All posts by John Goerzen

The Good, Bad, and Scary of the Banning of Donald Trump, and How Decentralization Makes It All Better

It is undeniable that banning Donald Trump from Facebook, Twitter, and similar sites is a benefit for the moment. It may well save lives, perhaps lots of lives. But it raises quite a few troubling issues.

First, as EFF points out, these platforms have privileged speakers with power, especially politicians, over regular users. For years now, it has been obvious to everyone that Donald Trump has been violating policies on both platforms, and yet they did little or nothing about it. The result we saw last week was entirely forseeable — and indeed, WAS forseen, including by elements in those companies themselves. (ACLU also raises some good points)

Contrast that with how others get treated. Facebook, two days after the coup attempt, banned Benjamin Wittes, apparently because he mentioned an Atlantic article opposed to nutcase conspiracy theories. The EFF has also documented many more egregious examples: taking down documentation of war crimes, childbirth images, black activists showing the racist messages they received, women discussing online harassment, etc. The list goes on; YouTube, for instance, has often been promoting far-right violent videos while removing peaceful LGBTQ ones.

In short, have we simply achieved legal censorship by outsourcing it to dominant corporations?

It is worth pausing at this point to recognize two important princples:

First, that we do not see it as right to compel speech.

Secondly, that there exist communications channels and other services that nobody is calling on to suspend Donald Trump.

Let’s dive into those a little bit.

There have been no prominent calls for AT&T, Verizon, Gmail, or whomever provides Trump and his campaign with cell phones or email to suspend their service to him. Moreover, the gas stations that fuel his vehicles and the airports that service his plane continue to provide those services, and nobody has seriously questioned that, either. Even his Apple phone that he uses to post to Twitter remains, as far as I know, fully active.

Secondly, imagine you were starting up a small web forum focused on raising tomato plants. It is, and should be, well within your rights to keep tomato-haters out, as well as people that have no interest in tomatoes but would rather talk about rutabagas, politics, or Mars. If you are going to host a forum about tomatoes, you have the right to keep it a forum about tomatoes; you cannot be forced to distribute someone else’s speech. Likewise in traditional media, a newspaper cannot be forced to print every letter to the editor in full.

In law, there is a notion of a common carrier, that provides services to the general public without discrimination. Phone companies and ISPs fall under this.

Facebook, Twitter, and tomato sites don’t. But consider what happens if Facebook bans you. You might be using Facebook-owned Whatsapp to communicate with family and friends, and suddenly find yourself unable to ask someone to pick you up. Or your treasured family photos might be in Facebook-owned Instagram, lost forever. It’s not just Facebook; similar things happen with Google, locking people out of their phones and laptops, their emails, even their photos.

Is it right that Facebook and Google aren’t regulated as common carriers? Perhaps, or perhaps we need some line of demarcation between their speech-to-the-public services (Facebook timeline posts, YouTube) and private communication (Whatsapp, Gmail). It’s a thorny issue; should government be regulating speech instead? That’s also fraught. So is corporate control.

Decentralization Helps Dramatically

With email, you get to pick your email provider (yes, there are two or three big ones, but still plenty of others). Each email provider will have its own set of things it considers acceptable, and its own set of other servers and accounts it’s willing to exchange mail with. (It is extremely common for mail providers to choose not to accept mail from various other mail servers based on ISP, IP address, reputation, and so forth.)

What if we could do something like that for Twitter and Facebook?

Let you join whatever instance you like. Maybe one instance is all about art and they don’t talk about politics. Or another is all about Free Software and they don’t have advertising. And then there are plenty of open instances that accept anything that’s respectful. And, like email, people of one server can interact with those using another just as easily as if they were using the same one.

Well, this isn’t hypothetical; it already exists in the Fediverse. The most common option is Mastodon, and it so happens that a month ago I wrote about its benefits for other reasons, and included some links on getting started.

There is no reason that we must all let our online speech be controlled by companies with a profit motive to keep hate speech on their platforms. There is no reason that we must all have a single set of rules, or accept strong corporate or government control, either. The quality of conversation on Mastodon is far higher than either Twitter or Facebook; decentralization works and it’s here today.

This Is How Tyrants Go: Alone

I remember reading an essay a month or so ago — sadly I forget where — talking about how things end for tyrants. If I were to sum it up, it would be with the word “alone.” Their power fading, they find that they had few true friends or believers; just others that were greedy for power or riches and, finding those no longer to be had, depart the sinking ship. The article looked back at examples like Nixon and examples from the 20th century in Europe and around the world.

Today we saw images of a failed coup attempt.

But we also saw hope.

Already senior staff in the White House are resigning. Ones that had been ardent supporters. In the end, just 6 senators supported the objection to the legitimate electors. Six. Lindsay Graham, Mike Pence, and Mitch McConnel all deserted Trump.

CNN reports that there are serious conversations about invoking the 25th amendment and removing him from office, because even Republicans are to the point of believing that America should not have two more weeks of this man.

Whether those efforts are successful or not, I don’t know. What I do know is that these actions have awakened many people, in a way that nothing else could for four years, to the dangers of Trump and, in the end, have bolstered the cause of democracy.

Hard work will remain but today, Donald Trump is in the White House alone, abandoned by allies and blocked by Twitter. And we know that within two weeks, he won’t be there at all.

We will get through this.

More Topics on Store-And-Forward (Possibly Airgapped) ZFS and Non-ZFS Backups with NNCP

Note: this is another article in my series on asynchronous communication in Linux with UUCP and NNCP.

In my previous post, I introduced a way to use ZFS backups over NNCP. In this post, I’ll expand on that and also explore non-ZFS backups.

Use of nncp-file instead of nncp-exec

The previous example used nncp-exec (like UUCP’s uux), which lets you pipe stdin in, then queues up a request to run a given command with that input on a remote. I discussed that NNCP doesn’t guarantee order of execution, but that for the ZFS use case, that was fine since zfs receive would just fail (causing NNCP to try again later).

At present, nncp-exec stores the data piped to it in RAM before generating the outbound packet (the author plans to fix this shortly) [Update: This is now fixed; use -use-tmp with nncp-exec!). That made it unusable for some of my backups, so I set it up another way: with nncp-file, the tool to transfer files to a remote machine. A cron job then picks them up and processes them.

On the machine being backed up, we have to find a way to encode the dataset to be received. I chose to do that as part of the filename, so the updated simplesnap-queue could look like this:

#!/bin/bash

set -e
set -o pipefail

DEST="`echo $1 | sed 's,^tank/simplesnap/,,'`"
FILE="bakfsfmt2-`date "+%s.%N".$$`_`echo "$DEST" | sed 's,/,@,g'`"

echo "Processing $DEST to $FILE" >&2
# stdin piped to this
zstd -8 - \
  | gpg --compress-algo none --cipher-algo AES256 -e -r 012345...  \
  | su nncp -c "/usr/local/nncp/bin/nncp-file -nice B -noprogress - 'backupsvr:$FILE'" >&2

echo "Queued $DEST to $FILE" >&2

I’ve added compression and encryption here as well; more on that below.

On the backup server, we would define a different incoming directory for each node in nncp.hjson. For instance:

host1: {
...
   incoming: "/var/local/nncp-bakcups-incoming/host1"
}

host2: {
...
   incoming: "/var/local/nncp-backups-incoming/host2"
}

I’ll present the scanning script in a bit.

Offsite Backup Rotation

Most of the time, you don’t want just a single drive to store the backups. You’d like to have a set. At minimum, one wouldn’t be plugged in so lightning wouldn’t ruin all your backups. But maybe you’d store a second drive at some other location you have access to (friend’s house, bank box, etc.)

There are several ways you could solve this:

  • If the remote machine is at a location with network access and you trust its physical security (remember that although it will store data encrypted at rest and will transport it encrypted, it will — in most cases — handle un-encrypted data during processing), you could of course send NNCP packets to it over the network at the same time you send them to your local backup system.
  • Alternatively, if the remote location doesn’t have network access or you want to keep it airgapped, you could transport the NNCP packets by USB drive to the remote end.
  • Or, if you don’t want to have any kind of processing capability remotely — probably a wise move — you could rotate the hard drives themselves, keeping one plugged in locally and unplugging the other to take it offsite.

The third option can be helped with NNCP, too. One way is to create separate NNCP installations for each of the drives that you store data on. Then, whenever one is plugged in, the appropriate NNCP config will be loaded and appropriate packets received and processed. The neighbor machine — the spooler — would just store up packets for the offsite drive until it comes back onsite (or, perhaps, your airgapped USB transport would do this). Then when it’s back onsite, all the queued up ZFS sends get replayed and the backups replicated.

Now, how might you handle this with NNCP?

The simple way would be to have each system generating backups send them to two destinations. For instance:

zstd -8 - | gpg --compress-algo none --cipher-algo AES256 -e -r 07D5794CD900FAF1D30B03AC3D13151E5039C9D5 \
  | tee >(su nncp -c "/usr/local/nncp/bin/nncp-file -nice B+5 -noprogress - 'backupdisk1:$FILE'") \
        >(su nncp -c "/usr/local/nncp/bin/nncp-file -nice B+5 -noprogress - 'backupdisk2:$FILE'") \
   > /dev/null

You could probably also more safely use pee(1) (from moreutils) to do this.

This has an unfortunate result of doubling the network traffic from every machine being backed up. So an alternative option would be to queue the packets to the spooling machine, and run a distribution script from it; something like this, in part:

INCOMINGDIR="/var/local/nncp-bakfs-incoming"
LOCKFILE="$INCOMINGDIR/.lock"
printf -v EVAL_SAFE_LOCKFILE '%q' "$LOCKFILE"
if dotlockfile -r 0 -l -p "${LOCKFILE}"; then
  logit "Lock obtained at ${LOCKFILE} with dotlockfile"
  trap 'ECODE=$?; dotlockfile -u '"${EVAL_SAFE_LOCKFILE}"'; exit $ECODE' EXIT INT TERM
else
  logit "Could not obtain lock at $LOCKFILE; $0 likely already running."
  exit 0
fi


logit "Scanning queue directory..."
cd "$INCOMINGDIR"
for HOST in *; do
   cd "$INCOMINGDIR/$HOST"
   for FILE in bakfsfmt2-*; do
           if [ -f "$FILE" ]; then
                   for BAKFS in backupdisk1 backupdisk2; do
                           runcommand nncp-file -nice B+5 -noprogress "$FILE" "$BAKFS:$HOST/$FILE"
                   done
                   runcommand rm "$FILE"
           else
                   logit "$HOST: Skipping $FILE since it doesn't exist"
           fi
   done

done
logit "Scan complete."

Security Considerations

You’ll notice that in my example above, the encryption happens as the root user, but nncp is called under su. This means that even if there is a vulnerability in NNCP, the data would still be protected by GPG. I’ll also note here that many sites run ssh as root unnecessarily; the same principles should apply there. (ssh has had vulnerabilities in the past as well). I could have used gpg’s built-in compression, but zstd is faster and better, so we can get good performance by using fast compression and piping that to an algorithm that can use hardware acceleration for encryption.

I strongly encourage considering transport, whether ssh or NNCP or UUCP, to be untrusted. Don’t run it as root if you can avoid it. In my example, the nncp user, which all NNCP commands are run as, has no access to the backup data at all. So even if NNCP were compromised, my backup data wouldn’t be. For even more security, I could also sign the backup stream with gpg and validate that on the receiving end.

I should note, however, that this conversation assumes that a network- or USB-facing ssh or NNCP is more likely to have an exploitable vulnerability than is gpg (which here is just processing a stream). This is probably a safe assumption in general. If you believe gpg is more likely to have an exploitable vulnerability than ssh or NNCP, then obviously you wouldn’t take this particular approach.

On the zfs side, the use of -F with zfs receive is avoided; this could lead to a compromised backed-up machine generating a malicious rollback on the destination. Backup zpools should be imported with -R or -N to ensure that a malicious mountpoint property couldn’t be used to cause an attack. I choose to use “zfs receive -u -o readonly=on” which is compatible with both unmounted backup datasets and zpools imported with -R (or both). To access the data in a backup dataset, you would normally clone it and access it there.

The processing script

So, put this all together and look at an example of a processing script that would run from cron as root and process the incoming ZFS data.

#!/bin/bash
set -e
set -o pipefail

# Log a message
logit () {
   logger -p info -t "`basename "$0"`[$$]" "$1"
}

# Log an error message
logerror () {
   logger -p err -t "`basename "$0"`[$$]" "$1"
}

# Log stdin with the given code.  Used normally to log stderr.
logstdin () {
   logger -p info -t "`basename "$0"`[$$/$1]"
}

# Run command, logging stderr and exit code
runcommand () {
   logit "Running $*"
   if "$@" 2> >(logstdin "$1") ; then
      logit "$1 exited successfully"
      return 0
   else
       RETVAL="$?"
       logerror "$1 exited with error $RETVAL"
       return "$RETVAL"
   fi
}

STORE=backups/simplesnap
INCOMINGDIR=/backups/nncp/incoming

if ! [ -d "$INCOMINGDIR" ]; then
        logerror "$INCOMINGDIR doesn't exist"
        exit 0
fi

LOCKFILE="/backups/nncp/.nncp-backups-zfs-scan.lock"
printf -v EVAL_SAFE_LOCKFILE '%q' "$LOCKFILE"
if dotlockfile -r 0 -l -p "${LOCKFILE}"; then
  logit "Lock obtained at ${LOCKFILE} with dotlockfile"
  trap 'ECODE=$?; dotlockfile -u '"${EVAL_SAFE_LOCKFILE}"'; exit $ECODE' EXIT INT TERM
else
  logit "Could not obtain lock at $LOCKFILE; $0 likely already running."
  exit 0
fi

EXITCODE=0


cd "$INCOMINGDIR"
logit "Scanning queue directory..."
for HOST in *; do
    HOSTPATH="$INCOMINGDIR/$HOST"
    # files like backupsfmt2-134.13134_dest
    for FILE in "$HOSTPATH"/backupsfmt2-[0-9]*_?*; do
        if [ ! -f "$FILE" ]; then
            logit "Skipping non-existent $FILE"
            continue
        fi

        # Now, $DEST will be HOST/DEST.  Strip off the @ also.
        DEST="`echo "$FILE" | sed -e 's/^.*backupsfmt2[^_]*_//' -e 's,@,/,g'`"

        if [ -z "$DEST" ]; then
            logerror "Malformed dest in $FILE"
            continue
        fi
        HOST2="`echo "$DEST" | sed 's,/.*,,g'`"
        if [ -z "$HOST2" ]; then
            logerror "Malformed DEST $DEST in $FILE"
            continue
        fi

        if [ ! "$HOST" = "$HOST2" ]; then
            logerror "$DIR: $HOST doesn't match $HOST2"
            continue
        fi

        logit "Processing $FILE to $STORE/$DEST"
            if runcommand gpg -q -d < "$FILE" | runcommand zstdcat | runcommand zfs receive -u -o readonly=on "$STORE/$DEST"; then
                logit "Successfully processed $FILE to $STORE/$DEST"
                runcommand rm "$FILE"
        else
                logerror "FAILED to process $FILE to $STORE/$DEST"
                EXITCODE=15
        fi

Applying These Ideas to Non-ZFS Backups

ZFS backups made our job easier in a lot of ways:

  • ZFS can calculate a diff based on an efficiently-stored previous local state (snapshot or bookmark), rather than a comparison to a remote state (rsync)
  • ZFS "incremental" sends, while less efficient than rsync, are reasonably efficient, sending only changed blocks
  • ZFS receive detects and enforces that the incremental source on the local machine must match the incremental source of the original stream, enforcing ordering
  • Datasets using ZFS encryption can be sent in their encrypted state
  • Incrementals can be done without a full scan of the filesystem

Some of these benefits you just won't get without ZFS (or something similar like btrfs), but let's see how we could apply these ideas to non-ZFS backups. I will explore the implementation of them in a future post.

When I say "non ZFS", I am being a bit vague as to whether the source, the destination, or both systems are running a non-ZFS filesystem. In general I'll assume that neither are ZFS.

The first and most obvious answer is to just tar up the whole system and send that every day. This is, of course, only suitable for small datasets on a fast network. These tarballs could be unpacked on the destination and stored more efficiently via any number of methods (hardlink trees, a block-level deduplicator like borg or rdedup, or even just simply compressed tarballs).

To make the network trip more efficient, something like rdiff or xdelta could be used. A signature file could be stored on the machine being backed up (generated via tee/pee at stream time), and the next run could simply send an rdiff delta over NNCP. This would be quite network-efficient, but still would require reading every byte of every file on every backup, and would also require quite a bit of temporary space on the receiving end (to apply the delta to the previous tarball and generate a new one).

Alternatively, a program that generates incremental backup files such as rdup could be used. These could be transmitted over NNCP to the backup server, and unpacked there. While perhaps less efficient on the network -- every file with at least one modified byte would be retransmitted in its entirety -- it avoids the need to read every byte of unmodified files or to have enormous temporary space. I should note here that GNU tar claims to have an incremental mode, but it has a potential data loss bug.

There are also some tools with algorithms that may apply well in this use care: syrep and fssync being the two most prominent examples, though rdedup (mentioned above) and the nascent asuran project may also be combinable with other tools to achieve this effect.

I should, of course, conclude this section by mentioning btrfs. Every time I've tried it, I've run into serious bugs, and its status page indicates that only some of them have been resolved. I would not consider using it for something as important as backups. However, if you are comfortable with it, it is likely to be able to run in more constrained environments than ZFS and could probably be processed in much the same way as zfs streams.

Airgapped / Asynchronous Backups with ZFS over NNCP

In my previous articles in the series on asynchronous communication with the modern NNCP tool, I talked about its use for asynchronous, potentially airgapped, backups. The first article, How & Why To Use Airgapped Backups laid out the foundations for this. Now let’s dig into the details.

Today’s post will cover ZFS, because it has a lot of features that make it very easy to support in this setup. Non-ZFS backups will be covered later.

The setup is actually about as simple as it is for SSH, but since people are less familiar with this kind of communication, I’m going to try to go into more detail here.

Assumptions

I am assuming a setup where:

  • The machines being backed up run ZFS
  • The disk(s) that hold the backups are also running ZFS
  • zfs send / receive is desired as an efficient way to transport the backups
  • The machine that holds the backups may have no network connection whatsoever
  • Backups will be sent encrypted over some sort of network to a spooling machine, which temporarily holds them until they are transported to the destination backup system and ingested there. This system will be unable to decrypt the data streams it temporarily stores.

Hardware

Let’s start with hardware for the machine to hold the backups. I initially considered a Raspberry Pi 4 with 8GB of RAM. That would probably have been a suitable machine, at least for smaller backup sets. However, none of the Raspberry Pi machines support hardware AES encryption acceleration, and my Pi4 benchmarks as about 60MB/s for AES encryption. I want my backups to be encrypted, and decided this would just be too slow for my purposes. Again, if you don’t need encrypted backups or don’t care that much about performance — may people probably fall into this category — you can have a fully-functional Raspberry Pi 4 system for under $100 that would make a fantastic backup server.

I wound up purchasing a Qotom-Q355G4 micro PC with a Core i5 for about $315. It has USB 3 ports and is designed as a rugged, long-lasting system. I have been using one of their older Celeron-based models as my router/firewall for a number of years now and it’s been quite reliable.

For backup storage, you can get a USB 3 external drive. My own preference is to get a USB 3 “toaster” (device that lets me plug in SATA drives) so that I have more control over the underlying medium and can save the expense and hassle of a bunch of power supplies. In a future post, I will discuss drive rotation so you always have an offline drive.

Then, there is the question of transport to the backup machine. A simple solution would be to have a heavily-firewalled backup system that has no incoming ports open but makes occasional outgoing connections to one specific NNCP daemon on the spooling machine. However, for airgapped operation, it would also be very simple to use nncp-xfer to transport the data across on a USB stick or some such. You could set up automounting for a specific USB stick – plug it in, all the spooled data is moved over, then plug it in to the backup system and it’s processed, and any outbound email traffic or whatever is copied to the USB stick at that point too. The NNCP page has some more commentary about this kind of setup.

Both are fairly easy to set up, and NNCP is designed to be transport-agnostic, so in this article I’m going to focus on how to integrate ZFS with NNCP.

Operating System

Of course, it should be no surprise that I set this up on Debian.

As an added step, I did all the configuration in Ansible stored in a local git repo. This adds a lot of work, but it means that it is trivial to periodically wipe and reinstall if any security issue is suspected. The git repo can be copied off to another system for storage and takes the system from freshly-installed to ready-to-use state.

Security

There is, of course, nothing preventing you from running NNCP as root. The zfs commands, obviously, need to be run as root. However, from a privilege separation standpoint, I have chosen to run everything relating to NNCP as a nncp user. NNCP already does encryption, but if you prefer to have zero knowledge of the data even to NNCP, it’s trivial to add gpg to the pipeline as well, and in fact I’ll be demonstrating that in a future post for other reasons.

Software

Besides NNCP, there needs to be a system that generates the zfs send streams. For this project, I looked at quite a few. Most were designed to inspect the list of snapshots on a remote end, compare it to a list on the local end, and calculate a difference from there. This, of course, won’t work for this situation.

I realized my own simplesnap project was very close to being able to do this. It already used an algorithm of using specially-named snapshots on the machine being backed up, so never needed any communication about what snapshots were present where. All it needed was a few more options to permit sending to a stream instead of zfs receive. I made those changes and they are available in simplesnap 2.0.0 or above. That version has also been uploaded to sid, and will work fine as-is on buster as well.

Preparing NNCP

I’m going to assume three hosts in this setup:

  • laptop is the machine being backed up. Of course, you may have quite a few of these.
  • spooler holds the backup data until the backup system picks it up
  • backupsvr holds the backups

The basic NNCP workflow documentation covers the basic steps. You’ll need to run nncp-cfgnew on each machine. This generates a basic configuration, along with public and private keys for that machine. You’ll copy the public key sets to the configurations of the other machines as usual. On the laptop, you’ll add a via line like this:

backupsvr: {
  id: ....
  exchpub: ...
  signpub: ...
  noisepub: ...
  via: ["spooler"]

This tells NNCP that data destined for backupsvr should always be sent via spooler first.

You can then arrange for the nncp-daemon to run on the spooler, and nncp-caller or nncp-call on the backupsvr. Or, alternatively, airgapped between the two with nncp-xfer.

Generating Backup Data

Now, on the laptop, install simplesnap (2.0.0 or above). Although you won’t be backing up to the local system, simplesnap still maintains a hostlock in ZFS. Prepate a dataset for it:

zfs create tank/simplesnap
zfs set org.complete.simplesnap:exclude=on tank/simplesnap

Then, create a script /usr/local/bin/runsimplesnap like this:

#!/bin/bash

set -e

simplesnap --store tank/simplesnap --setname backups --local --host `hostname` \
   --receivecmd /usr/local/bin/simplesnap-queue \
   --noreap

su nncp -c '/usr/local/nncp/bin/nncp-toss -noprogress -quiet'

if ip addr | grep -q 192.168.65.64; then
  su nncp -c '/usr/local/nncp/bin/nncp-call -noprogress -quiet -onlinedeadline 1 spooler'
fi

The call to simplesnap sets it up to send the data to simplesnap-queue, which we’ll create in a moment. The –receivmd, plus –noreap, sets it up to run without ZFS on the local system.

The call to nncp-toss will process any previously-received inbound NNCP packets, if there are any. Then, in this example, we do a very basic check to see if we’re on the LAN (checking 192.168.65.64), and if so, will establish a connection to the spooler to transmit the data. If course, you could also do this over the Internet, with tor, or whatever, but in my case, I don’t want to automatically do this in case I’m tethered to mobile. I figure if I want to send backups in that case, I can fire up nncp-call myself. You can also use nncp-caller to set up automated connections on other schedules; there are a lot of options.

Now, here’s what /usr/local/bin/simplesnap-queue looks like:

#!/bin/bash

set -e
set -o pipefail

DEST="`echo $1 | sed 's,^tank/simplesnap/,,'`"

echo "Processing $DEST" >&2
# stdin piped to this
su nncp -c "/usr/local/nncp/bin/nncp-exec -nice B -noprogress backupsvr zfsreceive '$DEST'" >&2
echo "Queued for $DEST" >&2

This is a pretty simple script. simplesnap will call it with a path based on the –store, with the hostname after; so, for instance, tank/simplesnap/laptop/root or some such. This script strips off the leading tank/simplesnap (which is a local fragment), leaving the host and dataset paths. Then it just pipes it to nncp-exec. -nice B classifies it as low-priority bulk data (so if you have some more important interactive data, it would be sent first), then passes it to whatever the backupsvr defines as zfsreceive.

Receiving ZFS backups

In the NNCP configuration on the recipient’s side, in the laptop section, we define what command it’s allowed to run as zfsreceive:

      exec: {
        zfsreceive: ["/usr/bin/sudo", "-H", "/usr/local/bin/nncp-zfs-receive"]
      }

We authorize the nncp user to run this under sudo in /etc/sudoers.d/local–nncp:

Defaults env_keep += "NNCP_SENDER"
nncp ALL=(root) NOPASSWD: /usr/local/bin/nncp-zfs-receive

The NNCP_SENDER is the public key ID of the sending node when nncp-toss processes the incoming data. We can use that for sanity checking later.

Now, here’s a basic nncp-zfs-receive script:

#!/bin/bash
set -e
set -o pipefail

STORE=backups/simplesnap
DEST="$1"

# now process stdin
runcommand zfs receive -o readonly=on -x mountpoint "$STORE/$DEST"

And there you have it — all the basics are in place.

Update 2020-12-30: An earlier version of this article had “zfs receive -F” instead of “zfs receive -o readonly=on -x mountpoint”. These changed arguments are more robust.
Update 2021-01-04: I am now recommending “zfs receive -u -o readonly=on”; see my successor article for more.

Enhancements

You could enhance the nncp-zfs-receive script to improve logging and error handling. For instance:

#!/bin/bash

set -e
set -o pipefail

STORE=backups/simplesnap
# $1 will be the host/dataset

DEST="$1"
HOST="`echo "$1" | sed 's,/.*,,g'`"
if [ -z "$HOST" ]; then
   echo "Malformed command line"
   exit 5
fi

# Log a message
logit () {
   logger -p info -t "`basename "$0"`[$$]" "$1"
}

# Log an error message
logerror () {
   logger -p err -t "`basename "$0"`[$$]" "$1"
}

# Log stdin with the given code.  Used normally to log stderr.
logstdin () {
   logger -p info -t "`basename "$0"`[$$/$1]"
}

# Run command, logging stderr and exit code
runcommand () {
   logit "Running $*"
   if "$@" 2> >(logstdin "$1") ; then
      logit "$1 exited successfully"
      return 0
   else
       RETVAL="$?"
       logerror "$1 exited with error $RETVAL"
       return "$RETVAL"
   fi
}
exiterror () {
   logerror "$1"
   echo "$1" 1>&2
   exit 10
}

# Sanity check

if [ "$HOST" = "laptop" ]; then
  if [ "$NNCP_SENDER" != "12345678" ]; then
    exiterror "Host $HOST doesn't match sender $NNCP_SENDER"
  fi
else
  exiterror "Unknown host $HOST"
fi

runcommand zfs receive -F "$STORE/$DEST"

Now you’ll capture the ZFS receive output in syslog in a friendly way, so you can look back later why things failed if they did.

Further notes on NNCP

nncp-toss will examine the exit code from an invocation. If it is nonzero, it will keep the command (and associated stdin) in the queue and retry it on the next invocation. NNCP does not guarantee order of execution, so it is possible in some cases that ZFS streams may be received in the wrong order. That is fine here; zfs receive will exit with an error, and nncp-toss will just run it again after the dependent snapshots have been received. For non-ZFS backups, a simple sequence number can handle this issue.

See The World Through the Eyes of a Child, and You Are Free

Because we see things so often, we see them less and less.

Those who live in thanksgiving daily, however, have a way of opening their eyes and seeing the wonders and beauties of this world as though seeing them for the first time.

– Joseph Wirthlin

Today is about dirt. I had to learn about it, again, from my 2-year-old last week.

She and I were playing outside — something we have more time to do right now. She started to roll around in the grass, and asked me to play in the grass, too. As I got close to the ground, I inhaled the wonderfully sweet and earthy scent of spring soil. I hadn’t smelled that in a long time. What an unexpected gift.

This photo is of a child, having a fantastic time with dirt and water. The more bits of Kansas he had on him, the more shrieks of laughter I heard.

It think most adults keep forgetting the joys of simple things like dirt. I am lucky to have children around to remind me. This week, I also had the opportunity to teach my 2-year-old the joys of making big splashes in mud puddles, so maybe I can also remind them on occasion.

See the world as if for the first time; see it through the eyes of a child, and you will suddenly find that you are free.

– Deepak Chopra

Rural Kansas, 2016

(I originally wrote this on March 31, and am sharing it on my blog for the first time today.)

Asynchronous Email: Exim over NNCP (or UUCP)

Following up to yesterday’s article about how NNCP rehabilitates asynchronous communication with modern encryption and onion routing, here is the first of my posts showing how to put it into action.

Email is a natural fit for async; in fact, much of early email was carried by UUCP. It is useful for an airgapped machine to be able to send back messages; errors from cron, results of handling incoming data, disk space alerts, etc. (Of course, this would apply to a non-airgapped machine also).

The NNCP documentation already describes how to do this for Postfix. Here I will show how to do it for Exim.

A quick detour to UUCP land

When you encounter a system such as email that has instructions for doing something via UUCP, that should be an alert to you that “here is some very relevant information for doing this same thing via NNCP.” The syntax is different, but broadly, here’s a table of similar NNCP commands:

Purpose UUCP NNCP
Connect to remote system uucico -s, uupoll nncp-call, nncp-caller
Receive connection (pipe, daemon, etc) uucico (-l or similar) nncp-daemon
Request remote execution, stdin piped in uux nncp-exec
Copy file to remote machine uucp nncp-file
Copy file from remote machine uucp nncp-freq
Process received requests uuxqt nncp-toss
Move outbound requests to dir (for USB stick, airgap, etc) N/A nncp-xfer
Create streaming package of outbound requests N/A nncp-bundle

If you used UUCP back in the day, you surely remember bang paths. I will not be using those here. NNCP handles routing itself, rather than making the MTA be aware of the network topology, so this simplifies things considerably.

Sending from Exim to a smarthost

One common use for async email is from a satellite system: one that doesn’t receive mail, or have local mailboxes, but just needs to get email out to the Internet. This is a common situation even for conventionally-connected systems; in Exim speak, this is a “satellite system that routes mail via a smarthost.” That is, every outbound message goes to a specific target, which then is responsible for eventual delivery (over the Internet, LAN, whatever).

This is fairly simple in Exim.

We actually have two choices for how to do this: bsmtp or rmail mode. bsmtp (batch SMTP) is the more modern way, and is essentially a derivative of SMTP that explicitly can be queued asynchronously. Basically it’s a set of SMTP commands that can be saved in a file. The alternative is “rmail” (which is just an alias for sendmail these days), where the data is piped to rmail/sendmail with the recipients given on the command line. Both can work with Exim and NNCP, but because we’re doing shiny new things, we’ll use bsmtp.

These instructions are loosely based on the Using outgoing BSMTP with Exim HOWTO. Some of these may assume Debianness in the configuration, but should be easily enough extrapolated to other configs as well.

First, configure Exim to use satellite mode with minimal DNS lookups (assuming that you may not have working DNS anyhow).

Then, in the Exim primary router section for smarthost (router/200_exim4-config_primary in Debian split configurations), just change transport = remote_smtp_smarthost to transport = nncp.

Now, define the NNCP transport. If you are on Debian, you might name this transports/40_exim4-config_local_nncp:

nncp:
  debug_print = "T: nncp transport for $local_part@$domain"
  driver = pipe
  user = nncp
  batch_max = 100
  use_bsmtp
  command = /usr/local/nncp/bin/nncp-exec -noprogress -quiet hostname_goes_here rsmtp
.ifdef REMOTE_SMTP_HEADERS_REWRITE
  headers_rewrite = REMOTE_SMTP_HEADERS_REWRITE
.endif
.ifdef REMOTE_SMTP_RETURN_PATH
  return_path = REMOTE_SMTP_RETURN_PATH
.endif

This is pretty straightforward. We pipe to nncp-exec, run it as the nncp user. nncp-exec sends it to a target node and runs whatever that node has called rsmtp (the command to receive bsmtp data). When the target node processes the request, it will run the configured command and pipe the data in to it.

More complicated: Routing to various NNCP nodes

Perhaps you would like to be able to send mail directly to various NNCP nodes. There are a lot of ways to do that.

Fundamentally, you will need a setup similar to the UUCP example in Exim’s manualroute manual, which lets you define how to reach various hosts via UUCP/NNCP. Perhaps you have a star topology (every NNCP node exchanges email with a central hub). In the NNCP world, you have two choices of how you do this. You could, at the Exim level, make the central hub the smarthost for all the side nodes, and let it redistribute mail. That would work, but requires decrypting messages at the hub to let Exim process. The other alternative is to configure NNCP to just send to the destinations via the central hub; that takes advantage of onion routing and doesn’t require any Exim processing at the central hub at all.

Receiving mail from NNCP

On the receiving side, first you need to configure NNCP to authorize the execution of a mail program. In the section of your receiving host where you set the permissions for the client, include something like this:

      exec: {
        rsmtp: ["/usr/sbin/sendmail", "-bS"]
      }

The -bS option is what tells Exim to receive BSMTP on stdin.

Now, you need to tell Exim that nncp is a trusted user (able to set From headers arbitrarily). Assuming you are running NNCP as the nncp user, then add MAIN_TRUSTED_USERS = nncp to a file such as /etc/exim4/conf.d/main/01_exim4-config_local-nncp. That’s it!

Some hosts, of course, both send and receive mail via NNCP and will need configurations for both.

When You Think You’re At the End, You’re At the Beginning

Often when you think you’re at the end of something, you’re at the beginning of something else.

– Fred Rogers

This is sunrise over Kansas. Or maybe sunset. I’m not going to tell you this time, because it doesn’t matter all that much. I love that it (if you don’t over-analyze it) could be either, and also that it looks like the land in the distance fades to a blue ocean.

Is it sunrise or sunset? What is at the horizon? I don’t think it really matters, in the presence of such natural beauty.

Rural Kansas, 2015

Rehabilitating Asynchronous Communication with NNCP: A Cross Between Tor, ssh, and UUCP

Have you ever been traveling, shot a ton of photos and videos, but were annoyed to find it was saturating the terrible wifi you had access to? Maybe you’d wish the upload to pause until you get somewhere else, but then pausing syncing on your Nextcloud/Syncthing/Dropbox would also pause other syncing you didn’t want to pause. Or you have trouble backing up your laptop when not at home, in a way that won’t accidentaly eat up your cell phone data.

There are ways to help with this: asynchronous transfer.

Here’s a lot of background. If you want to see how encrypted, onion-routed UUCP looks, skip ahead to the “NNCP” section!

There is an old saying: “When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” We have this wonderful tool called ssh available, and it is pervasive and well-understood, so we tend to use it. But we’ve missed out on some benefits of asynchronous processing that we actually used to have more frequently.

Of course, we are all used to some asynchronous services in our lives. Email is a popular example: most mail clients work offline and will transmit stored messages when the mail server becomes reachable. Mail servers themselves work that way, too. Many instant messaging platforms do as well.

Even some backup systems do. Bacula/Bareos, for instance, spools all backup data to disk on the system connected to the tape drive, and from there to the tape itself. They do this for several reasons, but primarily the fact that if tape drives are not fed with data at their design speed, it can cause physical damage to the tape or even the drive. It causes the drive to have to pause, and seek backwards to reposition for the next write. This creates excessive travel of the tape over the write heads, causing a condition known as “tape shine” where the tape is damaged prematurely.

Here are some problems people often run into when sending data across a network (or the Internet) synchronously:

  • One side of the communication is much faster than the other
  • Internet issues interrupting communications mid-stream
  • Slow Internet causing processes to take much longer than planned, resulting in unexpected results or locking issues
  • Physical damage due to performance issues

Of course, there are plenty of situations where synchronous communication is a must. For instance:

  • When the status of the transaction at the remote end must be known immediately
  • When there is insufficient space to spool a job’s data

I suspect that the reason we don’t do more asynchronous processing these days, despite it being strong in the Unix heritage, is the lack of modern tools to do it. Let’s explore some more.

Some of my use cases

I run ZFS on all my systems that support it: file server, laptops, workstations, etc. It is only natural to use ZFS send/receive to do backups, and I do. However, when I am traveling, my laptop never gets backed up, because the backups are pulled from the backup system. Sure, there are ways around that; a VPN, for instance. But then we have the situation where sometimes I do not want to send the backup even if I have a working Internet connection: perhaps I’m tethered to a mobile connection and it would be expensive to do so, or I’m on hotel Wifi that is flaky and slow and I don’t want to give up any of its meager bandwidth.

I have another backup-related problem. I have a remote server, which until recently was using extremely slow disks. If I made significant changes, the backup would take the better part of a day. That’s annoying when I try to back up hourly. So of course I had to implement locking, but then that means none of my other machines would back up that day either.

Once I needed to transmit about 2TB of data. My home Internet connection was terribly slow, and I calculated it would take multiple months to do this. So I took to manually copying parts of the data to my laptop, and whenever I’d find an airport or coffee shop with faster Internet than at home, I’d send off those bits from it. But it took a ton of work.

The bespoke asynchronous problem

And that “ton of work” is perhaps why we aren’t doing more of this. There’s been no great standard solution, so it’s all “roll your own” when you need to. So we just use ssh, because it’s easier and usually “good enough”. But as I wrote in my recent article on airgapped backups, there are reasons to go async.

Solutions

Wouldn’t it be great to be able to queue up data for a machine, and let it get there in whatever way it can? Maybe a fast Internet connection is found, or via Tor, or via copying to a USB stick, or via radio broadcast? It would make many of these scenarios a lot easier. And there are ways for this now, with modern security!

We have some tools on Linux for this: git-annex for storage and migration, syrep for synchronization, and NNCP for file transfer and remote execution (could be combined with some of these other tools). Let’s dive in to NNCP.

NNCP

If you already know UUCP, think of NNCP as UUCP brought into the modern era, with modern security and tools.

Basically, NNCP permits you to send files to a remote system, request files from a remote system, and pipe data to an NNCP command that requests execution remotely. So you could, say, pipe a zfs send to NNCP which sends it to the remote and pipes it to zfs receive when it gets there.

NNCP has a delay-tolerant, resumable protocol that can run over just about any reliable connection: TCP, serial, Tor, radios of various kinds, you name it. But that’s not all; it also can dump its queue onto something like a USB stick for transport, or even make a tar-style stream that could be munged however you like. If you want to get fancy, you can assign priorities to data packets, so that, for instance, outbound email will always get sent before that 1TB file you’ve got to send also. You can also configure it so that certain carriers handle certain priorities of data; your cell phone would only handle the most urgent, but a USB stick would take anything.

NNCP is source-routed; you can tell it that the way that Bob reaches Alice is via Carl, then Betty. Bob can generate a message that will be sent along that route, fully encrypted and authenticated at each step of the way; Carl can’t see the content of the message or even anything about it other than its next hop.

How this helps

Let’s revisit some of my scnearios with NNCP.

For the laptop being backed up, while traveling it can queue up its backups, or photos, or videos, or whatever. They could be triggered by a command when on a good connection, or automatically. The data could be copied to USB and given to a friend to transmit; perfectly safe due to encryption. Or it could all wait until arriving at home, safely out of your other syncing directories. The NNCP documentation has an example of this.

For the server being backed up slowly, that’s easily solved; the slow backup would simply be queued up, and transmitted and processed when it’s ready. This wouldn’t interrupt other backups.

How about the 2TB transmission problem? That’s also made a lot easier. A command could be run to fill up a USB stick with parts of the queue, then that USB stick plugged in and transmitted whenever at a fast location. Repeat as needed while the slow system continues its upload of the remaining bits.

NNCP has a lot of interesting use cases documented as well.

If you are already familiar with how public keys work in SSH, then NNCP should be immediately familiar as well. It is a similar concept (though arguably somewhat easier to set up).

I am working on setting up a NNCP network, and will have more posts on how to do so once I’ve got it going. In the meantime, the documentation for the project is also pretty good.

So Many Caring People In This World

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.

– Fred Rogers

This photo doesn’t have amazing lighting or fantastic composition. In fact, it looks ordinary. It’s only when you know its story that the beauty shines through.

In 2019, Fremont, NE had been cut off by flooding. People were trying to get in and out of the town, and couldn’t. The only way in or out was from the small airport. About 50 pilots from Nebraska and Iowa (and me from Kansas) came over to help. Every plane you see here — and more that I couldn’t fit in the frame — was at Millard Airport, Omaha, flying people and supplies into and out of Fremont. Estimates are that we flew over 1000 people and tons of supplies that weekend. All safely.

I remember flying the family with a 1-week-old baby that had gone to Omaha for a doctor appointment and then couldn’t get home for three days. I remember the elderly couple and their dog that I flew out of Fremont, the former Marine riding in the co-pilot seat next to me, cracking jokes with me as we went. I remember the group of ladies that were laughing as I gave them the required seat belt briefing, the mom with her kids, the man that had to get to work, and packed a few day’s supplies in his backpack, unsure when he’d be able to get back home. It was the first some had ever been in a plane.

There were so many helpers. People all over Omaha brought supplies to Millard airport. Others had just shown up at both airports to help organize and make lists of passengers and match them up with different size planes. Someone at Millard had a trailer and golf cart for supplies. When I’d land at Fremont, before I was even out of the plane, highschoolers had already swarmed it and were helping to unload supplies or help passengers out. One time when I got back to Millard, I found lunch: a pizza place had donated pizza for the pilots, and then a restaurant in Fremont did too. With so many extra planes in the sky, Omaha ATC was slammed and still did a fantastic job.

I of course took no photos of the people I carried, but I have thought of them often in the last year.

This photo is of Millard airport, Omaha, loading up supplies. Look at all these helpers. I think it’s one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen.

Today there are billions of helpers in this world. The obvious ones: the truck drivers, the health care workers, the grocery store workers. And also the non-obvious ones: all the people that are wearing masks, practicing social distancing, forgoing Christmas gatherings, for the good of others, despite the hardship and heartbreak it may cause.

If you didn’t know the story of this photo, you wouldn’t know these planes were all helpers in time of disaster. We don’t know the story of all the people we see in our world today, but chances are good that many of them are helpers also.

When you know their story, the beauty shines through.

May we all be able to see the beauty that still surrounds us this Christmas.

Joyful is the Dark

“Joyful is the dark
  coolness of the tomb,
waiting for the wonder
  of the morning.

Never was that midnight
  touched by dread and gloom;
darkness was the cradle
  of the dawning.”

Brian Wren

Most of us are not personally experiencing symptoms of a pandemic virus, but with all the changes around us, with all the worries within us, many of us have been touched by dread and gloom.

I can find many layers of meaning in this poem. Today I think this poem excerpt reminds us to find the joy where we are, in the moment we are. Are we just waiting for the morning? Or do we take advantage of this pause to gaze up at the beautiful colors of the night? Are we defined by this moment, or do we define it? We are OK right now, so let this time be the cradle of something beautiful.

If you haven’t noticed the moon in this photo, zoom in. I don’t see dread and gloom in this photo. I see color, and hope, and beauty.

Rural Kansas, 2017