Part of the job of a zone administrator is to maintain the zones at all of the name servers which are authoritative for the zone. When the inevitable changes are made, they must be distributed to all of the name servers. While this distribution can be accomplished using FTP or some other ad hoc procedure, the preferred method is the zone transfer part of the DNS protocol.
The general model of automatic zone transfer or refreshing is that one of the name servers is the master or primary for the zone. Changes are coordinated at the primary, typically by editing a master file for the zone. After editing, the administrator signals the master server to load the new zone. The other non-master or secondary servers for the zone periodically check for changes (at a selectable interval) and obtain new zone copies when changes have been made.
To detect changes, secondaries just check the SERIAL field of the SOA for the zone. In addition to whatever other changes are made, the SERIAL field in the SOA of the zone is always advanced whenever any change is made to the zone. The advancing can be a simple increment, or could be based on the write date and time of the master file, etc. The purpose is to make it possible to determine which of two copies of a zone is more recent by comparing serial numbers. Serial number advances and comparisons use sequence space arithmetic, so there is a theoretic limit on how fast a zone can be updated, basically that old copies must die out before the serial number covers half of its 32 bit range. In practice, the only concern is that the compare operation deals properly with comparisons around the boundary between the most positive and most negative 32 bit numbers.
The periodic polling of the secondary servers is controlled by parameters in the SOA RR for the zone, which set the minimum acceptable polling intervals. The parameters are called REFRESH, RETRY, and EXPIRE. Whenever a new zone is loaded in a secondary, the secondary waits REFRESH seconds before checking with the primary for a new serial. If this check cannot be completed, new checks are started every RETRY seconds. The check is a simple query to the primary for the SOA RR of the zone. If the serial field in the secondary's zone copy is equal to the serial returned by the primary, then no changes have occurred, and the REFRESH interval wait is restarted. If the secondary finds it impossible to perform a serial check for the EXPIRE interval, it must assume that its copy of the zone is obsolete an discard it.
When the poll shows that the zone has changed, then the secondary server must request a zone transfer via an AXFR request for the zone. The AXFR may cause an error, such as refused, but normally is answered by a sequence of response messages. The first and last messages must contain the data for the top authoritative node of the zone. Intermediate messages carry all of the other RRs from the zone, including both authoritative and non-authoritative RRs. The stream of messages allows the secondary to construct a copy of the zone. Because accuracy is essential, TCP or some other reliable protocol must be used for AXFR requests.
Each secondary server is required to perform the following operations against the master, but may also optionally perform these operations against other secondary servers. This strategy can improve the transfer process when the primary is unavailable due to host downtime or network problems, or when a secondary server has better network access to an "intermediate" secondary than to the primary.