Category Archives: Software

Easily Improving Linux Security with Two-Factor Authentication

2-Factor Authentication (2FA) is a simple way to help improve the security of your systems. It restricts the scope of damage if a machine is compromised. If, for instance, you have a security token or authenticator app on your phone that is required for ssh to a remote machine, then even if every laptop you use to connect to the remote is totally owned, an attacker cannot establish a new ssh session on their own.

There are a lot of tutorials out there on the Internet that get you about halfway there, so here is some more detail.

Background

In this article, I will be focusing on authentication in the style of Google Authenticator, which is a special case of OATH HOTP or TOTP. You can use the Google Authenticator app, FreeOTP, or a hardware token like Yubikey to generate tokens with this. They are all 100% compatible with Google Authenticator and libpam-google-authenticator.

The basic idea is that there is a pre-shared secret key. At each login, a different and unique token is required, which is generated based on the pre-shared secret key and some other information. With TOTP, the “other information” is the current time, implying that both machines must be reasably well in-sync time-wise. With HOTP, the “other information” is a count of the number of times the pre-shared key has been used. Both typically have a “window” on the server side that can let times within a certain number of seconds, or a certain number of login accesses, work.

The beauty of this system is that after the initial setup, no Internet access is required on either end to validate the key (though TOTP requires both ends to be reasonably in sync time-wise).

The basics: user account setup and ssh authentication

You can start with the basics by reading one of these articles: one, two, three. Debian/Ubuntu users will find both the pam module and the user account setup binary in libpam-google-authenticator.

For many, you can stop there. You’re done. But if you want to kick it up a notch, read on:

Enhancement 1: Requiring 2FA even when ssh public key auth is used

Let’s consider a scenario in which your system is completely compromised. Unless your ssh keys are also stored in something like a Yubikey Neo, they could wind up being compromised as well – if someone can read your files and sniff your keyboard, your ssh private keys are at risk.

So we can configure ssh and PAM so that a OTP token is required even for this scenario.

First off, in /etc/ssh/sshd_config, we want to change or add these lines:

UsePAM yes
ChallengeResponseAuthentication yes
AuthenticationMethods publickey,keyboard-interactive

This forces all authentication to pass two verification methods in ssh: publickey and keyboard-interactive. All users will have to supply a public key and then also pass keyboard-interactive auth. Normally keyboard-interactive auth prompts for a password, but we can change /etc/pam.d/sshd on this. I added this line at the very top of /etc/pam.d/sshd:

auth [success=done new_authtok_reqd=done ignore=ignore default=bad] pam_google_authenticator.so

This basically makes Google Authenticator both necessary and sufficient for keyboard-interactive in ssh. That is, whenever the system wants to use keyboard-interactive, rather than prompt for a password, it instead prompts for a token. Note that any user that has not set up google-authenticator already will be completely unable to ssh into their account.

Enhancement 1, variant 2: Allowing automated processes to root

On many of my systems, I have ~root/.ssh/authorized_keys set up to permit certain systems to run locked-down commands for things like backups. These are automated commands, and the above configuration will break them because I’m not going to be typing in codes at 3AM.

If you are very restrictive about what you put in root’s authorized_keys, you can exempt the root user from the 2FA requirement in ssh by adding this to sshd_config:

Match User root
  AuthenticationMethods publickey

This says that the only way to access the root account via ssh is to use the authorized_keys file, and no 2FA will be required in this scenario.

Enhancement 1, variant 2: Allowing non-pubkey auth

On some multiuser systems, some users may still want to use password auth rather than publickey auth. There are a few ways we can support that:

  1. Users without public keys will have to supply a OTP and a password, while users with public keys will have to supply public key, OTP, and a password
  2. Users without public keys will have to supply OTP or a password, while users with public keys will have to supply public key, OTP, or a password
  3. Users without public keys will have to supply OTP and a password, while users with public keys only need to supply the public key

The third option is covered in any number of third-party tutorials. To enable options 1 or 2, you’ll need to put this in sshd_config:

AuthenticationMethods publickey,keyboard-interactive keyboard-interactive

This means that to authenticate, you need to pass either publickey and then keyboard-interactive auth, or just keyboard-interactive auth.

Then in /etc/pam.d/sshd, you put this:

auth required pam_google_authenticator.so

As a sub-variant for option 1, you can add nullok to here to permit auth from people that do not have a Google Authenticator configuration.

Or for option 2, change “required” to “sufficient”. You should not add nullok in combination with sufficient, because that could let people without a Google Authenticator config authenticate completely without a password at all.

Enhancement 2: Configuring su

A lot of other tutorials stop with ssh (and maybe gdm) but forget about the other ways we authenticate or change users on a system. su and sudo are the two most important ones. If your root password is compromised, you don’t want anybody to be able to su to that account without having to supply a token. So you can set up google-authenticator for root.

Then, edit /etc/pam.d/su and insert this line after the pam_rootok.so line:

auth       required     pam_google_authenticator.so nullok

The reason you put this after pam_rootok.so is because you want to be able to su from root to any account without having to input a token. We add nullok to the end of this, because you may want to su to accounts that don’t have tokens. Just make sure to configure tokens for the root account first.

Enhancement 3: Configuring sudo

This one is similar to su, but a little different. This lets you, say, secure the root password for sudo.

Normally, you might sudo from your user account to root (if so configured). You might have sudo configured to require you to enter in your own password (rather than root’s), or to just permit you to do whatever you want as root without a password.

Our first step, as always, is to configure PAM. What we do here depends on your desired behavior: do you want to require someone to supply both a password and a token, or just a token, or require a token? If you want to require a token, put this at the top of /etc/pam.d/sudo:

auth [success=done new_authtok_reqd=done ignore=ignore default=bad] pam_google_authenticator.so

If you want to require a token and a password, change the bracketed string to “required”, and if you want a token or a password, change it to “sufficient”. As before, if you want to permit people without a configured token to proceed, add “nullok”, but do not use that with “sufficient” or the bracketed example here.

Now here comes the fun part. By default, if a user is required to supply a password to sudo, they are required to supply their own password. That does not help us here, because a user logged in to the system can read the ~/.google_authenticator file and easily then supply tokens for themselves. What you want to do is require them to supply root’s password. Here’s how I set that up in sudoers:

Defaults:jgoerzen rootpw
jgoerzen ALL=(ALL) ALL

So now, with the combination of this and the PAM configuration above, I can sudo to the root user without knowing its password — but only if I can supply root’s token. Pretty slick, eh?

Further reading

In addition to the basic tutorials referenced above, consider:

Edit: additional comments

Here are a few other things to try:

First, the libpam-google-authenticator module supports putting the Google Authenticator files in different locations and having them owned by a certain user. You could use this to, for instance, lock down all secret keys to be readable only by the root user. This would prevent users from adding, changing, or removing their own auth tokens, but would also let you do things such as reusing your personal token for the root account without a problem.

Also, the pam-oath module does much of the same things as the libpam-google-authenticator module, but without some of the help for setup. It uses a single monolithic root-owned password file for all accounts.

There is an oathtool that can be used to generate authentication codes from the command line.

I’m switching from git-annex to Syncthing

I wrote recently about using git-annex for encrypted sync, but due to a number of issues with it, I’ve opted to switch to Syncthing.

I’d been using git-annex with real but noncritical data. Among the first issues I noticed was occasional but persistent high CPU usage spikes, which once started, would persist apparently forever. I had an issue where git-annex tried to replace files I’d removed from its repo with broken symlinks, but the real final straw was a number of issues with the gcrypt remote repos. git-remote-gcrypt appears to have a number of issues with possible race conditions on the remote, and at least one of them somehow caused encrypted data to appear in a packfile on a remote repo. Why there was data in a packfile there, I don’t know, since git-annex is supposed to keep the data out of packfiles.

Anyhow, git-annex is still an awesome tool with a lot of use cases, but I’m concluding that live sync to an encrypted git remote isn’t quite there yet enough for me.

So I looked for alternatives. My main criteria were supporting live sync (via inotify or similar) and not requiring the files to be stored unencrypted on a remote system (my local systems all use LUKS). I found Syncthing met these requirements.

Syncthing is pretty interesting in that, like git-annex, it doesn’t require a centralized server at all. Rather, it forms basically a mesh between your devices. Its concept is somewhat similar to the proprietary Bittorrent Sync — basically, all the nodes communicate about what files and chunks of files they have, and the changes that are made, and immediately propagate as much as possible. Unlike, say, Dropbox or Owncloud, Syncthing can actually support simultaneous downloads from multiple remotes for optimum performance when there are many changes.

Combined with syncthing-inotify or syncthing-gtk, it has immediate detection of changes and therefore very quick propagation of them.

Syncthing is particularly adept at figuring out ways for the nodes to communicate with each other. It begins by broadcasting on the local network, so known nearby nodes can be found directly. The Syncthing folks also run a discovery server (though you can use your own if you prefer) that lets nodes find each other on the Internet. Syncthing will attempt to use UPnP to configure firewalls to let it out, but if that fails, the last resort is a traffic relay server — again, a number of volunteers host these online, but you can run your own if you prefer.

Each node in Syncthing has an RSA keypair, and what amounts to part of the public key is used as a globally unique node ID. The initial link between nodes is accomplished by pasting the globally unique ID from one node into the “add node” screen on the other; the user of the first node then must accept the request, and from that point on, syncing can proceed. The data is all transmitted encrypted, of course, so interception will not cause data to be revealed.

Really my only complaint about Syncthing so far is that, although it binds to localhost, the web GUI does not require authentication by default.

There is an ITP open for Syncthing in Debian, but until then, their apt repo works fine. For syncthing-gtk, the trusty version of the webupd8 PPD works in Jessie (though be sure to pin it to a low priority if you don’t want it replacing some unrelated Debian packages).

Count me as a systemd convert

Back in 2014, I wrote about some negative first impressions of systemd. I also had a plea to debian-project to end all the flaming, pointing out that “jessie will still boot”, noting that my preference was for sysvinit but things are what they are and it wasn’t that big of a deal.

Although I still have serious misgivings about the systemd upstream’s attitude, I’ve got to say I find the system rather refreshing and useful in practice.

Here’s an example. I was debugging the boot on a server recently. It mounts a bunch of NFS filesystems and runs a third-party daemon that is started from an old-style /etc/init.d script.

We had a situation where the NFS filesystems the daemon required didn’t mount on boot. The daemon then was started, and unfortunately it basically does a mkdir -p on startup. So it started running and processing requests with negative results.

So there were two questions: why did the NFS filesystems fail to start, and how could we make sure the daemon wouldn’t start without them mounted? For the first, journalctl -xb was immensely helpful. It logged the status of each individual mount, and it turned out that it looked like a modprobe or kernel race condition when a bunch of NFS mounts were kicked off in parallel and all tried to load the nfsv4 module at the same time. That was easy enough to work around by adding nfsv4 to /etc/modules. Now for the other question: refusing to start the daemon if the filesystems weren’t there.

With systemd, this was actually trivial. I created /etc/systemd/system/mydaemon.service.requires (I’ll call the service “mydaemon” here), and in it I created a symlink to /lib/systemd/system/remote-fs.target. Then systemctl daemon-reload, and boom, done. systemctl list-dependencies mydaemon will even show the the dependency tree, color-coded status of each item on it, and will actually show every single filesystem that remote-fs requires and the status of it in one command. Super handy.

In a non-systemd environment, I’d probably be modifying the init script and doing a bunch of manual scripting to check the filesystems. Here, one symlink and one command did it, and I get tools to inspect the status of the mydaemon prerequisites for free.

I’ve got to say, as someone that has occasionally had to troubleshoot boot ordering and update-rc.d symlink hell, troubleshooting this stuff in systemd is considerably easier and the toolset is more powerful. Yes, it has its set of poorly-documented complexity, but then so did sysvinit.

I never thought the “world is falling” folks were right, but by now I can be counted among those that feels like systemd has matured to the point where it truly is superior to sysvinit. Yes, in 2014 it had some bugs, but by here in 2016 it looks pretty darn good and I feel like Debian’s decision has been validated through my actual experience with it.

Hiking a mountain with Ian Murdock

“Would you like to hike a mountain?” That question caught me by surprise. It was early in 2000, and I had flown to Tucson for a job interview. Ian Murdock was starting a new company, Progeny, and I was being interviewed for their first hire.

“Well,” I thought, “hiking will be fun.” So we rode a bus or something to the top of the mountain and then hiked down. Our hike was full of — well, everything. Ian talked about Tucson and the mountains, about his time as the Debian project leader, about his college days. I asked about the plants and such we were walking past. We talked about the plans for Progeny, my background, how I might fit in. It was part interview, part hike, part two geeks chatting. Ian had no HR telling him “you can’t go hiking down a mountain with a job candidate,” as I’m sure HR would have. And I am glad of it, because even 16 years later, that is still by far the best time I ever had at a job interview, despite the fact that it ruined the only pair of shoes I had brought along — I had foolishly brought dress shoes for a, well, job interview.

I guess it worked, too, because I was hired. Ian wanted to start up the company in Indianapolis, so over the next little while there was the busy work of moving myself and setting up an office. I remember those early days – Ian and I went computer shopping at a local shop more than once to get the first workstations and servers for the company. Somehow he had found a deal on some office space in a high-rent office building. I still remember the puzzlement on the faces of accountants and lawyers dressed up in suits riding in the elevators with us in our shorts and sandals, or tie-die, next to them.

Progeny’s story was to be a complicated one. We set out to rock the world. We didn’t. We didn’t set out to make lasting friendships, but we often did. We set out to accomplish great things, and we did some of that, too.

We experienced a full range of emotions there — elation when we got hardware auto-detection working well or when our downloads looked very popular, despair when our funding didn’t come through as we had hoped, being lost when our strategy had to change multiple times. And, as is the case everywhere, none of us were perfect.

I still remember the excitement after we published our first release on the Internet. Our little server that could got pegged at 100Mb of outbound bandwidth (that was something for a small company in those days.) The moment must have meant something, because I still have the mrtg chart from that day on my computer, 15 years later.

Progeny's Bandwidth Chart

We made a good Linux distribution, an excellent Debian derivative, but commercial success did not flow from it. In the succeeding months, Ian and the company tried hard to find a strategy that would stick and make our big break. But that never happened. We had several rounds of layoffs when hoped-for funding never materialized. Ian eventually lost control of the company, and despite a few years of Itanium contract work after I left, closed for good.

Looking back, Progeny was life — compressed. During the good times, we had joy, sense of accomplishment, a sense of purpose at doing something well that was worth doing. I had what was my dream job back then: working on Debian as I loved to do, making the world a better place through Free Software, and getting paid to do it. And during the bad times, different people at Progeny experienced anger, cynicism, apathy, sorrow for the loss of our friends or plans, or simply a feeling to soldier on. All of the emotions, good or bad, were warranted in their own way.

Bruce Byfield, one of my co-workers at Progeny, recently wrote a wonderful memoriam of Ian. He wrote, “More than anything, he wanted to repeat his accomplishment with Debian, and, naturally he wondered if he could live up to his own expectations of himself. That, I think, was Ian’s personal tragedy — that he had succeeded early in life, and nothing else he did with his life could quite measure up to his expectations and memories.”

Ian was not the only one to have some guilt over Progeny. I, for years, wondered if I should have done more for the company, could have saved things by doing something more, or different. But I always came back to the conclusion I had at the time: that there was nothing I could do — a terribly sad realization.

In the years since, I watched Ubuntu take the mantle of easy-to-install Debian derivative. I saw them reprise some of the ideas we had, and even some of our mistakes. But by that time, Progeny was so thoroughly forgotten that I doubt they even realized they were doing it.

I had long looked at our work at Progeny as a failure. Our main goal was never accomplished, our big product never sold many copies, our company eventually shuttered, our rock-the-world plan crumpled and forgotten. And by those traditional measurements, you could say it was a failure.

But I have come to learn in the years since that success is a lot more that those things. Success is also about finding meaning and purpose through our work. As a programmer, success is nailing that algorithm that lets the application scale 10x more than before, or solving that difficult problem. As a manager, success is helping team members thrive, watching pieces come together on projects that no one person could ever do themselves. And as a person, success comes from learning from our experiences, and especially our mistakes. As J. Michael Straczynski wrote in a Babylon 5 episode, loosely paraphrased: “Maybe this experience will be a good lesson. Too bad it was so painful, but there ain’t no other kind.”

The thing about Progeny is this – Ian built a group of people that wanted to change the world for the better. We gave it our all. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Progeny did change the world. As us Progeny alumni have scattered around the country, we benefit from the lessons we learned there. And many of us were “different”, sort of out of place before Progeny, and there we found others that loved C compilers, bootloaders, and GPL licenses just as much as we did. We belonged, not just online but in life, and we went on to pull confidence and skill out of our experience at Progeny and use them in all sorts of ways over the years.

And so did Ian. Who could have imagined the founder of Debian and Progeny would one day lead the cause of an old-guard Unix turning Open Source? I run ZFS on my Debian system today, and Ian is partly responsible for that — and his time at Progeny is too.

So I can remember Ian, and Progeny, as a success. And I leave you with a photo of my best memento from the time there: an original unopened boxed copy of Progeny Linux.

IMG_6197_v1

Detailed Smart Card Cryptographic Token Security Guide

After my first post about smartcards under Linux, I thought I would share some information I’ve been gathering.

This post is already huge, so I am not going to dive into — much — specific commands, but I am linking to many sources with detailed instructions.

I’ve reviewed several types of cards. For this review, I will focus on the OpenPGP card and the Yubikey NEO, since the Cardomatic Smartcard-HSM is not supported by the gpg version in Jessie.

Both cards are produced by people with strong support for the Free Software ecosystem and have strong cross-platform support with source code.

OpenPGP card: Basics with GnuPG

The OpenPGP card is well-known as one of the first smart cards to work well on Linux. It is a single-application card focused on use with GPG. Generally speaking, by the way, you want GPG2 for use with smartcards.

Basically, this card contains three slots: decryption, signing, and authentication slots. The concept is that the private key portions of the keys used for these items are stored only on the card, can never be extracted from the card, and the cryptographic operations are performed on the card. There is more information in my original post. In a fairly rare move for smartcards, this card supports 4096-byte RSA keys; most are restricted to 2048-byte keys.

The FSF Europe hands these out to people and has a lot of good information about them online, including some HOWTOs. The official GnuPG smart card howto is 10 years old, and although it has some good background, I’d suggest using the FSFE instructions instead.

As you’ll see in a bit, most of this information also pertains to the OpenPGP mode of the Yubikey Neo.

OpenPGP card: Other uses

Of course, this is already pretty great to enhance your GPG security, but there’s a lot more that you can do with this card to add two-factor authentication (2FA) to a lot of other areas. Here are some pointers:

OpenPGP card: remote authentication with ssh

You can store the private part of your ssh key on the card. Traditionally, this was only done by using the ssh agent emulation mode of gnupg-agent. This is still possible, of course.

Now, however, the OpenSC project now supports the OpenPGP card as a PKCS#11 and PKCS#15 card, which means it works natively with ssh-agent as well. Try just ssh-add -s /usr/lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/pkcs11/opensc-pkcs11.so if you’ve put a key in the auth slot with GPG. ssh-add -L will list its fingerprint for insertion into authorized_keys. Very simple!

As an aside: Comments that you need scute for PKCS#11 support are now outdated. I do not recommend scute. It is quite buggy.

OpenPGP card: local authentication with PAM

You can authenticate logins to a local machine by using the card with libpam-poldi — here are some instructions.

Between the use with ssh and the use with PAM, we have now covered 2FA for both local and remote use in Unix environments.

OpenPGP card: use on Windows

Let’s move on to Windows environments. The standard suggestion here seems to be the mysmartlogon OpenPGP mini-driver. It works with some sort of Windows CA system, or the local accounts using EIDAuthenticate. I have not yet tried this.

OpenPGP card: Use with X.509 or Windows Active Directory

You can use the card in X.509 mode via these gpgsm instructions, which apparently also work with Windows Active Directory in some fashion.

You can also use it with web browsers to present a certificate from a client for client authentication. For example, here are OpenSC instructions for Firefox.

OpenPGP card: Use with OpenVPN

Via the PKCS#11 mode, this card should be usable to authenticate a client to OpenVPN. See the official OpenVPN HOWTO or these other instructions for more.

OpenPGP card: a note on PKCS#11 and PKCS#15 support

You’ll want to install the opensc-pkcs11 package, and then give the path /usr/lib/x86_64-linux-gnu/pkcs11/opensc-pkcs11.so whenever something needs the PKCS#11 library. There seem to be some locking/contention issues between GPG2 and OpenSC, however. Usually killing pcscd and scdaemon will resolve this.

I would recommend doing manipulation operations (setting PINs, generating or uploading keys, etc.) via GPG2 only. Use the PKCS#11 tools only to access.

OpenPGP card: further reading

Kernel Concepts also has some nice readers; you can get this card in a small USB form-factor by getting the mini-card and the Gemalto reader.

Yubikey Neo Introduction

The Yubikey Neo is a fascinating device. It is a small USB and NFC device, a little smaller than your average USB drive. It is a multi-application device that actually has six distinct modes:

  • OpenPGP JavaCard Applet (pc/sc-compatible)
  • Personal Identity Verification [PIV] (pc/sc-compatible, PKCS#11-compatible in Windows and OpenSC)
  • Yubico HOTP, via your own auth server or Yubico’s
  • OATH, with its two sub-modes:
    • OATH TOTP, with a mobile or desktop helper app (drop-in for Google Authenticator
    • OATH HOTP
  • Challenge-response mode
  • U2F (Universal 2nd Factor) with Chrome

There is a ton to digest with this device.

Yubikey Neo Basics

By default, the Yubikey Neo is locked to only a subset of its features. Using the yubikey-personalization tool (you’ll need the version in stretch; jessie is too old), you can use ykpersonalize -m86 to unlock the full possibilities of the card. Run that command, then unplug and replug the device.

It will present itself as a USB keyboard as well as a PC/SC-compatible card reader. It has a capacitive button, which is used to have it generate keystrokes to input validation information for HOTP or HMAC validation. It has two “slots” that can be configured with HMAC and HOTP; a short button press selects the default slot #1 and a long press selects slot #2.

But before we get into that, let’s step back at some basics.

opensc-tool –list-algorithms claims this card supports RSA with 1024, 2048, and 3072 sizes, and EC with 256 and 384-bit sizes. I haven’t personally verified anything other than RSA-2048 though.

Yubikey Neo: OpenPGP support

In this mode, the card is mostly compatible with the physical OpenPGP card. I say “mostly” because there are a few protocol differences I’ll get into later. It is also limited to 2048-byte keys.

Support for this is built into GnuPG and the GnuPG features described above all work fine.

In this mode, it uses firmware from the Yubico fork of the JavaCard OpenPGP Card applet. There are Yubico-specific tutorials available, but again, most of the general GPG stuff applies.

You can use gnupg-agent to use the card with SSH as before. However, due to some incompatibilities, the OpenPGP applet on this card cannot be used as a PKCS#11 card with either scute or OpenSC. That is not exactly a huge problem, however, as the card has another applet (PIV) that is compatible with OpenSC and so this still provides an avenue for SSH, OpenVPN, Mozilla, etc.

It should be noted that the OpenPGP applet on this card can also be used with NFC on Android with the OpenKeychain app. Together with pass (or its Windows, Mac, or phone ports), this makes a nicely secure system for storing passwords.

Yubikey Neo: PKCS#11 with the PIV applet

There is also support for the PIV standard on the Yubikey Neo. This is supported by default on Linux (via OpenSC) and Windows and provides a PKCS#11-compabible store. It should, therefore, be compatible with ssh-agent, OpenVPN, Active Directory, and all the other OpenPGP card features described above. The only difference is that it uses storage separate from the OpenPGP applet.

You will need one of the Yubico PIV tools to configure the key for it; in Debian, the yubico-piv-tool from stretch does this.

Here are some instructions on using the Yubikey Neo in PIV mode:

A final note: for security, it’s important to change the management key and PINs before deploying the PIV mode.

I couldn’t get this to work with Firefox, but it worked pretty much everywhere else.

Yubikey Neo: HOTP authentication

This is the default mode for your Yubikey; all other modes require enabling with ykpersonalize. In this mode, a 128-bit AES key stored on the Yubikey is used to generate one-time passwords (OTP). (This key was shared in advance with the authentication server.) A typical pattern would be for three prompts: username, password, and Yubikey HOTP. The user clicks in the Yubikey HOTP field, touches the Yubikey, and their one-time token is pasted in.

In the background, the service being authenticated to contacts an authentication server. This authentication server can be either your own (there are several open source implementations in Debian) or the free Yubicloud.

Either way, the server decrypts the encrypted part of the OTP, performs validity checks (making sure that the counter is larger than any counter it’s seen before, etc) and returns success or failure back to the service demanding authentication.

The first few characters of the posted auth contain the unencrypted key ID, and thus it can also be used to provide username if desired.

Yubico has provided quite a few integrations and libraries for this mode. A few highlights:

You can also find some details on the OTP mode. Here’s another writeup.

This mode is simple to implement, but it has a few downsides. One is that it is specific to the Yubico line of products, and thus has a vendor lock-in factor. Another is the dependence on the authentication server; this creates a potential single point of failure and can be undesireable in some circumtances.

Yubikey Neo: OATH and HOTP and TOTP

First, a quick note: OATH and OAuth are not the same. OATH is an authentication protocol, and OAuth is an authorization protocol. Now then…

Like Yubikey HOTP, OATH (both HOTP and TOTP) modes rely on a pre-shared key. (See details in the Yubico article.) Let’s talk about TOTP first. With TOTP, there is a pre-shared secret with each service. Each time you authenticate to that service, your TOTP generator combines the timestamp with the shared secret using a HMAC algorithm and produces a OTP that changes every 30 seconds. Google Authenticator is a common example of this protocol, and this is a drop-in replacement for it. Gandi has a nice description of it that includes links to software-only solutions on various platforms as well.

With the Yubikey, the shared secrets are stored on the card and processed within it. You cannot extract the shared secret from the Yubikey. Of course, if someone obtains physical access to your Yubikey they could use the shared secret stored on it, but there is no way they can steal the shared secret via software, even by compromising your PC or phone.

Since the Yubikey does not have a built-in clock, TOTP operations cannot be completed solely on the card. You can use a PC-based app or the Android application (Play store link) with NFC to store secrets on the device and generate your TOTP codes. Command-line users can also use the yubikey-totp tool in the python-yubico package.

OATH can also use HOTP. With HOTP, an authentication counter is used instead of a clock. This means that HOTP passwords can be generated entirely within the Yubikey. You can use ykpersonalize to configure either slot 1 or 2 for this mode, but one downside is that it can really only be used with one service per slot.

OATH support is all over the place; for instance, there’s libpam-oath from the OATH toolkit for Linux platforms. (Some more instructions on this exist.)

Note: There is another tool from Yubico (not in Debian) that can apparently store multiple TOTP and HOTP codes in the Yubikey, although ykpersonalize and other documentation cannot. It is therefore unclear to me if multiple HOTP codes are supported, and how..

Yubikey Neo: Challenge-Response Mode

This can be useful for doing offline authentication, and is similar to OATH-HOTP in a sense. There is a shared secret to start with, and the service trying to authenticate sends a challenge to the token, which must supply an appropriate response. This makes it only suitable for local authentication, but means it can be done fairly automatically and optionally does not even require a button press.

To muddy the waters a bit, it supports both “Yubikey OTP” and HMAC-SHA1 challenge-response modes. I do not really know the difference. However, it is worth noting that libpam-yubico works with HMAC-SHA1 mode. This makes it suitable, for instance, for logon passwords.

Yubikey Neo: U2F

U2F is a new protocol for web-based apps. Yubico has some information, but since it is only supported in Chrome, it is not of interest to me right now.

Yubikey Neo: Further resources

Yubico has a lot of documentation, and in particular a technical manual that is actually fairly detailed.

Closing comments

Do not think a hardware security token is a panacea. It is best used as part of a multi-factor authentication system; you don’t want a lost token itself to lead to a breach, just as you don’t want a compromised password due to a keylogger to lead to a breach.

These things won’t prevent someone that has compromised your PC from abusing your existing ssh session (or even from establishing new ssh sessions from your PC, once you’ve unlocked the token with the passphrase). What it will do is prevent them from stealing your ssh private key and using it on a different PC. It won’t prevent someone from obtaining a copy of things you decrypt on a PC using the Yubikey, but it will prevent them from decrypting other things that used that private key. Hopefully that makes sense.

One also has to consider the security of the hardware. On that point, I am pretty well satisfied with the Yubikey; large parts of it are open source, and they have put a lot of effort into hardening the hardware. It seems pretty much impervious to non-government actors, which is about the best guarantee a person can get about anything these days.

I hope this guide has been helpful.

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

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.

Roundup of remote encrypted deduplicated backups in Linux

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.

First impressions and review of OwnCloud

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.

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

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.

Reactions to “Has modern Linux lost its way?” and the value of simplicity

Apparently I touched a nerve with my recent post about the growing complexity of issues.

There were quite a few good comments, which I’ll mention here. It’s provided me some clarity on the problem, in fact. I’ll try to distill a few more thoughts here.

The value of simplicity and predictability

The best software, whether it’s operating systems or anything else, is predictable. You read the documentation, or explore the interface, and you can make a logical prediction that “when I do action X, the result will be Y.” grep and cat are perfect examples of this.

The more complex the rules in the software, the more hard it is for us to predict. It leads to bugs, and it leads to inadvertant security holes. Worse, it leads to people being unable to fix things themselves — one of the key freedoms that Free Software is supposed to provide. The more complex software is, the fewer people will be able to fix it by themselves.

Now, I want to clarify: I hear a lot of talk about “ease of use.” Gnome removes options in my print dialog box to make it “easier to use.” (This is why I do not use Gnome. It actually makes it harder to use, because now I have to go find some obscure way to just make the darn thing print.) A lot of people conflate ease of use with ease of learning, but in reality, I am talking about neither.

I am talking about ease of analysis. The Linux command line may not have pointy-clicky icons, but — at least at one time — once you understood ls -l and how groups, users, and permission bits interacted, you could fairly easily conclude who had access to what on a system. Now we have a situation where the answer to this is quite unclear in terms of desktop environments (apparently some distros ship network-manager so that all users on the system share the wifi passwords they enter. A surprise, eh?)

I don’t mind reading a manpage to learn about something, so long as the manpage was written to inform.

With this situation of dbus/cgmanager/polkit/etc, here’s what it feels like. This, to me, is the crux of the problem:

It feels like we are in a twisty maze, every passage looks alike, and our flashlight ran out of battieries in 2013. The manpages, to the extent they exist for things like cgmanager and polkit, describe the texture of the walls in our cavern, but don’t give us a map to the cave. Therefore, we are each left to piece it together little bits at a time, but there are traps that keep moving around, so it’s slow going.

And it’s a really big cave.

Other user perceptions

There are a lot of comments on the blog about this. It is clear that the problem is not specific to Debian. For instance:

  • Christopher writes that on Fedora, “annoying, niggling problems that used to be straightforward to isolate, diagnose and resolve by virtue of the platform’s simple, logical architecture have morphed into a morass that’s worse than the Windows Registry.” Alessandro Perucchi adds that he’s been using Linux for decades, and now his wifi doesn’t work, suspend doesn’t work, etc. in Fedora and he is surprisingly unable to fix it himself.
  • Nate bargman writes, in a really insightful comment, “I do feel like as though I’m becoming less a master of and more of a slave to the computing software I use. This is not a good thing.”
  • Singh makes the valid point that this stuff is in such a state of flux that even if a person is one of the few dozen in the world that understand what goes into a session today, the knowledge will be outdated in 6 months. (Hal, anyone?)

This stuff is really important, folks. People being able to maintain their own software, work with it themselves, etc. is one of the core reasons that Free Software exists in the first place. It is a fundamental value of our community. For decades, we have been struggling for survival, for relevance. When I started using Linux, it was both a question and an accomplishment to have a useable web browser on many platforms. (Netscape Navigator was closed source back then.) Now we have succeeded. We have GPL-licensed and BSD-licensed software running on everything from our smartphones to cars.

But we are snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, because just as we are managing to remove the legal roadblocks that kept people from true mastery of their software, we are erecting technological ones that make the step into the Free Software world so much more difficult than it needs to be.

We no longer have to craft Modelines for X, or compile a kernel with just the right drivers. This is progress. Our hardware is mostly auto-detected and our USB serial dongles work properly more often on Linux than on Windows. This is progress. Even our printers and scanners work pretty darn well. This is progress, too.

But in the place of all these things, now we have userspace mucking it up. We have people with mysterious errors that can’t be easily assisted by the elders in the community, because the elders are just as mystified. We have bugs crop up that would once have been shallow, but are now non-obvious. We are going to leave a sour taste in people’s mouth, and stir repulsion instead of interest among those just checking it out.

The ways out

It’s a nasty predicament, isn’t it? What are your ways out of that cave without being eaten by a grue?

Obviously the best bet is to get rid of the traps and the grues. Somehow the people that are working on this need to understand that elegance is a feature — a darn important feature. Sadly I think this ship may have already sailed.

Software diagnosis tools like Enrico Zini’s seat-inspect idea can also help. If we have something like an “ls for polkit” that can reduce all the complexity to something more manageable, that’s great.

The next best thing is a good map — good manpages, detailed logs, good error messages. If software would be more verbose about the permission errors, people could get a good clue about where to look. If manpages for software didn’t just explain the cavern wall texture, but explain how this room relates to all the other nearby rooms, it would be tremendously helpful.

At present, I am unsure if our problem is one of very poor documentation, or is so bad that good documentation like this is impossible because the underlying design is so complex it defies being documented in something smaller than a book (in which case, our ship has not just sailed but is taking on water).

Counter-argument: progress

One theme that came up often in the comments is that this is necessary for progress. To a certain extent, I buy that. I get why udev is important. I get why we want the DE software to interact well. But here’s my thing: this already worked well in wheezy. Gnome, XFCE, and KDE software all could mount/unmount my drives. I am truly still unsure what problem all this solved.

Yes, cloud companies have demanding requirements about security. I work for one. Making security more difficult to audit doesn’t do me any favors, I can assure you.

The systemd angle

To my surprise, systemd came up quite often in the discussion, despite the fact that I mentioned I wasn’t running systemd-sysv. It seems like the new desktop environemt ecosystem is “the systemd ecosystem” in a lot of people’s minds. I’m not certain this is justified; systemd was not my first choice, but as I said in an earlier blog post, “jessie will still boot”.

A final note

I still run Debian on all my personal boxes and I’m not going to change. It does awesome things. For under $100, I built a music-playing system, with Raspberry Pis, fully synced throughout my house, using a little scripting and software. The same thing from Sonos would have cost thousands. I am passionate about this community and its values. Even when jessie releases with polkit and all the rest, I’m still going to use it, because it is still a good distro from good people.