DNSSEC is a hugely complex protocol. The current specification is defined in three RFCs: RFC4033, RFC4034 and RFC4035. This post will attempt to explain the core of the protocol and what is required to sign a DNS zone with DNSSEC. The process of validating DNSSEC records shall be left for a future post.

While there are arguments both for and against DNSSEC, this post will not take a side. It aims to be a strictly technical explanation on how DNSSEC works.


The original DNS protocol has no security guarantees. DNS data can be intercepted, modified and spoofed without any means of detection. The goal of DNSSEC is to fix this by providing origin authentication and integrity for DNS data.

The DNS system is organized as a hierarchy of subdomains below the DNS root domain (.). A subdomain and all the subdomains below it that is managed by one administrative authority is referred to as a DNS zone. As an extension to DNS, DNSSEC heavily relies on this design for its security model.

DNSSEC Record Types

DNSSEC introduces four new Resource Record (RR) types to the DNS protocol: DNS Public Key (DNSKEY), Resource Record Signature (RRSIG), Next Secure (NSEC), and Delegation Signer (DS).

The use of each RR type will be explained as we walk through the protocol.

How to sign a zone?

DNSSEC uses a public/private keypair to sign DNS records. The public key portion of this keypair is stored in a DNSKEY record. This record is used by resolvers to validate the signatures covering the DNS records of the zone. The keypair used to sign DNS zone records is referred to as the Zone Signing Key (ZSK). The ZSK is used to sign all records except DNSKEY records. Another public/private keypair, known as the Key Signing Key (KSK) is used to sign DNSKEY records. This split of responsibilities between the ZSK and KSK allows for the ZSK to be rotated frequently without changing the KSK. The benefit of this will become apparent in a later section of this post.

DNS records of the same type are grouped into a RRset which is then signed with the ZSK. This signature is stored in a RRSIG record which is used by resolvers to validate the authenticity and integrity of the records contained in the RRset. In a properly signed DNS zone, there should be a RRSIG record covering every RR type present in the DNS zone. RRSIG records have an expiration date (which is distinct from the TTL of the RRSIG record) and RRsets must be regularly re-signed.

The next piece of the DNSSEC puzzle is NSEC records. NSEC records list the RRsets associated with the DNS name as well as point to the next authoritative name and are used to authenticate the denial of existence of a DNS record. Take the case of a DNS zone beginning at example.com with two subdomains, alpha.example.com and omega.example.com. The DNS names are sorted in canonical order (defined in RFC4034 Section 6]) and we end up with the sorted list [example.com, alpha.example.com, omega.example.com].

example.com contains the following NSEC record:

example.com. 86400 IN NSEC alpha.example.com. (

This indicates that example.com has a A, MX, RRSIG and NSEC RRset associated with it and that the next authoritative name in the zone is alpha.example.com.

alpha.example.com contains the following NSEC record:

alpha.example.com. 86400 IN NSEC omega.example.com. (

This indicates that the next authoritative name in the zone is omega.example.com. We can use this to prove that beta.example.com does not exist since the names are sorted and there are no zones between alpha.example.com and omega.example.com.

Unfortunately, NSEC records makes it trivially easy to enumerate the names in a zone. This is a goldmine of information in a targeted attack since it can reveal sensitive information about an organization such as technologies in use. This is the reason why AXFR queries (also known as DNS zone transfers) is disabled by most DNS servers. NSEC records in DNSSEC have been replaced by NSEC3 records, which is designed to make enumeration a lot more difficult (although it does not completely fix the problem). A look at how NSEC3 records work shall be the topic of a future post.

With all these pieces in place, the integrity of a DNS zone can be verified by resolvers if the resolvers have an out-of-band method to verify the KSK. The DNSSEC RFCs use the term "island of security" to describe such a zone. However, this doesn't scale as a DNS resolver cannot possibly verify the KSK of every domain out of band. DNSSEC solves this by establishing an authentication chain starting from the root domain (.).

Take the example of a DNS zone beginning at example.com. example.com contains two DNSKEY records, the ZSK and KSK. example.com can establish an authentication chain to the parent domain (com) by publishing a DS record at com containing the hash of the example.com's KSK. Since the DS record is signed by com, any resolver that can validate com can validate any child zones of com. This process is repeated between com and the root domain (.). With this, any resolver that knows the KSK of the root domain can validate any DNSSEC enabled domain.

Since the DS record in the parent zone contains the hash of the KSK, rotating the KSK requires communication with the parent zone, which belongs to a different administrative authority. This makes the process of rotating the KSK slightly more difficult. The split of responsibilities between the ZSK and KSK allows for a much more frequent rotation of the ZSK (which is the key used to actually sign zone records) since updating the ZSK only requires publishing a new DNSKEY record. The KSK, which is only used to sign the DNSKEY RRset, can be kept in a more secure (and more inaccessible) location and can be rotated less frequently.


For a zone to be considered properly signed, it should contain:

  1. Two DNSKEY records, containing the KSK and ZSK
  2. RRSIG records for each RR type in the zone
  3. NSEC (or NSEC3) records for each authoritative name in the zone
  4. A DS record in the parent zone containing the hash of the KSK

The other side of the DNSSEC protocol is validating the signed zones. That shall be covered in a future post.

Shoutout to @diagprov for reviewing this post!

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