Flatpak: pre-assembled furniture applications for Linux

February 23rd, 2018 by

Flatpack is furniture you build yourself. Flatpak is preassembled applications for Linux. This is apparently not at all confusing. (image thanks to https://www.flickr.com/photos/51pct/)

Flatpak provides Linux desktop applications in a secure sandbox which can be installed and run independently of the underlying Linux distribution. Application developers can produce one Flatpak and select the versions of libraries that their application is built, tested and run with so it’s easy for users on any Linux OS to get whatever was intended by the application developer.

Flathub is a distribution service to make sure that Flatpaks are available for popular Linux desktop applications, and at its heart is a private cloud running BuiltBot which builds popular Linux and free/open source desktop apps in Flatpak format. This lives in Mythic Beasts’ Cambridge data centre.

At Mythic Beasts we like this idea so much we offered them lots of free bandwidth (100TB) to help get them started. We’ve now upgraded this with a pair of virtual machines in our core Docklands sites to provide redundancy and more grunt for traffic serving.


Some of their users noticed and were appreciative immediately:

16:30:00irc wow! Flathub is *so* much faster i’m getting like 10 MB/s compared to less than 1 this morning … and the search is now instant

Chrome to brand non-HTTPS sites as “insecure” – time to click the button

February 12th, 2018 by

As reported by The Register, sites which do not use HTTPS will soon be actively labelled as “insecure” by the Chrome browser. HTTPS is the secure form of HTTP that makes the little green padlock appear in browsers.

Ultimately, sites which use HTTP are going to be labelled like this:

Example of HTTP site labelled as "not secure"

Not subtle, eh?

The Reg article suggests that initial changes will be deployed July 2018, and will be a little more subtle, but with Chrome having 55-60% market share, it really is time to switch your website to HTTPS.

Fortunately, if you’re hosted with Mythic Beasts this is really easy.  All of our hosting accounts include free SSL (aka TLS) certificates (provided by Let’s Encrypt), and you can enable HTTPS hosting by just clicking a button in the control panel.  Here’s how:

Enabling HTTPS for your Mythic Beasts-hosted website

First, log in to our customer control panel, click on “Hosting and shell accounts”, and click through to the hosting account for your site.  Now find your site in the list, and click on “web settings”:

If you have both a “www” prefixed and bare version, as above, you’ll want to do both. 

On the web settings page, scroll down to the “security” section:

Screen shot of security settingsYou almost certainly want the third option: this will enable HTTPS hosting, and ensure that users see the secure version of the site by default.  (Once you’re happy that your HTTPS site is working exactly as you want it, you could consider switching to the fourth option).

Click, hit “save changes”:

Screenshot of "changes saved" messageWe’ve got plans to make this faster, but for the moment, you’ll need to wait a few minutes.  We’ll go and obtain a certificate for your site, and once installed update your site so that it redirects to the HTTPS by default.

Screenshot of HTTPS location bar

Bingo!

If you haven’t got a working HTTPS site within 10 minutes, email us – we’re here to help.

Any gotchas?

The instructions here will only work if the HTTP version of your site is hosted by Mythic Beasts.   If you’re configuring a new site with Mythic Beasts, make sure that you can access your site via HTTP before enabling HTTPS.

If you’re transferring a site to us that is already using HTTPS, please see our transfer in instructions for how to do this with an interruption to service.

Managed hosting

We’ve been deploying HTTPS as the default for customers of our managed services for some time. We’re going to be doing an audit of all managed sites to warn customers of this upcoming change, but in the meantime, if you’re a managed customer with an http site, just email us and we’ll sort it out.

Domain price reductions

February 9th, 2018 by

Fortunately we don’t buy domains in Bitcoin

Most of our domains are billed to us in US Dollars, so our pricing is at the mercy of the GBP/USD exchange rate.  The pound has strengthened significantly against the dollar since we last reviewed our pricing, so we’ve just rolled out reductions on many of our domain registration prices.  For example, .com domains drop by £2 to £11 + VAT, and .cymru (which, confusingly, we buy in dollars) drops by £3.50 to £22.

We aim to offer straightforward, no-nonsense pricing with no unsustainable introductory discounts that punish customer loyalty with inflated prices in subsequent years.  We price our domains at a level that allows us to properly support our customers.

 

Meltdown and Spectre

January 17th, 2018 by

A rack of Pi 3s… possibly the only cloud computers immune to Spectre?

There’s been a lot of activity in the news regarding two new security issues called Meltdown and Spectre.

The security issues are newsworthy because they’re different to any security issues we’ve seen before. They’re not an issue in software, but in your computer itself. As a result the vulnerabilities cross multiple operating systems – Windows/Linux/OSX and multiple devices – Laptop/Desktop/Server/Phone, and they’re also a lot harder to fix.  Meltdown affects only Intel processors.  Spectre also affects AMD, Power, RISC and some ARM CPUs.

If you’d like to know how the vulnerabilities work, Eben Upton wrote up a clear explanation for Raspberry Pi – the only common functional computer that isn’t affected.

At present the fixes for Meltdown are effective but can cause significant slowdowns. Fixes for Spectre are incomplete and we have had reports that they can cause instability in Haswell and Broadwell families of Intel CPUs (which we own). Spectre is difficult and slow to exploit because it relies on reading memory one bit at a time.  At 1500bytes/second a full memory dump of one of our virtual server hosts (256GB RAM) would take around six years to complete.

Impact

Both issues allow information leakage so that lower priority processes on a server can read secret data from higher priority processes on the same CPU.  Any computer that accepts instructions from an untrustworthy source is at risk.  We’ve reviewed the impact across all of our services, and have applied or will be applying patches as required.  The impact on live hosting platforms is as follows:

Shared hosting servers

Our web hosting and shell account hosting platforms may have untrustworthy users on them. These servers have already been fully patched against Meltdown and fixes for Spectre will be applied as they become available.

Virtual server hosts

Our Virtual Server Cloud uses KVM with hardware virtualisation which is not vulnerable to Meltdown. Spectre patches are being worked on for the kernel which require new microcode for the CPU. KVM will also need to be updated to fully patch. When these updates are available and have been demonstrated to be stable we will be applying them to our host servers.

This will require a restart of our VM hosts and all guest VMs. Customers will be notified in advance of requiring a restart and each of our datacentres will be restarted at a different time to minimise disruption to customers with split site services.

Virtual server guests

Whilst the use of KVM with hardware virtualisation ensures that Meltdown cannot be used to break the isolation between virtual server guests, virtual servers themselves are potentially vulnerable to both Meltdown and Spectre.   Customers should ensure that their servers are patched and rebooted if they have untrusted users or execute untrusted code.

Dedicated servers

Dedicated servers are at no significant risk unless you allow untrusted third parties to upload and execute code. If that’s the case managed customers can contact support@mythic-beasts.com and we’ll apply the Meltdown and Spectre fixes and reboot as a mutually convenient time.

Raspberry Pi 3 servers

As mentioned above, the Raspberry Pi is not affected and no action is needed.

All other systems

We have reviewed the risk to all other systems and are applying patches as required.  This has included patching, as a high priority, all staff desktops and laptops; websites are allowed to execute javascript which can be used to execute a successful Meltdown attack.

Capacity upgrades, cheaper bandwidth and new fibre

December 8th, 2017 by

We don’t need these Giant Scary Laser stickers yet.

We’ve recently upgraded both our LONAP connections to 10Gbps at our two London POPs bring our total external capacity to 62Gbps.

We’ve been a member of LONAP, the London Network Access Point, since we first started running our own network. LONAP is an internet exchange, mutually owned by several hundred members. Each member connects to LONAP’s switches and can arrange to exchange traffic directly with other members without passing through another internet provider. This makes our internet traffic more stable because we have more available routes, faster because our connections go direct between source and recipient with fewer hops and usually cheaper too.

Since we joined, both we and LONAP have grown. Initially we had two 1Gbps connections, one in each of our two core sites. If one failed the other could take over the traffic. Recently we’ve been running both connections near capacity much of the time and in the event of failure of either link we’d have to fall back to a less direct, slower and more expensive route. Time to upgrade.

The upgrade involved moving from a copper CAT5e connection to optic fibre. As a company run by physics graduates this is an excellent excuse to add yet more LASERs to our collection. Sadly the LASERs aren’t very exciting, being 1310nm they’re invisible to the naked eye and for safety reasons they’re very low powered (~1mW). Not only will they not set things on fire (bad) they also won’t blind you if you accidentally look down the fibre (good). This is not universally true for all optic fibre though; DWDM systems can have nearly 100 invisible laser beams in the same fibre at 100x the power output each. Do not look down optic fibre!

The first upgrade at Sovereign House went smoothly, bringing online the first 10Gbps LONAP link. In Harbour Exchange proved a little more problematic.  We initially had a problem with an incompatible optical transceiver. Once replaced, we then saw a further issue with the link being unstable which was resolved by changing the switch port and optical transceiver at LONAP’s end. We then had further low level bit errors resulting in packet loss for large packets. This was eventually traced to a marginal optical patch lead. Many thanks to Rob Lister of LONAP support for quickly resolving this for us.

With the upgrade completed, we now have two 10Gbps connections to LONAP, in addition to our two 10Gbps connections into the London Internet Exchange and multiple 10Gbps transit uplinks, as well as some 1Gbps private connections to some especially important peers.

To celebrate this we’re dropping our bandwidth excess pricing to 1p/GB for all London based services.  The upgrades leave us even better placed to offer very competitive quotes on high bandwidth servers, as well as IPv6 and IPv4 transit in Harbour Exchange, Meridian Gate and Sovereign House.  Please contact us at sales@mythic-beasts.com for more information.

Sender Rewriting Scheme

October 30th, 2017 by

tl;dr: SRS changes the sender address when you forward email so it doesn’t get filed as spam.

We’ve just deployed an update to our hosting accounts that allows you to enable Sender Rewriting Scheme when forwarding mail for your domain.

We’ve previously mentioned how we’re seeing increased adoption of Sender Policy Framework (SPF), a system for ensuring that mail from a domain only comes from authorised servers. Whilst this may or may not reduce spam, it does very reliably break email forwarding.

If someone at sender.com sends you an email to you at yourdomain.com and you forward it on to your address at youremailprovider.com, the email that arrives at your final address will come from the mail server hosting yourdomain.com which almost certainly isn’t listed as a valid sender in the SPF record for sender.com.  Your email provider may reject the mail, or flag it as “untrusted”.

To fix this, we need a different TLA: SRS, or Sender Rewriting Scheme. As the name suggests, this rewrites the sender address of a forwarded email, from one in a domain that you don’t control (sender.com) to one that you do (yourdomain.com).

In the example above, the actual rewritten address would be something like:

SRS0-9oge=B5=sender.com=them@yourdomain.com

This includes an encoded version of the original address, and any email sent to it will be routed back to the sender.  This means that any bounces messages will end up in the right place.

The sender and recipient in these examples refer to the “envelope” sender and receiver.  The addresses that are normally visible to users are the “from” and “to” headers, which may be different and are unaffected by sender rewriting.  Applying SRS should be invisible to the end users.

SRS is now available as an option whenever you create or edit a forwarder using the customer control panel for email accounts hosted on our main hosting servers.  If your account is hosted on sphinx, we need to do a little extra magic to enable it, so please email support.

Education, and the teacher becomes the student.

October 6th, 2017 by

Learn more about XSS with Google

For a long time we’ve sponsored Gwiddle, a project that outgrew its hosting on Microsoft Azure, providing free hosting accounts for students. They’ve now become a fully fledged charity, The Gwiddle Foundation, and we’ve had to upgrade the servers we donated to accommodate their ever expanding user base.

Part of their security team is the very talented Aaron Esau (15), who recently applied his penetration testing skills to our website and picked up a difficult to exploit bug.

On our page that allows you to search for domain names, our code embedded the search terms in the results page without appropriately escaping the content. This is a classic cross site scripting bug. Exploiting this bug was far from trivial, as the search term had to be short and from a restricted character set.

Aaron managed to craft an exploit using an ingeniously short payload to extract a session cookie and has posted a full write-up of the vulnerability and exploit.

If you had recently logged into our control panel, not logged out, and then visited a malicious page with this exploit, then the attacker could steal a cookie which would, in theory, give the attacker access to your control panel pages. However, we practise defence in depth, and our cookies are tied to an IP address so simply stealing the session cookie doesn’t give you access unless you also share a source IP address. This is an example where NAT and IPv4 is less secure than having IPv6.

Once Aaron brought the bug to our attention we swiftly fixed the page, thanked him for notifying us and sent him an Amazon voucher to thank him for his time and responsible disclosure.

We should emphasise that we do not believe that anyone has ever attempted to exploit this bug, and that the IP restrictions on session cookies mean that the consequences were fully mitigated.

Nonetheless, it’s embarrassing for us to have such a stupid bug in our code and we’ve been investigating how it occurred. It seems that the reason it crept in is because the domain ordering pages use a different form framework from everything else. Most of our pages have HTML generated by a template, and wherever dynamic data is included, it’s run through a filter to escape any HTML characters. The domain ordering pages use a different approach with much of the HTML being generated by a form module which we then include verbatim into our output. Obviously the HTML in this data mustn’t be escaped, as it would break the form; the form module is responsible for escaping any user input. Unfortunately, there are some other parts of the page which don’t come from the form module, and so do need to be escaped. It’s not very clear from the template code which is which, leading to the bug of not escaping some fields.

CAA records

September 1st, 2017 by

A handful of the hundreds of different organisations, all of whom must be trustworthy.

Everybody knows that SSL is a good idea. It secures communications. At the heart of SSL is a list of certificate authorities. These are organisations that the confirm the identity of the SSL certificate. For example, if GeoTrust says that Raspberry Pi is Raspberry Pi we know that we’re talking to the right site and our communications aren’t being sniffed.

However, the list of certificate authorities is large and growing and as it stands, you’ve got to trust all of them to only issue certificates to the right people. Of course, through incompetence or malice, they can make mistakes.

CAA records are a relatively new mechanism that aims to stop this happening, making it harder to impersonate secure organisations, execute bank robberies and steal peoples’ identities.



CAA records enable you to list in your domain’s DNS the certificate authorities that are allowed to issue certificates for your domain. So, Google has a record stating that only Google and Symantec are allowed to issue certificates for google.com. If someone manages to persuade Comodo they are Google and should be issued a google.com certificate, Comodo will be obliged to reject the request based on the CAA records.

Of course, in order to be of any use, you need to be able to trust the DNS records. Fortunately, these days we have DNSSEC (dns security).

How does it work?

A typical CAA record looks something like this:

example.com. IN CAA 3600 0 issue "letsencrypt.org"

This states that only Let’s Encrypt may issue certificates for example.com or its subdomains, such as www.example.com.

Going through each part in turn:

  • example.com – the name of the hostname to which the record apply. In our DNS interface, you can use a hostname of “@” to refer to your domain.
  • IN CAA – the record type.
  • 3600 – the “time to live” (TTL). The amount of time, in seconds, for which this record may be cached.
  • 0 – any CAA flags
  • issue– the type of property defined by this record (see below)
  • "letsencrypt.org" – the value of the property

At present, there are three defined property types:

  • issue – specifies which authorities may issue certificates of any type for this hostname
  • issuewild – specifies which authorities may issue wildcard certificates for this hostname
  • iodef – provides a URL for authorities to contact in the event of an attempt to issue an unauthorised certificate

CAA records can be added using the new section at the bottom of the DNS management page in our control panel:

The @ in the first field denotes a record that applies to the domain itself.

At Mythic Beasts, we’re a bit skeptical about the value of CAA records. In order to protect against the incompetence of CAs, they rely on CAs competently checking the CAA records before issuing certificates. That said, they do provide a straightforward check that CAs can build into their automated processes to detect and reject unauthorised requests, so publishing CAA records will raise the bar somewhat for anyone looking to fraudulently obtain a certificate for your domain.

Raspbian Stretch now available in the Raspberry Pi Cloud

August 31st, 2017 by

A very short service announcement.

Raspbian Stretch is now available for Raspberry Pis hosted in our Raspberry Pi Cloud. This joins Raspbian Jessie and Ubuntu Xenial as available images. With all of these you can upload an SSH key through our control panel and log in directly. Re-imaging and rebooting can both also be done directly from our control panel.

Re-imaging your Raspberry Pi will reset the image and delete all data on your Cloud Pi.

On the server side the most significant upgrade is PHP 7, which should double the performance of PHP-based applications running on the Raspberry Pi.

rm -rf /var

August 10th, 2017 by

Within Mythic Beasts we have an internal chat room that uses IRC (this is like Slack but free and securely stores all the history on our servers). Our monitoring system is called Ankou, named after Death’s henchman that watches over the dead, and has an IRC bot that alerts through our chat room.

This story starts with Ankoubot, who was the first to notice something was wrong with the world.

15:25:31

15:25:31 ankoubot managed vds:abcdefg-ssh [NNNN-ssh]: 46.235.N.N => bad banner from `46.235.N.N’: [46.235.N.N – VDShost:vds-hex-f]
15:25:31 ankoubot managed vds:abcdefg-web [NNNN-web]: http://www.abcdefg.co.uk/ => Status 404 (<html> <head><title>404 Not Found</title></head> <body bgcolor=”white”> <center><h1>404 Not Found</h1></center> <hr><center>nginx/1.10.3</center> </body> </html…) [46.235.N.N www.abcdefg.co.uk VDShost:vds-hex-f]

15:31:42

15:31:42pete I can’t get ssh in, I’m on the console.

15:38:16

15:38:16pete This is an extremely broken install. ssh is blocked, none of the bind mounts work

Debugging is difficult because /var/log is missing. systemd appears completely unable to function and we have no functioning logging. Unable to get ssh to start and fighting multiple broken tools due to missing mounts, we restart the server and mail the customer explaining what we’ve discovered so far. This doesn’t help and it hangs attempting to configure NFS mounts.

15:53:53

15:56:35

Boot to recovery media completes ready for restore from backup.

15:58:34

16:05:07

16:08:36

16:08:36 ankoubot managed vds:abcdefg-ssh [NNNN-ssh]: back to normal
16:08:36 ankoubot managed vds:abcdefg-web [NNNN-web]: back to normal

16:14:22

16:31:42

Customer confirms everything is restored and functional and gives permission to anonymously write up the incident for our blog including the following quote.

Mythic Beasts had come highly recommended to me for the level of support provided, and when it came to crunch time they were reacting to the problem before I’d even raised a support ticket.
This is exactly what we were looking for in a managed hosting provider, and I’m really glad we made the choice. Hopefully however, I won’t be causing quiet the same sort of problem for a looooong while.

In total the customer was offline for slightly over 30 minutes, after what can best be described as a catastrophic administrator error.