Nginx and dynamic DNS upstreams

Adventures of using Nginx to proxy internal ELBs on AWS

🚀 tech
Table of Contents

⚠️ This post is archived and may not be up to date with latest versions.

Recently, I was fiddling around with AWS Elastic Beanstalk to run our Nginx reverse proxy server at Headout and observed an interesting behavior with regards to DNS resolution in Nginx.


A fairly simple deployment architecture that I have followed is that each internal service is deployed in its own Auto-Scaling group and load balanced via its own Internal Load Balancer (ELB). Note the the load balancer is internal and does not have a public IP address. An nginx instance is responsible to proxy requests to the internal service based on the incoming server_name.

Since, these Load Balancers are assigned a random generated DNS name, I sought out to standardize the DNS names for the various services to make configurations simpler and less dynamic. Subsequently, I ended up using the Private Hosted Zones in Route53 where one can setup familiar names to be resolved inside an AWS VPC. I setup a simple naming structure in the form <service>.<public-domain>.internal making it easier when developing any new service to connect to a dependent service.

Extending this, just creating a CNAME record to each of the internal ELBs works right away. As a result, the nginx upstream configuration looks something like this -

upstream myservice1_backend {
  server myservice1.domain.internal;

upstream myservice2_backend {
  server myservice2.domain.internal;

upstream myservice3_backend {
  server myservice3.domain.internal;

These upstream servers are being used to configure the proxy_pass directive inside the server and location context of Nginx configuration which looks something like this -

server {
  location / {
    proxy_pass http://myservice1_backend;

server {
  location / {
    proxy_pass http://myservice2_backend;

server {
  location / {
    proxy_pass http://myservice3_backend;

Using the CNAME entries for upstream servers provides one great benefit that I manually don’t have to keep updating the upstream list but instead delegating that to ELB does that job fairly well in itself. Less custom management, less hassle.


Now interestingly, after a few minutes, I started getting 502 Bad Gateway errors. Restarting the nginx servers restored the application back to normal. But alas, the problem cropped around 15 minutes later again. What went wrong?


Recreate Everything

One of my first instincts was to reproduce the problem. To ensure sanity, I destroyed the existing nginx application servers and recreated the complete environment from scratch. Due to the equal parity between development and production environments (yay Docker!) I was confident enough that if the same nginx configuration was working on my local machine, it should work when deployed. Check.

Health Checks

I haven’t appreciated the beauty of health checks enough. While in itself, they aren’t a holistic check of the service at logical level, they do provide a very powerful construct of a starting point to debug the point of failure. Each service that we run internally has a HTTP endpoint which when pinged returns some body and a 2xx response code. These checks ensure reachability and liveness from the ELBs to each of the instances. The ELB dashboard was reporting that each service was healthy which felt weird because 502 Bad Gateway errors generally refer to the scenario when nginx is unable to connect to the upstream.

I manually SSHed into the machines and ensured the health check calls via curl.

$ curl -I myservice1.domain.internal/health-check

which thankfully responded with

HTTP/1.1 200 OK

Nginx Logs

While many of you would have suggested me to have directly taken a look at the logs right in the first place, but there were just too many logs to be visually grepped. Unfortunately, this is when I felt the need for structured logging which would have made the next problem obvious right away. One of the logs reported

... *9 connect() to failed ...

which was very weird. When I tried using the same IP address to connect, voila! error reproduced. The AWS dashboard reported a different IP address for that particular service’s internal ELB. And now we know, the fault lies inside nginx.


On startup, the nginx instance resolves all the DNS names it encounters and caches them to the TTL value of that particular Resource Record (RR). If the IP address of the upstream changes before the RR expires, you are out of luck. The only time these DNS queries are re-sent is either on a restart or a reload.

After reading Best Practices in Evaluating Elastic Load Balancing Take a look at this excerpt -

The Elastic Load Balancing service will update the Domain Name System (DNS) record of the load balancer when it scales so that the new resources have their respective IP addresses registered in DNS. The DNS record that is created includes a Time-to-Live (TTL) setting of 60 seconds, with the expectation that clients will re-lookup the DNS at least every 60 seconds. By default, Elastic Load Balancing will return multiple IP addresses when clients perform a DNS resolution, with the records being randomly ordered on each DNS resolution request.

It looks like each load balancer has a DNS A record which points to multiple IP addresses which might change over time. When I set a CNAME entry to the host of the load balancer’s A record, I set the TTL as 3600s which is 1 hour before the record expires. So effectively, the nginx instance would have recovered after 1 hour automatically when the DNS record expires.

Quoting another statement from the AWS article -

If clients do not re-resolve the DNS at least once per minute, then the new resources Elastic Load Balancing adds to DNS will not be used by clients.

Which we clearly know that nginx respects the TTL values of the RRs returned.

NOTE: Interestingly, before version 1.9, Nginx had a hardcoded expiry which was not configurable.

Hence, the solution that immediately worked was changing the TTL of the CNAME records in the Private Hosted Zones to 60s which has stabilized the system now.


Using A type ALIAS records instead of CNAME records might have proven to not cause this issue in the first place because the new Resource Record would essentially proxy to the host that the ALIAS record was pointing to. Think of it as a forward proxy in the DNS world and all properties of the proxied record would be applied. One of the advantages is that this record allows other records to be created with the same host. A CNAME record cannot co-exist with other RRs like MX (though this limitation is something that might not actually be a limitation in most cases).

On further thoughts, it seems like using nginx to point to the internal ELBs might be not so good an idea because for every quantum time of 60 seconds, it will essentially resolve to the same IP address and hence be served from the same instance of the service. This defeats the whole purpose of load balancing that the ELBs are providing. Changing it to an even smaller time of 10s might work in the short run but might cause increased latency due to excessive frequency of DNS lookups. The exact ramifications of very short DNS TTLs is something that I’m still uncertain about.