A bit of background

For various reasons that are not too interesting we have a requirement to run our own local DNS servers that simply hold the forward and reverse DNS zones for a number of instances. I should point out that the nature of AWS means that doing this approach is not really ideal, specifically if you are not using EIP’s and there are better ways, however thanks to various technologies it is possible to get this solution to work, but don’t overlook the elephant in the room.

What elephant?

A few months ago while doing some proof of concept work I hit a specific issue relating to RDS security groups, specifically where I had added in the security group that my instance was in to grant it access to the DB. One day after the proof of concept had been running for a number of weeks access to the DB suddenly disappeared with no good reason and it was noticed that by adding in the public IP of the instance to the RDS security group access was restored, odd. The issue happened once and it was not seen again for several months, it then came back, odd again, luckily the original ticket was still there and another ticket with AWS was raised, to no avail.

So a bit of a diversion here; if you are using Multi-AZ RDS instances you can’t afford to cache the DNS record, at some random moment it may flip over to a new instance (I have no evidence to support this, but also can’t find any to disprove) so the safest way to get the correct IP address for the DB instance is to ask Amazon for it every time. So you can’t simply take what ever the last IP returned was and set up a local host file or a private DNS record for it, that’s kinda asking for trouble.

So we had a DNS configuration that worked 99.995% of the time flawlessly, and at some random unpredictable time it would flake out, just a matter of time. As everyone should we run multiple DNS servers, which made tracking down the issue a little harder… however eventually I did. Depending on which one of our name servers the instance went to, and how busy AWS’s name server was when which ever of our name servers queried it depended on the results we got back. Occasionally one of the name servers would return the public IP address for the RDS instance, causing the instance to hit the DB on the wrong interface so the mechanism that does the security group lookup within the RDS’s security group was failing; it was expecting the private IP address.

The fix

It took a few mins of looking at the DNS server configuration, and all looked fine, and if it was running in a corporate network that would be fine, but it is not, it’s effectively running in a private network which has a DNS server already running split views. The very simple mistake that was made was the way the forwarders had been set up in the config.

See the following excerpt from here

This option is only meaningful if the forwarders list is not empty. A value of first, the default, causes the server to query the forwarders first, and if that doesn’t answer the question the server will then look for the answer itself. If only is specified, the server will only query the forwarders.

The Forward option had been set to first, which for a DNS server in an enterprise is fine, it will use its forwarders first, if they don’t respond quick enough it will lookup the record on the root name servers. This is typically fine as when you’re looking up a public IP address it doesn’t matter, however when you’re looking up a private IP address against a name server that uses split views it makes a big difference in terms of routing.

What we were seeing was that when AWS name servers were under load / not able to respond quick enough, our Name Server got a reply from the root name servers which were only able to get the public IP address, therefore, our instance routes out to the internet, hits Amazons internet router, turns around and hits the public interface for the RDS security group on its NAT’d public IP and thus not seen as within the security group, Doh!

Luckily the fix is easy, set it to “forward only” and ta-daa, it may mean that you have to wait a few milliseconds longer now and then, but you will get the right result 100% of the time. I think this is a relatively easy mistake for people to make, but can be annoying to track down if you don’t have the understanding of the wider environment.


Be careful, if you’re running a DNS server in AWS right now I suggest you double check your config.

Probably also worth learning to use “nslookup <domain> <name server ip>” as well to help debug any potential issues with your name servers, but be aware that because of the nature of the problem you are not likely to see this for a long long time, seriously we went months without noticing any issue and then it just happens and if you’re not monitoring the solution it could go un-noticed for a very long time.

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  1. […] DNS results in AWS aren’t always right – 23 […]


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