In late June, Cloudflare's resolver team noticed a spike in DNS requests for the 65479 Resource Record thanks to data exposed through our new Radar service. We began investigating and found these to be a part of Apple’s iOS14 beta release where they were testing out a new SVCB/HTTPS record type.

Once we saw that Apple was requesting this record type, and while the iOS 14 beta was still on-going, we rolled out support across the Cloudflare customer base.

This blog post explains what this new record type does and its significance, but there’s also a deeper story: Cloudflare customers get automatic support for new protocols like this.

That means that today if you’ve enabled HTTP/3 on an Apple device running iOS 14, when it needs to talk to a Cloudflare customer (say you browse to a Cloudflare-protected website, or use an app whose API is on Cloudflare) it can find the best way of making that connection automatically.

And if you’re a Cloudflare customer you have to do… absolutely nothing… to give Apple users the best connection to your Internet property.

Negotiating HTTP security and performance

Whenever a user types a URL in the browser box without specifying a scheme (like “https://” or “http://”), the browser cannot assume, without prior knowledge such as a Strict-Transport-Security (HSTS) cache or preload list entry, whether the requested website supports HTTPS or not. The browser will first try to fetch the resources using plaintext HTTP, and only if the website redirects to an HTTPS URL, or if it specifies an HSTS policy in the initial HTTP response, the browser will then fetch the resource again over a secure connection.

This means that the latency incurred in fetching the initial resource (say, the index page of a website) is doubled, due to the fact that the browser needs to re-establish the connection over TLS and request the resource all over again. But worse still, the initial request is leaked to the network in plaintext, which could potentially be modified by malicious on-path attackers (think of all those unsecured public WiFi networks) to redirect the user to a completely different website. In practical terms, this weakness is sometimes used by said unsecured public WiFi network operators to sneak advertisements into people’s browsers.

Unfortunately, that’s not the full extent of it. This problem also impacts HTTP/3, the newest revision of the HTTP protocol that provides increased performance and security. HTTP/3 is advertised using the Alt-Svc HTTP header, which is only returned after the browser has already contacted the origin using a different and potentially less performant HTTP version. The browser ends up missing out on using faster HTTP/3 on its first visit to the website (although it does store the knowledge for later visits).

The fundamental problem comes from the fact that negotiation of HTTP-related parameters (such as whether HTTPS or HTTP/3 can be used) is done through HTTP itself (either via a redirect, HSTS and/or Alt-Svc headers). This leads to a chicken and egg problem where the client needs to use the most basic HTTP configuration that has the best chance of succeeding for the initial request. In most cases this means using plaintext HTTP/1.1. Only after it learns of parameters can it change its configuration for the following requests.

But before the browser can even attempt to connect to the website, it first needs to resolve the website’s domain to an IP address via DNS. This presents an opportunity: what if additional information required to establish a connection could be provided, in addition to IP addresses, with DNS?

That’s what we’re excited to be announcing today: Cloudflare has rolled out initial support for HTTPS records to our edge network. Cloudflare’s DNS servers will now automatically generate HTTPS records on the fly to advertise whether a particular zone supports HTTP/3 and/or HTTP/2, based on whether those features are enabled on the zone.

Service Bindings via DNS

The new proposal, currently discussed by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) defines a family of DNS resource record types (“SVCB”) that can be used to negotiate parameters for a variety of application protocols.

The generic DNS record “SVCB” can be instantiated into records specific to different protocols. The draft specification defines one such instance called “HTTPS”, specific to the HTTP protocol, which can be used not only to signal to the client that it can connect in over a secure connection (skipping the initial unsecured request), but also to advertise the different HTTP versions supported by the website. In the future, potentially even more features could be advertised.

example.com 3600 IN HTTPS 1 . alpn=”h3,h2”

The DNS record above advertises support for the HTTP/3 and HTTP/2 protocols for the example.com origin.

This is best used alongside DNS over HTTPS or DNS over TLS, and DNSSEC, to again prevent malicious actors from manipulating the record.

The client will need to fetch not only the typical A and AAAA records to get the origin’s IP addresses, but also the HTTPS record. It can of course do these lookups in parallel to avoid additional latency at the start of the connection, but this could potentially lead to A/AAAA and HTTPS responses diverging from each other. For example, in cases where the origin makes use of DNS load-balancing: if an origin can be served by multiple CDNs it might happen that the responses for A and/or AAAA records come from one CDN, while the HTTPS record comes from another. In some cases this can lead to failures when connecting to the origin (say, if the HTTPS record from one of the CDNs advertises support for HTTP/3, but the CDN the client ends up connecting to doesn’t support it).

This is solved by the SVCB and HTTPS records by providing the IP addresses directly, without the need for the client to look at A and AAAA records. This is done via the “ipv4hint” and “ipv6hint” parameters that can optionally be added to these records, which provide lists of IPv4 and IPv6 addresses that can be used by the client in lieu of the addresses specified in A and AAAA records. Of course clients will still need to query the A and AAAA records, to support cases where no SVCB or HTTPS record is available, but these IP hints provide an additional layer of robustness.

example.com 3600 IN HTTPS 1 . alpn=”h3,h2” ipv4hint=”192.0.2.1” ipv6hint=”2001:db8::1”

In addition to all this, SVCB and HTTPS can also be used to define alternative endpoints that are authoritative for a service, in a similar vein to SRV records:

example.com 3600 IN HTTPS 1 example.net alpn=”h3,h2”
example.com 3600 IN HTTPS 2 example.org alpn=”h2”

In this case the “example.com” HTTPS service can be provided by both “example.net” (which supports both HTTP/3 and HTTP/2, in addition to HTTP/1.x) as well as “example.org” (which only supports HTTP/2 and HTTP/1.x). The client will first need to fetch A and AAAA records for “example.net” or “example.org” before being able to connect, which might increase the connection latency, but the service operator can make use of the IP hint parameters discussed above in this case as well, to reduce the amount of required DNS lookups the client needs to perform.

This means that SVCB and HTTPS records might finally provide a way for SRV-like functionality to be supported by popular browsers and other clients that have historically not supported SRV records.

There is always room at the top apex

When setting up a website on the Internet, it’s common practice to use a “www” subdomain (like in “www.cloudflare.com”) to identify the site, as well as the “apex” (or “root”) of the domain (in this case, “cloudflare.com”). In order to avoid duplicating the DNS configuration for both domains, the “www” subdomain can typically be configured as a CNAME (Canonical Name) record, that is, a record that maps to a different DNS record.

cloudflare.com.   3600 IN A 192.0.2.1
cloudflare.com.   3600 IN AAAA 2001:db8::1
www               3600 IN CNAME cloudflare.com.

This way the list of IP addresses of the websites won’t need to be duplicated all over again, but clients requesting A and/or AAAA records for “www.cloudflare.com” will still get the same results as “cloudflare.com”.

However, there are some cases where using a CNAME might seem like the best option, but ends up subtly breaking the DNS configuration for a website. For example when setting up services such as GitLab Pages, GitHub Pages or Netlify with a custom domain, the user is generally asked to add an A (and sometimes AAAA) record to the DNS configuration for their domain. Those IP addresses are hard-coded in users’ configurations, which means that if the provider of the service ever decides to change the addresses (or add new ones), even if just to provide some form of load-balancing, all of their users will need to manually change their configuration.

Using a CNAME to a more stable domain which can then have variable A and AAAA records might seem like a better option, and some of these providers do support that, but it’s important to note that this generally only works for subdomains (like “www” in the previous example) and not apex records. This is because the DNS specification that defines CNAME records states that when a CNAME is defined on a particular target, there can’t be any other records associated with it. This is fine for subdomains, but apex records will need to have additional records defined, such as SOA and NS, for the DNS configuration to work properly and could also have records such as MX to make sure emails get properly delivered. In practical terms, this means that defining a CNAME record at the apex of a domain might appear to be working fine in some cases, but be subtly broken in ways that are not immediately apparent.

But what does this all have to do with SVCB and HTTPS records? Well, it turns out that those records can also solve this problem, by defining an alternative format called “alias form” that behaves in the same manner as a CNAME in all the useful ways, but without the annoying historical baggage. A domain operator will be able to define a record such as:

example.com. 3600 IN HTTPS example.org.

and expect it to work as if a CNAME was defined, but without the subtle side-effects.

One more thing

Encrypted SNI is an extension to TLS intended to improve privacy of users on the Internet. You might remember how it makes use of a custom DNS record to advertise the server’s public key share used by clients to then derive the secret key necessary to actually encrypt the SNI. In newer revisions of the specification (which is now called “Encrypted ClientHello” or “ECH”) the custom TXT record used previously is simply replaced by a new parameter, called “echconfig”, for the SVCB and HTTPS records.

This means that SVCB/HTTPS are a requirement to support newer revisions of Encrypted SNI/Encrypted ClientHello. More on this later this year.

What now?

This all sounds great, but what does it actually mean for Cloudflare customers? As mentioned earlier, we have enabled initial support for HTTPS records across our edge network. Cloudflare’s DNS servers will automatically generate HTTPS records on the fly to advertise whether a particular zone supports HTTP/3 and/or HTTP/2, based on whether those features are enabled on the zone, and we will later also add Encrypted ClientHello support.

Thanks to Cloudflare’s large network that spans millions of web properties (we happen to be one of the most popular DNS providers), serving these records on our customers' behalf will help build a more secure and performant Internet for anyone that is using a supporting client.

Adopting new protocols requires cooperation between multiple parties. We have been working with various browsers and clients to increase the support and adoption of HTTPS records. Over the last few weeks, Apple’s iOS 14 release has included client support for HTTPS records, allowing connections to be upgraded to QUIC when the HTTP/3 parameter is returned in the DNS record. Apple has reported that so far, of the population that has manually enabled HTTP/3 on iOS 14, 8% of the QUIC connections had the HTTPS record response.

Other browser vendors, such as Google and Mozilla, are also working on shipping support for HTTPS records to their users, and we hope to be hearing more on this front soon.