Saturday, May 11, 2013

DNSSEC Mastery, Or How To Make Your Name Service Verifiable And Trustworthy

A DNSSEC book for the working sysadmin, likely to put you ahead of the pack in securing an essential Internet service.

I have a confession to make. Michael W. Lucas is a long time favorite of mine among tech authors. When Michael descends on a topic and produces a book, you can expect the result to contain loads of useful information, presented along with humor and real-life anecdotes so you will want to explore the topic in depth on your own systems.

In DNSSEC Mastery (apparently the second installment in what could become an extensive Mastery series -- the first title was SSH Mastery, reviewed here -- from Michael's own Tilted Windmill Press), the topic is how to make your own contribution to making the Internet name service more reliable by having your own systems present verifiable, trustworthy information.

Before addressing the book itself, I'll spend some time explaining why this topic is important. The Domain Name System (usually referred to as DNS or simply 'the name service' even if nitpickers would be right that there is more than one) is one of the old-style Internet services that was created to solve a particluar set of problems (humans are a lot better at remembering names a than strings of numbers) in the early days of networking when security was not really a concern.

Old-fashioned DNS moves data via UDP, the connectionless no-guarantees-ever protocol mainly because the low protocol overhead in most cases means the answer arrives faster than it would have otherwise. Reliable delivery was sacrificed for speed, and in general, the thing just works. DNS is one of those things that makes the Internet usable for techies and non-techies alike.

The other thing that was sacrificed, or more likely never even considered important enough to care about at the time, was any hope of reliably verifying that the information received via the DNS service was in fact authentic and correct.

When you ask an application to look up a name, say you want to see if anything's new at or if you want to send me mail to be delivered at, the answer comes back, not necessarily from the host that answers authoritatively for the domain, but more likely from the cache of a name server near you, and serves mainly one or more IP addresses, with no guarantee other than it is, indeed a record type that contains one or more IP addresses that appear to match your application's query.

Or to put it more bluntly, with traditional DNS, it's possible for a well positioned attacker to feed you falsfied information (ie leading your packets to somewhere they don't belong or to somewhere you never intended, potentially along with your confidential data), even if the original DNS designers appear to have considered the scenario rather unlikely back then in the nineteen-eighties.

With the realization that the Internet was becoming mainstream during the 1990s and that non-techies would rely on it for such things as banking services came support cryptographically enhanced versions of several of the protocols that take care of the bulk of Internet traffic payloads, and even the essential and mostly ignored (at least by non-techies) DNS protocol was enhanced several times over the years. Around the turn of the century came the RFCs that describe cryptographic signatures as part of the enhanced name service, and finally in 2005 the trio of RFCs (4033, 4034 and 4035) that form the core of the modern DNSSEC specification were issued.

But up until quite recently, most if not all DNSSEC implementations were either incomplete or considered experimental, and getting a working DNSSEC setup in place has been an admirable if rarely fulfilled ambition among already overworked sysadmins.

Then at what seems to be the exactly right moment, Michael W. Lucas publishes DNSSEC Mastery, which is a compact and and extremely useful guide to creating your own DNSSEC setup, avoiding the many pitfalls and scary manouvres you will find described in the HOWTO-style DNSSEC guides you're likely to encounter after a web search on the topic.

The book is aimed at the working sysadmin who already has at least basic operational knowledge of running a name service. Starting with one DNSSEC implementation that is known to be complete and functional (ISC BIND 9.9 -- Michael warns early on very clearly that earlier versions will not work -- if your favorite system doesn't have that packaged yet, you can build your own or start bribing or yelling at the relevant package maintainer), this book takes a very practical, hands on approach to its topic in a way that I think is well matched to the intended audience.

Keeping in mind that the one thing a working sysadmin is always short on is time, it is likely a strong advantage that this book is so compact. With 12 chapters, it comes in at just short of 100 pages in the PDF version I used for most of this review. With the stated requirement that the reader needs to be reasonably familiar with running a DNS service, the introductory chapters fairly quickly move on to give an overview of public key cryptography as it applies to DNSSEC, with pointers to wordier sources for those who would want to delve into details, before starting the steps involved in setting up secure name service using ISC BIND 9.9 or newer.

Always taking a practical approach, DNSSEC Mastery covers essentially all aspects of setting up and running a working service, including such topics as key management, configuring and debugging both authoritative and recursive resolvers, various hints for working with or around strengths or deficiencies in various client operating systems, how the new world of DNSSEC influences how you manage your zones and delegations, and did I mention debugging your setup? DNSSEC is a lot less forgiving of errors than your traditional DNS, and Michael includes both some entertaining examples and pointers to several useful resources for testing your work before putting it all into production. And for good measure, the final chapter demonstrates how to distribute data you would not trust to old fashioned DNS: ssh host key fingerprints and SSL certificates.

As I mentioned earlier, this title comes along at what seems to be the perfect time. DNSSEC use is not yet as widespread as it perhaps should be, in part due to incomplete implementations or lack of support in several widely used systems. The free software world is ahead of the pack, and just as the world is getting to realize the importance of a trustworthy Internet name service, this book comes along, aimed perfectly at the group of people who will need an accessible-to-techies book like this one. And it comes at a reasonable price, too. If you're in this book's target group, it's a recommended buy.

The ebook is available in several formats from Tilted Windmill Press, Amazon and other places. A printed version is in the works, but was not available at the time this review was written (May 11, 2013).

Note: Michael W. Lucas gives tutorials, too, like this one at BSDCan in Ottawa, May 15 2003.

Title: DNSSEC Mastery: Securing The Domain Name System With BIND
Author: Michael W. Lucas
Publisher: Tilted Windmill Press (April 2012)

Michael W. Lucas has another, somewhat chunkier book out this year too, Absolute OpenBSD, 2nd edition, a very good book about my favorite operating system. It would have been reasonable to expect a review here of that title too, except that I served as the book's technical editor, and as such a review would be somewhat biased.

But if you're interested in OpenBSD and haven't got your copy of that book yet, you're in for a real treat. If a firewall or other networking is closer to your heart, you could give my own The Book of PF and the PF tutorial (or here) it grew out of. You can even support the OpenBSD project by buying the books from them at the same time you buy your CD set, see the OpenBSD Orders page for more information.

Upcoming talks: I'll be speaking at BSDCan 2013, on The Hail Mary Cloud And The Lessons Learned. There will be no PF tutorial at this year's BSDCan, fortunately my staple tutorial item was crowded out by new initiatives from some truly excellent people. (I will, however, be bringing a few copies of The Book of PF and if things work out in time, some other items you may enjoy.)

1 comment:

  1. Peter,

    Thanks for taking the time to review the book, I appreciate it.


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