Securing DNS Connections with Windows Server 2008 R2 DNSSEC


With the upcoming insurgence of IPv6, accessing computers through DNS names will be more important than ever. While those of us who have been working with IPv4 for many years have found it fairly easy to remember a great number of IPv4 addresses using the dotted quad system of IP network numbering, the fact is that the IPv6 address space is so large, and the hexadecimal format is so complex, that it is likely that only a handful of very dedicated nerds will be able to remember the IP addresses of more than a few computers on their networks. After all, each IPv6 address is 128 bits long – four times as long as an IPv4 address. This is what provides for the much larger address space to accommodate the growing number of hosts on the Internet, but it also makes it more difficult for us to remember addresses.

The Problem: Non-secure Nature of the DNS Database

Given the increasing reliance on DNS that is sure to result, we are going to need a way to make sure that the entries in the DNS database are always accurate and reliable – and one of the most effective ways for us to ensure this is to make sure that our DNS databases are secure. Up until recently, DNS had been a relatively non-secure system, with a large number of assumptions made to provide a basic level of trust.

Due to this non-secure nature, there are many high profile instances where the basic trust has been violated and DNS servers have been hijacked (redirecting the resolution of DNS names to rogue DNS servers), DNS records spoofed, and DNS caches poisoned, leading users to believe they are connecting to legitimate sites when in fact they have been led to a web site that contains malicious content or collects their information by pharming. Pharming is similar to phishing, except that instead of following a link in email, users visit the site on their own, using the correct URL of the legitimate site, so they think they’re safe. But the DNS records have been changed to redirect the legitimate URL to the fake, pharming site.

The Solution: Windows Server 2008 R2 DNSSEC

One solution you can use on your intranet to secure your DNS environment is to use the Windows Server 2008 R2 DNSSEC. DNSSEC is a collection of extensions that improve the security of the DNS protocols. These extensions add origin authority, data integrity and authenticated denial of existence to DNS. The solution also adds several new records to DNS, including DNSKEY, RRSIGN, NSEC and DS.

How DNSSEC works

What DNSSEC does is allow all the records in the DNS database to be signed, with a method similar to that used for other digitally signed electronic communications, such as email. When a DNS client issues a query to the DNS server, it returns the digital signatures of the records that it returns. The client, which has the public key of the CA that signed the DNS records, is then able to decrypt the hashed value (signature) and validate the responses. In order to do this, the DNS client and server are configured to use the same trust anchor. A trust anchor is a preconfigured public key associated with a particular DNS zone. 

DNS database signing is available for both file based (non-Active Directory integrated) and Active Directory integrated zones, and replication is available to other DNS servers that are authoritative for the zones in question.

The Windows 2008 R2 and Windows 7 DNS clients are configured, by default, as non-validating, security-aware, stub resolvers. When this is the case, the DNS client allows the DNS server to perform validation on its behalf, but the DNS client is able to accept the DNSSEC responses returned from the DNSSEC enabled DNS server. The DNS client itself is configured to use the Name Resolution Policy Table (NRPT) to determine how it should interact with the DNS server. For example, if the NRPT indicates that the DNS client should secure the connection between the DNS client and server, then certificate authentication can be enforced on the query. If security negotiations fail, it is a strong indication that there is a trust issue in the name resolution process, and the name query attempt will fail. By default, when the client returns to the DNS query response to the application that made the request, it will only return this information if the DNS server has validated the information.

Ensuring Valid Results

So there are really two methods that are used to ensure that the results of your DNS queries are valid. First, you need to ensure that the DNS servers that your DNS clients connect to are actually the DNS servers you want the DNS clients to connect to – and that they are not rogue or attacker DNS servers that are sending spoofed responses. IPsec is an effective way to ensure the identity of the DNS server. DNSSEC uses SSL to confirm that the connection is secure. The DNS server authenticates itself via a certificate that is signed by a trusted issuer (such as your private PKI).

Keep in mind that if you have IPsec enforced server and domain isolation in force, you must exempt TCP and UDP ports 53 from the policy. Otherwise, IPsec policy will be used instead of certificate based authentication. This will cause the client to fail certificate validation from the DNS server and the secure connection will not be established.

Signed zones

DNSSEC also signs zones, using offline signing with the dnscmd.exe tool. This results in a signed zone file. The signed zone file contains the RRSIG, DNSKEY, DNS and NSEC resource records for that zone. After the zone is signed, it has to be reloaded using the dnscmd.exe tool or the DNS manager console.

One limitation of signing zones is that dynamic updates are disabled. Windows Server 2008 R2 enables DNSSEC for static zones only. The zone must be resigned each time a change is made to the zone, which may severely limit the utility of DNSSEC in many environments.

The Role of Trust Anchors

Trust anchors were mentioned earlier. DNSKEY resource records are used to support trust anchors. A validating DNS server must include at least one trust anchor. Trust anchors also apply only to the zone that they are assigned. If the DNS server hosts several zones, then multiple trust anchors are used.

The DNSSEC enabled DNS server performs validation for a name in a client query as long as the trust anchor is in place for that zone. The client doesn’t need to be DNSSEC aware for the validation to take place, so that non-DNSSEC aware DNS clients can still use this DNS server to resolve names on the intranet.


NSEC and NSEC3 are methods that can be used to provide authenticated denial of existence for DNS records. NSEC3 is an improvement on the original NSEC specification that allows you to prevent “zone walking”, which allows an attacker to retrieve all the names in the DNS zone. This is a powerful tool that attackers can use to reconnoiter your network. This capability is not available in Windows Server 2008 R2, as only support for NSEC is included.

However, there is limited support for NSEC3:

  • Windows Server 2008 R2 can host a zone with NSEC that has NSEC3 delegations. However, the NSEC3 child zones are not hosted on Windows DNS servers
  • Windows Server 2008 R2 can be a non-authoritative DNS server configured with a trust anchor for a zone that is signed with NSEC and has NSEC3 child zones.
  • Windows 7 clients can use a non-Microsoft DNS server for DNS name resolution when that server is NSEC3 aware
  • When a zone is signed with NSEC, you can configure the Name Resolution Policy Table to not require validation for the zone. When you do this, the DNS server will not perform validation and will return the response with the Active Directory bit clear

Deploying DNSSEC

To deploy DNSSEC, you will need to do the following:

  • Understand the key concepts of DNSSEC
  • Upgrade your DNS servers to Windows Server 2008 R2
  • Review zone signing requirements, choose a key rollover mechanism, and identify the secure computers and DNSSEC protected zones
  • Generate and backup the keys that sign your zones. Confirm that DNS is still working and answering queries after signing the zones
  • Distribute your trust anchors to all non-authoritative servers that will perform DNS validation using DNSSEC
  • Deploy certificates and IPsec policy to your DNS server
  • Configure the NRPT settings and deploy IPsec policy to client computers

For more information on deploying a secure DNS designing using Windows Server 2008 R2, go here.


In this article, we provided a high level overview of DNSSEC and discussed the reasons that securing your DNS infrastructure is important to your organization. Windows Server 2008 R2 introduces new features that help make your DNS infrastructure more secure than ever, through the combined used of signed DNS zones, SSL secured connections to trusted DNS servers, and IPsec authentication and encryption. In a future article, we’ll take apart the DNSSEC solution in more detail and look at the specifics of the new resource records, the signing process, and the client/server interactions that take place between a DNSSEC client and server. See you then! -Deb.

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