systemd-resolved.service and VPNs

systemd-resolved.service supports routing lookups for specific domains to specific interfaces. This is useful for hooking up VPN software with systemd-resolved and making sure the exact right lookups end up on the VPN and on the other interfaces.

For a verbose explanation of systemd-resolved.service’s domain routing logic, see its man page. This document is supposed to provide examples to use the concepts for the specific purpose of managing VPN DNS configuration.

Let’s first define two distinct VPN use-cases:

  1. Corporate VPNs, i.e. VPNs that open access to a specific set of additional hosts. Only specific domains should be resolved via the VPN’s DNS servers, and everything that is not related to the company’s domain names should go to regular, non-VPN DNS instead.

  2. Privacy VPNs, i.e. VPNs that should be used for basically all DNS traffic, once they are up. If this type of VPN is used, any regular, non-VPN DNS servers should not get any traffic anymore.

Then, let’s briefly introduce three DNS routing concepts that software managing a network interface may configure.

  1. Search domains: these are traditional DNS configuration parameters and are used to suffix non-qualified domain names (i.e. single-label ones), to turn them into fully qualified domain names. Traditionally (before systemd-resolved.service), search domain names are attached to a system’s IP configuration as a whole, in systemd-resolved.service they are associated to individual interfaces instead, since they are typically acquired through some network associated concept, such as a DHCP, IPv6RA or PPP lease. Most importantly though: in systemd-resolved.service they are not just used to suffix single-label domain names, but also for routing domain name lookups: if a network interface has a search domain configured on it, then any lookups for names ending in (or for itself) are preferably routed to the DNS servers configured on the same network interface.

  2. Routing domains: these are very similar to search domains, but are purely about DNS domain name lookup routing — they are not used for qualifying single-label domain names. When it comes to routing assigning a routing domain to a network interface is identical to assigning a search domain to it.

    Why the need to have both concepts, i.e. search and routing domains? Mostly because in many cases the qualifying of single-label names is not desirable (since security-sensitive), but needs to be supported for specific use-cases. Routing domains are a concept systemd-resolved.service introduced, while search domains are traditionally available and are part of DHCP/IPv6RA/PPP leases and thus universally supported. In many cases routing domains are probably the more appropriate concept, but not easily available, since not part of DHCP/IPv6RA/PPP.

    Routing domains for systemd-resolved.service are usually presented along with search domains in mostly the same way, but prefixed with ~ to differentiate them. i.e. is a configured routing domain, while would be a configured search domain.

    One routing domain is particular interesting: ~. — the catch-all routing domain. (The dot domain . is how DNS denotes the “root” domain, i.e. the parent domain of all domains, but itself.) When used on an interface any DNS traffic is preferably routed to its DNS servers. (A search domain – i.e. . instead of ~. — would have the same effect, but given that it’s mostly pointless to suffix an unqualified domain with ., we generally declare it as a routing domain, not a search domain).

    Routing domains also have particular relevance when it comes to the reverse lookup DNS domains and An interface that has these (or sub-domains thereof) defined as routing domains, will be preferably used for doing reverse IP to domain name lookups. e.g. declaring on an interface means that all lookups to find the domain names for IPv4 addresses 192.168.x.y are preferable routed to it.

  3. The default-route boolean. This is a simple boolean value that may be set on an interface. If true (the default), any DNS lookups for which no matching routing or search domains are defined are routed to interfaces marked like this. If false then the DNS servers on this interface are not considered for routing lookups to except for the ones listed in the search/routing domain list. An interface that has no search/routing domain associated and also has this boolean off is not considered for any lookups.

One more thing to mention: in systemd-resolved.service if lookups match the search/routing domains of multiple interfaces at once, then they are sent to all of them in parallel, and the first positive reply used. If all lookups fail the last negative reply is used. This means the DNS zones on the relevant interfaces are “merged”: domains existing on one but not the other will “just work” and vice versa.

And one more note: the domain routing logic implemented is a tiny bit more complex that what described above: if there two interfaces have search domains that are suffix of each other, and a name is looked up that matches both, the interface with the longer match will win and get the lookup routed to is DNS servers. Only if the match has the same length, then both will be used in parallel. Example: one interface has as routing domain, and another one has search domain. A lookup for is the exclusively routed to the first interface’s DNS server, since it matches by three suffix labels instead of just two. The fact that the matching length is taken into consideration for the routing decision is particularly relevant if you have one interface with the ~. routing domain and another one with — both suffixes match a lookup for, but the latter interface wins, since the match is for four labels, while the other is for zero labels.

Putting it Together

Let’s discuss how the three DNS routing concepts above are best used for a reasonably complex scenario consisting of:

  1. One VPN interface of the corporate kind, maybe called company0. It makes available a bunch of servers, all in the domain

  2. One VPN interface of the privacy kind, maybe called privacy0. When it is up all DNS traffic shall preferably routed to its DNS servers.

  3. One regular WiFi interface, maybe called wifi0. It has a regular DNS server on it.

Here’s how to best configure this for systemd-resolved.service:

  1. company0 should get a routing domain configured. (A search domain would work too, if qualifying of single-label names is desired or the VPN lease information does not provide for the concept of routing domains, but does support search domains.) This interface should also set default-route to false, to ensure that really only the DNS lookups for the company’s servers are routed there and nothing else. Finally, it might make sense to also configure a routing domain on the interface, ensuring that all IPv4 addresses from the 192.0.2.x range are preferably resolved via the DNS server on this interface (assuming that that’s the IPv4 address range the company uses internally).

  2. privacy0 should get a routing domain ~. configured. The setting of default-route for this interface is then irrelevant. This means: once the interface is up, all DNS traffic is preferably routed there.

  3. wifi0 should not get any special settings, except possibly whatever the local WiFi router considers suitable as search domain, for example The default true setting for default-route is good too.

With this configuration if only wifi0 is up, all DNS traffic goes to its DNS server, since there are no other interfaces with better matching DNS configuration. If privacy0 is then upped, all DNS traffic will exclusively go to this interface now — with the exception of names below the domain, which will continue to go directly to wifi0, as the search domain there says so. Now, if company0 is also upped, it will receive DNS traffic for the company’s internal domain and internal IP subnet range, but nothing else. If privacy0 is then downed again, wifi0 will get the regular DNS traffic again, and company0 will still get the company’s internal domain and IP subnet traffic and nothing else. Everything hence works as intended.

How to Implement this in Your VPN Software

Most likely you want to expose a boolean in some way that declares whether a specific VPN is of the corporate or the privacy kind:

  1. If managing a corporate VPN, you configure any search domains the user or the VPN contact point provided. And you set default-route to false. If you have IP subnet information for the VPN, it might make sense to insert ~… and ~… reverse lookup routing domains for it.

  2. If managing a privacy VPN, you include ~. in the routing domains, the value for default-route is actually irrelevant, but I’d set it to true. No need to configure any reverse lookup routing domains for it.

(If you also manage regular WiFi/Ethernet devices, just configure them as traditional, i.e. with any search domains as acquired, do not set ~. though, and do not disable default-route.)

The APIs

Now we determined how we want to configure things, but how do you actually get the configuration to systemd-resolved.service? There are three relevant interfaces:

  1. Ideally, you use D-Bus and talk to systemd-resolved.service’s D-Bus API directly. Use SetLinkDomains() to set the per-interface search and routing domains on the interfaces you manage, and SetLinkDefaultRoute() to manage the default-route boolean, all on the org.freedesktop.resolve1.Manager interface of the /org/freedesktop/resolve1 object.

  2. If that’s not in the cards, you may shell out to resolvectl, which is a thin wrapper around the D-Bus interface mentioned above. Use resolvectl domain <iface> … to set the search/routing domains and resolvectl default-route <iface> … to set the default-route boolean.

    Example use from a shell callout of your VPN software for a corporate VPN:

     resolvectl domain corporate0 '~corp-company.example' ''
     resolvectl default-route corporate0 false
     resolvectl dns corporate0

    Example use from a shell callout of your VPN software for a privacy VPN:

     resolvectl domain privacy0 '~.'
     resolvectl default-route privacy0 true
     resolvectl dns privacy0
  3. If you don’t want to use any systemd-resolved commands, you may use the resolvconf wrapper we provide. resolvectl is actually a multi-call binary and may be symlinked to resolvconf, and when invoked like that behaves in a way that is largely compatible with FreeBSD’s and Ubuntu’s/Debian’s resolvconf(8) tool. When the -x switch is specified, the ~. routing domain is automatically appended to the domain list configured, as appropriate for a privacy VPN. Note that the resolvconf interface only covers privacy VPNs and regular network interfaces (such as WiFi or Ethernet) well. The corporate kind of VPN is not well covered, since the interface cannot propagate the default-route boolean, nor can be used to configure the ~… or routing domains.


When configuring per-interface DNS configuration settings it is wise to configure everything before actually upping the interface. Once the interface is up systemd-resolved.service might start using it, and hence it’s important to have everything configured properly (this is particularly relevant when LLMNR or MulticastDNS is enabled, since that works without any explicitly configured DNS configuration). It is also wise to configure search/routing domains and the default-route boolean before configuring the DNS servers, as the former without the latter has no effect, but the latter without the former will result in DNS traffic possibly being generated, in a non-desirable way given that the routing information is not set yet.

Downgrading Search Domains to Routing Domains

Many VPN implementations provide a way how VPN servers can inform VPN clients about search domains to use. In some cases it might make sense to install those as routing domains instead of search domains. Unqualified domain names usually imply a context of locality: the same unqualified name typically is expected to resolve to one system in one local network, and to another one in a different network. Search domains thus generally come with security implications: they might cause that unqualified domains are resolved in a different (possibly remote) context, contradicting user expectations. Thus it might be wise to downgrade search domains provided by VPN servers to routing domains, so that local unqualified name resolution remains untouched and strictly maintains its local focus — in particular in the aforementioned less trusted corporate VPN scenario.

To illustrate this further, here’s an example for an attack scenario using search domains: a user assumes the printer system they daily contact under the unqualified name “printer” is the network printer in their basement (with the fully qualified domain name “printer.home”). Sometimes the user joins the corporate VPN of their employer, which comes with a search domain “foocorp.example”, so that the user’s confidential documents (maybe a job application to a competing company) might end up being printed on “printer.foocorp.example” instead of “printer.home”. If the local VPN software had downgraded the VPN’s search domain to a routing domain “~foocorp.example”, this mismapping would not have happened.

When connecting to untrusted WiFi networks it might be wise to go one step further even: suppress installation of search/routing domains by the network entirely, to ensure that the local DNS information is only used for name resolution of qualified names and only when no better DNS configuration is available.