Updates to sympl to continue to support Let’s Encrypt

October 25th, 2019 by

Before you 3D print the keys from the photo, you should know they are no longer in use.

We’ve now updated Sympl to support the new ACME v2 protocol for long term Let’s Encrypt support.

Let’s Encrypt is changing the protocol for obtaining and renewing certificates from ACME v1, to ACME v2 and the version 1 protocol is now end-of-life. In the next few days (1st November) this means that new accounts will no longer be able to be registered which will prevent new sites obtaining SSL certificates. Final end of life occurs in 2021 when certificate renewals will start to generate errors and then fail entirely.

Symbiosis is now end of life, as Sympl is an actively developed fork we’d recommend any Symbiosis users migrate to Sympl. We’d also recommend our managed hosting as a good place to run your Sympl server.

Multiple Mythic Beasts staff members contributed to this update.

Let’s Encrypt support for older Debian

October 9th, 2019 by
seure cat

This cat is secure, but not dehydrated. (Credit Lizzie Charlton, @LizzieCharlton

Debian Jessie and Debian Stretch include dehydrated, a useful command line tool for managing Let’s Encrypt certificates. We use it fairly extensively for managing certificates throughout our servers and with our managed customers. Unfortunately due to a change in capitalisation at Let’s Encrypt, the standard copy of dehydrated shipped with Debian Jessie and Debian Stretch is no longer compatible. As there’s no package in backports, we’ve spun our own packages of a newer version of dehydrated which is available on our mirror server.

If you use the older version you’ll see an error like


{
"type": "urn:acme:error:badNonce",
"detail": "JWS has no anti-replay nonce",
"status": 400
}

or


{
“type”: “urn:ietf:params:acme:error:malformed”,
“detail”: “Malformed account ID in KeyID header URL: “https://acme-v02.api.letsencrypt.org/acme/acct/””,
“status”: 400
}

The fix is very simple, you just need to install our dehydrated packages. This is very easy to do.

First add our signing keys


wget -O - -q https://mirror.mythic-beasts.com/mythic/support@mythic-beasts.com.gpg.key | apt-key add -

Then the correct repository based on your version of Debian

echo deb http://packages.mythic-beasts.com/mythic/ jessie main >/etc/apt/sources.list.d/packages.mythic-beasts.com.list

or

echo deb http://packages.mythic-beasts.com/mythic/ stretch main >/etc/apt/sources.list.d/packages.mythic-beasts.com.list

then

apt-get update
apt-get install --only-upgrade dehydrated
dehydrated -c

and your copy of dehydrated will be updated to 0.6 and your certificates can be created as normal.

VMHaus services now available in Amsterdam

July 3rd, 2019 by

Integration can be hard work

Last year we had a busy time acquiring Retrosnub, BHost and VMHaus. We’ve been steadily making progress in the background integrating the services the companies provide to reduce costs and complexity of management. We can now also announce our first significant feature upgrade for VMHaus. We’ve deployed a new virtual server cluster to our Amsterdam location and VMHaus services are now available in Amsterdam. VMHaus is using Mythic Beasts for colocation and network and in Amsterdam they will gain access to our extensive set of peers at AMSIX, LINX and LoNAP. Per hour billed virtual servers are available from VMHaus with payment through Paypal.

As you’d expect, every VM comes with a /64 of IPv6 space.

In the background we’ve also been migrating former-BHost KVM-based services to Mythic Beasts VM services in Amsterdam. Shortly we’ll be starting to migrate former-BHost and VMHaus KVM-based services in London to new VM clusters in the Meridian Gate data centre.

Raspberry Pi on Raspberry Pi

June 22nd, 2019 by

Question: Is the Raspberry Pi 4 any good?
Answer: It’s good enough to run its own launch website with tens of millions of visitors.

Raspberry Pi 4 with PoE mounting points already attached.

The Raspberry Pi 4 is out. It’s a quad core ARM A72 running at 1.5Ghz with 4GB of RAM and native 1Gbps ethernet. This means that according to our benchmarks (PHP 7.3 and WordPress) it’s about 2.5x the speed of the 3B+, thanks to the much faster core design and slight clock speed boost. The downside is that it uses more power. Idle power consumption is up slightly to about 3W, peak is now around 7W, up from 5W. It has some improved video features too and USB3.

We obtained an early sample and benchmarked it running the Raspberry Pi website. We used the main blog, which hosts the www.raspberrypi.org blog, and has historically been the most CPU-intensive site to provide. We now see complete page generation in about 0.8s, compared to 2.1s for the 3B+. Obviously in normal operation, most pages are served from a cache, and so the typical end user experience is much faster.

We were really excited by the Pi 4 and wanted to have them available in our cloud for launch day. Unfortunately, Eben had some bad news for us: netboot on the Pi 4 is only going to be added in a future firmware update. Netboot is critical to the operation of our cloud, as it prevents customers from bricking the servers. Our dreams were shattered.

Our standard Pi Cloud unit consists of 6x9x2 blocks of Pi 3B servers connected to PoE switches with just one wire per server. They all net boot and are controlled through our control panel and API for customer use. Since the lack of netboot means we couldn’t just drop the Pi 4 in as a faster version at this time, we went back to the lab and we built an alpha Pi 4 Cloud on a smaller scale: 18 Pi 4s that Raspberry Pi have very generously given to us, all connected with gigabit ethernet so we can try out the 2.5x faster CPUs, 3x faster Network and 4x RAM capacity. We deployed this to our Sovereign House data centre where it connects to our core network.

In full production, we’ll have six racks of Pi 4 stacked back to back.

What we needed then was a test application. We suggested running the main Raspberry Pi website, as we once did with the Pi 3. But with over twice the horsepower per machine we thought we’d dream bigger. How about hosting the Raspberry Pi website on the Raspberry Pi 4, on the Raspberry Pi 4 launch day?

We’ve set up 14 Pi 4s for PHP processing for the main website (56 cores, 56GB RAM), two for static file serving (8 cores, 8GB RAM) and two for memcached (8 cores / 8GB RAM). Late on Friday night we started moving production traffic from the existing virtual machines to the Pi 4 cluster, completing the move shortly after midnight. Every page from the blog after Sat 22nd June has been generated on a Raspberry Pi 4.

Unfortunately, this configuration isn’t yet ready to become the standard, production environment for the Raspberry Pi website. As noted above, the Pi 4s don’t yet support netboot, and so these ones have local SD card storage rather than netboot and network file storage. This means they can’t be remotely re-imaged and have comparatively unreliable storage. The configuration is also only deployed in a single data centre with all servers on a single switch, whereas in normal usage the Raspberry Pi website is simultaneously hosted in two different data centres for redundancy.

To make things more nerve wracking, Pi 4 requires Debian Buster which is a pre-release version of the operating system (full release July 6th). So it’s a cluster of brand new hardware, with a pre-release operating system and a single point of failure. We very strongly advise our customers not to use this for a mission critical super high profile website under-going the most significant production launch in their history. That really isn’t a very good idea.

We once advised Eben that Raspberry Pi probably wouldn’t sell very many computers. He didn’t listen to us then either.

We haven’t moved the entire stack to the Pi 4. The front-end load balancers, download and apt servers are still on non-Pi hardware, split across three data centres (two in London, one in Amsterdam). The Pi 4 hardware looks well-suited to taking over these roles too, although we’ve kept the current arrangement for now, as it’s well tested and allows us to switch back to non-Pi 4 back-ends quickly if needed.

We haven’t moved the databases to the Pi 4 yet either. We’re not going to do that until we can have nice reliable mirrored storage on enterprise SSDs with high write reliability and long write lifetimes attached to the Pis.

Where do we go from here?

Once netboot on Pi 4 is available, we’ll be adding 4 core A72 / 4GB servers to our Pi Cloud, at a slightly higher price than the existing Pi 3 servers, reflecting the higher hardware and power costs. We are also planning to investigate virtualisation as 1 core / 1GB Raspberry Pi VMs may be of interest to existing Pi3 users. 64 bit kernel support and potentially a 64 bit userland would also now be worth investigating.

If you like the idea of Pi 4 in the cloud, a Pi 4 VM in the cloud or 64 bit ARM in the cloud, tell us your plans at sales@mythic-beasts.com.

Out standing in a field

May 24th, 2019 by

Mythic Beasts: out standing in a field

Last year the Cambridge Beer Festival tried accepting payments by contactless cards. This didn’t work very well. They built a wireless LAN around the bar so that their card payment machines could process transactions. This went to an uplink that was a Raspberry Pi with a 4G dongle attached, this wasn’t really reliable enough for a full payment system, but worked as a proof of concept.

To improve things for this year we had a conversation with some friends at the recently incorporated Light Blue Fibre Ltd and between us were able to arrange for Jesus Green to have a fibre and an interlink to Mythic Beasts. As this is a prototype, we’re running below optimum speeds so we’ve delivered a relatively leisurely 1Gbps to the festival. The access points will happily deliver 150Mbps symmetric at any point on the bar if you have a quick enough wifi card in your laptop. We’ve still got the 3G uplink enabled as a backup just in-case someone slices the fibre.

If my phone had an Ethernet socket we’d be ten times as fast.

This year the plan was to restrict things to the tills and the administration network. However, being techies in a beer festival there is a tiny chance we may have been slightly drunk and enabled public wifi with a 100Mbps rate limit. This works well around the bar but there’s nowhere near enough access points to cover the outdoors and the onsite router is limited to 500 devices. It’s not yet production ready for 5,000 beer-drinking visitors, but we have a beer mat and a pencil and we’re sketching out ideas for next year.

Mythic Beasts gaan naar Nederland

February 20th, 2019 by

The art warehouses in Amsterdam look much prettier than the data warehouses.

Back in July 2018, Mythic Beasts acquired Bhost, giving us additional virtual machine (VM) clusters in London, Amsterdam and California.

Today we’re pleased to announce that we’ve deployed a substantial new VM cloud to Amsterdam, running our own VM platform. Virtual machines in Amsterdam are available to purchase immediately through our website in sizes from 1GB/1vCPU to 160GB/12vCPUs, and with both SSD and spinning rust disk options. Server management and backup options are also available.

Thanks to Brexit-related regulatory uncertainty, some of our existing clients informed us that they must be hosted outside of the UK before 29th March. Deploying capacity on our own platform in Amsterdam means that we can migrate virtual servers directly to the new location.

Once we’ve dealt with the immediate Brexit-driven server moves, we’ll be looking at migrating former-Bhost VMs into this new cloud, giving a significant performance boost in the process.

Deploying the Amsterdam VM cloud is a significant milestone in the integration of the Bhost infrastructure into our own. The integration provides improved performance and redundancy for both Mythic Beasts and Bhost customers whilst simultaneously cutting our operating costs. In preparation for this, we completed upgrades to our core network last October. The existing fibre ring around our three main London sites, which is currently lit at 50Gbps, is now complemented by a 10Gbps ring around London (HEX) ⟺ Cambridge ⟺ Amsterdam ⟺ London (MER). This replaces the old 2x1Gbps connectivity from Cambridge to London with diverse 10Gbps feeds to London and Amsterdam. Our network has gained an additional 10Gbps transit in Amsterdam (NTT) and we are also now connected on the Amsterdam Internet Exchange (AMS-IX).

On a trip to deploy new routers, Pete even managed a tour of the city on foot in just over three hours.



Primary reasons for choosing Amsterdam include being a flat country that’s easy to cycle around, a remarkably nice overnight ferry journey and superb boy bands asking us to stay. Secondary reasons are all boring such as a well developed market for data centres and internet transit, a world class internet exchange and remarkably few insane British politicians. We’re looking forward to the first Anglo-Dutch cricket match.

libssh emergency update

October 17th, 2018 by

An attack so simple my cat could get root on your server.

Managed customers of Mythic Beasts with libssh installed will have just received a notification that we updated it without warning or testing.

This is obviously bad practice, so what were we thinking?

A security advisory for libssh has just come out which is very bad. To paraphrase,

libssh -> hello new user
user -> can I have a root shell
libssh -> can you authenticate?
user -> yes but I'm not going to
libssh -> okay, have a root shell

This is completely secure, unless the client is prepared to lie in order to exploit your system. In the late 1990s some of our founders might have once exploited an online quiz in exactly the same way to get perfect scores. Don’t trust the client.

In our risk analysis, the risk of breakage to a customer site though a botched patch is vastly lower than giving an attacker a root shell, which is why we pushed an emergency update within a few hours of updated packages being available.

If this is the first you’ve heard about the issue, we suggest you’d benefit from our Managed Services

Toby Goodwin (1968-2018)

October 5th, 2018 by

At Mythic Beasts we rotate staff members around different roles. This is to protect the company from the unlikely event that a staff member is abducted by aliens and someone else has to take over at short notice.

With great sadness we have to report that Toby Goodwin, our first full time employee was not abducted by aliens. Much worse, he had an undiagnosed asymptomatic heart problem and passed away unexpectedly and painlessly last week.

Back in 2010 Toby had been running a bookshop in Cambridge with a quirky and eclectic selection of books. That business had come to an end and Toby was wondering about dusting off his UNIX skills and looking for work. At the same time Mythic Beasts had grown too large for the two then-active founders to effectively keep up and after an interview over a beer in the Devonshire Arms, Toby joined Mythic Beasts.

We didn’t initially realise how lucky we were because Toby had the perfect blend of skills. An experienced UNIX hacker from his days at Cygwin, he quickly figured out most of the technical operations to keep Mythic running. Meanwhile his experience at the bookshop gave him incredible patience and empathy for confused customers. He took it on himself to continuously improve our operations introducing radical new ideas like helper scripts having consistent names to make them easy to find, continuous integration and automated testing of our control panel.

Toby implemented the bulk of our managed server update system. When he started, we had tens of managed customers and updating packages was starting to become time consuming. Gradually this became a highly reliable and flexible system which means we can audit and update thousands of servers quickly and efficiently, whilst correctly notifying every affected customer in a timely fashion. Toby was always modest about his achievements and never suffered from being defensive about his code. When our summer students discovered a significant security flaw in a piece of configuration, he congratulated them and worked with them to resolve it quickly.

After working with us for a few years in Cambridge, Toby met Heather and moved with her to her native Scotland where they married and brought into the world a highly reliable early morning alarm clock called Zachary. Toby would regularly work early in the morning before taking some time out to deliver Zachary to nursery or work with him on significant structural engineering projects.

.

In addition to being a skilled software developer, Toby was also a brilliant railway engineer in the face of feline opposition.

Goodnight Toby. We’ll miss you.

Mythic Beasts acquires BHost

July 1st, 2018 by

Having a hungry Wyvern in our logo makes eating other companies much easier to draw.

Hot on the heels of acquiring Retrosnub, we’ve also bought the customers and assets of BHost. BHost are a virtual server provider with services in London, Amsterdam and California based on OpenVZ and KVM.

We’re excited about this acquisition as it provides us with a great opportunity to expand our network using BHost’s Amsterdam infrastructure. At the same time, we’re confident that we can provide some immediate and longer term improvements to the BHost service, not least through our larger support team being able to offer more timely and helpful responses to customer queries.

Although handover officially happened today, BHost customers have had access to our control panel for several weeks, mostly so that we could start tackling EU VAT bureaucracy. BHost are a US-registered business. We’re a VAT-registered business in the UK. Thanks to VAT MESS, it’s actually much harder for us to sell to EU-based consumers than it was for BHost, as we’re required to collect an unreasonable amount of evidence of customer location.

The good news for BHost customers is that we’re matching BHost’s current pricing with our UK VAT-inclusive price. This means that EU VAT-registered businesses, and all non-EU customers will see a significant reduction in the price that they pay.

If you’re a BHost customer and you’ve not already done so, please log in to our customer control panel using your BHost username (email address) and password and confirm your contact details.

Network Expansion

BHost run a network from London/Amsterdam with multiple 10Gbps uplinks and some peering in each site. We will be moving the BHost London network behind our own so that BHost customers can take advantage of our larger capacity uplinks and significantly better peering arrangements, which includes transit-free connections to every major UK ISP.

We’re also taking the opportunity to significantly improve the connectivity to our Cambridge data centre. We currently have two uplinks via different London data centres. We will replace one of these links with a direct connection to Amsterdam, and bring both up to 10Gbps. Combined with BHost’s existing London/Amsterdam connection, this will create a 10Gbps ring around London, Cambridge and Amsterdam, complementing our 50Gbps ring around our three London sites. This will provide increased bandwidth and improved resiliency for our Cambridge customers, whilst also providing a second London/Amsterdam link to improve resilience within the BHost network.

BHost Amsterdam customers will gain direct UK connectivity through our extensive London peering. We will gain the Amsterdam Internet Exchange connection (AMSIX) from BHost, bringing improved European connectivity to all London customers. We expect to be able to substantially increase the number of AMSIX peers, improving EU connectivity for all customers.

Cloud expansion

BHost’s London presence is in the Meridian Gate (MER) data centre. We already have a significant footprint in MER, although it’s not currently available as a zone in our public cloud. We’re investing in new hardware to deploy in Meridian Gate which is both substantially faster and more power efficient than the current hosts. We’ll be deploying this into our existing suite in MER, and then migrating BHost servers into it. BHost customers will see a small window of scheduled downtime as we migrate each server, but should then seen significantly improved performance on the new hardware.

Our Amsterdam and US presences will give additional options to customers that need to be physically hosted within the (post-Brexit) EU or US. We expect this to become more relevant after Brexit when the UK and EU may have diverging regulatory requirements.

Additional services

All BHost customers can now take advantage of additional Mythic Beasts services including management services for virtual servers, domain registration and DNSSEC-enabled, API-backed DNS hosting.

Support

Mythic Beasts have a larger support team and we’re very well placed to provide significantly improved customer service to all of our new customers. Of course, we do expect the period immediately after the transition to be very busy as customers become familiar with the new billing arrangements, and we get to grips with supporting BHost’s services. We will have additional staff during this period, but please be patient if support responses are a little slower than usual.

Retrosnub Acquisition

June 4th, 2018 by

A Mythic Beast eating a Retrosnub (artists impression)

Just before Christmas we were approached by Malcolm Scott, director of Retrosnub, a small cloud hosting provider in Cambridge. His existing connectivity provider had run out of IPv4 addresses. They’d decided to deal with this issue by adding charges of £2 per IPv4 address per month to encourage existing customers to return unused IPv4 addresses to them. As a cloud hosting provider with a substantial number of virtual machines (VMs) on a small number of hosts this had the result of tripling the monthly colocation bill of Retrosnub.

Aware of my presentation on IPv6-only hosting at UKNOF, Malcolm knew that opportunities for significant expansion were severely limited due to the difficulty of obtaining large amounts of IPv4 address space. Retrosnub faced a future of bankruptcy or remaining a very niche provider. His connectivity providers seemed strongly in favour of Retrosnub going bust so they could reclaim and re-sell the IPv4 space for higher margin services.

There are no expansion opportunities for new cloud hosting providers.

As a larger provider with our own address space, we had sufficient spare capacity in our virtual machine cloud to absorb the entire customer base of Retrosnub with no additional expenditure. Our work in supporting IPv6-only virtual machines will also make it easier to significantly reduce the number of IPv4 addresses required to support Retrosnub services. We formed a deal and agreed to buy the customer base of Retrosnub.

Combining operations

Since agreeing the deal, we’ve been working hard to merge our operations with minimum disruption.

The top priority was the domain name services because domains expire if you don’t renew them. Doing a bulk transfer of domain names between registrars is something which Nominet, the body responsible for UK domains, makes extremely easy, as it just requires changing the “tag” on all the domains.

Unfortunately, just about all other TLDs follow a standard ICANN process, which requires that a domain be renewed for a year at the time of transfer, and that the owner of the domain approves the process. If you were designing a process to destroy competition in a market by making it hard for resellers to move between registrars, it would look quite like this.

We’ve now got the bulk of domains transferred, and the next steps will be to migrate the DNS records from Retrosnub to Mythic Beasts so that our control panel can be used to change the records.

At the same time, we rapidly formulated a plan to migrate all the virtual machines in to stem the financial losses. Moving the VMs required an unavoidable change in IP address, and we also wanted to get them migrated from their current platform (Citrix Xenserver with para-virtualisation) to our own platform (KVM with full hardware virtualisation).

In order to ease the transition, we arranged for a pair of servers to do IP forwarding: a server in our cloud that forwarded the new IP to the VM in the Retrosnub cloud until it was migrated in, and another in the Retrosnub cloud that forwarded the old IP after the server had been moved. By doing this we were able to give customers a one week window in which to complete their IP migration, rather than forcing it to be done at the time that we actually moved the VM.

In the process of this migration, all customers received a significant bandwidth upgrade and majority received disk, RAM and CPU upgrades too.

We completed this on schedule before the quarterly colocation bill arrived, so instead of paying the much increased bill, we cancelled the contract and removed the servers from the facility.

Next steps

Our next step will be to migrate all the web and email hosting customers into our standard shared hosting environment. This has some time pressure as Google have plans for Chrome to start marking all non-HTTPS websites as insecure. We offer one click HTTPS hosting using Let’s Encrypt on all of our hosting accounts.