Cambridge Beer Festival, Raspberry Pi powered Apps for Beer

May 22nd, 2017 by

We drew the architecture diagram for the beer festival on a beer mat.

Today marks the first day of the Cambridge Beer Festival, the longest running CAMRA beer festival, one of the largest beer festivals in the UK and in our obviously correct opinion, by far the best. Not only have we run the web back-end for many Cambridge CAMRA websites for many years, this year we’ve been involved with Cambridge App Solutions who run the iPhone Beer Festival App. They’d been having some trouble with their existing hosting provider for the back-end. In frustration they moved it to their Cloud Raspberry Pi which worked rather better. They then suggested that we keep the production service on the Raspberry Pi, despite it being a beta service.

Preparing for production

We’ve set up all our management services for the hosted Pi in question, including 24/7 monitoring and performance graphing. We then met up with Craig, their director in the pub to discuss the app prior to launch. The Pi 3 is fronted by CloudFlare who provide SSL. However, the connection to the Pi3 from Cloudflare was initially unencrypted. We took Craig through our SSL on a Raspberry Pi hosting guide and about a minute later we had a free Let’s Encrypt certificate to enable full end-to-end data security.

 

 

The iPhone app that runs the Cambridge Beer Festival (also found at Belfast and Leestock)

 

The iPhone Beer Festival App tracks which beers are available and the ratings for how good they are. Availability is officially provided, ratings are crowd sourced.  The app is continuously talking to the back end to keep the in app data up to date. All this data is stored and served from the Raspberry Pi 3 in the cloud.

Proximity

The festival also has some Estimote beacons for proximity sensing which use Bluetooth Low Energy to provide precise location data to the phone. On entry to the beer festival the app wakes up and sends a hello message.

Raspberry Pi Cloud upgrades

May 12th, 2017 by

We’ve made some improvements to our Raspberry Pi Cloud.

  • Upgraded kernel to 4.9.24, which should offer improved performance and a fix for a rare crash in the network card.
  • Minor update to temperature logging to ease load on our monitoring server and allow faster CPU speeds.
  • Upgrade to the NFS fileserver to allow significantly improved IO performance.
  • Recent updates applied to both Debian and Ubuntu images.

Thanks to Gordon Hollingworth, Raspberry Pi Director of Engineering for his assistance.


Upgraded backups

March 31st, 2017 by

Servers need different backup strategies to Vampire Slayers.

Our backup report caught a warning from the backup on our monitoring server:

WARN - [child] mysqldump: Error 2013: Lost connection to MySQL server during query when dumping table `log` at row: 6259042
....
ERROR - mysqldump --all-databases .... exited with 3

We investigated, indeed this is an error and we’ve created a truncated backup. As we think backups are very important we investigated immediately rather than adding it to the end of a very long task list that would be ignored in favour of more user visible changes.

An initial guess was that it might be a mismatch in max_allowed_packet between the server and the dump process, a problem that we’ve seen before. We set max_allowed_packet for mysqldump to the maximum allowed value, reran the backup manually and watched it fail again. Hypothesis disproven and still no consistent backup.

Checking the system log, it quickly became apparent that we were running out of memory. The out of memory killer had kicked in and decided to kill mysqld (an unfortunate choice, really). This was what had caused the dump to terminate early.

Now we understand our problem, one solution is to configure a MySQL slave and back up from the slave, another is to move to a bigger MySQL server, another is to exclude the ephemeral data from the backup. We chose to exclude the ephmeral data and now our backup is complete and we’ve tested the restore.

While working on this, our engineer noticed that there was an easy extra check we could make to ensure the integrity of a MySQL dump. When the dump is complete we run the moral equivalent of:

zcat $dump | tail -1 | grep -q '^-- Dump completed'

to check that we have a success message at the end of the dumped file. This is an additional safety check. Previously we were relying on mysqldump to tell us if it found an error, now we require mysqldump to report success and the written file to pass automated tests for completeness.

We pushed out our updated backup package with the additional check to all managed customers yesterday. On World Backup Day, we’d like to remind the entire Internet to check that your backups work. If that sounds boring, we’ll check your backups for you.

PHP7 on a Raspberry Pi 3 in the cloud

March 22nd, 2017 by
Rasberry Pi 3

Two Raspberrys PI using PHP7 during the Pi 3 launch.

Last April we moved the main blog for Raspberry Pi to a small cluster of Raspberry Pi 3s. This went so well we made it commercially available and you can now buy your Raspberry Pi 3 in the cloud.

If you’d like to have PHP 7 running on your Raspberry Pi 3 in the cloud, this guide if for you. Click the link, buy a Pi 3 and install your ssh-key and log in. This should take no more than about a minute.

PHP 7 isn’t yet part of the standard Raspbian OS, so we need to get it from somewhere else.

A brief aside about CPU architectures, Raspbian and Debian

Debian provides three versions for ARM processors:

  • armel – 32 bit and ARMv5
  • armhf – 32 bit, ARMv7 and a floating point unit
  • arm64 – 64 bit ARMv8 and a floating point unit

The Raspberry Pi uses three different architectures:

  • Raspberry Pi A, B, Zero & Zero W – 32 bit ARMv6 with floating point
  • Raspberry Pi 2 – 32 bit ARMv7 with floating point
  • Raspberry Pi 3 – 32/64 bit ARMv8 with floating point unit

Raspbian is an unofficial port for 32bit ARMv6 and a floating point unit, which matches the hardware for an original Raspberry Pi model B. Because we’re working here with the Pi 3 – ARM8 and floating point, we can take official debian armhf packages and run them directly on our Pi 3.

Ondřej Surý is the Debian PHP maintainer who also has a private repository with newer versions of PHP built for Debian and Ubuntu. So we can use 32 bit Debian packages for ARM 7 (armhf) and install directly on top of Raspbian.

PHP 7 packages aren’t available for armel, so this won’t work on an original Raspberry Pi, or a Pi Zero/Zero W.

Add the PHP 7 repository

deb.sury.org includes newer PHP packages built for armhf, which we can use directly. Following the instructions here here we can set up the repository:

apt-get install apt-transport-https lsb-release ca-certificates
wget -O /etc/apt/trusted.gpg.d/php.gpg https://packages.sury.org/php/apt.gpg
echo "deb https://packages.sury.org/php/ $(lsb_release -sc) main" > /etc/apt/sources.list.d/php.list
apt-get update

Now we can install everything we need for php7 and apache2.4:

apt-get install apache2 php7.0 php7.0-curl php7.0-gd php7.0-json \
    php7.0-mcrypt php7.0-mysql php7.0-opcache libapache2-mod-php7.0
echo "<?=phpinfo()?>" >/var/www/html/info.php 

Wait a few moments and we have a webserver running PHP7 on our Pi3 in the cloud.

You’ll note we’ve included php7-opcache. This should accelerate our PHP performance by a factor of two or so.

Now for an application…

Try WordPress

WordPress needs a MySQL server & PHP library for accessing MySQL. We need to restart Apache to make PHP 7 pick up the additional library.

apt-get install php7.0-mysql  mysql-server
apache2ctl restart
mysql -u root -p

mysql> create database wordpress;
mysql> grant all privileges on wordpress.* to wordpress identified by 'password';

We strongly recommend you invent a better password.

cd /var/www/html
wget https://wordpress.org/latest.tar.gz
tar -zxvf latest.tar.gz
chown -R www-data:www-data wordpress

Then navigate to http://www.yourpiname.hostedpi.com/wordpress and finish the install through your browser.

Next steps

For information on how to host on your own domain name, and how to enable HTTPS see our previous blog post on hosting a website on a Raspberry Pi.

Attending a 5 year old’s birthday party

March 7th, 2017 by

Over the weekend Pete went to the Raspberry Pi Big Birthday Weekend. Rather larger than previous years, they booked out the whole of the Cambridge Junction allowing them to have far more guests.

A very small Eben reviewing the extraordinary growth of Raspberry Pi over the last 12 months.

Eben Upton started the day with a keynote about how Raspberry Pi is doing. In short, they’ve made a lot of computers. Raspberry Pi Trading (the company that makes and sells computers) has generated several million pounds of profit that’s been returned to the Raspberry Pi Foundation (the charity that educates people). This makes them a very unusual startup compared to the current Silicon Valley competition of trying to lose money as fast as possible. Pi Zero W, the newest member of the family has sold over 100,000 units in the four days since launch.

Picture of the Pi Logo done on a sense hat by a young girl in the Astro-Pi workshop.

Pete joined David Honess for his Astro-Pi workshop, programming the Sense HAT and writing code that could eventually end up running on the International Space Station. One girl ran away with one of the examples, turning the black and white X into a full colour Raspberry Pi logo using the Sense HAT.



We were particularly interested in the presentation by Gwiddle as it’s a project that we sponsor, and the Pi Party was first opportunity we had to meet the founders in person. Gwiddle provide free Web hosting for people in full time education and are having significant success supporting nearly 1,000 students. Yasmin and Joshua fielded their questions well. We’re massively proud of what Gwiddle have achieved so far and their plans for future expansion into a full multi-national with world domination look exciting.

Pete giving a talk on Pi in the Cloud, photo by Joshua Bayfield. View the slides

Pete gave a talk on Raspberry Pi in the data centre and how we’ve built a Raspberry Pi Cloud. We’ve put the slides up at the request of the Japanese Raspberry Pi Users Group who’d flown over to be at the Party. We’d love it if you translate the slides Japanese and put them on your website!

Sam Aaron and Sonic Pi

Sam Aaron demonstrated new features in Sonic Pi in a live performance. Pete was particularly impressed by the distortion guitar amp effect from the Pi, and also the details of the new Erlang back-end to reduce timing jitter around a millisecond. Somebody needs to take the library and implement an easy real-time mode for the Pi Zero W to ease building Internet of Things applications.

A fantastic, but incredibly tiring weekend. We’re already looking forward to the 6th birthday party!

Rearranging Raspberry Pi

February 27th, 2017 by


Replacing the production DB under a running system.

Two years ago we migrated Raspberry Pi from a single big server to a series of virtual machines (VMs) on an even bigger server. As time has gone on this architecture served us well; we’ve managed the Pi Zero launch and the busier Raspberry Pi 3 launch and even briefly ran the website on Raspberry Pis as a test.

However, we had a number of issues with the setup that we were looking to address:

  1. We were out of space at the back end and needed more capacity;
  2. We wanted more redundancy: the setup was dependent on a single dedicated VM host in a single data centre; and
  3. There’s an apparent hardware fault on the current VM host that causes it to very occasionally spontaneously reboot (or in one case, switch itself off altogether)

It was time for a bit of an upgrade.

Scalable WordPress

The biggest part of the Raspberry Pi configuration is the main WordPress site that serves the front page for www.raspberrypi.org. This consisted of three VMs: two web servers and one database server. WordPress doesn’t provide any built-in functionality for scaling to multiple servers and although the vast majority of pages are driven entirely by the database, some operations, such as installing plugins or uploading media, result in the creation of local files that need to be available to all web servers.

In order to support WordPress in a multi-server configuration, we arrange the two web servers as a primary and a secondary. The primary delivers half of the public requests and also the administration and content creation side. The relevant parts of the local filesystem are then regularly rsynced to the secondary server, which serves public requests and can maintain the support the full public usage of the site if necessary.

The website is fronted by our “CDN”. This is a cluster of Mac Mini servers that we use to offload much of the static content traffic, and to load balance across the two web servers.

Step 1 : Figure out what you’re trying to do and write a plan.

More capacity meant a new VM host, and more redundancy meant that it went in a different data centre (Sovereign House, or “SOV”) to the existing VM host (Harbour Exchange, or “HEX”).

Diagnosing the fault on the current VM host is tricky, firstly because it only occurs once or twice a year, and secondly because it was hosting quite a busy live website. So our plan for this was to migrate all VMs onto entirely new hardware in HEX so that we can prod the old box at our leisure. This also gave us a handy opportunity to do something we’ve been wanting to do for a while, which is an OS upgrade on the VM host itself.

To add redundancy to the main site, we can split the two web server VMs across the two sites, but this doesn’t help unless we also replicate the database at the new site. So overall, we wanted to move one web server VM to SOV, and add a database VM, and in HEX we wanted to move the database VM and remaining web server VM to the new hardware. This all needed to be achieved with minimal downtime; as a highly public site we’d rather not have two hours of downtime if we can avoid it.

Step 2 : Move the database

We brought up a second database VM at the second site (SOV). We set this up as a MySQL replica of the primary database VM, this requires only the briefest of interruptions to service to configure. We then simulated a failure of the primary database server and moved all database services to the alternative site – so the database is now in SOV. Again, this has only a very brief interruption to service (<5s).

We then moved the old database VM to the new VM host in the original site (HEX) and reconfigured it as a MySQL replica. We now have a primary/secondary setup for MySQL on the new VM hosts, the secondary in a different location (HEX) to the primary (SOV), and the HEX server is not longer on the faulty hardware.

It’s worth noting that in normal operation, both web servers use the same database server for all queries. In similar arrangements, it’s quite common to have one or more web server use the slave database server for read queries, and to only send write queries to the master, thereby reducing the load on the primary database server. Unfortunately, standard WordPress doesn’t support this, but there are plugins that do which we may look at in the future.

Step 3 : Move the web servers

We shut down the secondary web server (HEX), moved it to the replacement VM host in the same data centre and brought it back up. The CDN automatically redirected all web traffic to the primary web server until the secondary came backup. Once this was complete we took the primary web server offline disabling all administration functions for the main website. Fortunately we’d told everyone in the Raspberry Pi office to drink coffee while we did this so nobody complained. Again the CDN moved all production traffic to the secondary web server, we then moved the primary VM to our alternative data centre (SOV) to sit next to the primary database server (SOV).

Step 4 : Tell the CDN

Unlike many providers, we have independent routing at each of our sites. This gives us much greater resilience to network problems, but means that moving a VM between sites necessitates a change in IP address. We informed our cluster of Mac Minis in the CDN that the primary web server had moved, and the administration site sprung back into life and the traffic split evenly across the two sites.

Step 5 : Drink coffee

Over the course of about three hours, we’d migrated a high volume production website from a non-redundant, single site configuration to a geographically redundant configuration, moved the primary database and primary web server to a different location and provided a capacity upgrade. This was all done in the middle of the day with no user-facing downtime, and only a modest maintenance window for the administration portal.

With that done, we can start work on the next stage of the plan: migrating the remainder of the VMs away from the old VM host in HEX.

Ten years on, Chris Lightfoot looks more prescient than ever

February 13th, 2017 by

(gif from imgur via gify)

(title shamelessly stolen from Tom Steinberg, MySociety founder from his tribute to Chris, Mythic Beasts founder who died ten years ago).

Lots of people have been excited recently about this script, which allows you to remotely reinstall a Linux system with a different version of Linux by giving you a shell in a ramdisk and letting you reinstall the operating system from there.

Chris did this the hard way. Back in 2005 I remember being asked to code review ‘evil.c’, a script that allocated a lot of RAM (800MB!), compressed a filesystem into it, then uncompressed it back to the disk. On reboot it should come up with Debian instead of FreeBSD that it had earlier. It’s really very important not to swap during this process.

Amazingly it worked, and the first test was on a remote box and it saved us a data centre visit. Here’s the code in its full glory.

#include <sys/types.h>

#include <errno.h>
#include <fcntl.h>
#include <stdio.h>
#include <stdlib.h>
#include <string.h>
#include <unistd.h>
#include <zlib.h>

#include <sys/mman.h>
#include <sys/reboot.h>

#define SIZE        ((size_t)896058269)

#define E(...)      fprintf(stderr, __VA_ARGS__)
#define die()       do { fprintf(stderr, "%s; aborted\n", strerror(errno)); exit(1); } while (0)
#define zdie()      do { fprintf(stderr, "%s; aborted\n", Z.msg); exit(1); } while (0)

int main(void) {
    unsigned char *buf, *outbuf, *p;
    int fd;
    FILE *fp;
    z_stream Z = {0};
    unsigned int nin = 0, nout = 0;

    E("size = %lu\n", (unsigned long)SIZE);

    E("open /dev/amrd0... ");
    if (-1 == (fd = open("/dev/amrd0", O_RDWR | O_DIRECT)))
        die();
    E("done\n");
    close(fd);

    E("allocate file buffer... ");
    if (!(buf = malloc(SIZE)))
        die();
    E("done\n");

    E("allocate write buffer... ");
    if (!(outbuf = malloc(1024 * 1024)))
        die();
    E("done\n");

    E("lock into memory... ");
    if (-1 == mlockall(MCL_CURRENT | MCL_FUTURE))
        die();
    E("done\n");

    E("open file... ");
    if (!(fp = fopen("/usr/bitter-first-2100M-of-sda.gz", "rb")))
        die();
    E("done\n");

    E("read file... ");
    p = buf;
    while (nin < SIZE) {
        size_t n;
        n = fread(p, 1, 262144, fp);
        if (n == 0)
            die();
        nin += n;
        p += n;
        E("\rread file... %.2f%% ", 100 * (float)nin / (float)SIZE);
    }
    E("done\n");

    fclose(fp);
    E("zlib version = \"%s\"\n", zlibVersion());

    /* Now we need to walk through the buffer decompressing it into the
     * write buffer, then writing the results to the device. */
    E("initialise inflate object... ");
    Z.next_in = buf;
    Z.avail_in = SIZE;
    if (Z_OK != inflateInit2(&Z, 15 + 32))
        zdie();
    E("done\n");

    while (nout < 2100) {
        int i;
        size_t N;

        Z.next_out = outbuf;
        Z.avail_out = 1024 * 1024;
        i = inflate(&Z, 0);
        if (i != Z_OK && i != Z_STREAM_END)
            zdie();
        if (Z.next_out != outbuf + 1024 * 1024) {
            fprintf(stderr, "\ndidn't get 1MB of output\n");
        }

        /* this is where we'd write the data */
        N = 0;
        p = outbuf;
        while (N < 1024 * 1024) {
            ssize_t n;
            do
                n = write(fd, p, 1024 * 1024 - N);
            while (n == -1 && errno == EINTR);
            if (n == -1)
                die();
            N += n;
            p += n;
        }

        ++nout;
        fprintf(stderr, "\r%d / 2100 MB", nout);
    }

    fprintf(stderr, "\n");

    /* this is where we reboot */
    reboot(RB_NOSYNC);

    E("we should have rebooted by now -- probably best to assume we're completely\n"
      "screwed at this point\n");

    return 0;
}

Tax needn’t be taxing thanks to TaxCalc

February 1st, 2017 by

One of our customers has the lovely looking bandwidth graph on the right which plummeted to zero this morning. Normally a huge sudden drop in activity on a customer site would be cause for alarm but this is the excellent TaxCalc, they do software to calculate tax and it gets very busy in the run up to the deadline for self assessment at midnight last night.

As customers of our enhanced management services with a 24/7 SLA who run a fully mirrored setup across two of our data centres, we’re happy to report that everything went smoothly and their system scaled beautifully to handle the load.

Thankfully our elected overlords have decided to smooth out the load on our servers with new personal tax accounts and shortly we’ll all have to fill in four tax returns per year instead of one.

Managed WordPress

January 23rd, 2017 by

Analogue photo taken with film and real chemistry. Parallax Photographic Cooperative.

WordPress is an excellent content management system that is behind around 25% of all sites on the internet. Our busiest site is Raspberry Pi which is now constructed from multiple different WordPress installations and some custom web applications, stitched together in to one nearly seamless high traffic website.

We’ve taken the knowledge we’ve gained supporting this site and rolled it out as a managed service, allowing you to concentrate on your content, whilst we take care of keep the site up and secure. In addition to 24/7 monitoring, plugin security scans, and our custom security hardening, we’re also able to assist with improving site performance.

We’re now hosting a broad range of sites on this service with the simpler cases start with customers such as Ellexus, who make very impressive technology for IO profiling, and need a reliable, managed platform that they can easily update.

At the other end of the spectrum we have the likes of Parallax Photographic, a co-operative in Brixton who sell photography supplies for people interested in film photography, using real chemistry to develop the photographs and a full analogue feel to the resulting prints. Parallax Photographic use WordPress to host to their online shop, embedding WooCommerce into WordPress to create their fully functional e-commerce site.

Parallax were having performance and management issues with their existing self-managed installation of WordPress. We transferred it for them to our managed WordPress service, in the process adding not only faster hardware but performance improvements to their WordPress stack, custom security hardening, managed backups and 24/7 monitoring. We took one hour for the final switch-over at 9am on a Sunday morning leaving them with a faster and more manageable site. They now have more time to spend fulfilling orders and taking beautiful photographs.

Purrmetrix monitors temperature accurately and inexpensively, and as you can see above with excellent embeddable web analytics. In addition to hosting their website and WooCommerce site for people to place orders, we are also customers (directly, through their website!) using their site to monitor our Raspberry Pi hosting platform. The heatmap (above) is a real-time export from their system. At the time of writing, it shows a 5C temperature difference between the cold and hot aisles across one of our shelves of 108 Pi 3s. The service provides automated alerts; if that graph goes red indicating an over temperature situation alerts start firing. During the prototyping and beta phase for our Raspberry Pi hosting platform, we’ve used their graphing to demonstrate that it takes about six hours from dual fan failure to critical temperature issues. This is long enough to make maintenance straightforward.

Also embedded in our Raspberry Pi hosting platform are multiple Power over Ethernet modules from Pi Supply who make a variety of add-ons for the Raspberry Pi, including some decent high quality audio adapters. With the launch of the Raspberry Pi 3 we had to do some rapid vertical scaling of the Pi Supply managed WooCommerce platform – in thirty seconds we had four times the RAM and double the CPU cores to cope with the additional customer load.

 

We host a wide variety of WordPress sites include Scottish comedy club Mirth of Forth, personalised embroidery for work and leisure wear and our own blog that you’re currently reading. So if you’d like to have us run your WordPress site for you, from a simple blog to a fully managed e-commerce solution or one of the busiest sites on the Web, we’d love to hear from you at sales@mythic-beasts.com.

Don’t leave your laptop in the pub

December 9th, 2016 by

After about twenty pages of awesome beers, you discover they also have mead.

After about twenty pages of awesome beers, you discover they also have mead.

Last night we had our Christmas party. For a 24/7 operation, that means we have to have at least one laptop with us at the party. We had just one urgent customer issue which we dealt easily without ruining the night.

However, in addition to taking your laptop to the pub, Pete would like to remind everyone that it’s equally important to remember to take your laptop home from the pub too, as he didn’t. This means we have to have a brief security review to evaluate the risks of briefly losing a company laptop. Ten years ago when we had tens rather than thousands of servers, this would have resulted in a revocation and replacement of the company ssh key on every server under emergency conditions (and those of you with an unencrypted AWS key might worry about total company deletion).

Over the past decade we put more effort into improving our security. The laptop contains an encrypted filesystem, on that filesystem is an encrypted ssh key which will allow someone into our jump box. If they’ve worked out the password for the filesystem, and the password for the ssh key,they then also need to guess password on the jump box before they would be able to access customer or company systems. That’s three different passwords to guess, or two encryption breaks and one password to guess. The passwords are not chosen by the user, the come straight from pwgen and the random number generator. Whilst we’re not worried, we’ll do some extra monitoring the logs on the jump box for attempts on Pete’s account.

Of course there’s also a risk that someone physically tampered with the hardware to install a key-logger in between leaving it in the pub and recovering it the next day. The laptop passes a brief physical inspection. If it has been tampered with, it has been tampered with very well. If our attacker was sat in the pub with a spare key logger kit just in-case the laptop was left behind, it would have been easier and cheaper to stage a break-in at an employees house, or to have forced them to check their hand luggage on a flight, or to have installed the key logger before the laptop was bought, or maybe to have compromised the random number generator in any or all of our servers before they were bought. So our threat model remains relatively unchanged and we don’t think we’re under significantly more risk today than we were yesterday.