DNS Modes of Operation

PowerDNS offers full primary and secondary semantics for replicating domain information. Furthermore, PowerDNS can benefit from native database replication.

Native replication

Native replication is the default unless another operation is specifically configured. Native replication means that PowerDNS will not send out DNS update notifications, nor will it react to them. PowerDNS assumes that the backend is taking care of replication unaided.

MySQL replication has proven to be very robust and well suited, even over transatlantic connections between badly peering ISPs.

To use native replication, configure your backend storage to do the replication and do not configure PowerDNS to do so.

Typically, a database secondary will be configured as read-only as uni-directional database replication is usually sufficient. A PowerDNS server only requires database write access if it is participating as a primary or secondary in zone transfers, or has a frontend attached for managing records, etc.

Primary operation

When operating as a primary, PowerDNS sends out notifications of changes to secondaries, which react to these notifications by querying PowerDNS to see if the zone changed, and transferring its contents if it has. Notifications are a way to promptly signal zone changes to secondaries, as described in RFC 1996. Since version 4.0.0, the NOTIFY messages have a TSIG record added (transaction signature) if the zone has been configured to use TSIG and the feature has been enabled.


Primary support is OFF by default, turn it on by adding primary to the configuration. You also need to set the type of the zones to be served as primary, see next warning.


Notifications are only sent for domains with type PRIMARY or MASTER in your backend unless secondary-do-renotify is enabled.


If you have DNSSEC-signed zones and non-PowerDNS secondaries, please check your SOA-EDIT settings.

Left open by RFC 1996 is who is to be notified - which is harder to figure out than it sounds. All secondaries for this domain must receive a notification but the nameserver only knows the names of the secondaries - not the IP addresses, which is where the problem lies. The nameserver itself might be authoritative for the name of its secondary, but not have the data available.

To resolve this issue, PowerDNS tries multiple tactics to figure out the IP addresses of the secondaries and notifies everybody. In contrived configurations, this may lead to duplicate notifications being sent out, which shouldn’t hurt.

Some backends may be able to detect zone changes, others may choose to let the operator indicate which zones have changed and which haven’t. Consult the documentation for your backend to see how it processes changes in zones.

To help deal with secondaries that may have missed notifications, or have failed to respond to them, several override commands are available via the pdns_control tool:

  • pdns_control notify <domain> This instructs PowerDNS to notify all IP addresses it considers to be secondaries of this domain.
  • pdns_control notify-host <domain> <ip-address> This is truly an override and sends a notification to an arbitrary IP address. Can be used in also-notify situations or when PowerDNS has trouble figuring out who to notify - which may happen in contrived configurations.

Secondary operation

On launch, PowerDNS requests from all backends a list of domains that have not been checked recently for changes. This should happen every ‘refresh’ seconds, as specified in the SOA record. All domains that are unfresh are then checked for changes over at their primary server. If the SOA serial number there is higher, the domain is retrieved and updated in the database. In any case, after the check, the domain is declared ‘fresh’, and will only be checked again after ‘refresh’ seconds have passed.

If the serial is equal, PowerDNS as a secondary with a presigned zone will also compare the SOA RRSIG (signature). If the signatures are different, the zone is also queued for a zone transfer. This is useful when the primary server updates DNSSEC signatures without changing the zone serial. In some configurations, a PowerDNS primary can exhibit this behaviour. To allow for this check, the DO flag is set on the SOA query towards the primary server. In some conditions, some primary servers answer with a truncated SOA response (indicating TCP is required), and the freshness check will fail. As a workaround, the signature check and DO flag can be turned off by disabling secondary-check-signature-freshness.

When the freshness of a domain cannot be checked, e.g. because the primary is offline, PowerDNS will retry the domain after xfr-cycle-interval seconds. Every time the domain fails its freshness check, PowerDNS will hold back on checking the domain for amount of failures * xfr-cycle-interval seconds, with a maximum of soa-retry-default seconds between checks. With default settings, this means that PowerDNS will back off for 1, then 2, then 3, etc. minutes, to a maximum of 60 minutes between checks. The same hold back algorithm is also applied if the zone transfer fails due to problems on the primary, i.e. if zone transfer is not allowed.

Receiving a NOTIFY immediately clears the back-off period for the respective domain to allow immediate freshness checks for this domain.


Secondary support is OFF by default, turn it on by adding secondary to the configuration.


Only domains with type SECONDARY or SLAVE are considered for secondary support.


When running PowerDNS via the provided systemd service file, ProtectSystem is set to full, this means PowerDNS is unable to write to e.g. /etc and /home, possibly being unable to write AXFR’d zones.

PowerDNS also reacts to notifies by immediately checking if the zone has updated and if so, retransfering it.

All backends which implement this feature must make sure that they can handle transactions so as to not leave the zone in a half updated state. MySQL configured with either BerkeleyDB or InnoDB meets this requirement, as does PostgreSQL. The BIND backend implements transaction semantics by renaming files if and only if they have been retrieved completely and parsed correctly.

Secondary operation can also be programmed using several pdns_control commands. The retrieve command is especially useful as it triggers an immediate retrieval of the zone from the configured primary.

Since 4.5.0, zone transfers are added to a queue and processed according to priority and order of addition. Order levels are (from high to low): pdns control, api, notify, serial changed during refresh and signatures changed during refresh. High priority zone transfers are always processed first, in a first in first out order.

PowerDNS supports multiple primaries. For the BIND backend, the native BIND configuration language suffices to specify multiple primaries, for SQL-based backends, list all primaries servers separated by commas in the ‘master’ field of the domains table.

Since version 4.0.0, PowerDNS requires that primaries sign their notifications. During transition and interoperation with other nameservers, you can use options allow-unsigned-notify to permit unsigned notifications. For 4.0.0 this is turned on by default, but it might be turned off permanently in future releases.

Primary/Secondary Setup Requirements

Generally to enable a Primary/Secondary setup you have to take care of the following properties.

  • The primary/secondary state has to be enabled in the respective /etc/powerdns/pdns.conf config files.
  • The nameservers have to be set up correctly as NS domain records i.e. defining a NS and A record for each secondary.
  • Primary/Secondary state has to be configured on a per-domain basis in the domains table. Namely, the type column has to be either MASTER or SLAVE respectively and the secondary needs a comma-separated list of primary node IP addresses in the master column in the domains table. more to this topic.

IXFR: incremental zone transfers

If the ‘IXFR’ zone metadata item is set to 1 for a zone, PowerDNS will attempt to retrieve zone updates via IXFR.


If a secondary zone changes from non-DNSSEC to DNSSEC, an IXFR update will not set the PRESIGNED flag. In addition, a change in NSEC3 mode will also not be picked up.

In such cases, make sure to delete the zone contents to force a fresh retrieval.

Finally, IXFR updates that “plug” Empty Non-Terminals do not yet remove ENT records. A ‘pdnsutil rectify-zone’ may be required.

PowerDNS itself is currently only able to retrieve updates via IXFR. It cannot serve IXFR updates.

Autoprimary: automatic provisioning of secondaries

Changed in version 4.5.0: Before version 4.5.0, this feature was called ‘supermaster’

PowerDNS can recognize so-called ‘autoprimaries’. An autoprimary is a host which is primary for domains and for which we are to be a secondary. When a primary (re)loads a domain, it sends out a notification to its secondaries. Normally, such a notification is only accepted if PowerDNS already knows that it is a secondary for a domain.

However, a notification from an autoprimary carries more persuasion. When PowerDNS determines that a notification comes from an autoprimary and it is bonafide, it can provision the domain automatically, and configure itself as a secondary for that zone.

Before an autoprimary notification succeeds, the following conditions must be met:

  • autosecondary support must be enabled
  • The autoprimary must carry a SOA record for the notified domain
  • The autoprimary IP must be present in the supermasters table in the database on the secondary, along with any name that is in the NS set.
  • The set of NS records for the domain, as retrieved by the secondary from the autoprimary, must include the name that goes with the IP address in the supermasters table
  • If your primary sends signed NOTIFY it will mark that TSIG key as the TSIG key used for retrieval as well
  • If you turn off allow-unsigned-autoprimary, then your autoprimaries are required to sign their notifications.


If you use another PowerDNS server as primary and have DNSSEC enabled on that server please don’t forget to rectify the domains after every change. If you don’t do this there is no SOA record available and one requirement will fail.

So, to benefit from this feature, a backend needs to know about the IP address of the autoprimary, and how PowerDNS will be listed in the set of NS records remotely, and the ‘account’ name of your autoprimary. There is no need to fill the account name out but it does help keep track of where a domain comes from. Additionally, if a secondary selects multiple autoprimaries for a zone based on the name of the primary, it also checks that the account field is the same for all. Adding a autoprimary can be done either directly in the database, or by using the ‘pdnsutil add-autoprimary’ command.


Removal of zones provisioned using the autoprimary must be done on the secondaries themselves, as there is no way to signal this removal from the primary to the secondary.

Modifying a secondary zone using a script

The PowerDNS Authoritative Server can invoke a Lua script on an incoming AXFR zone transfer. The user-defined function axfrfilter within your script is invoked for each resource record read during the transfer, and the outcome of the function defines what PowerDNS does with the records.

What you can accomplish using a Lua script: - Ensure consistent values on SOA - Change incoming SOA serial number to a YYYYMMDDnn format - Ensure consistent NS RRset - Timestamp the zone transfer with a TXT record

This script can be enabled like this:

pdnsutil set-meta example.com LUA-AXFR-SCRIPT /path/to/lua/script.lua


The Lua script must both exist and be syntactically correct; if not, the zone transfer is not performed.

Your Lua functions have access to the query codes through a pre-defined Lua table called pdns. For example, if you want to check for a CNAME record you can either compare qtype to the numeric constant 5 or the value pdns.CNAME – they are equivalent.

If your function decides to handle a resource record it must return a result code of 0 together with a Lua table containing one or more replacement records to be stored in the back-end database (if the table is empty, no record is added). If you want your record(s) to be appended after the matching record, return 1 and table of record(s). If, on the other hand, your function decides not to modify a record, it must return -1 and an empty table indicating that PowerDNS should handle the incoming record as normal.

Consider the following simple example:

function axfrfilter(remoteip, zone, record)

   -- Replace each HINFO records with this TXT
   if record:qtype() == pdns.HINFO then
      resp = {}
      resp[1] = {
        qname   = record:qname():toString(),
        qtype   = pdns.TXT,
        ttl     = 99,
        content = "Hello Ahu!"
      return 0, resp

   -- Grab each _tstamp TXT record and add a timestamp
   if record:qtype() == pdns.TXT and string.starts(record:qname():toString(), "_tstamp.") then
      resp = {}
      resp[1] = {
        qname   = record:qname():toString(),
        qtype   = record:qtype(),
        ttl     = record:ttl(),
        content = os.date("Ver %Y%m%d-%H:%M")
      return 0, resp

   -- Append A records with this TXT
   if record:qtype() == pdns.A then
      resp = {}
      resp[1] = {
        qname   = record:qname():toString(),
        qtype   = pdns.TXT,
        ttl     = 99,
        content = "Hello Ahu, again!"
      return 1, resp

   resp = {}
   return -1, resp

function string.starts(s, start)
   return s.sub(s, 1, s.len(start)) == start

Upon an incoming AXFR, PowerDNS calls our axfrfilter function for each record. All HINFO records are replaced by a TXT record with a TTL of 99 seconds and the specified string. TXT Records with names starting with _tstamp. get their value (rdata) set to the current timestamp. A records are appended with a TXT record. All other records are unhandled.