using systemd-resolved by default such as Ubuntu 19.04.

If you are already running systemd-resolved then you do not need to enable it or configure your system to use it. You may, however, need to ensure that network management tools like NetworkManager are configured correctly as they can ignore system network configuration.

Before proceeding to the next section run the following command to check if you are already running systemd-resolved:

$ resolvectl status

If you get the message:

$ resolvectl status
Failed to get global data: Unit dbus-org.freedesktop.resolve1.service not found.

You are not running systemd-resolved and should move on to the next section. If, instead, you see output that begins with something like the following:

Global
       LLMNR setting: yes
MulticastDNS setting: yes
  DNSOverTLS setting: opportunistic
      DNSSEC setting: allow-downgrade
    DNSSEC supported: no
  Current DNS Server: 1.1.1.1
         DNS Servers: 1.1.1.1
                      1.0.0.1

Then you are already running systemd-resolved and do not need to enable it.

Enabling and configuring systemd-resolved

We do not need to install systemd-resolved as already a part of systemd. All that we need to do is to start it to get the DNS caching server running and then enable it to start it on boot.

Run the following command from a shell prompt as a sudo enabled a non-root user to start systemd-resolved:

$ sudo systemctl start systemd-resolved.service

Next, run the following command to start systemd-resolved on system boot-up:

$ sudo systemctl enable systemd-resolved.service

The last item of configuration left is to set the DNS servers that systemd-resolved will query to resolved domains. There are many options here, but either of the following pairs is free, fast, and they both support DNSSEC and DoT:

Google Public DNS

  • 8.8.8.8
  • 8.8.4.4

Cloudflare Public DNS

  • 1.1.1.1
  • 1.0.0.1

Open the main systemd-resolved configuration file with your favorite text editor, here I have used nano:

$ sudo nano /etc/systemd/resolved.conf

Edit the line begins

#DNS=

So that a pair of the IP addresses are listed. Here, the Cloudflare DNS servers are shown:

DNS=1.1.1.1 1.0.0.1

Save and exit the text editor. We now need to restart systemd-resolved so that it starts to use the nameservers:

$ sudo systemctl restart systemd-resolved.service

systemd-resolved is now running and ready to start speeding-up and securing DNS queries as soon as we configure the system to begin using it.

Configuring the system to use systemd-resolved

Your system can be configured in several ways to use systemd-resolved, but we will look at two configurations that cover most use cases. The first is the recommended configuration, and the second is the compatibility configuration. The difference between the two is how the /etc/resolv.conf file is managed.

The /etc/resolv.conf file holds the IP addresses of the nameservers that programs on the system should query. Programs that need to make DNS queries will consult this file to find out what servers they should contact to make those queries.

The two modes of systemd-resolved center around how the contents of this file are managed. In the recommended mode, /etc/resolv.conf is made a symlink to /run/systemd/resolve/stub-resolv.conf. This file is managed by systemd-resolved and therefore systemd-resolved manages the DNS configuration information for all other programs on the system.

This can cause problems when other programs try to manage the contents of /etc/resolv.conf. Compatibility mode leaves /etc/resolv.conf in place allowing other programs to manage it while systemd-resolved uses that DNS information. In this mode, the other programs managing /etc/resolv.conf must be configured to set 127.0.0.53 as the system nameserver in /etc/resolv.conf.

Configuring the recommended mode

When we configure this mode systemd-resolved will manage /etc/resolv.conf by making it a symlink to /run/systemd/resolve/stub-resolv.conf. We will need to do this by hand as it is not configured automatically.

First, delete or rename the existing /etc/resolv.conf file. Renaming is a better option to deleting it as it will have the same effect but you can always refer to the original if you need the information it contains. Here, we rename /etc/resolv.conf using the mv command:

$ sudo mv /etc/resolv.conf /etc/resolv.conf.original

Next, create the symlink:

$ sudo ln -s /run/systemd/resolve/stub-resolv.conf /etc/resolv.conf

Finally, restart systemd-resolved:

$ sudo systemctl restart systemd-resolved.service

Configuring the compatibility mode

In this mode, you need to ensure that the local nameserver that systemd-resolved has started is queried by system services. Open /etc/resolv.conf in a text editor, here the nano editor is used:

$ sudo nano /etc/resolv.conf

Delete any lines you encounter that begin with “nameserver” and add this line:

nameserver 127.0.0.53

This edit may get changed by any other program that is managing /etc/resolv.conf. If this is the case then you will need to configure those programs to use this nameserver to make the edit permanent.

Debugging systemd-resolved

Discovering exactly how your system is making DNS queries after you have made these changes can be difficult. The most effective way method of observing what is happening is to put systemd-resolved into debugging mode and watch the log file.

systemd-resolved is a systemd service, which means that it can be easily put into debugging mode by creating a drop-in service file that contains the debug setting. The following command will create the correct file in the correct location:

$ sudo systemctl edit systemd-resolved.service

Paste the following lines into the editor then save and exit:

[Service]
Environment=SYSTEMD_LOG_LEVEL=debug

The systemd-resolved service will be automatically reloaded on a successful save and exit.

Open a second terminal to the same server and follow the journald log for the systemd-resolved service:

$ sudo journalctl -f -u systemd-resolved

A line that begins “Using DNS server” e.g.:

Using DNS server 1.1.1.1 for transaction 19995.

Tells you exactly which DNS server is being used for DNS queries. In this case, the Cloudflare DNS server at 1.1.1.1 was queried.

Lines that being “Cache miss” indicate that the domain name has not been cached. E.g.:

Cache miss for example.com IN SOA

Lines that begin “Positive cache hit” e.g.:

Positive cache hit for example.com IN A

Indicate that systemd-resolved has queried this domain before and the answer was served from the cache in the local memory.

You should disable debugging mode when you have finished working systemd-resolved as it will create a very large log file on a busy system. You can disable the debug logging by running:

$ sudo systemctl edit systemd-resolved.service

and deleting the two lines, you added then saving and exiting the editor.

Using secure DNS queries

systemd-resolved is one of the few, currently available DNS servers that support both DNSSEC and DNSoverTLS. Both of these help to ensure that you are receiving genuine DNS information (DNSSEC) and that no one can snoop on your DNS traffic as it passes over the internet. (DoT).

These options are easily enabled by opening systemd-resolved’s main configuration file with a text editor:

$ sudo nano /etc/systemd/resolved.conf

And editing the file so that the following two lines are set:

DNSSEC=allow-downgrade
DNSOverTLS=opportunistic

Save and exit the editor then reload systemd-resolved:

$ sudo systemctl restart systemd-resolved.service

As long as the DNS server you have set support DNSSEC and DoT your DNS queries will be protected. The Google and Cloudflare public DNS servers both support these protocols.

Conclusion

Your system is now configured to speedily and efficiently make DNS queries even when your ISP’s DNS server are not responding as quickly as they should. Furthermore, your digital life is more secure as you are using the latest, secure DNS protocols to protect your DNS queries.

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