DNS resolution delays in Debian (and Ubuntu)

Yesterday, I was pinging a server when I noticed that the output of ping seemed to be rather slow. In fact, I'd noticed it before but never really thought about it until I was pinging anther server at the same time and the saw the drastic difference in output speeds.

Pinging google.co.uk, there was a ping every second:

fpr@callisto:~$ ping google.co.uk | perl -ne 'use Time::Format; print "$time{\"hh:mm:ss.mmm\"} - $_"'
14:44:34.898 - PING google.co.uk ( 56(84) bytes of data.
14:44:34.915 - 64 bytes from ew-in-f104.google.com ( icmp_seq=1 ttl=238 time=32.9 ms
14:44:35.883 - 64 bytes from ew-in-f104.google.com ( icmp_seq=2 ttl=238 time=35.9 ms
14:44:36.882 - 64 bytes from ew-in-f104.google.com ( icmp_seq=3 ttl=238 time=33.4 ms

On another server, it was closer to five:

fpr@callisto:~$ ping server1.fsckvps.com | perl -ne 'use Time::Format; print "$time{\"hh:mm:ss.mmm\"} - $_"'
14:49:42.389 - PING server1.fsckvps.com ( 56(84) bytes of data.
14:49:42.408 - 64 bytes from icmp_seq=1 ttl=45 time=122 ms
14:49:47.500 - 64 bytes from icmp_seq=2 ttl=45 time=123 ms
14:49:52.625 - 64 bytes from icmp_seq=3 ttl=45 time=122 ms

This didn't make much sense since the round-trip times were small by comparison and ping sends one request per second by default. A Google search indicated that the problem might lie with my resolv.conf file. Unfortunately, mine seemed to be fine and my local DNS server was completely responsive. However, if I pinged the server by IP address instead of by hostname, the delay was gone.

To see what was blocking, I ran strace on ping.

15:04:26.789 - munmap(0x7f69ed319000, 129482)          = 0
15:04:26.790 - socket(PF_FILE, SOCK_STREAM, 0)         = 4
15:04:26.790 - fcntl(4, F_GETFD)                       = 0
15:04:26.790 - fcntl(4, F_SETFD, FD_CLOEXEC)           = 0
15:04:26.790 - connect(4, {sa_family=AF_FILE, path="/var/run/avahi-daemon/socket"...}, 110) = 0
15:04:26.790 - fcntl(4, F_GETFL)                       = 0x2 (flags O_RDWR)
15:04:26.790 - fstat(4, {st_mode=S_IFSOCK|0777, st_size=0, ...}) = 0
15:04:26.790 - mmap(NULL, 4096, PROT_READ|PROT_WRITE, MAP_PRIVATE|MAP_ANONYMOUS, -1, 0) = 0x7f69ed359000
15:04:26.791 - lseek(4, 0, SEEK_CUR)                   = -1 ESPIPE (Illegal seek)
15:04:26.791 - write(4, "RESOLVE-ADDRESS\n"..., 30) = 30
15:04:31.789 - read(4, "-15 Timeout reached\n"..., 4096) = 20
15:04:31.789 - close(4)                                = 0

It was blocking each ping on a read from /var/run/avahi-daemon/socket, a socket used by Avahi, an implementation of the network auto-configuration and service discovery mechanism Zeroconf that augments DNS. Killing the Avahi daemon solved the problem, but I still wanted to work out why ping was talking to Avahi and why it only occurred on certain hosts, so I ran ltrace:

15:14:33.062 - gettimeofday(0x7fff90ec0550, NULL)               = 0
15:14:33.062 - gettimeofday(0x7fff90ec0520, NULL)               = 0
15:14:33.062 - memcpy(0x00608988, "\311\004\030J", 16)          = 0x00608988
15:14:33.062 - sendmsg(3, 0x6077c0, 2048, 2, 61091)             = 64
15:14:33.184 - recvmsg(3, 0x7fff90ec15f0, 0, 0, 61091)          = 84
15:14:38.193 - gethostbyaddr("BG\370\222T\315(\002", 4, 2)      = NULL
15:14:38.193 - inet_ntoa(0x92f84742)                            = ""
15:14:38.194 - strcpy(0x006078e0, "")              = 0x006078e0

I then wrote a little test in C just to check that I could replicate the delay with gethostbyaddr(). I could, and it was then that I finally realised that the delay occurred when pinging hosts that had no PTR record (reverse DNS). Slightly confusingly, ping performs a reverse DNS lookup on the IP address when provided with a hostname, but not when given an IP address.

gethostbyaddr() was calling Avahi because it had plugged itself into the glibc resolver using NSS. When an attempt to resolve an IP address to a hostname failed, glibc would then call Avahi to try to find it. For whatever reason, Avahi cannot answer this request instantly and times out after 5 long seconds. Avahi also resolves host names to IP addresses but the delay in looking up unresolvable host names only occurs if the domain is under the .local pseudo top-level domain.

The Debian package dependencies make it a bit difficult to remove Avahi so the easiest way to fix this is to remove references to mdns4 from /etc/nsswitch.conf. If you want to kill the daemon entirely then you can always disable its init script of course.

Amusingly (or tragically) this bug is listed in Ubuntu and Debian bug reports which are both over two years old. At time time of writing, it still exists in Ubuntu Jaunty and Debian testing. What makes me really angry is that somewhere, someone decided that it would be a great idea to enable this daemon by default on desktop installs and as a result, performance of applications is being degraded. Obviously ping doesn't matter that much, but as mentioned in the bug reports, this hits people using ssh and IMAP as well, causing anything from mild delays to almost unusable systems. The worst part of this is that many people (and there could be a lot) suffering these issues are probably attributing them to a slow network, or packet loss, or ssh key verification or just about anything else other than a dubiously designed daemon running on their own machine. The fact that it only occurs on certain hosts only reinforces this and unless they suddenly realise that this delay is their local machine's fault and put a lot of effort into debugging, they'll probably never know.