Category Archives: Software

Emacs #3: More on org-mode

This is third in a series on Emacs and org-mode.

Todo tracking and keywords

When using org-mode to track your TODOs, it can have multiple states. You can press C-c C-t for a quick shift between states. I have set this:

(setq org-todo-keywords '(
  (sequence "TODO(t!)" "NEXT(n!)" "STARTED(a!)" "WAIT(w@/!)" "OTHERS(o!)" "|" "DONE(d)" "CANCELLED(c)")

Here, I set up 5 states that are for a task that is not yet done: TODO, NEXT, STARTED, WAIT, and OTHERS. Each has a single-character shortcut (t, n, a, etc). The states after the pipe symbol are ones that are considered “done”. I have two: DONE (for things that I have done) and CANCELED (for things that I haven’t done, but for whatever reason, won’t).

The exclamation mark means to log the time when an item was changed to a state. I don’t add this to the done states because those are already logged anyhow. The @ sign means to prompt for a reason; so when switching to WAIT, org-mode will ask me why and add this to the note.

Here’s an example of an entry that has had some state changes:

** DONE This is a test
   CLOSED: [2018-03-02 Fri 03:05]
   - State "DONE"       from "WAIT"       [2018-03-02 Fri 03:05]
   - State "WAIT"       from "TODO"       [2018-03-02 Fri 03:05] \\
     waiting for pigs to fly
   - State "TODO"       from "NEXT"       [2018-03-02 Fri 03:05]
   - State "NEXT"       from "TODO"       [2018-03-02 Fri 03:05]

Here, the most recent items are on top.

Agenda mode, schedules, and deadlines

When you’re in a todo item, C-c C-s or C-c C-d can set a schedule or a deadline for it, respectively. These show up in agenda mode. The difference is in intent and presentation. A schedule is something that you expect to work on at around a time, while a deadline is something that is due at a specific time. By default, the agenda view will start warning you about deadline items in advance.

And while we’re at it, the agenda view will show you the items that you have coming up, offers a nice way to search for items based on plain text or tags, and handles bulk manipulation of items even across multiple files. I covered setting the files for agenda mode in part 2 of this series.


Of course org-mode has tags. You can quickly set them with C-c C-q.

You can set shortcuts for tags you might like to use often. Perhaps something like this:

  (setq org-tag-persistent-alist 
        '(("@phone" . ?p) 
          ("@computer" . ?c) 
          ("@websurfing" . ?w)
          ("@errands" . ?e)
          ("@outdoors" . ?o)
          ("MIT" . ?m)
          ("BIGROCK" . ?b)
          ("CONTACTS" . ?C)
          ("INBOX" . ?i)

You can also add tags to this list on a per-file basis, and also set tags for something on a per-file basis. I use that for my and files to set an INBOX tag. I can then review all items tagged INBOX from the agenda view each day, and the simple act of refiling them into other files will cause them to lost the INBOX tag.


“Refiling” is moving things around, either within a file or elsewhere. It has completion using your headlines. C-c C-w does this. I like these settings:

(setq org-outline-path-complete-in-steps nil)         ; Refile in a single go
(setq org-refile-use-outline-path 'file)


After awhile, you’ll get your files all cluttered with things that are done. org-mode has an archive feature to move things out of your main .org files and into some other files for future reference. If you have your org files in git or something, you may wish to delete these other files since you’d have things in history anyhow, but I find them handy for grepping and searching.

I periodically want to go through and archive everything in my files. Based on a stackoverflow discussion, I have this code:

(defun org-archive-done-tasks ()
   (lambda ()
     (setq org-map-continue-from (outline-previous-heading)))
   "/DONE" 'file)
   (lambda ()
     (setq org-map-continue-from (outline-previous-heading)))
   "/CANCELLED" 'file)

This is based on a particular answer — see the comments there for some additional hints. Now you can run M-x org-archive-done-tasks and everything in the current file marked DONE or CANCELED will be pulled out into a different file.

Up next

I’ll wrap up org-mode with a discussion of automatically receiving emails into org, and syncing org between machines.

Resources to accompany this article

Emacs #2: Introducing org-mode

In my first post in my series on Emacs, I described returning to Emacs after over a decade of vim, and org-mode being the reason why.

I really am astounded at the usefulness, and simplicity, of org-mode. It is really a killer app.

So what exactly is org-mode?

I wrote yesterday:

It’s an information organization platform. Its website says “Your life in plain text: Org mode is for keeping notes, maintaining TODO lists, planning projects, and authoring documents with a fast and effective plain-text system.”

That’s true, but doesn’t quite capture it. org-mode is a toolkit for you to organize things. It has reasonable out-of-the-box defaults, but it’s designed throughout for you to customize.

To highlight a few things:

  • Maintaining TODO lists: items can be scattered across org-mode files, contain attachments, have tags, deadlines, schedules. There is a convenient “agenda” view to show you what needs to be done. Items can repeat.
  • Authoring documents: org-mode has special features for generating HTML, LaTeX, slides (with LaTeX beamer), and all sorts of other formats. It also supports direct evaluation of code in-buffer and literate programming in virtually any Emacs-supported language. If you want to bend your mind on this stuff, read this article on literate devops. The entire Worg website
    is made with org-mode.
  • Keeping notes: yep, it can do that too. With full-text search, cross-referencing by file (as a wiki), by UUID, and even into other systems (into mu4e by Message-ID, into ERC logs, etc, etc.)

Getting started

I highly recommend watching Carsten Dominik’s excellent Google Talk on org-mode. It is an excellent introduction.

org-mode is included with Emacs, but you’ll often want a more recent version. Debian users can apt-get install org-mode, or it comes with the Emacs packaging system; M-x package-install RET org-mode RET may do it for you.

Now, you’ll probably want to start with the org-mode compact guide’s introduction section, noting in particular to set the keybindings mentioned in the activation section.

A good tutorial…

I’ve linked to a number of excellent tutorials and introductory items; this post is not going to serve as a tutorial. There are two good videos linked at the end of this post, in particular.

Some of my configuration

I’ll document some of my configuration here, and go into a bit of what it does. This isn’t necessarily because you’ll want to copy all of this verbatim — but just to give you a bit of an idea of some of what can be configured, an idea of what to look up in the manual, and maybe a reference for “now how do I do that?”

First, I set up Emacs to work in UTF-8 by default.

(prefer-coding-system 'utf-8)
(set-language-environment "UTF-8")

org-mode can follow URLs. By default, it opens in Firefox, but I use Chromium.

(setq browse-url-browser-function 'browse-url-chromium)

I set the basic key bindings as documented in the Guide, plus configure the M-RET behavior.

(global-set-key "\C-cl" 'org-store-link)
(global-set-key "\C-ca" 'org-agenda)
(global-set-key "\C-cc" 'org-capture)
(global-set-key "\C-cb" 'org-iswitchb)

(setq org-M-RET-may-split-line nil)

Configuration: Capturing

I can press C-c c from anywhere in Emacs. It will capture something for me, and include a link back to whatever I was working on.

You can define capture templates to set how this will work. I am going to keep two journal files for general notes about meetings, phone calls, etc. One for personal, one for work items. If I press C-c c j, then it will capture a personal item. The %a in all of these includes the link to where I was (or a link I had stored with C-c l).

(setq org-default-notes-file "~/org/")
(setq org-capture-templates
        ("t" "Todo" entry (file+headline "" "Tasks")
         "* TODO %?\n  %i\n  %u\n  %a")
        ("n" "Note/Data" entry (file+headline "" "Notes/Data")
         "* %?   \n  %i\n  %u\n  %a")
        ("j" "Journal" entry (file+datetree "~/org/")
         "* %?\nEntered on %U\n %i\n %a")
        ("J" "Work-Journal" entry (file+datetree "~/org/")
         "* %?\nEntered on %U\n %i\n %a")
(setq org-irc-link-to-logs t)

I like to link by UUIDs, which lets me move things between files without breaking locations. This helps generate UUIDs when I ask Org to store a link target for future insertion.

(require 'org-id)
(setq org-id-link-to-org-use-id 'create-if-interactive)

Configuration: agenda views

I like my week to start on a Sunday, and for org to note the time when I mark something as done.

(setq org-log-done 'time)
(setq org-agenda-start-on-weekday 0)

Configuration: files and refiling

Here I tell it what files to use in the agenda, and to add a few more to the plain text search. I like to keep a general inbox (from which I can move, or “refile”, content), and then separate tasks, journal, and knowledge base for personal and work items.

  (setq org-agenda-files (list "~/org/"
  (setq org-agenda-text-search-extra-files
        (list "~/org/"

  (setq org-refile-targets '((nil :maxlevel . 2)
                             (org-agenda-files :maxlevel . 2)
                             ("~/org/" :maxlevel . 2)
                             ("~/org/" :maxlevel . 2)
(setq org-outline-path-complete-in-steps nil)         ; Refile in a single go
(setq org-refile-use-outline-path 'file)

Configuration: Appearance

I like a pretty screen. After you’ve gotten used to org a bit, you might try this.

(require 'org-bullets)
(add-hook 'org-mode-hook
          (lambda ()
            (org-bullets-mode t)))
(setq org-ellipsis "⤵")

Coming up next…

This hopefully showed a few things that org-mode can do. Coming up next, I’ll cover how to customize TODO keywords and tags, archiving old tasks, forwarding emails to org-mode, and using git to synchronize between machines.

You can also see a list of all articles in this series.

Resources to accompany this article

Emacs #1: Ditching a bunch of stuff and moving to Emacs and org-mode

I’ll admit it. After over a decade of vim, I’m hooked on Emacs.

I’ve long had this frustration over how to organize things. I’ve followed approaches like GTD and ZTD, but things like email or large files are really hard to organize.

I had been using Asana for tasks, Evernote for notes, Thunderbird for email, a combination of ikiwiki and some other items for a personal knowledge base, and various files in an archive directory on my PC. When my new job added Slack to the mix, that was finally the last straw.

A lot of todo-management tools integrate with email — poorly. When you want to do something like “remind me to reply to this in a week”, a lot of times that’s impossible because the tool doesn’t store the email in a fashion you can easily reply to. And that problem is even worse with Slack.

It was right around then that I stumbled onto Carsten Dominik’s Google Talk on org-mode. Carsten was the author of org-mode, and although the talk is 10 years old, it is still highly relevant.

I’d stumbled across org-mode before, but each time I didn’t really dig in because I had the reaction of “an outliner? But I need a todo list.” Turns out I was missing out. org-mode is all that.

Just what IS Emacs? And org-mode?

Emacs grew up as a text editor. It still is, and that heritage is definitely present throughout. But to say Emacs is an editor would be rather unfair.

Emacs is something more like a platform or a toolkit. Not only do you have source code to it, but the very configuration is a program, and there are hooks all over the place. It’s as if it was super easy to write a Firefox plugin. A couple lines, and boom, behavior changed.

org-mode is very similar. Yes, it’s an outliner, but that’s not really what it is. It’s an information organization platform. Its website says “Your life in plain text: Org mode is for keeping notes, maintaining TODO lists, planning projects, and authoring documents with a fast and effective plain-text system.”


If you’ve ever read productivity guides based on GTD, one of the things they stress is effortless capture of items. The idea is that when something pops into your head, get it down into a trusted system quickly so you can get on with what you were doing. org-mode has a capture system for just this. I can press C-c c from anywhere in Emacs, and up pops a spot to type my note. But, critically, automatically embedded in that note is a link back to what I was doing when I pressed C-c c. If I was editing a file, it’ll have a link back to that file and the line I was on. If I was viewing an email, it’ll link back to that email (by Message-Id, no less, so it finds it in any folder). Same for participating in a chat, or even viewing another org-mode entry.

So I can make a note that will remind me in a week to reply to a certain email, and when I click the link in that note, it’ll bring up the email in my mail reader — even if I subsequently archived it out of my inbox.

YES, this is what I was looking for!

The tool suite

Once you’re using org-mode, pretty soon you want to integrate everything with it. There are browser plugins for capturing things from the web. Multiple Emacs mail or news readers integrate with it. ERC (IRC client) does as well. So I found myself switching from Thunderbird and mairix+mutt (for the mail archives) to mu4e, and from xchat+slack to ERC.

And wouldn’t you know it, I liked each of those Emacs-based tools better than the standalone they replaced.

A small side tidbit: I’m using OfflineIMAP again! I even used it with GNUS way back when.

One Emacs process to rule them

I used to use Emacs extensively, way back. Back then, Emacs was a “large” program. (Now my battery status applet literally uses more RAM than Emacs). There was this problem of startup time back then, so there was a way to connect to a running Emacs process.

I like to spawn programs with Mod-p (an xmonad shortcut to a dzen menubar, but Alt-F2 in more traditional DEs would do the trick). It’s convenient to not run several emacsen with this setup, so you don’t run into issues with trying to capture to a file that’s open in another one. The solution is very simple: I created a script, named it em, and put it on my path. All it does is this:

exec emacsclient -c -a "" "$@"

It creates a new emacs process if one doesn’t already exist; otherwise, it uses what you’ve got. A bonus here: parameters such as -nw work just fine, so it really acts just as if you’d typed emacs at the shell prompt. It’s a suitable setting for EDITOR.

Up next…

I’ll be talking about my use of, and showing off configurations for:

  • org-mode, including syncing between computers, capturing, agenda and todos, files, linking, keywords and tags, various exporting (slideshows), etc.
  • mu4e for email, including multiple accounts, bbdb integration
  • ERC for IRC and IM

You can also see a list of all articles in this series.

How are you handling building local Debian/Ubuntu packages?

I’m in the middle of some conversations about Debian/Ubuntu repositories, and I’m curious how others are handling this.

How are people maintaining repos for an organization? Are you integrating them with a git/CI (github/gitlab, jenkins/travis, etc) workflow? How do packages propagate into repos? How do you separate prod from testing? Is anyone running buildd locally, or integrating with more common CI tools?

I’m also interested in how people handle local modifications of packages — anything from newer versions of C libraries to newer interpreters. Do you just use the regular Debian toolchain, packaging them up for (potentially) the multiple distros/versions that you have in production? Pin them in apt?

Just curious what’s out there.

Some Googling has so far turned up just one relevant hit: Michael Prokop’s DebConf15 slides, “Continuous Delivery of Debian packages”. Looks very interesting, and discusses jenkins-debian-glue.

Some tangentially-related but interesting items:

Edit 2018-02-02: I should have also mentioned BuildStream

An old DOS BBS in a Docker container

Awhile back, I wrote about my Debian Docker base images. I decided to extend this concept a bit further: to running DOS applications in Docker.

But first, a screenshot:

It turns out this is possible, but difficult. I went through all three major DOS emulators available (dosbox, qemu, and dosemu). I got them all running inside the Docker container, but had a number of, er, fun issues to resolve.

The general thing one has to do here is present a fake modem to the DOS environment. This needs to be exposed outside the container as a TCP port. That much is possible in various ways — I wound up using tcpser. dosbox had a TCP modem interface, but it turned out to be too buggy for this purpose.

The challenge comes in where you want to be able to accept more than one incoming telnet (or TCP) connection at a time. DOS was not a multitasking operating system, so there were any number of hackish solutions back then. One might have had multiple physical computers, one for each incoming phone line. Or they might have run multiple pseudo-DOS instances under a multitasking layer like DESQview, OS/2, or even Windows 3.1.

(Side note: I just learned of DESQview/X, which integrated DESQview with X11R5 and replaced the Windows 3 drivers to allow running Windows as an X application).

For various reasons, I didn’t want to try running one of those systems inside Docker. That left me with emulating the original multiple physical node setup. In theory, pretty easy — spin up a bunch of DOS boxes, each using at most 1MB of emulated RAM, and go to town. But here came the challenge.

In a multiple-physical-node setup, you need some sort of file sharing, because your nodes have to access the shared message and file store. There were a myriad of clunky ways to do this in the old DOS days – Netware, LAN manager, even some PC NFS clients. I didn’t have access to Netware. I tried the Microsoft LM client in DOS, talking to a Samba server running inside the Docker container. This I got working, but the LM client used so much RAM that, even with various high memory tricks, BBS software wasn’t going to run. I couldn’t just mount an underlying filesystem in multiple dosbox instances either, because dosbox did caching that wasn’t going to be compatible.

This is why I wound up using dosemu. Besides being a more complete emulator than dosbox, it had a way of sharing the host’s filesystems that was going to work.

So, all of this wound up with this: jgoerzen/docker-bbs-renegade.

I also prepared building blocks for others that want to do something similar: docker-dos-bbs and the lower-level docker-dosemu.

As a side bonus, I also attempted running this under Joyent’s Triton (SmartOS, Solaris-based). I was pleasantly impressed that I got it all almost working there. So yes, a Renegade DOS BBS running under a Linux-based DOS emulator in a container on a Solaris machine.

The Yellow House Phone Company (Featuring Asterisk and an 11-year-old)

“Well Jacob, do you think we should set up our own pretend phone company in the house?”

“We can DO THAT?”


“Then… yes. Yes! YES YES YESYESYESYES YES! Let’s do it, dad!”

Not long ago, my parents had dug up the old phone I used back in the day. We still have a landline, and Jacob was having fun discovering how an analog phone works. I told him about the special number he could call to get the time and temperature read out to him. He discovered what happens if you call your own number and hang up. He figured out how to play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” using touchtone keys (after a slightly concerned lecture from me setting out some rules to make sure his “musical dialing” wouldn’t result in any, well, dialing.)

He was hooked. So I thought that taking it to the next level would be a good thing for a rainy day. I have run Asterisk before, though I had unfortunately gotten rid of most of my equipment some time back. But I found a great deal on a Cisco 186 ATA (Analog Telephone Adapter). It has two FXS lines (FXS ports simulate the phone company, and provide dialtone and ring voltage to a connected phone), and of course hooks up to the LAN.

We plugged that in, and Jacob was amazed to see its web interface come up. I had to figure out how to configure it (unfortunately, it uses SCCP rather than SIP, and figuring out Asterisk’s chan_skinny took some doing, but we got there.)

I set up voicemail. He loved it. He promptly figured out how to record his own greetings. We set up a second phone on the other line, so he could call between them. The cordless phones in our house support SIP, so I configured one of them as a third line. He spent a long time leaving himself messages.


Pretty soon we both started having ideas. I set up extension 777, where he could call for the time. Then he wanted a way to get the weather forecast. Well, weather-util generates a text-based report. With it, a little sed and grep tweaking, the espeak TTS engine, and a little help from sox, I had a shell script worked up that would read back a forecast whenever he called a certain extension. He was super excited! “That’s great, dad! Can it also read weather alerts too?” Sure! weather-util has a nice option just for that. Both boys cackled as the system tried to read out the NWS header (their timestamps like 201711031258 started with “two hundred one billion…”)

Then I found an online source for streaming NOAA Weather Radio feeds – Jacob enjoys listening to weather radio – and I set up another extension he could call to listen to that. More delight!

But it really took off when I asked him, “Would you like to record your own menu?” “You mean those things where it says press 1 or 2 for this or that?” “Yes.” “WE CAN DO THAT?” “Oh yes!” “YES, LET’S DO IT RIGHT NOW!”

So he recorded a menu, then came and hovered by me while I hacked up extensions.conf, then eagerly went back to the phone to try it. Oh the excitement of hearing hisown voice, and finding that it worked! Pretty soon he was designing sub-menus (“OK Dad, so we’ll set it up so people can press 2 for the weather, and then choose if they want weather radio or the weather report. I’m recording that now. Got it?”)

He has informed me that next Saturday we will build an intercom system “like we have at school.” I’m going to have to have some ideas on how to tie Squeezebox in with Asterisk to make that happen, I think. Maybe this will do.

Switching to xmonad + Gnome – and ditching a Mac

I have been using XFCE with xmonad for years now. I’m not sure exactly how many, but at least 6 years, if not closer to 10. Today I threw in the towel and switched to Gnome.

More recently, at a new job, I was given a Macbook Pro. I wasn’t entirely sure what to think of this, but I thought I’d give it a try. I found MacOS to be extremely frustrating and confining. It had no real support for a tiling window manager, and although projects like amethyst tried to approximate what xmonad can do on Linux, they were just too limited by the platform and were clunky. Moreover, the entire UI was surprisingly sluggish; maybe that was an induced effect from animations, but I don’t think that explains it. A Debisn stretch install, even on inferior hardware, was snappy in a way that MacOS never was. So I have requested to swap for a laptop that will run Debian. The strange use of Command instead of Control for things, combined with the overall lack of configurability of keybindings, meant that I was going to always be fighting muscle memory moving from one platform to another. Not only that, but being back in the world of a Free Software OS means a lot.

Now then, back to xmonad and XFCE situation. XFCE once worked very well with xmonad. Over the years, this got more challenging. Around the jessie (XFCE 4.10) time, I had to be very careful about when I would let it save my session, because it would easily break. With stretch, I had to write custom scripts because the panel wouldn’t show up properly, and even some application icons would be invisible, if things were started in a certain order. This took much trial and error and was still cumbersome.

Gnome 3, with its tightly-coupled Gnome Shell, has never been compatible with other window managers — at least not directly. A person could have always used MATE with xmonad — but a lot of people that run XFCE tend to have some Gnome 3 apps (for instance, evince) anyhow. Cinnamon also wouldn’t work with xmonad, because it is simply another tightly-coupled shell instead of Gnome Shell. And then today I discovered gnome-flashback. gnome-flashback is a Gnome 3 environment that uses the traditional X approach with a separate window manager (metacity of yore by default). Sweet.

It turns out that Debian’s xmonad has built-in support for it. If you know the secret: apt-get install gnome-session-flashback (OK, it’s not so secret; it’s even in xmonad’s README.Debian these days) Install that, plus gnome and gdm3 and things are nice. Configure xmonad with GNOME support and poof – goodness right out of the box, selectable from the gdm sessions list.

I still have some gripes about Gnome’s configurability (or lack thereof). But I’ve got to say: This environment is the first one I’ve ever used that got external display switching very nearly right without any configuration, and I include MacOS in that. Plug in an external display, and poof – it’s configured and set up. You can hit a toggle key (Windows+P by default) to change the configurations, or use the Display section in gnome-control-center. Unplug it, and it instantly reconfigures itself to put everything back on the laptop screen. Yessss! I used to have scripts to do this in the wheezy/jessie days. XFCE in stretch had numerous annoying failures in this area which rendered the internal display completely dark until the next reboot – very frustrating. With Gnome, it just works. And, even if you have “suspend on lid closed” turned on, if the system is powered up and hooked up to an external display, it will keep running even if the lid is closed, figuring you must be using it on the external screen. Another thing the Mac wouldn’t do well.

All in all, some pretty good stuff here. I continue to be impressed by stretch. It is darn impressive to put this OS on generic hardware and have it outshine the closed-ecosystem Mac!

Fixing the Problems with Docker Images

I recently wrote about the challenges in securing Docker container contents, and in particular with keeping up-to-date with security patches from all over the Internet.

Today I want to fix that.

Besides security, there is a second problem: the common way of running things in Docker pretends to provide a traditional POSIX API and environment, but really doesn’t. This is a big deal.

Before diving into that, I want to explain something: I have often heard it said the Docker provides single-process containers. This is unambiguously false in almost every case. Any time you have a shell script inside Docker that calls cp or even ls, you are running a second process. Web servers from Apache to whatever else use processes or threads of various types to service multiple connections at once. Many Docker containers are single-application, but a process is a core part of the POSIX API, and very little software would work if it was limited to a single process. So this is my little plea for more precise language. OK, soapbox mode off.

Now then, in a traditional Linux environment, besides your application, there are other key components of the system. These are usually missing in Docker containers.

So today, I will fix this also.

In my docker-debian-base images, I have prepared a system that still has only 11MB RAM overhead, makes minimal changes on top of Debian, and yet provides a very complete environment and API. Here’s what you get:

  • A real init system, capable of running standard startup scripts without modification, and solving the nasty Docker zombie reaping problem.
  • Working syslog, which can either export all logs to Docker’s logging infrastructure, or keep them within the container, depending on your preferences.
  • Working real schedulers (cron, anacron, and at), plus at least the standard logrotate utility to help prevent log files inside the container from becoming huge.

The above goes into my “minimal” image. Additional images add layers on top of it, and here are some of the features they add:

  • A real SMTP agent (exim4-daemon-light) so that cron and friends can actually send you mail
  • SSH client and server (optionally exposed to the Internet)
  • Automatic security patching via unattended-upgrades and needsrestart

All of the above, including the optional features, has an 11MB overhead on start. Not bad for so much, right?

From here, you can layer on top all your usual Dockery things. You can still run one application per container. But you can now make sure your disk doesn’t fill up from logs, run your database vacuuming commands at will, have your blog download its RSS feeds every few minutes, etc — all from within the container, as it should be. Furthermore, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel, because Debian already ships with things to take care of a lot of this out of the box — and now those tools will just work.

There is some popular work done in this area already by phusion’s baseimage-docker. However, I made my own for these reasons:

  • I wanted something based on Debian rather than Ubuntu
  • By using sysvinit rather than runit, the OS default init scripts can be used unmodified, reducing the administrative burden on container builders
  • Phusion’s system is, for some reason, not auto-built on the Docker hub. Mine is, so it will be automatically revised whenever the underlying Debian system, or the Github repository, is.

Finally a word on the choice to use sysvinit. It would have been simpler to use systemd here, since it is the default in Debian these days. Unfortunately, systemd requires you to poke some holes in the Docker security model, as well as mount a cgroups filesystem from the host. I didn’t consider this acceptable, and sysvinit ran without these workarounds, so I went with it.

With all this, Docker becomes a viable replacement for KVM for various services on my internal networks. I’ll be writing about that later.

Silent Data Corruption Is Real

Here’s something you never want to see:

ZFS has detected a checksum error:

   eid: 138
 class: checksum
  host: alexandria
  time: 2017-01-29 18:08:10-0600
 vtype: disk

This means there was a data error on the drive. But it’s worse than a typical data error — this is an error that was not detected by the hardware. Unlike most filesystems, ZFS and btrfs write a checksum with every block of data (both data and metadata) written to the drive, and the checksum is verified at read time. Most filesystems don’t do this, because theoretically the hardware should detect all errors. But in practice, it doesn’t always, which can lead to silent data corruption. That’s why I use ZFS wherever I possibly can.

As I looked into this issue, I saw that ZFS repaired about 400KB of data. I thought, “well, that was unlucky” and just ignored it.

Then a week later, it happened again. Pretty soon, I noticed it happened every Sunday, and always to the same drive in my pool. It so happens that the highest I/O load on the machine happens on Sundays, because I have a cron job that runs zpool scrub on Sundays. This operation forces ZFS to read and verify the checksums on every block of data on the drive, and is a nice way to guard against unreadable sectors in rarely-used data.

I finally swapped out the drive, but to my frustration, the new drive now exhibited the same issue. The SATA protocol does include a CRC32 checksum, so it seemed (to me, at least) that the problem was unlikely to be a cable or chassis issue. I suspected motherboard.

It so happened I had a 9211-8i SAS card. I had purchased it off eBay awhile back when I built the server, but could never get it to see the drives. I wound up not filling it up with as many drives as planned, so the on-board SATA did the trick. Until now.

As I poked at the 9211-8i, noticing that even its configuration utility didn’t see any devices, I finally started wondering if the SAS/SATA breakout cables were a problem. And sure enough – I realized I had a “reverse” cable and needed a “forward” one. $14 later, I had the correct cable and things are working properly now.

One other note: RAM errors can sometimes cause issues like this, but this system uses ECC DRAM and the errors would be unlikely to always manifest themselves on a particular drive.

So over the course of this, had I not been using ZFS, I would have had several megabytes of reads with undetected errors. Thanks to using ZFS, I know my data integrity is still good.

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.


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]

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

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 line:

auth       required nullok

The reason you put this after 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]

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.