// Patrick Louis

What Does It Take To Resolve A Hostname


Can also be found in presentation format here

Resolving A Name Is Complex


Resolving a domain name is complex. It’s not limited to the DNS, the Domain Name System — A decentralized and hierarchical system to associate names and other information to IP addresses.
It’s not something we, as users, usually pay attention to. We notice it only when we’re facing an issue. It normally works out of the box but really nobody get the crux.
You search online for clarifications but they barely help and add more confusion.

Here are some schemas trying to decipher the mystery that domain name resolution came to be.


One, two, and three, I think you get me, it is not easy. It’s never as simple as taking a hostname as a string, getting the DNS address in the /etc/resolv.conf config, then sending a request to the DNS on port 53 to be greeted back with the IP.
Behind the scene there are ton of files and libraries involved, all of this to get a domain name solved.

So in this talk we’ll try to create some order to try to understand thing as an end-user. Let’s make sense and reason behind this mess even if I have to say, I don’t get it much myself.
I can’t assess I haven’t made mistakes but if I did, please correct me, that would be great!



Let’s start with the misfits, the ones that don’t follow the rules, the not-invented-here syndrome found within our tools.
When it comes to DNS resolution, there’s no one-size fit all solution. Obviously, many of us don’t want to deal with all the complexity, so we say, “let’s pack these bytes ourselves, and forget the hassle”.
That’s pure heresy though. We’d prefer everything to work the same way, so that it’s easier to follow. It would be preferable that they all use the same lib, to all have the same behavior. That is, in our case to rely on the C standard lib, or the POSIX API our savior.

In all cases, let’s note some software that don’t rely on it, as we said, all the misfits.

  • The ISC/BSD BIND tools: from host, to dig, to drill, to nslookup, and more, used for debugging chores.
  • Firefox/Chrome/Chromium: There are the browsers, because they are one of a kind, bypassing libc and POSIX mechanism, implementing their own DNS API for performance reasons and perfectionism.
  • Any applications needing advanced DNS features, other than simple name to IP.
  • Language that don’t wrap around a libc: The Go programming language comes to mind. It implements it’s own resolver API.

Fortunately, I can ease your mind by letting you know that all of these will at least respect /etc/resolv.conf and /etc/hosts configurations. Files that we’ll see in the next sections.



I’ve taken a look at over a dozen different technologies and I think the best way to understand them is through their archaeologies. There’s a lot that can be explained about DNS resolution simply based on all the historic reasons.
The main thing you need to understand, is that there’s not a single clean library call to resolve a hostname. Standards and new specs have pilled up over the years, with some software that haven’t followed, but risking to disappear.

Overall, libc and POSIX provide multiple resolution APIs:

  • There’s the historic, low level one provided by ISC/BSD BIND resolver implementation within libc. Accessed though libresolv/resolv.h incantation.
  • The gethostbyname(3) and related functions, implementing an obsolete POSIX C specification.
  • The getaddrinfo(3), that is the modern POSIX C API for name resolution.

All these combinations, ladies and gentlemen, are the standard ways to resolve a name.
Newer applications will use getaddrinfo while older ones will use gethostbyname. Both of these 2 will often rely on something called NSS and another part to manage resolv.conf access.

Now let’s dive into each of these and you’ll get them like a breeze.



The resolver layer is the oldest and most stable in our quest. It originates from 1983, today almost 37 years ago, at Berkeley university.

It comes from a project called BIND, Berkely Internet Name Domain, which was sponsored by a DARPA grants. And like the Berkeley socket that gave rise to the internet, it has now turned into much much pain.
It was the very first implementation of the DNS specifications. It got released in BSD4.3 and today the BIND project is maintained by the Internet Systems Consortium, aka ISC.

It not only offers servers and clients, and the debug tools which we mentioned earlier, but also offers a library called “libbind”. This library is the defacto implementation, the standard resolver, the one of a kind. It is initially based on all the original RFC discussions, namely RFC 881, 882, and 883.
The BSD people wrote technical papers assessing its feasibility, and went on recommending and implementing it within BSD.

At that point BIND wasn’t a standard yet, it was an optionally-compiled code for those who wanted to get their feet wet, those who wanted to try DNS.
Then it got part of the C standard library interface through resolver, libresolv, -lresolv, resolv.h, and closed the case

If you take a look at most Unix-like systems today, from MacOS, to OpenBSD, to Linux, and company, you’ll see clearly in resolv.h, the copyright going back to 1983, to that very date. But obviously, it depends on the choice of the implementer, a case by case

So then the code diverged, there’s the libresolv provided by the C standardization and the libbind provided by the BIND implementation. However, most Unix only add small specific changes to their needs. For example, resolver in glibc is baselined off libbind from BIND version 8.2.3.

This layer is normally used for low level DNS interactions because it’s missing the goodies we’ll see later in this presentation.

Now let’s talk about environments and configurations.

The resolver configuration file

The resolver configuration files were mentioned in BIND first release, in section of “The Design and Implementation of ‘Domain Name Resolver’” by Mark Painter based on RFC883, part of the DNS RFC series.

This particular file being /etc/resolv.conf, you’ll see it hardcoded in resolv.h and if that file is missing, it’ll fall back to the localhost as the DNS, just to be safe.
Additionally, there’s /etc/host.conf, according to the manpage also “the resolver configuration file”, it’s so appropriately named. It’s a conf that dictates the working of /etc/hosts, the “static table lookup for hostsnames”.

So what’s in these files.
resolv.conf takes care of how to resolve names and which nameserver to use for that, while hosts simply has a list of known host aliases, ip + name, as simple as that.

Within resolv.conf you can also have a search list for domains. That’s if a name you’re searching for doesn’t have the minimum number of dots in it then it’ll add one of these TLD to it, top-level-domains, and keep searching until it finds something that fits.
This can also be manipulated in an environment variable LOCALDOMAIN.

$ echo 'example www.example.com' > ./host_aliases
$ HOSTALIASES="./host_aliases" getent hosts example   www.example.com

There can also be a sortlist IP netmask, for when there’s many results to match but you don’t want to give priority to the cloud VPS that lives only for cash.

Finally, there’s the option field, also overriden on the command line by the RES_OPTIONS environment variable. It manipulates the minimum number of dots we mentioned and also if you want can set debug as enabled.

Meanwhile, the hosts file is but a key-value db, simply made of domain names and IPs.

Its config also lets you change the order of results and for the rest you have host.conf to consult.

So remember, that all of these are mostly used everywhere because it’s the lowest layer. So it’s used by libbind and libresolv but also the custom NIH syndrome

Alright, so far that’s all classic clean stuff. Let’s move on to the next sections, you’ll scratch your head until there’s no dandruff.

gethostbyname(3) and getaddrinfo(3)


The C library POSIX specs create a superset over the C standard library. They add a few simpler calls to resolve hostnames and make it easy. These focus on returning A and AAAA records only, ipV4 and ipV6 respsectively.
There’s gethostbyname(3) which is deprecated, and there’s the newer getaddrinfo(3) defined in IEEE Std 1003.1g-2000, which mainly adds RFC3493 aka ipV6 is now supported. So applications are recommended to use this updated version unless they want to divert from mainland.

There are functions to resolve IP addresses to host names, but let’s focus only on name to ip for today, I know it’s lame.

Apart from ipV6 support being added, some internal structures have been updated as they weren’t so safe between subsequent calls and thus could be your demise and your fall.

Obviously they both return different structures.

hostent struct is returned to gethostbyname function caller. while getaddrinfo returns an addrinfo structure. Both being defined in the netdb.h header.

struct hostent {
	char  *h_name;            /* official name of host */
	char **h_aliases;         /* alias list */
	int    h_addrtype;        /* host address type */
	int    h_length;          /* length of address */
	char **h_addr_list;       /* list of addresses */
struct addrinfo {
	int              ai_flags;
	int              ai_family;
	int              ai_socktype;
	int              ai_protocol;
	socklen_t        ai_addrlen;
	struct sockaddr *ai_addr;
	char            *ai_canonname;
	struct addrinfo *ai_next;

Some libc implementations will get fancy and add their own modified versions of gethostbyname. For instance in glibc they add support for ipV6 in their modified gethostbyname2 for backward compatibility.

Regarding configuration files, getaddrinfo will consult /etc/gai.conf which takes care of the precedence of the addresses returned in the results. And now, you’re going to brandish your torch yelling at me “but resolver(3) already does that by default”. But I’ll let you know that resolver(3) is only interested in DNS calls only while these two POSIX functions in their egocentrism are more interested in all the ways, files, and mechanism that a name can be converted to an IP.
That is, they often rely on something called NSS which is what we’ll see in our next analysis.



Both gethostbyname(3) and getaddrinfo(3) will most likely rely on the NSS service, but what is NSS, aka Name Service Switch.
First of all it is not to be confuse with “Network Security Services”, which has the same accronym but has a lib called -libnss. In our case it’s -lnetdb, with the netdb.h header, so keep this in mind for later.

To understand what’s NSS is, we, again, have to go back in time, back when the tech was still in its prime.
There always has been the idea of sharing configurations between machines, however back in the days it was all hardcoded, with the exception of Ultrix.
Hardcoded in files like aliases for emails, /etc/hosts for local domains, the finger database and all that it entails. This idea dates back for so long that netdb.h header was almost always there, but was looking in these files we mentioned earlier

There are also a bunch of POSIX functions to get these values getservbyname, gethostent, gethostbyname, getservbyport, etc.. I think you can continue.

From that point on we needed something more flexible, and so Solaris OS said let’s not have it hardcoded, that’s not-acceptable. Let’s create something called the Yellow Page, a sort of phone book for configurations brokerage. But the name Yellow Page had legal issues so let’s go with NIS, for the Network Information Service.
Other Unices liked what they were doing in their business so they reproduced it in something called NSS. Though NSS, Network Service Switch is much simpler than NIS.

Let’s have a side note about OpenBSD OS which doesn’t implement NSS but has a pseudo-N.I.S., something called the ypserv(8), the Yellow Pages written by Theo de Raadt from scratch, but he doesn’t care about the legal name wrath.

On OpenBSD you can also find the nsdispatch(3) function The name-service switch dispatcher, something similar to NSS But I’m not sure, I’ll recheck my citations.

So let’s summarize, NSS is a client-server directory service protocol that has as role to distribute system config between different computers, to keep them harmozined. It is more flexible than the fixed files in libc and POSIX, and is arguably like LDAP, or zookeeper, if you know it. Or actually, like any modern way to share configs between containers and microservices.

“But what does it have to do with domain names”, you may ask, well, a map of name with ip is a config like any others, so it’s the same task. That also includes things from hosts, password, port, aliases, and groups. Yep, it’s quite the big soup.

Apart from the functions in POSIX there is command line utilities that goes by the name of getent that lets you access NSS facilities to do simple queries for its entries.

So for example you can get a service port based on the name of that service Yes, simple the name suffice.

> getent  services domain   
domain                53/tcp

This particular module will read the /etc/services file NSS is quite versatile.

We can obviously query for a hostname which is our main game.

And note that you can disable the IDN encoding too Remember all that domain name we did on the forums, all that voodoo

getent -i hosts 𝕟𝕚𝕩𝕖𝕣𝕤.𝕟𝕖𝕥 
getent  hosts 𝕟𝕚𝕩𝕖𝕣𝕤.𝕟𝕖𝕥 
#   STREAM nixers.net
#   DGRAM  
#   RAW  

So how is NSS actually working, how does it also do the resolving. The NSS library consults the /etc/nsswitch.conf and /etc/default/nss files and depending on the entries it will sequentially attempt until it’s satisfied, until it find what it wants until it got the demand.

You’ll find the “hosts” entry in this file, along with a list of string on its right.

hosts: files mymachines myhostname resolve [!UNAVAIL=return] dns

These strings are the modules which will dynamically be loaded and sequentially executed, the format even allowing to have appended conditional rules.
Like here I’m skipping resolve plugin if it’s not available on my machine.

To get a list of all modules, you can look in your lib directory mess for anything that starts with libnss_.

 /usr/lib > ls libnss_*
libnss_compat-2.32.so  libnss_dns-2.32.so    libnss_hesiod-2.32.so   libnss_systemd.so.2
libnss_compat.so       libnss_dns.so         libnss_hesiod.so        libnss_winbind.so
libnss_compat.so.2     libnss_dns.so.2       libnss_hesiod.so.2      libnss_winbind.so.2
libnss_db-2.32.so      libnss_files-2.32.so  libnss_myhostname.so.2  libnss_wins.so
libnss_db.so           libnss_files.so       libnss_mymachines.so.2  libnss_wins.so.2
libnss_db.so.2         libnss_files.so.2     libnss_resolve.so.2

The most common modules are the following: files, dns, nis, myhostname, and resolve (for systemd-resolved).

  • files: Reads a local file in our case /etc/resolv.conf or /etc/hosts, no polling or anything
  • dns: will try to resolve the name remotely, in this case yes, it’s pulling it.
  • nis: To use solaris YP/NIS
  • myhostname: which reads local files such as /etc/hosts and /etc/hostname similar to the files plugin in case you missed.
  • resolve: the resolve plugin is the systemd-resolved, yes don’t put me on a crucifix.

And theres a bunch of others In case you’re in a mood to be a crusader.

Let’s open a parenthesis on the resolve plugin, before you throw it quickly in the dustbin. It’s quite advanced having multiple features like caching, to DNSSEC validation, to resolveconf, as well as being an NSS plugin. And when used as an NSS plugin, you communicate with systemd-resolved via dbus sockets, otherwise it always listens on port 53 for fallback in case you didn’t use NSS.

You can consult its ResolveHostname() method/interface part of the org.freedesktop.resolve1.Manager dbus object.

Now let’s move to something else, something you haven’t thought of yet.



As we said, resolv.conf is used by all these components, but not only them, also all network agents. They are also in charge of setting or changing the DNS address, each of them, from dhcp client, ppp daemon, vpn manager, network manager, they all want access. And what about having 2 network connections concurrently, each requiring their own separate DNS, obviously.

So everyone wants to use the resolv.conf file, thus we need a manager to handle it. We want to avoid an inconsistent state, it’s vital not let everyone mess with it, and that is what resolvconf(8) role is.
Anyone wanting to change the resolv.conf should instead pass through resolveconf to avoid the hassle. It does that by using it’s resolvconf command line executable. Similarly to the resolv.conf configuration, you can pass anything to it like domain, search, and options.

resolvconf -a eth0.dhclient << EOF

Now resolv.conf is rarely a plain normal file itself because the manager finds it easier to create a symbolic link and avoid the abusiveness. The default implementation has it in /run/resolvconf/name-interface/resolv.conf.

Accordingly, like any other tooling, resolvconf has configuration files in /etc/resolvconf.conf, and a directory with hooks in /etc/resolvconf/. Within these files you can mention if you want the symlink to be at another location.


I’m saying default implementation because like anything else on a system you can replace it with your own concoction. Two popular alternatives solution to this problem: openresolv, systemd-resolved, which we mentioned earlier.

So resolv.conf is rarely a file it’s more of a symlink, check all of these for example, you’ll be surprised I think.




In computers you can make anything faster with another level of indirection. That’s what all cache mechanism try to offer and domain name resolving is no exception.
There are two places where caching is available, either through a local dns proxy or through something called nscd. Just remember that this last one isn’t very stable.

Let’s start with nscd which is an NSS proxy, so it not only caches the DNS queries but also anything related to getting an NSS entry.

The other caching method is to run your own local dns server, be it bind9, djbdns, dnscache, lwresd, dnscrypt-proxy or any other resolver.
These can either be full featured, bells and whistles or only provide lightweight cache proxy if you’re not feeling like you want the details.

Another reason to run such service would be to block ads and all their malice.

Also, just beware of flushing the cache, otherwise you’ll get surprises that will make you crash.

EDIT: OpenBSD uses unwind.8 as a local DNS server caching along with resolvd.8 daemon to manage /etc/resolv.conf changes.

How To Debug


So now you sort of know that it depends on what everthing uses Once you got that you can now start an analysis.

You can use a BIND tool To debug if DNS is the fool Or simply do a wireshark trace if you don’t want to bother or these are not under your grace

You can also check which NSS pluging is loaded And make sure they’re not aborted

ltrace -e "*gethostbyname*@libnss*" getent hosts www.example.com

Remember that each tool can have their own configurations So it adds complexity to the equation.

Big Picture


Let’s conclude here.
You should now be comfortable with anything in the domain name resolution sphere. It’s all about shared config management, like zookeeper, ldap, and these other arrangements.

I hope you’ve learned a thing or two and that domain name resolution is less of a taboo.
Thanks for listening and have a nice evening.



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