What Is Zone Transfer in DNS Server?


Heather Bennett

A zone transfer is a mechanism used in the DNS (Domain Name System) to replicate DNS information across multiple authoritative DNS servers. It allows for the synchronization of DNS records between primary and secondary DNS servers, ensuring consistency and redundancy in the event of server failures or network outages.

Understanding DNS Zone Transfer

When a DNS server receives a query for a domain name, it needs to have access to the corresponding IP address to provide a valid response. The DNS server authoritative for that domain holds this information in its zone file. The zone file contains various records, including A (address) records, CNAME (canonical name) records, MX (mail exchange) records, etc.

In most cases, a domain has at least two authoritative DNS servers: a primary server and one or more secondary servers. The primary server is responsible for maintaining the original copy of the zone file. Secondary servers obtain copies of this zone file through zone transfers.

The Primary Server

The primary server is considered the master server for a particular domain’s zone file. It manages all changes and updates made to the zone file. These changes can include adding new records, modifying existing ones, or removing outdated entries.

To ensure integrity and prevent unauthorized modifications, zone transfers are typically restricted only to trusted secondary servers using IP address-based access controls or secure mechanisms like TSIG (Transaction Signature).

The Secondary Servers

The secondary servers are responsible for obtaining copies of the zone file from the primary server through zone transfers. These servers act as backups and serve as additional points of query resolution for client requests.

  • Full Zone Transfer:
  • A full zone transfer, also known as an AXFR (Authoritative Transfer), involves transferring the entire zone file from the primary server to a secondary server. This initial transfer ensures that the secondary server has an exact replica of the zone file.

  • Incremental Zone Transfer:
  • An incremental zone transfer, also known as an IXFR (Incremental Transfer), is a more efficient method of transferring changes made to the zone file. Instead of sending the entire zone file, only the incremental changes (additions, modifications, or deletions) since the last transfer are transmitted.

Benefits of Zone Transfer

The use of zone transfers provides several benefits:

  • Redundancy:
  • By having multiple authoritative servers with synchronized zone files, DNS queries can still be resolved even if one server becomes unavailable.

  • Load Distribution:
  • With multiple authoritative servers, DNS queries can be distributed across them, reducing the load on any single server and improving overall performance.

  • Tolerance for Failures:
  • If a primary server fails or experiences network connectivity issues, secondary servers can continue to serve DNS queries using their synchronized copies of the zone file.


In summary, zone transfer is a crucial mechanism in DNS that allows for the replication and synchronization of DNS information across multiple authoritative servers. It ensures redundancy, load distribution, and tolerance for failures in a domain’s DNS infrastructure. By properly configuring and securing zone transfers, organizations can maintain high availability and reliability for their DNS services.

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