We have a use case to cache 300+ million pieces of such data each with a unique key.

I know this is unorthodox but, it has been suggested at my company that DNS could be used as a fast distributed cache for small (<512 bytes) pieces of data.

The DNS entry would be {Key}.{modulus of hashed key}.mycompany.local.

i.e. U5333145311.1.mycompany.local

We would be making requests at the rate of 5000 to 7500 per second from 10 to 15 servers.

We would update each DNS server via the zone files.

As I am a programmer, this is all new to me

  1. is this even feasible?
  2. what are the pitfalls?
  3. how do I size the DNS servers.


Update: The data is an array of 1 to 30 integers (not 512K sorry), so it is very small. My CTO who came from network ops like this solution because it is a known, mature system and has built in fault tolerance and he can use network ops to manage it. I am very leery but open minded.

11 Answers 11


DNS makes sense in some cases:

  • Widely distributed data

    For example DNS blacklists are effective because the caching infrastructure already exists near the users (i.e. their ISP), or for large users they can easily run custom software like (rbldnsd). However the point is it makes use of an existing widely deployed protocol.

  • Small responses (around 500 bytes max)

    Most interesting things people distribute via DNS are small and often even just the existence or not of the record is enough (e.g. a DNSBL signals an IP address is bad, or something that signals the checksum of this file is "bad").

    I wrote this: https://dgl.cx/wikipedia-dns, and it pretty much pushes the limit of response sizes you can safely do in DNS. Not everyone implements or supports EDNS0 and as someone else said once you've fallen back to TCP the benefit of being stateless disappears.

As others said it sounds to me like you'd be better off with something like memcached. Trying to constrain yourself to DNS seems silly when it's for internal use. If you have control over the client you can easily do a better job at failover and load balancing than DNS itself can do.


As I am the skeptic's CTO, I'd like to throw some color around the discussion.

As Gary has mentioned, the application needs to be able to publish a very large manifest. The manifest will be partitioned into a few (30-100) groups. Each key will average about 55 bytes, but could be much larger.

Whichever product we choose needs to support the following:

1) Full redundancy and load balancing 2) High transaction volume (15k-20k reads/sec) with <500ms response time.

The nice to haves are: 1) Hierarchical structure 2) Record expiration 3) Self-describing topology

DNS popped into mind only after thinking about using UDP instead of TCP to retrieve data from an in-memory distributed cache. Naturally, DNS is one of the old and largest DNS applications.

DNS is known to support zone files with very large amounts of records. For example .com. is a zone file afterall (albeit distributed across many servers globally). It is also known to support very high levels of traffic.

We have run DNS through some preliminary tests. We loaded up a single zone file with 10M TXT records with a representative amount of data. From a different server on the same LAN, we then ran tests of 300,000 queries in a multi-threaded fashion and got about 5,000 requests per second. The server and client barely flinched during the test. We are either running into bottlenecks in the testing app itself or in the network stack on the client.

I am intrigued by DNS because it supports everything I want natively, and has so for many years. The features I like are:

 Zone Delegation - we can define which server(s) handle particular partitions.  For example 1.mycompany.local is handled by servers and
 Redundancy - DNS was built with resiliency and redundancy in mind.  It can also be easily load balanced.
 Performance - Proven to support high request volumes

With all that said, DNS does sound like a bizarre tool to use as a cache. If it does end up making it through the selection phase, we would absolutely use it only on the internal LAN, and it would not be on the same DNS as our any other internal or external DNS systems. One side note is that we might want to share the data we're storing with 3rd party partners. DNS is a well known entity that anyone could easily query to receive zone transfers from.

Thank you for your continued feedback.


1 - probably, though not recommended
2 - odd caching behavior, insecure, no support anywhere
3 - no idea

There is essentially a ready-made solution for this in memcached: http://www.danga.com/memcached/

  • memcached is one of our choices along with maybe velocity if it is released in time. They each have there own set of issues. The biggest issue is what to do if a cache server goes down? – user7193 Jun 1 '09 at 17:30
  • I second the memcached recommendation... You can always run memcached on several server just like your would the DNS Server... – JJ01 Jun 1 '09 at 17:53
  • Also, I don't think I would consider deploying an application if the deciding factor was "if it is released in time". – Matt Simmons Jun 1 '09 at 23:25

It is not a bad idea after all.

If it is about performance make sure that the answer fits to one udp packet (otherwise it will fallback to a slower tcp). Set the TTL values wisely depending how often do you want to update the records.

There is a (standard) way to update records dynamically, which can be good if you do it from a program.


if your dns entry is key.modulus, whats the data? the IP address? am i missing something?

  • The data is a string of delimited values – user7193 Jun 1 '09 at 18:23

Use memcached. It's designed for exactly this purpose. If you're caching data, then you shouldn't worry when data gets flushed. If a server disappears, clients will carry on using the other servers and it'll just be considered a cache miss. There are clients that will rehash in the case of a failed node. I think last.fm did some work on it.

If you need reliable data, then you might want to look at something like memcachedb, which uses a berkerleyDB backend, rather than memory and will do replication between two nodes.

  1. is this even feasible?
    Yes. I would suggest you look at TXT records for holding this information

  2. what are the pitfalls?
    Not sure

  3. how do I size the DNS servers.
    Not sure, but as far as I understand it DNS is a fairly low requirement service using UDP to handle requests and replies - as such it is up to the client to determine if it got an answer or not and re-ask if it was unsuccessful.

The first indication that your DNS was not working, would be sporadic enterprise wide lookup failures.

Note also, that almost every computer system that makes these requests, will cache the result for 30 mins or up to the records ttl value if its less than 30 mins. So careful handling of these values would be needed.

I used to host the canteen menu on a finger server, so that everyone could see the days menu

<suck eggs> I'd also suggest that you write your program with specific server/groups in mind and not rely on the default DNS server :O </suck eggs>


More information about the access/update requirements would be helpful to render a more informed opinion.

Relative to DNS itself, it is mostly optimized for relatively static data that changes rarely/slowly. Also, for the most part, it is setup to operate on a relatively small amount of data from a single server/zone perspective. It gets it's scalability mostly from intermediate caching (TTL) and also the distributed tree nature of the world-wide "database" via each organziation's servers. Duplicate DNS servers are more to improve availability...and not as much to distribute workload (although it can be the case in some applications).

Your application seems to push against the grain of DNS is two areas:

  • Your records are not really that small
  • You have a huge number of records to keep

DNS might be made to work in your application, but I clearly would say that it is not optimized for this case.

  • All updating would be via a new zone file. – user7193 Jun 1 '09 at 18:26

While DNS is great for some things, it is not good for storing 512KByte values, no matter how you slice it.

If you had 300 million datums that were a lot smaller (say, 1000 bytes), DNS (with 1280 byte packets) might be a good idea.

The PowerDNS Authoritative Server might be a great way to publish such data, for example using the PIPE backend.

But for 512Kbyte datums, DNS won't fit your bill at all.

  • 1
    He said 512 bytes – duffbeer703 Jun 2 '09 at 1:44

I've never load tested DNS to this extent, but I'd be very very wary about this approach. It's certainly unorthodox, and crazy enough that it just might work, but the approach is like using a hammer to turn a screw - sure you can do it if you set things up right, but it's the wrong tool for the job.

At worst you would bring the company's DNS to it's knees, and somebody would have the job of explaining to the CEO why he can't get his email.


I suggest a propagating DNS cache that simply saves the resolved addresses to your hard disk. On linux there is pDNSd and DNSmasq. Both are very easy to install and recommended to avoid resolving addresses on your servers.

  • Every DNS resolver caches the results it retrieves. That's their main purpose. – Martijn Heemels Jan 26 '10 at 19:05

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