Let’s Encrypt SSL Certificates using DNS API – HOWTO

March 16th, 2016 by

Here at Mythic Beasts, we’ve been busily undermining sales of our SSL certificates by rolling out support for free certificates from Let’s Encrypt, partly because we think that the internet should be secure by default, but mostly because we’re lazy and Let’s Encrypt makes it easy to fully automate certificate issue and deployment.

Domain validated certificates

The majority of SSL certificates in use today are “Domain Validated” certificates. These are issued automatically by a certificate authority once you have completed some action that proves that you are in control of the domain for which the certificate is being requested. This can include responding to an email send to an address at your domain, or posting a file to a specific location on your website.

Let’s Encrypt DNS challenge

One of the options for validation offered by Let’s Encrypt is a DNS challenge (known as “dns-01”), whereby you prove ownership of your domain by adding a specific entry to its DNS zone. This option is quite interesting, as it allows you to avoid meddling in any way with your web server configuration and, if your DNS is hosted with Mythic Beasts, you can automate the addition of the necessary records using our DNS API.

Automating via our DNS API

In order to support this, we’ve developed a hook script that works with the letsencrypt.sh client.

We’ve also written a step-by-step guide to configuring dns-01 validation using our DNS API.

Please note, if you’re a hosting account customer, you don’t need to worry about any of this. You can get an SSL certificate for your website simply by hitting a button in the control panel.

Thanks go to David Earl for testing this and providing the initial implementation of the hook script..

Additional Managed Rack Capacity

March 14th, 2016 by

We’ve spent even more time than usual in data centres recently as we’ve been kitting out our new cage in the Meridian Gate data centre.

Much of the new capacity is being deployed as “managed racks”.  Racks are generally supplied with the bare essentials of electricity, cooling and locked doors.  At Mythic Beasts, we transform them into managed racks, including all the features you need to effectively administer your equipment remotely, including:

logging serial consoles

Logging serial consoles

  • Internet connectivity – we’ve got 10Gbps connections onto both LINX networks, connecting at different sites.  We’ve also got multiple transit providers, and are present on the LoNAP peering exchange.   Our network has native IPv6 support, and if you have your own address space, we can provide you with BGP feeds from our routers. We can also offer private LANs, both as VLANs or as physically separate networks.
  • Remote power management – power cycle your server immediately, at any time using our customer control panel.
  • Serial connectivity – a 115.2kbps serial connection may seem a bit old fashioned in an age when we’re wiring our switches together at 40Gbps, but they remain an extremely effective mechanism for out-of-band control of servers and other equipment, particularly when coupled with our logging serial console software.
  • On-site support – all of our London facilities have 24/7 access to the data centres’ on-site engineers.  We are also able to arrange for our own staff to carry out routine maintenance, such as replacing failed hard drives.

Meridian Gate is the third London data centre in which we have a presence, along with Sovereign House and Harbour Exchange, with the three sites connected by our own dark fibre ring.

One-click DNSSEC – public beta

March 4th, 2016 by

It’s been a long time coming, but we’re now pleased to announce that we’ve got DNSSEC support in public beta, and you can enable it for your domain at the click of a button.

What is DNSSEC?

DNSSEC is a set of extensions to the DNS protocol that ensures that you can trust the IP addresses that you get back from the DNS system. For example, if you visit www.yourbank.com, the first thing that happens is that your browser uses a DNS server to find out the IP address of your bank’s web server. But how do you know that you can trust the address that you get back? Your request will probably get bounced through multiple DNS servers, such as your home router, your ISPs servers, and finally the authoritative server for the domain. If any one of those gets compromised (and let’s face it, home routers have a terrible security record) it could easily insert a different IP address and direct your request to an entirely different server.

DNSSEC means that all responses are signed with encryption keys that have been lodged with the registry, so you can’t inject bogus responses just by compromising an intermediate server.  Of course, the system only works if the systems making the requests check the signatures of the responses that they receive, something which certainly doesn’t happen everywhere yet.

Sounds complicated?

Yes it is, particularly as it is recommended that the encryption keys that you use are changed (or “rotated”) regularly. Fortunately, we’ve now automated all the hard stuff, and if you’ve got your domain registration and DNS hosting with Mythic Beasts, you can make DNSSEC go just by hitting a big green button.  We’ll take care of the rest:

Screen Shot 2016-02-29 at 18.37.29

Unlike some people, we believe that the internet should be a safe place to do business by default, so this service is, and will continue to be, provided at no extra cost.

If you want to try it out, simply visit our control panel, find the domain under “My Domains” and follow the “DNSSEC” link.

UK domain price rises

February 5th, 2016 by
You could save as much as this by renewing early

You could save as much as this by renewing early

On 1st March, Nominet (the UK domain registry) are raising their wholesale prices by 50% for all registration periods except 1 year registrations (which are rising by less, but are currently disproportionately expensive), and we will be applying corresponding increases to our prices for these domains.

If your domain is due for renewal in the next six months, you can save a few quid by renewing early.  You can renew your domain in advance for up to nine years.

Our new and old prices are as follows:

Period
(years)
Old price
(ex VAT)
New price
(ex VAT)
1 £5.42 £5.83
2 £7.50 £11.25
5 £17.92 £26.67
9 £30.00 £45.00
10 £32.50 £48.75

Free SSL certificates for hosting accounts

January 29th, 2016 by

Customers with hosting accounts on either yali or onza can now get free SSL certificates for websites, allowing you to have an https version of your website. We’re using the Let’s Encrypt certificate authority to provide the certificates.

To get a certificate and enable https hosting for your site, simply press the button in the control panel, and within 5 minutes you should have a working https site.  You can find the option under “Web and Email Hosting“.

Free SSL at the press of a button

Free SSL at the press of a button

Let’s Encrypt certificates have a short expiry period, but we will take care of automatically renewing them for you.

Why use HTTPS/SSL?

Using SSL on your website means that traffic between our server and your user’s computers is encrypted and can’t be intercepted (despite David Cameron’s desires).  It allows browsers to guarantee that they are indeed talking to the website shown in the address bar, even if they are using an untrusted network connection.  Even if you don’t view the security aspects as a benefit, Google have previously announced that they will boost the page ranking of SSL-enabled sites.

Sphinx accounts

Unfortunately, this service is not yet available to customers on our sphinx server.  We are working on that, and will have it enabled in the near future.

IPv4 to IPv6 Reverse Proxy & Load Balancer

October 5th, 2015 by
cloud-ipv6

IPv6-only in the cloud just became possible

We have been offering IPv6-only Virtual Servers for some time, but until now they’ve been of limited use for public-facing services as most users don’t yet have a working IPv6 connection.

Our new, free IPv4 to IPv6 Reverse Proxy service provides a shared front-end server with an IPv4 address that will proxy requests through to your IPv6-only server. The service will proxy both HTTP and HTTPS requests.  For HTTPS, we use the SNI extension so the proxy can direct the traffic without needing to decrypt it. This means that the proxy does not need access to your SSL keys, and the connection remains end-to-end encrypted between the user’s browser and your server.

The service allows you to specify multiple backend servers, so if you have more than one server with us, it will load balance across them.

The IPv4 to IPv6 Reverse Proxy can be configured through our customer control panel. Front ends can be configured for hostnames within domains that are registered with us, or for which we provide DNS.

BOGOF on .uk domains, cheap .beer and lots more

September 4th, 2015 by

Nominet are celebrating 30 years of .uk with a buy one, get one free offer on .uk domains. The offer applies to one and two year registrations of new .uk, .co.uk, .org.uk and .me.uk domains bought within a 7 day period.

If you’d like to take advantage of the offer, simply register the first domain through our website in the normal way, and then email us with the name of the second domain you’d like to register.

We’ve also got promotions available on lots of other domains. The discounts offered vary quite a lot by registry, particularly when it comes to multi-year bundles. Some of the best discounts are available for .beer, .host and .site.

Please see our Domains Page for the full list of current discounts.

Snapshot Backups – Public Beta

August 21st, 2015 by

VPS snapshots
We’ve just launched a public beta test of a new service available on all of our virtual servers: snapshot backups.

Snapshot Backups make it trivial to set up backups of your virtual server. Simply select how many daily, weekly, and monthly backups you’d like to retain, and what time of day you want the backups taken, and we’ll do the rest.

Snapshot backup configuration

Snapshots work by taking an instantaneous image of your virtual server’s disk, which is then placed into our storage cloud.

The service is priced based on the size of your server’s disk, and the number of backups you choose to retain. You can alter your backup retention policy at any time.

During the public beta, the service is being charged at half price. If you want to try it out, simply click on the “Backups” section of your virtual server’s control panel. If you have any feedback, please do let us know.

Five reasons why you should have your own domain for your email

July 24th, 2015 by

canstockphoto5518994

0. We sell domain names

OK, we lied, it’s six reasons, but the first probably isn’t very compelling so let’s get it out of the way first: buying domains gives us beer money.

Obviously we’ve got a commercial interest here, but Mythic Beasts exists because a bunch of students spotted that their university-provided email addresses would stop working once they graduated. We’ve now had the same personal email addresses for over 15 years.

1. Provider independence

This is the big one. Changing your email address is a massive pain. Not only do you need to tell all your human correspondents about your new address, but you need to tell just about every site that you’ve ever logged on to. Most sites use your email address to identify you, and that’s the only address that you can get a password reset sent to if you forget it.

Not so long ago, many people used the “free” addresses provided by their broadband (or dial-up) provider. This had the obvious problem that changing broadband providers meant changing your email address. Having your own domain puts you in control.

2. Real provider independence

Realising the problem of having your email address tied to your connectivity provider, many people have switched to using an address from a free email provider such as Gmail or Yahoo!, but this is really just moving the same problem elsewhere: your email address is now tied to your email provider.

What happens when you get fed up with the amount of advertising you’re exposed to in order to fund your “free” email account? Or your provider changes their email policy in a way that causes your address to be banned from mailing lists? Or you discover that the provider’s anti-spam policy is binning your legitimate email? Or they simply change their web interface in a way that you don’t like?

By using your own domain name, you retain choice of email provider.

3. Disposable addresses

It’s hard to do anything online without being asked to provide an email address, but how can you trust that your address isn’t going to be added to a spam list? If you have your own domain, you can have as many addresses as you want. You can even have “wildcard” addresses so that you can make up new addresses on the spot. For example, if my address is paul@example.com and I want to sign up to a service at www.somedodgysite.com, I could invent an address of:

paul-somedodgysite@example.com

If I start getting spam sent to that address then firstly, I know which site lost or sold my details and secondly, I can easily setup a rule to bin all mail to that address.

4. More interesting and memorable addresses

Unless you’re lucky enough to have a particularly uncommon name, any address you can get at the big free mail providers is likely to be some complex variant of your name. With your own domain name, you’ve got complete control. You could even have just a single letter such as p@example.com.

This also means that it’s less likely that your email will end up in someone else’s inbox by mistake. If one of your friends forgets that you’re joebloggs1937@gmail.com rather than just joebloggs@gmail.com, the email will get delivered to someone else. With your own domain, it’s far more likely that typo-ed addresses will get bounced, and the sender will notice the mistake.

5. Domains are cheap

We sell UK domains for just £7+VAT for two years. £3.75 a year is a tiny price to pay for being in control of your own online identity. There’s also now a huge variety of generic top-level domains that can be had for not much more – .beer, .bike, .click, .cymru, .engineer, .guru, .scot, .wales, .wtf and hundreds more.

Of course, to use your domain, you’ll need somewhere to host it. We can sell you a hosting account too, but you don’t have to use us if you don’t want to. That’s the point!

The hazards of 301 (permanent) redirects

June 15th, 2015 by

When you visit a web page, you’ll often see the URL change as it loads.  For example, if you attempt to visit http://mythic-beasts.com you’ll end up at https://www.mythic-beasts.com .   This is achieved using HTTP redirects, a response from a server that tells your browser that the page it is trying to load has moved.

HTTP redirects come in two flavours:

Permanent (301)
This tells the client that the page requested has moved permanently, and crucially, if it wants to load the page again, it needn’t bother checking the old URL to see if the situation has changed. This is a good way of redirecting something that you never want to undo, for example, if you’re permanently moving a website from one domain to another.
Temporary (302)
As the name suggests, this tells the client that the page has moved, but only temporarily, so the client should continue requesting the old URL if it wants to load the page again. This is a good way of telling users that your site is down for maintenance, that they they don’t have enough credit to access a site, or of some other issue that is likely to change.

#makeitwrong

three-301-fail

Getting this wrong can be a massive pain for your users. For example, Three use a permanent redirect if you’ve run out of credit on your data plan, or you’re trying to use tethering in the wrong country, or some other temporary problem.

So imagine what happens when you run out of data on your plan. You attempt to visit your favourite website, say, http://www.xkcd.com . Three tell you that that page has been replaced by http://tethering.three.co.uk/TetherNoProductPost. Permanently.

Now find a working internet connection, attempt to load http://www.xkcd.com, and find that your browser quite reasonably takes you straight to the Three fail page, even if you’re no longer using a Three connection. Shift+Reload doesn’t help, even restarting your browser may not help.

Three have told your browser that every page you visited whilst out of credit has moved permanently to their fail page.

Expiring permanent redirects

The example given above is very obviously a place where a temporary 302 redirect should be used, but webmasters are often encouraged to prefer 301s in the name of improving search rankings. 301 redirects allow you to tell search engines that your .co.uk site really is the same site as your .com site, thus accumulating all your google juice in the right place. They also save a small amount of time in loading the page by avoiding an unnecessary HTTP request.

Even when used legitimately, 301 redirects are obviously hazardous, as there’s no way to undo a permanent redirect once it’s been cached by a client.

The safe way to do a 301 redirect is to specify that it will expire, even if you don’t expect to ever change it. This can be done using the Cache-Control header. For example, the redirect that we issue for http://mythic-beasts.com includes the following header:

Cache-Control: max-age=3600

This tells clients that they can remember the redirect for at most one hour, allowing us to change it relatively easily at some point in the future. We use the mod_expires Apache module to create this header, which also produces an equivalent “Expires” header (the old HTTP 1.0 equivalent of Cache-Control).

.htaccess example

The above can be implemented using a .htaccess file as follows:

ExpiresActive on
ExpiresDefault "access plus 1 hour"
Redirect 301 / https://www.mythic-beasts.com/

mod_rewrite example

Redirects are often implemented using Apache’s mod_rewrite. Unfortunately, mod_expires doesn’t apply headers to RewriteRules, but mod_header can be used instead:

RewriteRule ^.* http://www.mythic-beasts.com/ [L,R=301,E=limitcache:1]
Header always set Cache-Control "max-age=3600" env=limitcache

The RewriteRule is used to sent an environment variable which is used to conditionally add a Cache-Control header. Thanks to Mark Kolich’s blog for the inspiration.

Escaping 301 hell

Fortunately, if you’re unlucky enough to get caught by a broken 301 redirect, such as the one issued by Three, there is an easy way to get to the page you actually wanted: simply append a query string to the end of the URL. For example, http://www.xkcd.com/?foo=bar. Browsers won’t assume that the cached redirect is valid for this new URL and websites will almost always ignore unexpected query parameters.

2015-07-03 – Updated to add mod_rewrite example