True Things About Learning to Fly

July 17th, 2015

I’ve been pretty quiet for the last few months because I’m learning to fly. I want to start with a few quotes about aviation. I have heard things like these from many people and can vouch for their accuracy:

Anyone can learn to fly.

Learning to fly is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do.

It is totally worth it. Being a pilot will give you a new outlook on life.

You’ll be amazed at what radios do a 3000ft. Have you ever had an 3000-foot antenna tower?

The world is glorious at 1000ft up.

Share your enthusiasm with those around you. You have a perspective very few ever see, except for a few seconds on the way to 35,000ft.

Earlier this month, I flew solo for the first time — the biggest milestone on the way to getting the pilot’s license. Here’s a photo my flight instructor took as I was coming in to land that day.

landing

Today I took my first flight to another airport. It wasn’t far — about 20 miles away — but it was still a thrill. I flew about 1500ft above the ground, roughly above a freeway that happened to be my route. From that height, things still look three-dimensional. The grain elevator that marked out the one small town, the manufacturing plant at another, the college at the third. Bales of hay dotting the fields, the occasional tractor creeping along a road, churches sticking up above the trees. These are places I’ve known for decades, and now, suddenly, they are all new.

What a time to be alive! I am glad that our world is still so full of wonder and beauty.

Categories: Aviation

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First steps with smartcards under Linux and Android — hard, but it works

July 16th, 2015

Well this has been an interesting project.

It all started with a need to get better password storage at work. We wound up looking heavily at a GPG-based solution. This prompted the question: how can we make it even more secure?

Well, perhaps, smartcards. The theory is this: a smartcard holds your private keys in a highly-secure piece of hardware. The PC can never actually access the private keys. Signing and decrypting operations are done directly on the card to prevent the need to export the private key material to the PC. There are lots of “standards” to choose from (PKCS#11, PKCS#15, and OpenPGP card specs) that are relevant here. And there are ways to use SSH and OpenVPN with some of these keys too. Access to the card is protected by a passphrase (called a “PIN” in smartcard lingo, even though it need not be numeric). These smartcards might be USB sticks, or cards you pop into a reader. In any case, you can pop them out when not needed, pop them in to use them, and… well, pretty nice, eh?

So that’s the theory. Let’s talk a bit of reality.

First of all, it is hard for a person like me to evaluate how secure my data is in hardware. There was a high-profile bug in the OpenPGP JavaCard applet used by Yubico that caused the potential to use keys without a PIN, for instance. And how well protected is the key in the physical hardware? Granted, in most of these cards you’re talking serious hardware skill to compromise them, but still, this is unknown in absolute terms.

Here’s the bigger problem: compatibility. There are all sorts of card readers, but compatibility with pcsc-tools and pcscd on Linux seems pretty good. But the cards themselves — oh my. PKCS#11 defines an interface API, but each vendor would provide their own .so or .dll file to interface. Some cards (for instance, the ACOS5-64 mentioned on the Debian wiki!) are made by vendors that charge $50 for the privilege of getting the drivers needed to make them work… and they’re closed-source proprietary drivers at that.

Some attempts

I ordered several cards to evaluate: the OpenPGP card, specifically designed to support GPG; the ACOS5-64 card, the JavaCOS A22, the Yubikey Neo, and a simple reader listed on the GPG smartcard howto.

The OpenPGP card and ACOS5-64 are the only ones in the list that support 4096-bit RSA keys due to the computational demands of them. The others all support 2048-bit RSA keys.

The JavaCOS requires the user to install a JavaCard applet to the card to make it useable. The Yubico OpenPGP applet works here, along with GlobalPlatform to install it. I am not sure just how solid it is. The Yubikey Neo has yet to arrive; it integrates some interesting OAUTH and TOTP capabilities as well.

I found that Debian’s wiki page for smartcards lists a bunch of them that are not really useable using the tools in main. The ACOS5-64 was such a dud. But I got the JavaCOS A22 working quite nicely. It’s also NFC-enabled and works perfectly with OpenKeyChain on Android (looking like a “Yubikey Neo” to it, once the OpenPGP applet is installed). I’m impressed! Here’s a way to be secure with my smartphone without revealing everything all the time.

Really the large amount of time is put into figuring out how all this stuff fits together. I’m getting there, but I’ve got a ways to go yet.

Update: Corrected to read “signing and decrypting” rather than “signing and encrypting” operations are being done on the card. Thanks to Benoît Allard for catching this error.

Categories: Debian, Linux

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Roundup of remote encrypted deduplicated backups in Linux

June 11th, 2015

Since I wrote last about Linux backup tools, back in a 2008 article about BackupPC and similar toools and a 2011 article about dedpulicating filesystems, I’ve revisited my personal backup strategy a bit.

I still use ZFS, with my tool “simplesnap” that I wrote about in 2014 to perform local backups to USB drives, which get rotated offsite periodically. This has the advantage of being very fast and very secure, but I also wanted offsite backups over the Internet. I began compiling criteria, which ran like this:

  • Remote end must not need any special software installed. Storage across rsync, sftp, S3, WebDAV, etc. should all be good candidates. The remote end should not need to support hard links or symlinks, etc.
  • Cross-host deduplication at at least the file level is required, so if I move a 4GB video file from one machine to another, my puny DSL wouldn’t have to re-upload it.
  • All data that is stored remotely must be 100% encrypted 100% of the time. I must not need to have any trust at all in the remote end.
  • Each backup after the first must send only an incremental’s worth of data across the line. No periodic re-uploading of the entire data set can be done.
  • The repository format must be well-documented and stable.

So, how did things stack up?

Didn’t meet criteria

A lot of popular tools didn’t meet the criteria. Here are some that I considered:

  • BackupPC requires software on the remote end and does not do encryption.
  • None of the rsync hardlink tree-based tools are suitable here.
  • rdiff-backup requires software on the remote end and does not do encryption or dedup.
  • duplicity requires a periodic re-upload of a full backup, or incremental chains become quite long and storage-inefficient. It also does not support dedup, although it does have an impressive list of “dumb” storage backends.
  • ZFS, if used to do backups the efficient way, would require software to be installed on the remote end. If simple “zfs send” images are used, the same limitations as with duplicity apply.
  • The tools must preserve POSIX attributes like uid/gid, permission bits, symbolic links, hard links, etc. Support for xattrs is also desireable but not required.
  • bup and zbackup are both interesting deduplicators, but do not yet have support for removing old data, so are impractical for this purpose.
  • burp requires software on the server side.

Obnam and Attic/Borg Backup

Obnam and Attic (and its fork Borg Backup) are both programs that have a similar concept at their heart, which is roughly this: the backup repository stores small chunks of data, indexed by a checksum. Directory trees are composed of files that are assembled out of lists of chunks, so if any given file matches another file already in the repository somewhere, the added cost is just a small amount of metadata.

Obnam was eventually my tool of choice. It has built-in support for sftp, but its reliance on local filesystem semantics is very conservative and it works fine atop davfs2 (and, I’d imagine, other S3-backed FUSE filesystems). Obnam’s repository format is carefully documented and it is very conservatively designed through and through — clearly optimized for integrity above all else, including speed. Just what a backup program should be. It has a lot of configurable options, including chunk size, caching information (dedup tables can be RAM-hungry), etc. These default to fairly conservative values, and the performance of Obnam can be significantly improved with a few simple config tweaks.

Attic was also a leading contender. It has a few advantages over Obnam, actually. One is that it uses an rsync-like rolling checksum method. This means that if you add 1 byte at the beginning of a 100MB file, Attic will upload a 1-byte chunk and then reference the other chunks after that, while Obnam will have to re-upload the entire file, since its chunks start at the beginning of the file in fixed sizes. (The only time Obnam has chunks smaller than its configured chunk size is with very small files or the last chunk in a file.) Another nice feature of Attic is its use of “packs”, where it groups chunks together into larger pack files. This can have significant performance advantages when backing up small files, especially over high-latency protocols and links.

On the downside, Attic has a hardcoded fairly small chunksize that gives it a heavy metadata load. It is not at all as configurable as Obnam, and unlike Obnam, there is nothing you can do about this. The biggest reason I avoided it though was that it uses a single monolithic index file that would have to be uploaded from scratch after each backup. I calculated that this would be many GB in size, if not even tens of GB, for my intended use, and this is just not practical over the Internet. Attic assumes that if you are going remote, you run Attic on the remote so that the rewrite of this file doesn’t have to send all the data across the network. Although it does work atop davfs2, this support seemed like an afterthought and is clearly not very practical.

Attic did perform much better than Obnam in some ways, largely thanks to its pack support, but the monolothic index file was going to make it simply impractical to use.

There is a new fork of Attic called Borg that may, in the future, address some of these issues.

Brief honorable mentions: bup, zbackup, syncany

There are a few other backup tools that people are talking about which do dedup. bup is frequently mentioned, but one big problem with it is that it has no way to delete old data! In other words, it is more of an archive than a backup tool. zbackup is a really neat idea — it dedups anything you feed at it, such as a tar stream or “zfs send” stream, and can encrypt, too. But it doesn’t (yet) support removing old data either.

syncany is fundamentally a syncing tool, but can also be used from the command line to do periodic syncs to a remote. It supports encryption, sftp, webdave, etc. natively, and runs on quite a number of platforms easily. However, it doesn’t store a number of POSIX attributes, such as hard links, uid/gid owner, ACL, xattr, etc. This makes it impractical for use for even backing up my home directory; I make fairly frequent use of ln, both with and without -s. If there were some tool to create/restore archives of metadata, that might work out better.

Categories: Linux

17 Comments

First impressions and review of OwnCloud

May 8th, 2015

In my recent post (I give up on Google), a lot of people suggested using OwnCloud as a replacement for several Google services. I’ve been playing around with it for a few days, and it is something of a mix of awesome and disappointing, in my opinion.

Files

OwnCloud started as a file-sync tool, somewhat akin to Google Drive and Dropbox. It has clients for every platform, and it is also a client for every platform: you can have subfolders of your OwnCloud installation stored on WebDav, *FTP*, Google Drive, Dropbox, you name it. It is a pretty nice integrator of other storage services, and provides the only way to use some of them on Linux (*cough* Google Drive *cough*)

One particularly interesting feature is the live editing in the browser of ODT, DOCX, and TXT files. This is somewhat similar to Google Docs and the only such thing I’ve seen in Open Source software. It writes changes directly back to the documents and, in my limited testing, seems to work well. A very nice feature!

I’ve tested the syncing only on Linux so far, but it looks solid.

There are two surprising issues, however: there is no deduplication and no delta-uploads. Add 10 bytes to the end of a 1GB file, and you re-upload the 1GB file. Thankfully the OwnCloud GUI client is smart enough to use inotify to notice an mv, but my guess is — and I haven’t tested this, but apparently OwnCloud doesn’t use hashes at all — that the CLI client would require a reupload after any mv, because it doesn’t run continuously.

In some situations, Syncany may be a useful work-around for this, as it does chunk-based dedup and client-side encryption. However, you would lose a lot of the sharing features inside OwnCloud by doing this, and the integration with the OwnCloud “apps” for photos, videos, and music.

The Android/mobile apps support all the usual auto-upload options.

Calendar

A lot of people report using OwnCloud as a calendar server, and it does indeed use CalDAV. With a program like DAVDroid or Mozilla Lightning, this makes, in theory, a full-functioning calendar syncing tool. There is, of course, also a web interface to the calendar. It, sadly, is limited. Or shall we say, VERY limited. Even something like sending an invite is missing — and in fact, the GUI for sharing an event is baffling. You can share it with someone, they get no say in whether or not it shows up, and it shows up on their calendar on the web only (not on synced copies) and they have no way to remove it!

Sharing calendars is similar; you can hide the display of any one of your calendars on the web interface, but not of any calendars shared with you. Baffling.

Address Book

I haven’t tested this yet, but there’s not much to test, I suspect. It can be shared with others, which I could see as a nice feature.

Bookmarks

An interesting bookmarks manager, though mysteriously not with Firefox sync support. There is Chrome sync support, and a separate Mozilla Sync support, but it doesn’t provide cross-browser syncing, apparently.

Music

It is designed to present an interface to music that is stored in Files. It provides an Ampache-compatible API, so there are a lot of clients that can stream music. It has very few options, not even for transcoding, so I don’t see how it would be useful for my FLAC collection.

Pictures

Sort of a gallery view of photos synced up with Files. Very basic. Has a sharing button to share a link to an entire folder, but no option to embed photos in blog posts at a lower resolution or shortcut to sharing individual photos.

Notes, Tasks, etc.

I haven’t had the chance to look at this much. Some of them sync to various clients. The Notes are saved as HTML files that get synced down.

Clients overall

There is a very helpful page that lists all the sync clients for OwnCloud — not just for files, but also for calendars, contacts, etc. The list is extensive!

Other options

The two other Open Source options mentioned on my blog post were Kolab and Sogo, and there is also Zimbra which also has a community edition. The Debian Groupware page lists a number of other groupware options as well. Citadel caught my eye (wow, it’s still around!). Sogo has ActiveSync support, which might make phone integration a lot easier. It is not dead-simple to set up like OwnCloud is, though, so I haven’t tried it out, but I will probably be looking at it and Citadel next.

Categories: Linux, Software

8 Comments

I Give Up on Google: Free is Too Expensive

May 6th, 2015

I am really tired of things Google has done lately.

The most recent example being retiring Classic Maps. That’s a problem, because the current Maps mysteriously doesn’t show most of my saved (“starred”) places. Google has known about this since at least 2013. There are posts all over their forums about it going back to when what is now “regular” Google Maps was beta. Google employees even knew about it and did nothing. For someone that made heavy use of it, this was quite annoying.

But there have been plenty of others:

  • Removing My Places and My Maps from Maps for Android. Those features were used to, for instance, plan trips, highlight routes, add campground possibilities, etc. (They eventually brought this feature back months/years later, in limited form.)
  • Removed the 7-day and month views from Calendar for Android, claiming this was “better” for users. Finally re-added those views a few months later after many complaints. I even participated in a survey process with them where they were clearly struggling to understand why anybody wanted to see 7 days at once, when that feature had been there for years…
  • Removing the XMPP capabilities in Google Talk/Hangouts.
  • Picasaweb pretty much shut down, with very strong redirects to Google+ Photos. Which still to this day doesn’t have a handy feature for embedding in a blog post or anything that’s not, well, Google+.
  • General creeping crapification of everything they touch. It’s almost like Microsoft in the 90s all over again. All of a sudden my starred places stop showing up in Google Maps, but show up in Google Drive — shared with the whole world. What? I never wanted them in Google Drive to start with.
  • All the products that are all-but-dead — Google Groups and the sad state of the Deja News archives. Maybe Google+ itself goes on this list soon?
  • Looks like they’re trying to kill off Google Voice and merge it into hangouts, but I can’t send a text from the web with Hangouts.
  • And this massive list of discontinued services and products. Yeowch. Remember when Google Code was hot, and then they didn’t touch it at all for years?
  • And they still haven’t fixed some really basic things, such as letting people change their email address when they get married.
  • Dropping SIP from Grand Central, ActiveSync from Apps, etc.

I even used to use Flickr, then moved to Picasa when Yahoo stopped investing in Flickr. Now I’m back to Flickr, because Google stopped investing in Picasa.

The takeaway is that you can’t really rely on Google for anything. Counting on something being there for an upcoming trip and then having it be suddenly yanked away is a level of frustration that just makes the service not so useful. Never knowing when obvious things (7-day calendar view) will be removed means you just can’t depend on it.

So, are there good alternatives? Things I’m thinking of include:

  • Alternative calendar applications. Ideally it would support shared calendars for multiple people in a family, an Android app that lets you easily view some or all calendars, etc. I wonder if outlook.com is really the only competitor here? Last I looked — a few years ago — none of the Open Source options really worked well.
  • Alternative mapping applications. Must-haves include directions, navigation in the car, saving points of interest, and offline storage on Android. Nice-to-haves would include restaurant review integration, etc. Looks like Nokia (HERE.com) and Mapquest, plus a few OSM spinoffs, are the leading contenders here.
  • Email is easily enough found elsewhere, and I’ve never used Gmail much anyhow.

Anybody else moving off Google?

Categories: Uncategorized

42 Comments

Today I FLEW A PLANE

April 21st, 2015

DJI00694

“For once you have tasted flight,
You will walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward;
For there you have been,
And there you long to return.”

– Leonardo da Vinci

There is something of a magic to flight, to piloting. I remember the first flight I ever took, after years of dreaming of flying in a plane: my grandma had bought me a plane ticket. In one of the early morning flights, I witnessed a sunrise above cumulus clouds. Although I was just 10 or so at the time, that still is a most beautiful image seared into my memory.

I have become “meh” about commercial flight over the years. The drive to the airport, the security lines, the lack of scenery at 35,000 feet. And yet, there is much more to flight than that. When I purchased what was essentially a flying camera, I saw a whole new dimension of the earth’s amazing beauty. All the photos in this post, in fact, are ones I took. I then got a RC airplane, because flying the quadcopter was really way too easy.

DJI00620

“It’s wonderful to climb the liquid mountains of the sky.
Behind me and before me is God, and I have no fears.”

– Helen Keller

Start talking to pilots, and you notice a remarkable thing: this group of people that tends to be cool and logical, methodical and precise, suddenly finds themselves using language almost spiritual. Many have told me that being a pilot brings home how much all humans have in common, the unifying fact of sharing this beautiful planet together. Many volunteer with organizations such as Angel Flight. And having been up in small planes a few times, I start to glimpse this. Flying over my home at 1000′ up, or from lake to lake in Seattle with a better view than the Space Needle, seeing places familiar and new, but from a new perspective, drives home again and again the beauty of our world, the sheer goodness of it, and the wonderful color of the humanity that inhabits it.

DJI00120

“The air up there in the clouds is very pure and fine, bracing and delicious.

And why shouldn’t it be?

It is the same the angels breathe.”

– Mark Twain

The view from 1000 feet, or 3000, is often so much more spectacular than the view from 35,000 ft as you get on a commercial flight. The flexibility is too; there are airports all over the country that smaller planes can use which the airlines never touch.

Here is one incredible video from a guy that is slightly crazy but does ground-skimming, flying just a few feet off the ground: (try skipping to 9:36)

So what comes next is something I blame slightly on my dad and younger brother. My dad helped get me interested in photography as a child, and that interest has stuck. It’s what caused me to get into quadcopters (“a flying camera for less than the price of a nice lens!”). And my younger brother started mentioning airplanes to me last year for some reason, as if he was just trying to get me interested. Eventually, it worked. I started talking to the pilots I know (I know quite a few; there seems to be a substantial overlap between amateur radio and pilots). I started researching planes, flight, and especially safety — the most important factor.

And eventually I decided I wanted to be a pilot. I’ve been studying feverishly, carrying around textbooks and notebooks in the car, around the house, and even on a plane. There is a lot to learn.

And today, I took my first flight with a flight instructor. Today I actually flew a plane for awhile. Wow! There is nothing quite like that experience. Seeing a part of the world I am familiar with from a new perspective, and then actually controlling this amazing machine — I really fail to find the words to describe it. I have put in many hours of study already, and there will be many more studying and flying, but it is absolutely worth it.

Here is one final video about one of the most unique places you can fly to in Kansas.

And a blog with lots of photos of a flight to Beaumont called “Horse on the runway”.

Categories: Aviation

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ssh suddenly stops communicating with some hosts

March 30th, 2015

Here’s a puzzle I’m having trouble figuring out. This afternoon, ssh from my workstation or laptop stopped working to any of my servers (at OVH). The servers are all running wheezy, the local machines jessie. This happens on both my DSL and when tethered to my mobile phone. They had not applied any updates since the last time ssh worked. When looking at it with ssh -v, they were all hanging after:

debug1: SSH2_MSG_KEXINIT sent
debug1: SSH2_MSG_KEXINIT received
debug1: kex: server->client aes128-ctr umac-64@openssh.com none
debug1: kex: client->server aes128-ctr umac-64@openssh.com none
debug1: sending SSH2_MSG_KEX_ECDH_INIT
debug1: expecting SSH2_MSG_KEX_ECDH_REPLY

Now, I noticed that a server on my LAN — running wheezy — could successfully connect. It was a little different:

debug1: kex: server->client aes128-ctr hmac-md5 none
debug1: kex: client->server aes128-ctr hmac-md5 none
debug1: sending SSH2_MSG_KEX_ECDH_INIT
debug1: expecting SSH2_MSG_KEX_ECDH_REPLY

And indeed, if I run ssh -o MACs=hmac-md5, it works fine.

Now, I tried rebooting machines at multiple ends of this. No change. I tried connecting from multiple networks. No change. And then, as I was writing this blog post, all of a sudden it works normally again. Supremely weird! Any ideas what I can blame here?

Categories: Uncategorized

20 Comments

Suggestions for visiting the UK?

March 12th, 2015

My wife and I have been thinking of visiting the UK for awhile, and we’re finally starting to make some plans. I would be grateful to anyone reading this that might have some time to make suggestions on places to go, things to do, etc.

Here’s a bit of background, if it helps.

We have both traveled internationally before; this would actually be the first time either of us has visited another English-speaking country. We are content, and in fact would prefer, to venture outside the most popular touristy areas (though that doesn’t mean we’d want to miss something awesome just because it’s popular.)

We will have a little less than a week, most likely. That means staying on one area, or two at the most. Some other tidbits:

  • I particularly enjoy old buildings: churches, castles, cathedrals. A 400-year-old country church off a dusty road would be as interesting to me as Westminster Abbey — I’d consider both awesome to see. Castles that are in a good state of repair would also be great. I’d enjoy getting in the countryside as well.
  • My wife would enjoy literary connections: anything related to Dickens, A. A. Milne, Jane Austen, C. S. Lewis, etc.
  • Although I know London is full of amazing sights, and that is certainly one destination we’re considering, I am also fine with things like Roman ruines in Wales, A. A. Milne’s estate, country churches, sites in Scotland, etc.
  • Ireland / Northern Ireland might be a possibility, but we are mainly focused on Great Britain so far.
  • Would we be able to accomplish this without a car? I understand it is rather difficult for Americans to have to drive in the UK.
  • Are there non-conventional lodging options such as bed and breakfasts that might let us get to know our hosts a little better?
  • If it helps understand me better, some highlights from my past trips included the amazing feeling of stepping back in time at Marienkirche in Lübeck or the Museum in der Runden Ecke (a former Stasi building in Leipzig), exploring the old city of Rhodes, or becoming friends with a shop owner in Greece and attending an amateur radio club meeting with him.

Finally, we would probably not be able to go until September. Is that a reasonable time? Is part of September maybe less busy but still decent weather?

Thanks for any advice!

Categories: Travel

31 Comments

“Has Linux lost its way?” comments prompt a Debian developer to revisit FreeBSD after 20 years

February 17th, 2015

I’ll admit it. I have a soft spot for FreeBSD. FreeBSD was the first Unix I ran, and it was somewhere around 20 years ago that I did so, before I switched to Debian. Even then, I still used some of the FreeBSD Handbook to learn Linux, because Debian didn’t have the great Reference that it does now.

Anyhow, some comments in my recent posts (“Has modern Linux lost its way?” and Reactions to that, and the value of simplicity), plus a latent desire to see how ZFS fares in FreeBSD, caused me to try it out. I installed it both in VirtualBox under Debian, and in an old 64-bit Thinkpad sitting in my basement that previously ran Debian.

The results? A mixture of amazing and disappointing. I will say that I am quite glad that both exist; there is plenty of innovation happening everywhere and neat features exist everywhere, too. But I can also come right out and say that the statement that FreeBSD doesn’t have issues like Linux does is false and misleading. In many cases, it’s running the exact same stack. In others, it’s better, but there are also others where it’s worse. Perhaps this article might dispell a bit of the FUD surrounding jessie, while also showing off some of the nice things FreeBSD does. My conclusion: Both jessie and FreeBSD 10.1 are awesome Free operating systems, but both have their warts. This article is more about FreeBSD than Debian, but it will discuss a few of Debian’s warts as well.

The experience

My initial reaction to FreeBSD was: wow, this feels so familiar. It reminds me of a commercial Unix, or maybe of Linux from a few years ago. A minimal, well-documented base system, everything pretty much in logical places in the filesystem, and solid memory management. I felt right at home. It was almost reassuring, even.

Putting together a FreeBSD box is a lot of package installing and config file editing. The FreeBSD Handbook, describing how to install X, talks about editing this or that file for this or that feature. I like being able to learn directly how things fit together by doing this.

But then you start remembering the reasons you didn’t like Linux a few years ago, or the commercial Unixes: maybe it’s that programs like apache are still not as well supported, or maybe it’s that the default vi has this tendency to corrupt the terminal periodically, or perhaps it’s that root’s default shell is csh. Or perhaps it’s that I have to do a lot of package installing and config file editing. It is not quite the learning experience it once was, either; now there are things like “paste this XML file into some obscure polkit location to make your mouse work” or something.

Overall, there are some areas where FreeBSD kills it in a way no other OS does. It is unquestionably awesome in several areas. But there are a whole bunch of areas where it’s about 80% as good as Linux, a number of areas (even polkit, dbus, and hal) where it’s using the exact same stack Linux is (so all these comments about FreeBSD being so differently put together strike me as hollow), and frankly some areas that need a lot of work and make it hard to manage systems in a secure and stable way.

The amazing

Let’s get this out there: I’ve used ZFS too much to use any OS that doesn’t support it or something like it. Right now, I’m not aware of anything like ZFS that is generally stable and doesn’t cost a fortune, so pretty much: if your Unix doesn’t do ZFS, I’m not interested. (btrfs isn’t there yet, but will be awesome when it is.) That’s why I picked FreeBSD for this, rather than NetBSD or OpenBSD.

ZFS on FreeBSD is simply awesome. They have integreated it extremely well. The installer supports root on zfs, even encrypted root on zfs (though neither is a default). top on a FreeBSD system shows a line of ZFS ARC (cache) stats right alongside everything else. The ZFS defaults for maximum cache size, readahead, etc. auto-tune themselves at boot (unless overridden) based on the amount of RAM in a system and the system type. Seriously, these folks have thought of everything and it just reeks of solid. I haven’t seen ZFS this well integrated outside the Solaris-type OSs.

I have been using ZFSOnLinux for some time now, but it is just not as mature as ZFS on FreeBSD. ZoL, for instance, still has some memory tuning issues, and is not really suggested for 32-bit machines. FreeBSD just nails it. ZFS on FreeBSD even supports TRIM, which is not available in ZoL and I think fairly unique even among OpenZFS platforms. It also supports delegated administration of the filesystem, both to users and to jails on the system, seemingly very similar to Solaris zones.

FreeBSD also supports beadm, which is like a similar tool on Solaris. This lets you basically use ZFS snapshots to make lightweight “boot environments”, so you can select which to boot into. This is useful, say, before doing upgrades.

Then there are jails. Linux has tried so hard to get this right, and fallen on its face so many times, a person just wants to take pity sometimes. We’ve had linux-vserver, openvz, lxc, and still none of them match what FreeBSD jails have done for a long time. Linux’s current jail-du-jour is LXC, though it is extremely difficult to configure in a secure way. Even its author comments that “you won’t hear any of the LXC maintainers tell you that LXC is secure” and that it pretty much requires AppArmor profiles to achieve reasonable security. These are still rather in flux, as I found out last time I tried LXC a few months ago. My confidence in LXC being as secure as, say, KVM or FreeBSD is simply very low.

FreeBSD’s jails are simple and well-documented where LXC is complex and hard to figure out. Its security is fairly transparent and easy to control and they just work well. I do think LXC is moving in the right direction and might even get there in a couple years, but I am quite skeptical that even Docker is getting the security completely right.

The simply different

People have been throwing around the word “distribution” with respect to FreeBSD, PC-BSD, etc. in recent years. There is an analogy there, but it’s not perfect. In the Linux ecosystem, there is a kernel project, a libc project, a coreutils project, a udev project, a systemd/sysvinit/whatever project, etc. You get the idea. In FreeBSD, there is a “base system” project. This one project covers the kernel and the base userland. Some of what they use in the base system is code pulled in from elsewhere but maintained in their tree (ssh), some is completely homegrown (kernel), etc. But in the end, they have a nicely-integrated base system that always gets upgraded in sync.

In the Linux world, the distribution makers are responsible for integrating the bits from everywhere into a coherent whole.

FreeBSD is something of a toolkit to build up your system. Gentoo might be an analogy in the Linux side. On the other end of the spectrum, Ubuntu is a “just install it and it works, tweak later” sort of setup. Debian straddles the middle ground, offering both approaches in many cases.

There are pros and cons to each approach. Generally, I don’t think either one is better. They are just different.

The not-quite-there

I said that there are a lot of things in FreeBSD that are about 80% of where Linux is. Let me touch on them here.

Its laptop support leaves something to be desired. I installed it on a few-years-old Thinkpad — basically the best possible platform for working suspend in a Free OS. It has worked perfectly out of the box in Debian for years. In FreeBSD, suspend only works if it’s in text mode. If X is running, the video gets corrupted and the system hangs. I have not tried to debug it further, but would also note that suspend on closed lid is not automatic in FreeBSD; the somewhat obscure instuctions tell you what policykit pkla file to edit to make suspend work in XFCE. (Incidentally, it also says what policykit file to edit to make the shutdown/restart options work).

Its storage subsystem also has some surprising misses. Its rough version of LVM, LUKS, and md-raid is called GEOM. GEOM, however, supports only RAID0, RAID1, and RAID3. It does not support RAID5 or RAID6 in software RAID configurations! Linux’s md-raid, by comparison, supports RAID0, RAID1, RAID4, RAID5, RAID6, etc. There seems to be a highly experimental RAID5 patchset floating around for many years, but it is certainly not integrated into the latest release kernel. The current documentation makes no mention of RAID5, although it seems that a dated logical volume manager supported it. In any case, RAID5 does not seem to be well-supported in software like it is in Linux.

ZFS does have its raidz1 level, which is roughly the same as RAID5. However, that requires full use of ZFS. ZFS also does not support some common operations, like adding a single disk to an existing RAID5 group (which is possible with md-raid and many other implementations.) This is a ZFS limitation on all platforms.

FreeBSD’s filesystem support is rather a miss. They once had support for Linux ext* filesystems using the actual Linux code, but ripped it out because it was in GPL and rewrote it so it had a BSD license. The resulting driver really only works with ext2 filesystems, as it doesn’t work with ext3/ext4 in many situations. Frankly I don’t see why they bothered; they now have something that is BSD-licensed but only works with a filesystem so old nobody uses it anymore. There are only two FreeBSD filesystems that are really useable: UFS2 and ZFS.

Virtualization under FreeBSD is also not all that present. Although it does support the VirtualBox Open Source Edition, this is not really a full-featured or fast enough virtualization environment for a server. Its other option is bhyve, which looks to be something of a Xen clone. bhyve, however, does not support Windows guests, and requires some hoops to even boot Linux guest installers. It will be several years at least before it reaches feature-parity with where KVM is today, I suspect.

One can run FreeBSD as a guest under a number of different virtualization systems, but their instructions for making the mouse work best under VirtualBox did not work. There may have been some X.Org reshuffle in FreeBSD that wasn’t taken into account.

The installer can be nice and fast in some situations, but one wonders a little bit about QA. I had it lock up on my twice. Turns out this is a known bug reported 2 months ago with no activity, in which the installer attempts to use a package manger that it hasn’t set up yet to install optional docs. I guess the devs aren’t installing the docs in testing.

There is nothing like Dropbox for FreeBSD. Apparently this is because FreeBSD has nothing like Linux’s inotify. The Linux Dropbox does not work in FreeBSD’s Linux mode. There are sketchy reports of people getting an OwnCloud client to work, but in something more akin to rsync rather than instant-sync mode, if they get it working at all. Some run Dropbox under wine, apparently.

The desktop environments tend to need a lot more configuration work to get them going than on Linux. There’s a lot of editing of polkit, hal, dbus, etc. config files mentioned in various places. So, not only does FreeBSD use a lot of the same components that cause confusion in Linux, it doesn’t really configure them for you as much out of the box.

FreeBSD doesn’t support as many platforms as Linux. FreeBSD has only two platforms that are fully supported: i386 and amd64. But you’ll see people refer to a list of other platforms that are “supported”, but they don’t have security support, official releases, or even built packages. They includ arm, ia64, powerpc, and sparc64.

The bad: package management

Roughly 20 years ago, this was one of the things that pulled me to Debian. Perhaps I am spolied from running the distribution that has been the gold standard for package management for so long, but I find FreeBSD’s package management — even “pkg-ng” in 10.1-RELEASE — to be lacking in a number of important ways.

To start with, FreeBSD actually has two different package management systems: one for the base system, and one for what they call the ports/packages collection (“ports” being the way to install from source, and “packages” being the way to install from binaries, but both related to the same tree.) For the base system, there is freebsd-update which can install patches and major upgrades. It also has a “cron” option to automate this. Sadly, it has no way of automatically indicating to a calling script whether a reboot is necessary.

freebsd-update really manages less than a dozen packages though. The rest are managed by pkg. And pkg, it turns out, has a number of issues.

The biggest: it can take a week to get security updates. The FreeBSD handbook explains pkg audit -F which will look at your installed packages (but NOT the ones in the base system) and alert you to packages that need to be updates, similar to a stripped-down version of Debian’s debsecan. I discovered this myself, when pkg audit -F showed a vulnerability in xorg, but pkg upgrade showed my system was up-to-date. It is not documented in the Handbook, but people on the mailing list explained it to me. There are workarounds, but they can be laborious.

If that’s not bad enough, FreeBSD has no way to automatically install security patches for things in the packages collection. Debian has several (unattended-upgrades, cron-apt, etc.) There is “pkg upgrade”, but it upgrades everything on the system, which may be quite a bit more than you want to be upgraded. So: if you want to run Apache with PHP, and want it to just always apply security patches, FreeBSD packages are not up to the job like Debian’s are.

The pkg tool doesn’t have very good error-handling. In fact, its error handling seems to be nonexistent at times. I noticed that some packages had failures during install time, but pkg ignored them and marked the package as correctly installed. I only noticed there was a problem because I happened to glance at the screen at the right moment during messages about hundreds of packages. In Debian, by contrast, if there are any failures, at the end of the run, you get a nice report of which packages failed, and an exit status to use in scripts.

It also has another issue that Debian resolved about a decade ago: package scripts displaying messages that are important for the administrator, but showing so many of them that they scroll off the screen and are never seen. I submitted a bug report for this one also.

Some of these things just make me question the design of pkg. If I can’t trust it to accurately report if the installation succeeded, or show me the important info I need to see, then to what extent can I trust it?

Then there is the question of testing of the ports/packages. It seems that, automated tests aside, basically everyone is running off the “master” branch of the ports/packages. That’s like running Debian unstable on your servers. I am distinctly uncomfortable with this notion, though it seems FreeBSD people report it mostly works well.

There are some other issues, too: FreeBSD ports make no distinction between development and runtime files like Debian’s packages do. So, just by virtue of wanting to run a graphical desktop, you get all of the static libraries, include files, build scripts, etc for XOrg installed.

For a package as concerned about licensing as FreeBSD, the packages collection does not have separate sections like Debian’s main, contrib, and non-free. It’s all in one big pot: BSD-license, GPL-license, proprietary without source license. There is /usr/local/share/licenses where you can look up a license for each package, but there is no way with FreeBSD, like there is with Debian, to say “never even show me packages that aren’t DFSG-free.” This is useful, for instance, when running in a company to make sure you never install packages that are for personal use only or something.

The bad: ABI stability

I’m used to being able to run binaries I compiled years ago on a modern system. This is generally possible in Linux, assuming you have the correct shared libraries available. In FreeBSD, this is explicitly NOT possible. After every major version upgrade, you must reinstall or recompile every binary on your system.

This is not necessarily a showstopper for me, but it is a hassle for a lot of people.

Update 2015-02-17: Some people in the comments are pointing out compat packages in the ports that may help with this situation. My comment was based on advice in the FreeBSD Handbook stating “After a major version upgrade, all installed packages and ports need to be upgraded”. I have not directly tried this, so if the Handbook is overstating the need, then this point may be in error.

Conclusions

As I said above, I found little validation to the comments that the Debian ecosystem is noticeably worse than the FreeBSD one. Debian has its warts too — particularly with keeping software up-to-date. You can see that the two projects are designed around a different passion: FreeBSD’s around the base system, and Debian’s around an integrated whole system. It would be wrong to say that either of those is always better. FreeBSD’s approach clearly produces some leading features, especially jails and ZFS integration. Yet Debian’s approach also produces some leading features in the way of package management and security maintainability beyond the small base.

My criticism of excessive complexity in the polkit/cgmanager/dbus area still stands. But to those people commenting that FreeBSD hasn’t “lost its way” like Linux has, I would point out that FreeBSD mostly uses these same components also, and FreeBSD has excessive complexity in its ports/package system and system management tools. I think it’s a draw. You pick the best for your use case. If you’re looking for a platform to run a single custom app then perhaps all of the Debian package management benefits don’t apply to you (you may not even need FreeBSD’s packages, or just a few). The FreeBSD ZFS support or jails may well appeal. If you’re looking to run a desktop environment, or a server with some application that needs a ton of PHP, Python, Perl, or C libraries, then Debian’s package management and security handling may well be attractive.

I am disappointed that Debian GNU/kFreeBSD will not be a release architecture in jessie. That project had the promise to provide a best of both worlds for those that want jails or tight ZFS integration.

Categories: Debian

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Willis Goerzen – a good reason to live in Kansas

February 14th, 2015

From time to time, people ask me, with a bit of a disbelieving look on their face, “Tell me again why you chose to move to Kansas?” I can explain something about how people really care about their neighbors out here, how connections through time to a place are strong, how the people are hard-working, achieve great things, and would rather not talk about their achievements too much. But none of this really conveys it.

This week, as I got word that my great uncle Willis Goerzen passed away, it occured to me that the reason I live in Kansas is simple: people like Willis.

Willis was a man that, through and through, simply cared. For everyone. He had hugs ready anytime. When I used to see him in church every Sunday, I’d usually hear his loud voice saying, “Well John!” Then a hug, then, “How are you doing?” When I was going through a tough time in life, hugs from Willis and Thelma were deeply meaningful. I could see how deeply he cared in his moist eyes, the way he sought me out to offer words of comfort, reassurance, compassion, and strength.

Willis didn’t just defy the stereotypes on men having to hide their emotions; he also did so by being just gut-honest. Americans often ask, in sort of a greeting, “How are you?” and usually get an answer like “fine”. If I asked Willis “How are you?”, I might hear “great!” or “it’s hard” or “pretty terrible.” In a place where old-fashioned stoicism is still so common, this was so refreshing. Willis and I could have deep, heart-to-heart conversations or friendly ones.

Willis also loved to work. He worked on a farm, in construction, and then for many years doing plumbing and heating work. When he retired, he just kept on doing it. Not for the money, but because he wanted to. I remember calling him up one time about 10 years ago, asking if he was interested in helping me with a heating project. His response: “I’ll hitch up the horses and be right there!” (Of course, he had no horses anymore.) When I had a project to renovate what had been my grandpa’s farmhouse (that was Willis’s brother), he did all the plumbing work. He told me, “John, it’s great to be retired. I can still do what I love to do, but since I’m so cheap, I don’t have to be fast. My old knees can move at their own speed.” He did everything so precisely, built it so sturdy, that I used to joke that if a tornado struck the house, the house would be a pile of rubble but the ductwork would still be fine.

One of his biggest frustrations about ill health was being unable to work, and in fact he had a project going before cancer started to get the best of him. He was quite distraught that, for the first time in his life, he didn’t properly finish a job.

Willis installed a three-zone system (using automated dampers to send heat or cool from a single furnace/AC into only the parts of the house where it was needed) for me. He had never done that before. The night Willis and his friend Bob came over to finish the setup was one to remember. The two guys, both in their 70s, were figuring it all out, and their excitement was catching. By the time the evening was over, I certainly was more excited about thermostats than I ever had been in my life.

I heard a story about him once – he was removing some sort of noxious substance from someone’s house. I forget what it was — whatever it was, it had pretty bad long-term health effects. His comment: “Look, I’m old. It’s not going to be this that does me in.” And he was right.

In his last few years, Willis started up a project that only Willis would dream up. He invited people to bring him all their old and broken down appliances and metal junk – air conditioners, dehumidifiers, you name it. He carefully took them apart, stripped them down, and took the metals into a metal salvage yard. He then donated all the money he got to a charity that helped the poor, and it was nearly $5000.

Willis had a sense of humor about him that he somehow deployed at those perfect moments when you least expected it. Back in 2006, before I had moved into the house that had been grandpa’s, there was a fire there. I lost two barns (one was the big old red one with lots of character) and a chicken house. When I got out there to see what had happened, Willis was already there. It was quite the disappointment for me. Willis asked me if grandpa’s old manure spreader was still in the chicken house. (Cattle manure is sometimes used as a fertilizer.) This old manure spreader was horse-drawn. I told him it was, and so it had burned up. So Willis put his arm around me, and said, “John, do you know what we always used to call a manure spreader?” “Nope.” “Shit-slinger!” That was so surprising I couldn’t help but break out laughing. Willis was the only person that got me to laugh that day.

In his last few years, Willis battled several health ailments. When he was in a nursing home for a while due to complications from knee surgery, I’d drop by to visit. And lately as he was declining, I tried to drop in at his house to visit with Willis and Thelma as much as possible. Willis was always so appreciative of those visits. He always tried to get in a hug if he could, even if Thelma and I had to hold on to him when he stood up. He would say sometimes, “John, you are so good to come here and visit with me.” And he’d add, “I love you.” As did I.

Sometimes when Willis was felling down about not being able to work more, or not finish a project, I told him how he was an inspiration to me, and to many others. And I reminded him that I visited with him because I wanted do, and being able to do that meant as much to me as it did to him. I’m not sure if he ever could quite believe how deeply true that was, because his humble nature was a part of who he was.

My last visit earlier this week was mostly with Thelma. Willis was not able to be very alert, but I held his hand and made sure to tell him that I love and care for him that time. I’m not sure if he was able to hear, but I am sure that he didn’t need to. Willis left behind a community of hundreds of people that love him and had their lives touched by his kind and inspirational presence.

Categories: Family

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