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Alex Wilson

RFD 1 Triton Container Naming Service


The New World

In the New World, the expectations around container longevity and lifecycle have changed. In particular, containers are coming to be used as immutable, replaceable components of infrastructure.

To illustrate, let us consider an example application, which provides an HTTP API service to clients that connect from the Internet. It consists of the following components:

  • A set of front-end nginx instances which act as TLS terminators and load balancers.

  • Stateless application instances which service and process requests.

  • A cluster of database containers running (for example) RethinkDB.

In a traditional deployment of this service using VMs, one might expect to statically configure IP addresses for each service in the config for other components -- for example, the application instances may have the IP addresses of the database cluster members listed in their configuration.

Even in a traditional deployment model, this quickly runs into trouble if the network architecture or addressing ever needs to change. As a result, often DNS names are used as a layer of indirection to refer to the other sub-services within the application.

However, in the New Container World, this is even more important. If we should want to upgrade, for example, the application instances with new code, in a traditional VM world we would log into each of them one by one and upgrade them, perhaps taking them out of the load-balancer config to avoid disruption or misbehaviour during the upgrade.

In the container world, these containers are expected to be immutable. This means that they are not to be modified after deployment, and instead are destroyed and re-deployed from scratch. As a result, the IP addresses that map to each of the individual containers can be considered much more arbitrary and ephemeral than in the previous generation of system designs.

Therefore, some means of referring to containers by their function that can automatically and transparently update during re-deployment, destruction and creation of new containers, is very much required.

Within this requirement there are two key areas to explore, which have different constraints:

  1. Internal service discovery within an application -- components within the same design finding each other.

  2. External discovery by clients of the application.

The key difference between these two areas is that area 1 always involves components that are entirely under the application designer's control.

Area 1 is also a well-explored problem, with some prominent and established solutions such as Consul and ZooKeeper. These require "smart" clients, which can reason about the state of the cluster and participate as a part of the distributed system's consensus protocol.

In this document we propose the Triton Container Naming Service, which is intended to primarily deal with the area 2 class of problems listed above. While it is not without utility in area 1, we believe that many users will already have an existing preferred solution amongst the options available, and that any solution for external discovery can still co-exist with a different solution for internal use.

Key requirements

With the above in mind, we lay out the following core requirements:

  1. We need a way to map an abstract Service to the concrete containers which currently provide it.

  2. Scheduled re-deployment, destruction and addition of new containers to the service should be achievable with zero downtime. Downtime is defined for the purpose of this requirement as an interruption of service where new requests made fail due to timeout or error, excluding unexpected failures in the containers themselves.

  3. Operation must be transparent to clients: they must be able to operate in the standard fashion of looking up a DNS name and connecting without any special logic or knowledge of TCNS.

  4. The solution must not require extensive setup or configuration on the part of the user for common cases.

There is also a discussion to be had as to whether (or what kind of) accounting is required. Depending on how we wish to bill for this service, we may require the ability to keep track of (at least in broad terms) the lookup request volume associated with each user, or we may only require accounting in the form of the number of hostnames served per user (or a fixed fee for having the service enabled).

The design presented below does not take on accounting as hard requirement, but the implications of the design upon what form of accounting is possible will be explored.

Solution options

First, let us consider the implications of requirement 3. A client connecting by the normal method gives us two opportunities at which we can change its behaviour:

  • During the DNS lookup, we can supply information on which IP address or addresses to connect to. Generally, clients will connect to whichever we send them first (in the manner of "round-robin" DNS).

  • During the establishment of the TCP connection to a given IP, we can perform address translation or otherwise intercept the connection to send it to particular containers.

Some popular established options for the IP-level virtualisation option include protocols such as VRRP and CARP. These provide high availability by way of floating "virtual IP addresses", which belong to only one member of the VRRP or CARP group at a time.

However, both these particular techniques have limitations that make them unsuitable for our use:

  • They can allow only a small, set number of virtual IPs to be provided -- usually 256 or 128 in total per layer 2 network.

  • They require multicast/broadcast traffic to work.

So, while we could work around the low number of virtual IP groups available by using our VXLAN virtual networks, the second requirement precludes this, leaving us without a practical means to achieve multi-tenancy at the scale required by our number of customers.

There are other options for practical floating IP addresses in concert with our network virtualisation stack, which are worthy of further research. However, these are not likely to produce sale-ready solutions in a timeframe less than 6-12 months.

Solutions like anycast routing are also an option, but when these are combined with TCP the results can sometimes be extremely surprising to users. These solutions also typically suffer from some of the same problems as VRRP/CARP, and are very complex to deploy. It would be hard to expect that our on-premise users would be willing and capable to deploy a complex BGP or OSPF topology.

On the other hand, a DNS-centric approach has some key merits:

  • DNS service high availability and scalability in a multi-tenant environment are very well-understood and well-studied problems.

  • Multiple active instances for the service can be listed in DNS, and clients will spread across them (though not necessarily evenly).

  • It is unsurprising and intuitive for our users.

It also has some disadvantages:

  • Updates to DNS typically take a minimum of 30-60 seconds to propagate, no matter how low you set TTLs and other tweakables in the SOA record.

  • There is no opportunity to actively redirect connections on an individual basis, to make sure load is spread evenly across instances.

However, if the latter is a heavier requirement, or high uptime in the case of unplanned failure is integral to operations, DNS can still serve as a useful building block. One can simply register DNS records pointing at a floating IP address (or multiple such IPs) and proceed from there.

As a result, the Triton Container Naming Service is designed along a DNS-centric approach, with consideration for the fact that it could be combined with a VXLAN-based load balancer service developed separately at a later date.

Not a load balancer

It is important to note that an approach built around DNS round-robin can never provide "true" HA in the face of machine or network failure (in the sense of requests never failing), nor can it provide true load balancing (since it depends on client behaviour to spread the load out).

That said, many "HA load balancer" solutions are in fact not as HA or as load- balancing as they claim or as users expect them to be. In particular, many designs (for performance reasons) depend on the results of periodic health checks whose information can be out of date by the time the packet redirection decision is made.

As TCNS is designed for service discovery rather than load balancing, and clients connect directly to the service containers once discovery is complete, external health-checking is particularly unreliable. If a netsplit occurs that isolates the health checker node from a service container, but does not isolate a client from that container, we will fail to advertise an available container. This scenario can also happen the other way around, where we incorrectly advertise a container as running that is not available to the client.

As a result, we depend only on container self-reporting for health checks. Containers can perform self-tests on their own service and report the results to TCNS. We can also augment this with data from the control plane of the CNs and the datacentre as a whole, to detect conditions where the container is definitely inaccessible regardless of self-test reporting.

This design, and the focus on service discovery, still allows users to safely perform "blue-green" upgrades and deal with other kinds of expected, planned maintenance without downtime. These are the key features of TCNS.


Assumptions and limits of scope

  • A fully-fledged "Cloud DNS" service is out of scope -- we assume that customers will continue to use their own DNS hosting for their own domains, and will likely serve CNAMEs to a TCNS name as needed.
  • The risk associated with running a newly developed, entirely custom Internet-facing DNS server is too high for the development timeframe desired. We assume the presence of existing DNS master/slave infrastructure that we can integrate with.
  • We need to deal with the JPC UFDS and VMs data sets as they are today and not embark upon cleanup operations just for this project.

DNS structure

The proposed DNS structure for the TCNS consists of multiple DNS zones for each SDC data centre, which contain records under them for both individual containers and for provided services.

Service records are of the following form:


Under the service DNS name, there will exist A and AAAA records that are the union of all the records for the containers that are active members of the service. In the same vein, TXT records will exist with the UUIDs of all member containers (see the explanation of individual container records below).

The user part of the service name will be the user's UUID. It may also be desirable to provide shorter or "friendlier" names than the whole UUID, but this creates issues around users claiming names that are desired by another customer, and also problems around name expiration in future, as well as keeping track of all the reservations.

While the login field of an SDC user is required to be unique, it is not required to be DNS-safe, and in the JPC we also have to deal with legacy account names that are not even case-insensitively unique. This makes mapping it 1:1 to a DNS-safe name problematic as well, though it may be worthwhile examining this more closely.

UUIDs are quite long, but they do not suffer from these issues. It is also entirely possible to provide records named by UUID in addition to ones named by another name, so we can punt on this decision a little if necessary.

Individual container records are of the following form:


Under this DNS name, there will exist A (and potentially AAAA) records for each of the container's IP addresses. In addition, there will be a TXT record containing the container's SDC UUID, for debugging and use by other tools.

The container part of the DNS name is the UUID of the individual container in question, while the user part is as defined above.

Once again, using the alias field would be nice, but is quite problematic. Container aliases are even less constrained than values of login, so it is unlikely we can come up with a perfect solution here -- although, at least, container aliases are easily changeable by the user to escape from a potential problem.

DNS zones, public and private addressing

The name structure specified in the last section was shown with a suffix of Clearly, this same structure can be used with a different suffix as necessary.

One key item of configuration for TCNS shall be the mapping of DNS zones to NAPI networks (or network pools). In this way, it may be configured to provide a division between "public" networks and "private" ones and put addresses from each into a different part of the DNS tree.

This configuration shall be provided in SAPI metadata (as a JSON object), as it is not expected to change often, and in the recommended deployment a restart of the TCNS daemon does not have an impact on availability.

In addition, TCNS shall also serve reverse lookup DNS zones, which map the IP addresses of each container back to their container record name.

As many of our competitors provide DNS hosting for arbitrary domains, we may wish to examine this option in future as well. However, the mechanisms needed for scalable service of arbitrary domains are quite a bit more extensive than what is proposed herein.

Service membership

Membership of a service for a container shall be determined based on the SDC tags on that zone.

Tags of the form below will be used: = <servicename>[,<servicename>,...]

Such tags comply also with the format needed for exposure as Docker tags through sdc-docker, and can be applied as such.

VMAPI shall be modified to perform validation on the contents of these tags at the time of their being set by the end-user. In this way, the user will receive immediate feedback if the tag they attempt to set will not work. This kind of validation will likely be needed in future for other special Docker labels anyway, so the infrastructure and error codes can be shared.

For members of a service to appear in DNS, they must write to their own metadata using the mdata-put tool, to indicate their status. They must write to the metadata key triton.cns.status with either up or down as the value. If this key is not present, down is assumed.

The intent is for the container to write to this key when it has finished starting up (and perhaps passed any power-on tests desired), and again before it begins to shut down. This can be done by an SMF service or a startup/shutdown script of some kind.

Containers have the (highly recommended) option of self-monitoring using this metadata interface -- they can write to this key if any health checks fail on the service while running, to remove it from DNS.

A very simple service may also, if it wishes, simply write this metadata key once after it has been set up, and leave it set forever (running with the assumption that if the container is running, the service is accessible). This is perfectly acceptable.

Self-removal hysteresis

In the particular case of containers that self-remove from DNS using the triton.cns.status metadata key, the TCNS system will apply a form of hysteresis to avoid cascading failures removing all service nodes from DNS in rapid succession.

Proposed policy:

No more than max(floor(n/3), 1) containers with a given service tag will be removed due to self-removal in any 60-second window. If the final container in a service tag sets its self-removal flag, it will be subject to a delay of 600 seconds before this removal becomes effective.

(these exact numbers are subject to change)

Note that this hysteresis will be overruled by containers having their service tag removed, completely shutting down or being destroyed, a detected CN hardware failure, or any other kind of "hard" removal.

The idea behind this is to allow self-monitoring to be used safely without concern that a faulty or flakey probe can completely take down a service in one fell swoop.


The Triton Container Naming Service will operate as an authoritative DNS nameserver, written in node.js. The service will typically operate as a DNS "hidden master". This is a configuration where the built-in DNS mechanisms for high availability (namely zone transfers, AXFR and IXFR) are used to mirror the original DNS zone to "slave" servers, but only the slave servers are publicly reachable. The original "master" DNS server in the SDC DC need never be exposed to the Internet or be present in the records of the zone.

This also allows TCNS to integrate seamlessly into existing DNS systems deployed both internally at Joyent, and at our on-premise customers' sites. It reduces risks for the new code running on the master, as the actual client workload is served entirely by the existing adequately-provisioned slaves running proven code.

For small deployments with on-premise customers or open-source users who do not have or wish to have a full DNS infrastructure, the TCNS master will also be able to serve records directly, and this should still be thoroughly tested.

It would be highly desirable to also integrate into our existing systems for planned maintenance operations (such as rebooting CNs) to automatically remove containers from services temporarily during such operations. We might also want to perform this operation in the face of other kinds of clear-cut CN failure (but see above about this not being a system for building HA services).

The suggested software to be run on slaves is the standard ISC BIND nameserver. It fully supports all of the features required to integrate with this solution.

Additionally, BIND can be configured to record statistics about per-zone query rates without having to log all queries to disk. These counters could be queried and collected by a node.js process on each slave nameserver and aggregated by some other means, to be used for accounting purposes.

The TCNS will have the ability to serve, through an HTTP REST API, a list of JSON objects describing at a high level the DNS zones available on the service. This is necessary as DNS itself has no suitable means to provide this information. An automatic script to convert the JSON into BIND configuration syntax is one option that could be used to automatically update configuration on the slaves, but its development will not be considered directly in the scope of TCNS.

User opt-in and opt-out flags

Some users may not wish to use the TCNS service. Some others may even view having their containers' public IP addresses in DNS as a "security risk" (despite any logic or evidence to the contrary). As a result, two flags will be provided:

  • A per-account global opt-in flag, stored on their account record in UFDS. Without this flag, no records whatsoever for an account's containers will be served.

  • A per-container tag that can be added to block that container from appearing anywhere in DNS, named triton.cns.disable.

The per-account opt-in flag will be stored as a free field on the account's UFDS record, and settable by the user themselves through the CloudAPI UpdateAccount endpoint. It will be named triton_cns_enabled. A toggle for the option will also appear in the SDC user portal. Once set in one DC, the flag will be sync'd by ufds-replicator to other related DCs.

The per-container tag can be set and removed in the same way as the service membership tags, through CloudAPI or Docker Labels.

Interaction with SDC

In order to obtain the information needed for its operation, TCNS should only depend on the high-level SDC API services such as VMAPI and UFDS.

For the purposes of efficiency, the services it uses should all support filtered change feeds in some manner, so that TCNS can be notified on changes and does not have to poll all data out of the service on a timed basis.

TCNS will build up a cache of the DNS zones in memory (perhaps in a Redis store) based on the feeds and queries it executes against SDC services. All DNS queries and zone transfers will be served from this cache.

Configuration and SAPI metadata

SAPI metadata items that will be used:

  • my_name -- DNS name of the TCNS server itself
  • dns_zones -- object describing the forward DNS zones and their properties (see below)

Format of dns_zones:

  "": {
    "networks": ["napi-uuid-1", "napi-uuid-2"],
    "slaves": ["", ""],
    "hidden_master": true
  "": {
    "networks": ["*"]

There can only be one DNS zone with a networks array including "*" -- this becomes a "catch-all" zone for IP addresses that do not fit in any other zone listed. If no catch-all zone is provided, then only IPs belonging to explicitly listed networks will become part of the DNS records served.

When a DNS zone is listed with explicit slaves, or hidden_master is set to true, AXFR and IXFR zone transfers for that zone are limited only to the IP addresses of the hosts in the slaves array.

If neither of these properties are set, AXFR and IXFR transfers for a given zone are only available to (ie, the TCNS zone itself) for testing and debugging. No zone transfers will be served to other addresses.

A commandline tool for editing the dns_zones payload and other settings will be provided in the global zone, by the name of cnsadm, as editing embedded JSON payloads in SAPI metadata is not the most enjoyable operator experience. The tool will also validate its input by looking up the names of slaves, validating NAPI UUIDs, and verifying that there is only one catch-all zone configured. The existing SAPI support for metadata_schema will be used for basic validation of structure, but the cnsadm tool will be able to perform additional validation.

SAPI metadata schema

  "type": "object",
  "properties": {
    "my_name": {
      "type": "string",
      "required": true,
      "pattern": "^(([a-zA-Z0-9]|[a-zA-Z0-9][a-zA-Z0-9-]*[a-zA-Z0-9]).)*([A-Za-z0-9]|[A-Za-z0-9][A-Za-z0-9-]*[A-Za-z0-9])$"
    "dns_zones": {
      "type": "object",
      "required": true,
      "additionalProperties": {
        "type": "object",
        "properties": {
          "networks": {
            "type": "array",
            "required": true,
            "minItems": 1,
            "items": {
              "type": "string",
              "pattern": "^[*]$|^[a-f0-9-]+$"
          "slaves": {
            "type": "array",
            "minItems": 1,
            "items": {
              "type": "string",
              "pattern": "^(([a-zA-Z0-9]|[a-zA-Z0-9][a-zA-Z0-9-]*[a-zA-Z0-9]).)*([A-Za-z0-9]|[A-Za-z0-9][A-Za-z0-9-]*[A-Za-z0-9])$"
          "hidden_master": {
            "type": "boolean"
        "additionalProperties": false


Creating a new service

  • Services are created implicitly when a container is added to them for the first time.

Adding a container to a service

  • Add the SDC Tag or Docker Label of the form = servicename.

Updates will likely take 30-60 sec to finish propagating through DNS.

Removing a container from a service

  • Remove the corresponding SDC Tag or Docker Label.

Updates will likely take 30-60 sec to finish propagating through DNS.

"Blue-green" upgrades, container replacement within a service

  • Add a new container with the SDC Tag or Docker Label set.
  • Wait until DNS propagation has completed.
  • Remove the SDC Tag or Docker Label from the old container to be replaced.
  • Wait until DNS propagation has completed and requests have drained (old container is no longer receiving new requests).
  • Destroy the old container.

This can also be performed on multiple containers in parallel in the same service.

Rebooting a CN with containers on it

  • Ideally, make sure the CN's status in CNAPI is set to "rebooting" -- either by using the /servers/:uuid/reboot route (eg via adminui's reboot button), or by doing an sdc-cnapi -XPOST /servers/:uuid -d '{"transitional_status":"rebooting"}' or similar.
  • TCNS will automatically remove containers on a CN that is marked as not running, whether for reboot or other reasons.

Implementation steps

Changes to node-named

  • Need IXFR incremental zone transfer support

The arekinath/node-named fork of the node-named already has support for TCP and AXFR zone transfers added. IXFR needs to be added to make sure that slaves can efficiently update large zones quickly.

Changes to SDC services

  • Need VMAPI change feeds -- ZAPI-662
  • Efficient way to query IP addresses and tags only -- ZAPI-663
  • Tag updates need to be faster (currently triggers a WF job)

Implementing tcns server

  • Decide whether to use Redis for in-memory cache or something else
  • Implement similarly to other SDC services, using node-sdc-clients to talk to VMAPI and UFDS as needed.
  • Daemon will connect to UFDS/VMAPI change feeds and run queries to gather its initial data, building up and maintaining its in-memory cache.
  • Every time there is a change, update SOA serial number.
  • Needs to keep track of differences to last few SOA serial numbers so that it can send NOTIFYs and respond to IXFR as needed.

There is some horrible nasty code in arekinath/sdc-zonedns which could serve as a point of reference or starting point for the actual server. It's probably best to largely ignore the actual code here but use its features and basic structure for inspiration.


  • Work with ops to create a plan for which DNS zones to use and what the SOA records have to look like to cover our NS.
  • Test extensively on staging, and also with mockcloud to confirm efficiency of operation with large number of CNs and VMs before deployment.

A new command should likely be added to sdcadm experimental, in the vein of the update-docker command, which will install or upgrade the TCNS zone and daemon.

Configuration will be necessary, including the base DNS zone name and the names and addresses of the slave NS that should be listed in the SOA and allowed to perform zone transfers. This should be stored in the SAPI metadata for the service.

Implementation Notes

As of early 2016, CNS is now available in the Joyent Public Cloud and in on-premise SDC installations. It has been implemented basically as outlined in this document, with some small changes.

  • Flags were added that enable the use of alias and login in DNS names for on-premise deployments which are not subject to the same legacy data requirements as JPC.
  • In the JPC, the use of alias in DNS names was enabled by default after careful examination of existing data and some adjustments to the validation code in VMAPI.
  • The removal hysteresis function has not yet been implemented.
  • The tag has had its syntax enhanced to support additional metadata, such as a port number for generating SRV records. See the relevant documentation for details.
  • Support for generating SRV records was added.
  • Some support for custom PTR record generation was added, but has not been fully documented and deployed as yet.
  • CloudAPI now coordinates with CNS to add a dns_names field to the output of the GetMachine endpoint. This means that commands like triton inst get can now show the user all the CNS-generated names associated with a VM (both its instance names and service names).
  • The node-named library ended up needing quite extensive rework due to many bugs and problems in its packet parsing code, rather than just the proposed IXFR enhancement. A local fork was necessary.
  • The sdc-tcnsadm command became cnsadm, which has been quite well received by operators, particularly for its status reporting commands.
  • For various non-technical reasons, the terminology of master and slave has been excised from the code and documentation and replaced by primary and secondary.
  • The tcns_enabled UFDS key was renamed to triton_cns_enabled as part of the wider tendency to refer to the system as "CNS" rather than "TCNS".