Aggressive NSEC

Unbound has implemented the aggressive use of the DNSSEC-Validated cache, also known as Aggressive NSEC, based on RFC 8198. This section first describes how NSEC works, and then covers how synthesised answers can be generated based on the DNSSEC-Validated cache.


DNS relies heavily on caching. A lot of performance can be gained by storing answers to previous queries close to the client. If an authoritative name server would have to be queried for every single request, performance would be severely impacted.

In addition to caching the positive answer to queries, negative answers are also cached. These negative answers are an acknowledgement from the name server that a name does not exist (an answer with the response code set to NXDOMAIN) or that the type in the query does not exist for the name in the query. The latter is known as an answer with the NODATA pseudo response code, as specified in section 1 of RFC 2308.

NSEC (Next Secure) Records

DNSSEC is not only used to prove the authenticity of records in a DNS answer by verifying the DNSSEC signatures of the records, it is also used to prove the absence of records. DNSSEC uses NSEC (next secure), as well as NSEC3 records for these proof of non-existence answers. An NSEC record indicates that there are no records that are sorted between the two domain names it contains. The canonical DNS name order is used for the sorting, as described in section 6.1 of RFC 4034. An NSEC record also has a type bitmap which specifies the record types that exist for the owner name of the NSEC record. Like any other DNS record, the authenticity of NSEC records can be validated using its DNSSEC signature which is located in the RRSIG record.

This NSEC record is taken as an example: NSEC TXT RRSIG NSEC

The record indicates that the owner name exists and that the owner name has records for the TXT, RRSIG and NSEC types. It therefore proves that there is no A record for This NSEC record also proves that there are no records alphabetically sorted between its owner and its next domain name ( This record therefore proves that there is no record for

DNSSEC Signatures on Wildcard Records

Wildcard expansion on NSEC record is specifically allowed by RFC 4592. In order to answer a DNS query using a wildcard record, an authoritative nameserver replaces the owner name of the wildcard record with the name in the query. DNSSEC is designed in such way that it can sign a complete zone before it starts serving. Because the query name that will be used for the wildcard record is not known when the zone is being signed, it is not possible to make a DNSSEC signature for it. Therefore the original owner name with the wildcard label is used for the signature.

The labels field that is part of the RRSIG record indicates the number of labels of the owner name without the wildcard label. This labels field can be used by a DNSSEC validator to detect that this is a signature for a wildcard record. A DNSSEC validator then knows it needs to validate the signature using the original wildcard owner, and not the expanded owner that matches the query name. A validator gets the original owner name by taking the number of rightmost labels defined in the labels field from the expanded owner and then prepend it with the wildcard label *.

This is an example of a wildcard expanded RRSIG record, with the signature omitted to keep the text compact:  2710 IN RRSIG NSEC 8 2 10200 20180226143900 20180129143900 42393 [..]

This RRSIG record has a label count of two, while the number of labels in the owner name (excluding the root label) is three. Using that information a validator will take the two last labels of the owner name ( and prepend the wildcard label to it. It therefore checks the signature using the original wildcard name, which is *

Generating NODATA Answers

The traditional Unbound cache implementation is based on exactly matching cached messages to the query name, query type and query class. If a client asks for a TXT record for, the resolver will search the cache and if that fails go and look up the answer at the authoritative name server. This query to the authoritative name server will result in a response containing the existing TXT record. If the resolver now receives a query for the same name but for the TLSA type, the resolver will check its cache, in this case can not find a matching record in the cache and will, as a result, send a query to the authoritative name server. That name server will now reply with a NODATA answer, indicating that the name does exist, but there is no record for that name with the TLSA record. A third query for the same name for another non-existing type, for example SRV, will once again not result in a cache hit and will generate yet another query with again a NODATA answer as result.

In this example the zone is DNSSEC signed. This means the absence of these records need to be proven using NSEC records. NSEC records indicate which types exist for a name and which names exist in a zone. NSEC records have a cryptographic signature which make them tamper proof. By knowing the existing record and types in a zone, a DNSSEC validator can prove that the combination of query name and query type indeed does not exist.

The NODATA answer for the name with the TLSA query type could for example contain this NSEC record: 3600 IN NSEC ! A NS SOA MX TXT AAAA NAPTR RRSIG NSEC DNSKEY

This record proves which types exist for (A, NS, SOA etc.) and thereby proves that the TLSA record indeed does not exist. The NODATA response to the third query in above example (the SRV query for will contain exactly the same NSEC record to prove the absence of the SRV record. Because this NSEC record was already cached after the lookup for the TLSA record we could have used that already obtained NSEC record to generate a DNSSEC secure answer, without the need to send another query to the authoritative name server.


To use previously cached NSEC records to generate responses in Unbound, use the aggressive-nsec option in unbound.conf:

aggressive-nsec: yes

Generating NXDOMAIN Answers

An answer with the NXDOMAIN response code indicates that a name does not exist at all, which is also proven using an NSEC record. If would contain these alphabetically sorted records (some simplification ahead):           IN SOA [..]
                       IN NS      IN A    IN A

then DNSSEC would make sure these NSEC records are inserted and signed:         IN NSEC   NS SOA DNSKEY    IN NSEC A  IN NSEC        A

They attest that no name exists between and So if you query for, you will get back the NXDOMAIN from the authoritative name server, as well as the NSEC record for as proof that the query name does not exist and the NSEC record for as proof that the * wildcard record does not exist.

If the user now queries for for, resolvers would normally ask the authoritative server again because there is no message cached for that name. But because the NSEC records for and are already cached, the implementation of RFC 8198 will allow Unbound to deduce that it doesn’t need to send a new query. It is already able to prove that the name doesn’t exist and immediately, or aggressively if you will, returns an NXDOMAIN answer.

Generating Wildcard Answers

There is one more type of message that can be generated using cached NSEC records, namely wildcard answers. A DNSSEC validator only accepts a wildcard answer when there is proof that there is no record for the query name. When we have this zone containing a wildcard record:          IN SOA [..]
                      IN NS
*        IN TXT "A wildcard record"     IN A   IN A

then a TXT query for will be answered with the following records, indicating that there is no direct match for the query name but that there is a matching wildcard record:

;; ANSWER SECTION:    IN TXT "A wildcard record"    IN RRSIG TXT 8 2 [..]


The NSEC record indicates that there is no record. The labels field in the signature indicates that the returned TXT record is expanded using the * record.

Unbound uses this knowledge to store the wildcard RRset also under the original owner name, containing the wildcard record, when aggressive use of NSEC is enabled. After receiving a query for Unbound finds the NSEC record proving the absence in its cache. Unbound will then look in the cache for a * TXT record, which also exists. These records are then used to generate an answer without sending a query to the name server.


Aggressive NSEC can result in a reduction of traffic on all levels of the DNS hierarchy but it will be most noticeable at the root, as typically more than half of all responses are NXDOMAIN.

Another benefit of a wide deployment of aggressive NSEC is the incentive to DNSSEC sign your zone. If you don’t want to have a large amount of queries for non-existing records at your name server, signing your zone will prevent this.