This blog post is part of the FastMail 2014 Advent Calendar.
Technical level: low-medium
Part of running any website or email service is that you need to publish DNS records for your domains. DNS is what allows computers to convert names like "fastmail.com" into IP addresses that computers use to actually talk to each other.
In the very early days of FastMail, we used an external service called ZoneEdit to do this. That's fine when your DNS requirements are simple and don't change much, but over time our DNS complexity and requirements increased, so we ended up moving to and running our own DNS servers.
For a long time, we used a program called TinyDNS to do our DNS serving. TinyDNS was written by Dan Bernstein (DJB). DJB's software has a history of being very security conscious and concise, but a bit esoteric in its configuration, setup and handling.
While TinyDNS worked very well for us (extremely reliable and low resource usage), one issue with TinyDNS is that it reads its DNS data from a single constant-only database file that is built from a corresponding input text file. That means to make any DNS changes, you have to modify/rebuild the input data file, and then rebuild the entire database file each time you make even a single change.
That was fine when DNS hosting was just for us, but over time we found more and more people wanted to use their own domain for email, so we opened up DNS hosting to our users. To make it as easy as possible for users, when you add a domain to your FastMail account, we automatically publish some default DNS records, with the option to customise as much as you want.
Allowing people to host their DNS with us is particularly important for email because there's actually a number of complex email-related standards that rely on DNS records. For websites, it's mostly about just creating the right A (or in some cases, CNAME) record. For email though, there's the MX records for routing email for your domain, wildcard records to support subdomain addressing, SPF records for stopping forged SMTP FROM addresses, DKIM records for controlling signing of email from your domain. There's also SRV records to allow auto-discovery of our servers in email and CalDAV clients, and a CNAME record for mail.yourdomain.com to log in to your FastMail account. In the future, there's also DMARC records we want to allow people to easily publish. For more information on these records and standards, check out our previous post about email authentication.
The problem with TinyDNS was that any change people made to their DNS, or any new domains added at FastMail, we couldn't just immediately rebuild the database file because it's a single file for ALL domains, so it's quite large. So instead we'd only rebuild it every hour, and people had to be aware that any DNS changes they made might take up to an hour to propagate to our actual DNS servers. Not ideal.
So a few years back, we decided to tackle that problem. We looked around at the different DNS software available, and settled on PowerDNS. One of the things we particularly liked about PowerDNS was its plug-able backends, and its support for DNSSEC. Using this, we were able to build a pipe based backend that talked to our internal database structures. This meant that DNS changes are nearly immediate (there's still a small internal caching time).
Because DNS is so important, we tested this change very carefully. One of the things we did was to take a snapshot of our database, and capture all the DNS packets to/from our TinyDNS server for an hour. On a separate machine, we tested our PowerDNS based implementation with the same database snapshot, and replayed all the DNS packets to it, and checked that all the responses were the same.
With this confirmation, we were able to rollout the change from TinyDNS to PowerDNS. Unfortunately even with that testing, we still experienced some problems, and had to rollback for a while. After some more fixing and tests, we finally rolled it out permanently in Feb 2013 and it's been happily powering DNS for all of our domains (e.g. fastmail.com, fastmail.fm, messagingengine.com, etc) and all user domains since.
Our future DNS plans include DNSSEC support (which then means we can also do DANE properly, which allows server-to-server email sending to be more secure), DMARC record support, and ideally one day Anycast support to make DNS lookups faster.
For users, if you don't already have your own domain, we definitely recommend it as something to consider. By controlling your own domain, you'll never be locked to a particular email provider, and they have to work harder to keep your business, something we always aim to do :)
With the new GTLDs that have been released and continue to be released, there's now a massive number of new domains available. We use and recommend gandi.net and love their no bullshit policy. For around $15-$50/year, your own domain name is a fairly cheap investment on keeping control of your own email address forever into the future, and with FastMail (and an Enhanced or higher personal account, or any family/business accounts), we'll do everything else for you. Your email, DNS and even simple static website hosting.