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I have been looking for an answer to that question (the one in the title) and the best thing I've found was:

In DNS Protocol design, UDP transport Block size (payload size) has been limited to 512-Bytes to optimize performance whilst generating minimal network traffic.

my question is: how exactly does this enhance performance and are there any other reasons for this limitation when using UDP ?

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The question is actually based on a false premise (at the very least an outdated one). The 512 byte payload limit is no more, see my answer below. – Håkan Lindqvist Apr 9 '14 at 18:26
up vote 9 down vote accepted

The 512 byte payload guarantees that DNS packets can be reassembled if fragmented in transit. Also, generally speaking there's less chance of smaller packets being randomly dropped.

The IPv4 standard specifies that every host must be able to reassemble packets of 576 bytes or less. With an IPv4 header (20 bytes, though it can be as high as 60 bytes w/ options) and an 8 byte UDP header, a DNS packet with a 512 byte payload will be smaller than 576 bytes.

As @RyanRies says: DNS can use TCP for larger payloads and for zone transfers and DNSSEC. There's a lot more latency when TCP comes into play because, unlike UDP, there's a handshake between the client and server before any data begins to flow.

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Dangit, I was typing an answer as you posted yours. Also, to wit, just wanted to let OP know that DNS can use TCP as well, especially with things like zone transfers, DNSSEC, etc. But UDP is faster and lighter. – Ryan Ries Apr 8 '14 at 23:05
A related note: the reason there will always be 13 root DNS resolver names ( through is because that is the maximum number that can fit in a DNS response to a query for the root without exceeding the 512 byte limit. Thus, even as we add more physical servers to the root DNS infrastructure, logically there will always remain thirteen root servers. – phoebus Apr 9 '14 at 0:04
@RyanRies For DNSSEC EDNS0 with a larger allowed payload is actually the normal mode of operation, not TCP. – Håkan Lindqvist Apr 9 '14 at 18:15
The smallest permitted MTU is not 576 bytes, it is 68 bytes in IPv4 and 1280 bytes in IPv6. – kasperd Apr 9 '14 at 18:44

Modern DNS is not actually limited to 512 bytes payload for UDP anymore.

With EDNS0 in use a larger payload size can be specified, which is also commonly the case for DNSSEC-aware clients.

The support for larger payloads over UDP has been a double-edged sword, however, it is in part the reason why using nameservers for amplification attacks has become more popular as you can achieve better amplification if the attacker uses a query that gets a large response.

See rfc2671 for the nitty-gritty details of EDNS0

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This is true, but there are still routers and firewalls out there that drop UDP DNS packets over 512 bytes. – Ryan Ries Apr 9 '14 at 18:56
@RyanRies Yes, while that is of course behavior that is considered incorrect by todays standards it is something that still occasionally causes problems. (In theory if one has such a limit in place one would know to configure the relevant software not to advertise capability of handling / not sending larger responses.) – Håkan Lindqvist Apr 9 '14 at 19:06

Its a QOS thing.

Because UDP is stateless, error-handling of packets isn't possible.

Thus, by keeping packets to a max size, there is a greater change they will reach their destination, reducing the impact of the absence of error handling.

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Larger packets don't mean that UDP fails-over to TCP. Am I misunderstanding what you're saying? – mfinni Apr 8 '14 at 23:10
You're probably right. I think I read that in a proposed RFC somewhere. – Garreth McDaid Apr 8 '14 at 23:16
UDP does not fail over but for DNS specifically if the response is too large to fit when using UDP this will result in a truncated response (the actual response does not contain all the data and the 'truncated' flag is set to indicate this), the client can then retry using TCP instead. – Håkan Lindqvist Apr 9 '14 at 18:18

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