~jelford / blog:

altogether too much detail about host name resolution

In this post we'll take a look under the covers at what happens we look up hosts.

If you're here, you'll have an idea that the answer is basically "DNS" - but that's not the whole story. Let's make things concrete; we're going to answer the question: how does the following snippet of (pseudo-)code figure out what host to connect to?

conn = socket::connect("www.jameselford.com", 443);

DNS is just one part of the answer.


Most programs on a normal linux system will look in /etc/nsswitch.conf to figure out how to resolve hostnames. But lots of programs won't. Pretty much everything will find your DNS servers in /etc/resolv.conf. Generally, this process will involve a call to getaddrinfo, provided by your system's standard C library.

If that's what you came to find out, then you can go back to the internet now; thanks for your time. Stick around if you want to get into altogether too much detail about how this all happens.

what's coming up

We'll see:

  • How our program ends up calling into libc (by diving into the source)
  • How libc resolves our hostname (with a little help from strace)
  • and along the way, some opportunities to tweak how our system does host lookup

We'll start in Rust land, because that's kind of my jam, but you could do a similar journey for any high-level programming language. Maybe you hate jam. Maybe you're more of a Python / marmalade / Ruby sort of person. That's fine too; ultimately it doesn't matter how you do it, so long as there's a thick layer of sugar on your breakfast. In C, you'd just skip the first step and go straight to libc. I guess in this analogy, C is the toast.

check the source - peeking into the (Rust) standard library

In Rust, the pseudo-code above looks like this:

let c = TcpStream::connect("www.jameselford.com:443");

... so TcpStream::connect is our jumping-off point. connect takes any argument with a corresponding ToSocketAddrs implementation - and the standard library comes with implementors for a whole range of sensible types.

Here's the implementation for str:

// accepts strings like 'localhost:12345'
#[stable(feature = "rust1", since = "1.0.0")]
impl ToSocketAddrs for str {
    type Iter = vec::IntoIter<SocketAddr>;
    fn to_socket_addrs(&self) -> io::Result<vec::IntoIter<SocketAddr>> {
        // try to parse as a regular SocketAddr first
        if let Ok(addr) = self.parse() {
            return Ok(vec![addr].into_iter());


The call to parse near the top brings some extra conversion magic into the mix, but all that's doing is leaning on SocketAddr's FromStr implementation, which I won't list here, because it's just dealing with the case that the str is already a straightforward SocketAddr (e.g. That's not our case.

Next comes resolve_socket_addr. "Resolve" - that's a familiar word from the world of DNS; sounds like it could be what we're looking for. Let's dig in:

fn resolve_socket_addr(lh: LookupHost) -> io::Result<vec::IntoIter<SocketAddr>> {
    let p = lh.port();
    let v: Vec<_> = lh
        .map(|mut a| {

Uh... huh... looks like a simple transform of the lh input argument into the result. Also, I can't help noticing, this function returns a Result (which is what we expect! ... we're looking for something that can reach out and hit remote DNS servers, over the network after all), but this function is infallible: it can only return Ok(...) at the end.

Just one thing: our str has become lh: LookupHost, and it appears to have all the answers. Where did that come from? Let's back up to our to_socket_addrs function - notice the last line:


That try_into is where the magic's happening. The name try_... and the Result return type (indicated by the ?) are good hints that something's going on here. On first pass, I assumed it was "just" a straightforward conversion into another more convenient type for the lookup, but in fact, try_into is the lookup, as we'll see. Let's skip over to the implementation... but... how exactly do we find that? No mention of LookupHost on doc.rust-lang.org's normally trusty search.

further into the source - standard library internals

So we need to look deeper than what's publicly exposed by the standard library, into the implementation details.

This is good news: it means we're getting to the heart of it. "Where do host names come from?" is exactly the sort of thing that we want the standard library to take care of for us, so we knew we'd have to look behind the curtain at some point.

Okay, enough narrative, let's see some code.

We'll shift over to the Rust sources: here's the TryFrom implementation for LookupHost we were after (this allows us to use try_into to to_socket_addrs above). We'll skip over that as it just splits the str up into a (host, port) pair, and calls try_into() again, which is defined immediately below in the same file:

impl<'a> TryFrom<(&'a str, u16)> for LookupHost {
    type Error = io::Error;

    fn try_from((host, port): (&'a str, u16)) -> io::Result<LookupHost> {

        let c_host = CString::new(host)?;
        let mut hints: c::addrinfo = unsafe { mem::zeroed() };
        hints.ai_socktype = c::SOCK_STREAM;
        let mut res = ptr::null_mut();
        unsafe {
            cvt_gai(c::getaddrinfo(c_host.as_ptr(), ptr::null(), &hints, &mut res))
                .map(|_| LookupHost { original: res, cur: res, port })

Ah hah! Unsafe code! With a strong whiff of FFI about it! We're getting to the good stuff now. That call to getaddrinfo is the final step that takes us into the libc - which is, ultimately, where the sausage gets made.

There is one more hop here:


It's natural to read that as "call getaddrinfo from a C library", but c is just a Rust namespace like any other, so this function is being imported from somewhere. Scroll up to the top, and you'll see it comes from:

use crate::sys::net::netc as c;

sys is where the Rust standard library keeps its platform-specific code, so the implementation will depend on the current platform. On unix platforms, sys::net::netc is defined as backing on to libc:

pub extern crate libc as netc;

... but that needn't be the case everywhere - for example on the wasi platform netc is defined as a native Rust module, with no libc in sight.

Okay, that's enough technicalities: for our purposes, this c::getaddrinfo is a call through to libc.

quick asside on FFI and libc

FFI is short for "foreign function interface". Rust leans on existing libraries C for a whole bunch of functionality, and in this case, for functionality built into libc. When languages call into other languages that exist outside their own ecosystem (in this case, Rust to C), that's FFI.

libc is a widely-scoped C library that's provided as part of POSIX. It handles all sorts of common functionality - hostname resolution is one area, but in fact Rust delegates to libc for pretty much anything that touches the network, opens files, spawns new processes, ... in short: anything that requires making System Calls. Rust isn't alone in leaning on a libc for this; most programming languages eventually call through to libc (Python, Ruby, and Java all do, for example). That's good news; from this point on, what we learn translates well across languages. Go is a notable exception here - but more on that later.

POSIX only specifies the interface that libc has to provide, and there are several implementations. On Linux, the most common implementation of libc is glibc, so that's what we'll talk about next, but others do exist. Again, more on that later.

rephrasing the question

Now that we've established that we call through to libc's getaddrinfo, and that libc is commonly implemented by glibc, we can rephrase the question as:

how does glibc implement getaddrinfo?

Before we dig into that, let's take stock. We've arrived at the conclusion that we call through to the commonly used libc. We've said that pretty much every language does the same thing. That means that the answers we're looking for will be applicable pretty much everywhere, including in C programs. There's going to be some prior art on this.

what does the internet say?

What do we know already about how our programs find hosts?

  • Eventually we know that we'll connect to a DNS server and make a request
  • We probably know that at some stage the hosts file comes into it
  • We know that DNS configuration is system-wide. When we connect to a network, our computers automatically figure out what DNS to use (or we configure it ourselves).
  • Maybe some caching?!
  • localhost is always the loopback interface - presumably we don't ask the DNS servers for that?
  • There's something special about the .local domain?

Let's start with the global configuration of DNS servers. If we search for "dns linux" we get a few interesting hits:

  • There's this article pointing us to resolv.conf, which contains DNS configuration.
  • The Arch Wiki entry on domain name resolution tells us that resolv.conf is generally overwritten by network managers like GNOME's aptly-named NetworkManager. That's re-assuring, as it joins the dots from the familiar configuration options we get when we go to our environment's Network Settings screen, to something that libc and friends can find.
  • The same page also tells us that glibc's implementation of getaddrinfo is backed by NSS, which reads from nsswitch.conf. Hopefully we'll be able to see where that happens.

Let's have a look in those files and see what we can see. Here's the contents of my resolv.conf:

j@.. ~/s/dns-experiment> cat /etc/resolv.conf 
# Generated by NetworkManager

It checks out:

  • is the address of my local DNS resolver (a pihole, if you're interested)
  • and are Google's public DNS, which I have configured as my fallback DNS.
  • The file mentions that it's generated by NetworkManager, which tallies up with what we saw above.

And here's the relevant section of my local nsswitch.conf (used by glibc):

# Generated by authselect on Thu Jun 18 09:08:01 2020
# Do not modify this file manually.

--- snip ---

hosts:      files mdns4_minimal [NOTFOUND=return] dns myhostname

authselect is something new - looks like on my Fedora system there's one more layer of machinery involved in generating this file, but let's not worry about that for now.

The interesting part is what it has to say about host resolution: it mentions dns, but also three sources of naming information that we haven't discussed before: files, mdns4_minimal, and myhostname.

The hosts line is read in order.

  • files means what it sounds like: it tells glibc to look in local files. For host lookup, that means /etc/hosts.

  • mdns4_minimal doesn't have a special meaning. The man page says this about how these names are translated into meaning:

    Libraries called /lib/libnss_SERVICE.so.X will provide the named SERVICE.

    So, mdns4_minimal will be implemented by a separate dynamic library called libnss_mdns4_minimal.so.2 (the 2 depends on the glibc version; for 2.1 and above it's 2). A small note here; for me these files are in /lib64, not /lib.

    So, what is mdns4_minimal? Well, it comes from the nss-mdns project, which provides Multicast DNS, a system used for host discover on local networks. This is what allows us to resolve .local hostnames.

  • dns gets a shout out as explicitly allowed in the docs, but I notice the presence of libnss_dns.so.2 in my /lib64 directory. Now that I look, there's a libnss_files.so.2 in there too. I guess we'll see how that fits together when we dig into glibc.

  • myhostname is a systemd module (docs) that will resolve the local system's hostname.

Something that tripped me up: [NOTFOUND=return]. It says that if mdns4_minimal returns NOTFOUND, then we can stop early and not bother with querying dns or myhostname. My question was: since mdns4_minimal is only going to be able to find .local hosts, doesn't this action prevent us from moving on to use real dns for everything else? In fact NOTFOUND is only returned if mdns4_minimal both believes itself responsible for looking up the name and then fails to do so. Otherwise, mdns4_minimal will return an UNAVAIL status, and resolution will continue.

That gives us a clearer picture of what we're expecting to find glibc. Let's finally proceed.

what does glibc do?

read the code

In this section, we'll take a brief look at the sources of glibc, but we won't dig through all the details.

Here's glibc's implementation of getaddrinfo. It's about 350 lines long, and you're welcome to pick through, but it delegates the real work of lookup to another function, gaih_inet (further up in the same file). That function's just shy of 800 lines, and we're along the right lines, since references to some of the concepts we were looking at above are creeping in now:

  • a reference to /etc/nsswitch.conf in the comments
  • calls through to functions with nss in the name, like __nss_database_lookup2 and __nss_lookup_function.

Notice that __nss_lookup_function takes the name of another function as an argument. If we take a peek the sources for __nss_lookup_function, we'll see that it's responsible for dynamically loading in further libraries - presumably this is what links us up to the libnss_SERVICE.so.X files we saw above, eventually resolving the required function with __libc_dlsym.

I don't know about you, but I find these sources a bit hard going; alongside the business logic of looking up the various resolver functions, there's a lot of housekeeping.

Time for a change of tack.

strace to the rescue

There is another way we can get to the bottom of what's going on inside the loveable but inscrutable yak that is glibc: strace. If you haven't seen strace before, then I promise you're going to love it: strace monitors all System calls from and signals to a given process.

We've mentioned System Calls in passing already when talking about the role of libc in Rust - I said libc was used for:

anything that touches the network, opens files, spawns new processes ...in short - anything that requires making System Calls

So what exactly is a System Call? Well it's anything that you need to ask the Kernel to do for you. Anything that touches the Real World.

So, strace provides us with a straightforward way to answer the question of what a given program does - really does - without looking at the source code. So let's put together a simple program that will call getaddrinfo, and strace it.

You can find the sources here, but it boils down to a call to getaddrinfo, then printing out the results.

We can run it through strace with:

cargo build -q --target ${target}
strace -e desc,network,file -o "strace-${target}.log" -f "./target/${target}/debug/dns-experiment" www.jameselford.com

# ipv4 jelford.github.io
# ipv4 <unknown canonical addr>
# ipv4 <unknown canonical addr>
# ipv4 <unknown canonical addr>

The strace incantation is:

  • -e desc,network,file: report any system calls relating to file descriptors, the network, and files.
  • -o: put the trace into a separate file, rather than interweaving with the output of the process being traced
  • -f: follow any process forks.

The program's output is telling us that www.jameselford.com resolves to, which has a canonocal name of jelford.github.io (so, now you know that this blog is hosted on GitHub Pages). But we could have got that from dig; we came here for the strace output!

You can see it here. It makes for pretty dense reading, so I'll surface the interesting stuff, snipping out most of the calls I don't think are relevant.

Let's start at the top:

139893 execve("./target/x86_64-unknown-linux-gnu/debug/dns-experiment", ["./target/x86_64-unknown-linux-gn"..., "www.jameselford.com"], 0x7ffd292c7e10 /* 46 vars */) = 0
139893 access("/etc/ld.so.preload", R_OK) = -1 ENOENT (No such file or directory)
139893 openat(AT_FDCWD, "/etc/ld.so.cache", O_RDONLY|O_CLOEXEC) = 3
139893 openat(AT_FDCWD, "/lib64/libdl.so.2", O_RDONLY|O_CLOEXEC) = 3
139893 read(3, "\177ELF\2\1\1\0\0\0\0\0\0\0\0\0\3\0>\0\1\0\0\0p\"\0\0\0\0\0\0"..., 832) = 832
139893 fstat(3, {st_mode=S_IFREG|0755, st_size=36800, ...}) = 0
139893 mmap(NULL, 8192, PROT_READ|PROT_WRITE, MAP_PRIVATE|MAP_ANONYMOUS, -1, 0) = 0x7fda8e374000
139893 mmap(NULL, 24688, PROT_READ, MAP_PRIVATE|MAP_DENYWRITE, 3, 0) = 0x7fda8e36d000
139893 mmap(0x7fda8e36f000, 8192, PROT_READ|PROT_EXEC, MAP_PRIVATE|MAP_FIXED|MAP_DENYWRITE, 3, 0x2000) = 0x7fda8e36f000
139893 mmap(0x7fda8e371000, 4096, PROT_READ, MAP_PRIVATE|MAP_FIXED|MAP_DENYWRITE, 3, 0x4000) = 0x7fda8e371000
139893 mmap(0x7fda8e372000, 4096, PROT_READ|PROT_WRITE, MAP_PRIVATE|MAP_FIXED|MAP_DENYWRITE, 3, 0x4000) = 0x7fda8e372000
139893 mmap(0x7fda8e373000, 112, PROT_READ|PROT_WRITE, MAP_PRIVATE|MAP_FIXED|MAP_ANONYMOUS, -1, 0) = 0x7fda8e373000
139893 close(3)                         = 0

I did mention that it was going to be dense.

A note on how to read this:

  • the first word is the name of the systemcall.
  • following are all the arguments, in brackets
  • then the return value at the end, after an =

strace tries hard to convert arguments and return values into the corresponding names like you'd find the in C header files, and even gives us the text description for errors. Helpful, right?

So, what's happening in this snippet is that a shared library (libdl in this case) is opened, read, mapped into memory (notice PROT_EXEC - which maps the libraries into executable memory, which is what we need if we're going to run code from them!), then closed. This is the first of many shared libs that get loaded at the start of the process. The whole process is easy to recognize in the trace once you know what's going on, so, but I'll spare you the housekeeping for the rest:

139893 openat(AT_FDCWD, "/lib64/libpthread.so.0", O_RDONLY|O_CLOEXEC) = 3
139893 openat(AT_FDCWD, "/lib64/libgcc_s.so.1", O_RDONLY|O_CLOEXEC) = 3
139893 openat(AT_FDCWD, "/lib64/libc.so.6", O_RDONLY|O_CLOEXEC) = 3

At this point we've got the following libraries loaded:

  • libdl: will be used later for dynamically loading more shared libraries.
  • libpthread: threading support.
  • libgcc: GCC runtime support. Rust doesn't compile with GCC, but glibc does, so our executable must load libgcc. Even C has some runtime.
  • libc: this is glibc, on my system, and by now we were expecting to see it

Let's move on. We're looking to see what glibc does next:

139893 connect(3, {sa_family=AF_UNIX, sun_path="/var/run/nscd/socket"}, 110) = -1 ENOENT (No such file or directory)

In this section, we're attempting to connect to nscd, the "Network service cache daemon". It doesn't appear to be running, and systemctl denies all knowledge too. I've got local man pages for nscd but there's no sign of it on my $PATH and a quick rg on a copy of the POSIX spec doesn't show anything up. locate '*ncsd*' turns up a few hits in man pages and embedded in flatpaks, but nothing in the main system. I guess this isn't important anymore (just maintained in glibc for backwards compatibility). I'd love to hear about it if you know differently.

139893 openat(AT_FDCWD, "/etc/nsswitch.conf", O_RDONLY|O_CLOEXEC) = 3
139893 read(3, "# Generated by authselect on Thu"..., 4096) = 2556

Okay, so this is loading nsswitch.conf, the first of the config files we mentioned earlier. Looks like glibc looks at that first, to decide what it'll do next. This ties up with what we're expecting; so far so good. We can see the read call getting the familiar "generated by authselect..." header that we saw before.

Where does it go from there? As a quick reminder, nsswitch.conf listed:

hosts:      files mdns4_minimal [NOTFOUND=return] dns myhostname

So, we're expecting it to consult the files source first. Back to the trace:

139893 openat(AT_FDCWD, "/etc/host.conf", O_RDONLY|O_CLOEXEC) = 3
139893 read(3, "multi on\n", 4096)      = 9

Not quite what we were expecting. Here's the contents of my host.conf:

j@.. ~/s/dns-experiment> cat /etc/host.conf
multi on

man host.conf tells us that this line tells the resolver value some details of how to interpret /etc/hosts. Okay. So we're still expecting to openat("/etc/hosts") soon...

139893 openat(AT_FDCWD, "/etc/resolv.conf", O_RDONLY|O_CLOEXEC) = 3
139893 read(3, "# Generated by NetworkManager\nna"..., 4096) = 91

We saw earlier that this file specifies our DNS nameservers. We shouldn't need those yet as we haven't even gotten to /etc/hosts - but another look at man resolv.conf reveals other options that may be relevant to the resolution process. Onwards...

139893 openat(AT_FDCWD, "/lib64/libnss_files.so.2", O_RDONLY|O_CLOEXEC) = 3
139893 openat(AT_FDCWD, "/etc/hosts", O_RDONLY|O_CLOEXEC) = 3

Here we are - the hosts file. files, along with dns, got its own special mention in the nsswitch.conf man page, but it looks like this source is read using the same general mechanism as the other sources; load an appropriately named .so and hook into that. I won't drag you through the sources, but glibc does ship a module called nss_files, and sure enough, it knows where to look for the hosts file.

My hosts file is empty, so we won't find anything interesting in there. Now we're expecting to see our application move on to mdns4_minimal, and dns. It should never get to the myhostname since - assuming you're reading this, we're going ot find a DNS entry for www.jameselford.com from DNS.

Here's mdns4_minimal:

139893 openat(AT_FDCWD, "/lib64/libnss_mdns4_minimal.so.2", O_RDONLY|O_CLOEXEC) = 3

Nothing to see here. We're not looking for a .local domain, so that's just going to return without further ado. Next is DNS:

139893 openat(AT_FDCWD, "/lib64/libresolv.so.2", O_RDONLY|O_CLOEXEC) = 3
139893 openat(AT_FDCWD, "/lib64/libnss_dns.so.2", O_RDONLY|O_CLOEXEC) = 3
139893 setsockopt(3, SOL_IP, IP_RECVERR, [1], 4) = 0
139893 connect(3, {sa_family=AF_INET, sin_port=htons(53), sin_addr=inet_addr("")}, 16) = 0
139893 poll([{fd=3, events=POLLOUT}], 1, 0) = 1 ([{fd=3, revents=POLLOUT}])
139893 sendto(3, "\271\253\1\0\0\1\0\0\0\0\0\0\3www\vjameselford\3com"..., 37, MSG_NOSIGNAL, NULL, 0) = 37
139893 poll([{fd=3, events=POLLIN}], 1, 5000) = 1 ([{fd=3, revents=POLLIN}])
139893 recvfrom(3, "\271\253\201\200\0\1\0\5\0\0\0\0\3www\vjameselford\3com"..., 1024, 0, {sa_family=AF_INET, sin_port=htons(53), sin_addr=inet_addr("")}, [28->16]) = 132
139893 openat(AT_FDCWD, "/etc/gai.conf", O_RDONLY|O_CLOEXEC) = -1 ENOENT (No such file or directory)

That's more interesting! libresolve is also part of the wider glibc package (description here). We can use ldd to see that lib_resolve is brought in as a dependency of libnss_dns:

j@.. ~/s/dns-experiment> ldd /lib64/libnss_dns.so.2 
	linux-vdso.so.1 (0x00007ffda434b000)
	libresolv.so.2 => /lib64/libresolv.so.2 (0x00007f50fc674000)
	libc.so.6 => /lib64/libc.so.6 (0x00007f50fc4aa000)
	/lib64/ld-linux-x86-64.so.2 (0x00007f50fc6b3000)

We can also see that, finally, we're making a DNS call:

  • connect(... sin_addr=inet_addr("")...) - that's a call out to my DNS server (that we saw configured in /etc/resolv.conf).
  • poll is used to wait for the socket to be "ready" - whether that's to finish the business of connecting, sending data, or reading data. poll is used in asynchronous IO - which is a big topic, so I'll just draw attention to the SOCK_NONBLOCK option passed when the socket is initialized. This is what configures the socket to work in non-blocking (asynchronous) mode.
  • sendto and recvfrom - these are the calls that actually send our DNS requests out to the world, then read the results back.

The final attempt to read gai.conf allows some customization of the order with which results are returned from getaddrinfo.

Great, we're done! Well... not quite.

Before our application can print out the results we get... this...:

139893 getsockname(3, {sa_family=AF_NETLINK, nl_pid=139893, nl_groups=00000000}, [12]) = 0

# Params truncated
139893 sendto(3, { {len=20, type=RTM_GETADDR, flags=NLM_F_REQUEST|NLM_F_DUMP, seq=1594996449, pid=0}, {ifa_family=AF_UNSPEC, ...} }, 20, 0, {sa_family=AF_NETLINK, nl_pid=0, nl_groups=00000000}, 12) = 20
139893 recvmsg(3, ...) = 252     
139893 recvmsg(3, ...) = 72      
139893 recvmsg(3, ...) = 20
139893 connect(3, {sa_family=AF_INET, sin_port=htons(0), sin_addr=inet_addr("")}, 16) = 0
139893 getsockname(3, {sa_family=AF_INET, sin_port=htons(39670), sin_addr=inet_addr("")}, [28->16]) = 0
139893 connect(3, {sa_family=AF_UNSPEC, sa_data="\0\0\0\0\0\0\0\0\0\0\0\0\0\0"}, 16) = 0
139893 connect(3, {sa_family=AF_INET, sin_port=htons(0), sin_addr=inet_addr("")}, 16) = 0
139893 getsockname(3, {sa_family=AF_INET, sin_port=htons(41427), sin_addr=inet_addr("")}, [28->16]) = 0
139893 connect(3, {sa_family=AF_UNSPEC, sa_data="\0\0\0\0\0\0\0\0\0\0\0\0\0\0"}, 16) = 0
139893 connect(3, {sa_family=AF_INET, sin_port=htons(0), sin_addr=inet_addr("")}, 16) = 0
139893 getsockname(3, {sa_family=AF_INET, sin_port=htons(46916), sin_addr=inet_addr("")}, [28->16]) = 0
139893 connect(3, {sa_family=AF_UNSPEC, sa_data="\0\0\0\0\0\0\0\0\0\0\0\0\0\0"}, 16) = 0
139893 connect(3, {sa_family=AF_INET, sin_port=htons(0), sin_addr=inet_addr("")}, 16) = 0
139893 getsockname(3, {sa_family=AF_INET, sin_port=htons(54403), sin_addr=inet_addr("")}, [28->16]) = 0

AF_NETLINK is a socket family that provides socket-based communication between the Kernel and Userspace (man pages), and the NETLINK_ROUTE family being connected to is responsible for routing. The truncated recvmsg calls after we establish the AF_NETLINK connection contain a lot of info about my local network interfaces - interface names, IP addresses, that sort of thing. I've truncated them just because they don't play well with the blog's markdown parser. All of this happens after the DNS lookup has finished, here:

/* Now we definitely need the interface information.  */
if (! check_pf_called)
    __check_pf (&seen_ipv4, &seen_ipv6, &in6ai, &in6ailen);

Having gotten information about the various network interfaces, glibc goes ahead and "connects" to the IP addresses it got back from the host lookup procedure. There's no real connecting taking place here though; the socket is set up with type SOCK_DGRAM, which means it's connectionless. The source has this comment:

/* We overwrite the type with SOCK_DGRAM since we do not
   want connect() to connect to the other side.  If we
   cannot determine the source address remember this
   fact.  */

The game here seems to be to do just enough to call getsockname, and use the information it gets back to sort the final output list of getaddrinfo. Why does it go to so much effort to sort the output list? There aren't really too many hints right in the code, but let's rewind to the man page for getaddrinfo, which mentions:

Normally, the application should try using the addresses in the order in which they are returned. The sorting function used within getaddrinfo() is defined in RFC 3484

Here's that RFC, which I don't intend to get into, but I will note that it covers sorting both on destination address (i.e. the host we intend to connect to), and the source address (the interface that we connect from). I don't see that source address is included in the return value of getaddrinfo, but it looks like it is used as part of determining the order of results.

Okay, finally we can print out the results that we saw at the top of the section - a series ofwrite calls on file descriptor 1 (which is stdout):

139893 write(1, "ipv4 jelford.gi"..., 40) = 40
139893 write(1, "ipv4 <unknown c"..., 47) = 47
139893 write(1, "ipv4 <unknown c"..., 47) = 47
139893 write(1, "ipv4 <unknown c"..., 47) = 47
139893 +++ exited with 0 +++

Phew! That was quite a journey.

summary so far

Let's wrap up what we've seen so far:

  • Rust's standard library calls out (after jumping through a few hoops of its own) to libc's getaddrinfo.
  • Assuming that libc is glibc, it then:
    • checks for nscd, a caching daemon that doesn't seem to exist on my host
    • reads nsswitch.conf to determine what to do next. Based on that it...
    • checks in host.conf and resolv.conf to determine how to interpret what it finds when it...
    • reads the hosts file (in case of statically configured naming info),
    • tries mdns4_minimal (in case of .local domains),
    • queries DNS (using the DNS server it found earlier in resolv.conf),
    • sorts the results according RFC-3484, using information about local interfaces, and...
    • finally returns a list of host lookup results

That gives us a pretty clear picture of where to look if we want to configure or understand how hostname lookup is working on our system:

  • /etc/nsswitch.conf is used to determine how to look up hosts (maintained by authselect)
  • /etc/hosts allows us to configure a static set of names
  • .local domains have their own special mdns4 thing going on,
  • and finally, /etc/resolv.conf lists our name servers (maintained by NetworkManager)

Simple. This feels like a good place to stop, so... let's just look at one more thing...

what if we're not using glibc?

Now... getaddrinfo is specified by POSIX, but the rest of the details are not. nss is a glibc (well... inspired by Sun) invention, so everything from that point on is implementation dependant.

This matters when:

  • We're not using glibc as our libc.
    • Other 'nixes, like BSD, come with their own libc's.
    • The normal alternative on linux is musl, which, apart from being the default choice when producing static binaries in Rust, is the system-wide libc for some Linux distributions - in particular alpine, a popular choice for container base images.
  • We're not even using libc. Go makes its syscalls directly (well, on some platforms - including Linux) - what about other fundamental libc functions like getaddrinfo?

Let's round this out with a quick look an strace generated by the same Rust program as above, but this time targetting musl:

cargo build -q --target ${target}
strace -e desc,network,file -o "strace-${target}.log" -f "./target/${target}/debug/dns-experiment" www.jameselford.com

# ipv4 jelford.github.io
# ipv4 jelford.github.io
# ipv4 jelford.github.io
# ipv4 jelford.github.io

Right away we notice that we get different results with musl vs glibc! musl has come back with canonical names for all results, whereas glibc didn't. The ordering is also different, though we'd have to look into RFC-3484 to know what to make of that.

You can find the full log of the strace here. The first thing you'll notice is that it's a lot shorter than the glibc-based trace; 25 lines for the musl binary vs. 170 for the glibc one.

The first thing that's gone is all the shared library loading. That's about 50 lines from the start of the glibc trace. The next thing to note is that we're not straceing everything here - just syscalls related to file descriptors, network, and file operations. So, we shouldn't read too much into a line-count comparison.

So, what does the musl version do? I'll summarize here, but encourage you to look through the trace - it's only 25 lines!

  • First up, we go straight to reading the hosts file
  • Nothing there, so next we'll read resolv.conf.
  • We use the nameservers we just found to issue DNS requests (sendto calls)
  • Get data back (recvfrom)
  • ... and we're done!

No nsswitch.conf, no lookup of information about local interfaces, no checking host.conf for what we should do with multiple results from hosts (perhaps that would get read if there was something in there?).

Overall, it seems to just do a lot less... but there is one thing that stands out - whereas glibc only issued one DNS request (to my local resolver), musl goes ahead and fires off requests to all three configured nameservers.

That's a bit of a surprise to me. I use the local resolver for blocking trackers and ads - what would happen if the remote nameservers returned first? Would musl happily come back with the results and effectively ignore my blocker?

A whistlestop tour of the source:

  • getaddrinfo calls into...
  • __lookup_name which calls into...
  • name_from_dns_search, and name_from_dns in the same file, which finally calls out to...
  • __res_msend_rc, which issues DNS requests to all the nameservers in parallel.

My reading of name_from_dns and __res_msend_rc is that the first reply from any server will win, but to be confident in that, I'd want to test it out; one way would be to introduce a delay on my local resolver's responses...

Something for another post perhaps.

just one more thing...

Oh hey, go does its own thing! I mentioned before that it doesn't use libc for its system calls. But what about using getaddrinfo, and the whole nss thing? Well it turns out... it depends!

The net package documentation has some detail on this. I'll leave it there though, as I'm all straced out.

One final note: all the source code snippets above (that don't contain my name) are taken from either: