Ye Olde Monolith-e

This entry is part of the “Deployment Quest” series.

Let’s get started by walking through deploying a single monolithic application to a single server. No fancy deployment tools, no containers, etc. For this exercise, we’ll stick to traditional basics.

We’re also going to make a few basic assumptions. First, you already have a server sufficiently powered to run this application and all of the necessary dependencies. Second, there is a network connection available allowing us to download relevant software as well as allow users to access the application once it’s up and running. We will cover a few network related topics, but we’ll be skipping over topics such as subnetting, routing, switching, etc.

Step one is to prepare the server itself. To start, we’re going to need an operating system. I’m a Linux guy, so we’ll be using Linux throughout this whole series. It’s possible to deploy applications on Windows, and there are a lot of people who do. I don’t trust Windows enough to run services on it, so I’ll happily stick to Linux.

There are a lot of different Linux distributions and we’re going to need to choose one. Taking a quick look at a top ten list, you’ll see some pretty well-known names such as Ubuntu, Redhat, CentOS, Suse, etc. I’m partial to Redhat and CentOS, so let’s use CentOS as our base.

Awesome. So we have an OS, which we’ll just install and get rolling. But wait, how are we going to configure the OS? Are we using the default drive layout? Are we going to customize it? What about the software packages that are installed? Do we just install everything so we have it in case we ever need it?

The answer to these questions depends, somewhat, on what you’re trying to accomplish. By default, most distributions seem to just dump all the space into the root drive, with a small carve out for swap. This provides a quick way to get going, but can lead to problems down the road. For instance, if a process spins out of control and writes a lot of data to the drive, it can fill up and result in degrading services, or worse, crashing. It also makes it harder to rebuild a server, if needed, as the entire drive needs to be reformatted versus specific mount points.

My recommendation here would be to split up the drive into reasonable chunks. Specifically, I tend to create mount points for /home and /var/log at a minimum. Depending on the role of the server, it may be wise to create mount points for /tmp and /var/tmp as well to ensure temporary files don’t cause issues. You’ll also likely need a mount point for the application you’re deploying. I tend to put software in /opt and, for web-based applications, /var/www. Ultimately, though, drive layouts tend to be personal choices.

Next up, packages. Most installers provide a minimal install and that would be my recommendation. Adding new packages is relatively easy while removing packages can often be a time consuming process. Sure, you can simply remove a single package, but ensuring that all unused dependencies are uninstalled as well is often a fools errand. The purpose here is to ensure that you have what you need to run the application without adding a lot of extra packages that take up space, at best, and provide attackers with tools they can use, at worst.

Take the time to go through all of the applications that run on startup. Are you sure you need to have cups running? What about portmap? Disable anything you’re not using, and go the extra mile to remove those packages from the system. You’ll also want to make a decision on security features such as SELinux. Yes, it’s complicated and can cause headaches, but the benefits are significant. I highly recommend running SELinux, or at least trying to deploy your application with it enabled first before deciding to remove it.

Finally, you need to configure the network connection on the server. The majority of this is left as an exercise to the reader, but I will highlight a few things. Security is important and you’ll want to protect your server and the assets on the server. To that end, I highly recommend looking into some sort of firewall. CentOS ships with iptables which can handle that task for you, but you can also use a network firewall. Additionally, look into properly segmenting your network. This makes more sense for multi-server deployments, however, and doesn’t necessarily apply for this specific example.

Spend the extra time to test that the network connection works. Doing this now before you get your application installed and running can save some headaches down the road. Can you ping from the server to the local network? How about to the Internet? Can you connect to the server from the local network? How about the Internet? If you cannot, then take the time to troubleshoot now. Check your IP, subnet, and firewall settings. Remember, ping uses ICMP while HTTP and SSH use TCP. It’s possible to allow one and not the other.

Now that we have a server with a working operating system and network, we should be ready to deploy our application. While different applications tend to be unique in how they’re deployed, there are a number of common tasks you should be looking at.

From an operational standpoint, ensure that the mount points your application is installed on have sufficient space for both the application and any temporary and permanent data that will be written. Some applications write log files and you’ll want to ensure those are put in a place where they can be handled appropriately. You’ll also want to make sure log rotation is handled so they don’t grow endlessly or become too large to manage.

On the security end of things, there are a number of items to look out for. Check the ownership of the files you’re deployed and ensure they’re owned by a user with only the privileges necessary to run the application. You’ll also want to check the SELinux labels to ensure they’re in the correct groups. Finally, check the user your application is running as. Again, you want this to be a user with the least privileges necessary to run the application.

The goal is to ensure that if an attacker is able to get access to the server, they end up with a user account that has insufficient privileges to do anything malicious. SELinux assists here in that the user will be prevented from accessing anything outside of the scope of the groups assigned.

And now, with all of this in place, test the application and debug accordingly. Congrats, you have a running application that you can build on in the future.

So, what have we accomplished here? And what are the pros/cons of deploying something like this?

We’ve deployed a simple application on a single server with some security in place to prevent attackers from gaining a foothold on the system. There’s a limit to how secure we can make this, though, since it’s a single server.

On the positive side, this is a very simplistic setup. A single server to manage, only one ingress and egress point, and we’ve minimized the packages installed on the system. On the other hand, if an attacker can gain a foothold, they’ll have access to everything. A single server is also a single point of failure, so if something goes wrong, your application will be down until it’s fixed.

A setup like this is good for development and can be a good starting point for hobbyist admins. There are more secure and resilient ways to deploy applications that we’ll cover in a future Deployment Quest entry.

Deployment Quest

So you want to deploy an application… You’ve put in the time and developed the latest and greatest widget and now you want to expose it to the world. It’s something truly ground breaking and people will be rushing to check it out. But where do you start? What’s involved with deploying an application, anyway?

The answer, it turns out, varies quite a bit, depending on what you’re trying to accomplish. So where to begin? First you need to determine what architecture you want to use. Are you deploying a simple website that can be stood up on a LAMP stack? Or perhaps this is something a bit more involved that requires additional back end services.

Are you deploying to a cloud provider such as AWS, Azure, or GCP? Will this be deployed on a virtual machine, or are you using something “newer” such as containers or serverless?

Do you have data to be stored? If so, how are you planning on storing this data? Are you using a SQL or NoSQL database? Do you need to store files?

How much traffic are you expecting? Do you need to be able to scale to larger workloads? Will you scale vertically or horizontally? Do you have or need a caching layer?

What about security? How will you protect the application? What about the data the application stores? How “secure” do you need to make your application and it’s deployment?

As you can see, there are a lot of questions to answer, despite this being a relatively simple application. Over the next few blog posts I’ll be digging into various deployment strategies, specifics on various choices you can make, and the pros and cons of each. Links to each post can be found below:

A Strange Game.

WOPR Summit Logo

On March 1st, 2019, an eclectic group of diverse individuals descended upon Bally’s Hotel in Atlantic City, NJ. Their purpose? Attending a new conference melding hardware, software, and security. A conference called WOPR Summit.

WOPR Registration

I had the good fortune to both attend and volunteer at this fledgling conference. Upon arriving at the registration desk, attendees were greeted by yours truly who provided them with lanyards, stickers, and a badge that doubles as a maker project.


WOPR Badge

BEHOLD. The WOPR Badge.

The badge is both an attendees pass into the event as well as a PCB. Throughout the conference, attendees could hang out in the maker space and were provided with all of the parts, tools, and directions necessary to build their badge. When completed, a quick visit to Dragorn or Dr Russ was necessary to flash the badge processor with some Arduino code that made the lights blink in an awfully suspicious sequence. Almost as if there were a hidden message. Hrm…

Completed WOPR Badge

And for those unfamiliar with the black art of soldering, fear not! BiaSciLab to the rescue! Our resident soldering instructor, Bia, held several soldering workshops throughout the conference, providing detailed instruction on how to become a master at fusing small metal bits together with a strong bond of liquid metal. Bia is an amazing teacher and was able to help a lot of people learn this essential life skill. She even brought her own soldering kits that you can read about here.

Not into making things? Not to worry, we had that covered as well. Throughout the conference there were both talks and workshops on a variety of topics. Workshops included topics such as NFC hacking, monitoring and incident response using OSQuery, developing prototypes, and reverse engineering. Talks covered similar topics including presentations on Shodan, biohacking with c00p3r, and a peek behind the scenes of the security industry.

Overall, the conference was an amazing success and quite well run for a first-time con. There are a lot of lessons learned and many suggestions on how to improve it for next year. Planning has already begun and we hope to see you there!

Does it do the thing?

Back in 2012 I gave a talk at Derbycon 2.0. This was my first infosec talk and I was a little nervous, to say the least. Anyway, I described a system I wanted to write that handled distributed baseline scanning.

After a lot of starts and stops, I finished a basic 1.0 version in 2014. It’s still quite rough and I’ve since been working, intermittently, on making the system more robust and solid. I’ve been working on a python replacement for the GUI as well, instead of the current PHP one. The repository is located here, if you’re interested in taking a look.

Why am I telling you all of this? Well, as part of the updates I’m making, I wanted to do things the “right way” and make sure I have unit testing in place before I start making additional changes to the code. Problem is, while I learned about unit testing, I’ve never really implemented it in any meaningful way, so this is a bit new to me.

So why unit testing? Well, the hypothesis is that by creating tests that check every line of code, you ensure that the code is working as expected. Thus, if the tests pass, then the code should be solid and bug free. In reality, this is rarely the case. Tests can be just as flawed as any other code. Additionally, you may miss testing certain corner cases and miss potential bugs. In the end, the general consensus is that unit testing is a complicated religious argument.

Let’s assume that we want to unit test anyway and move on to the actual testing bits, shall we? We’ll start with a contrived example to make things easier. Assume we have the following code in a file called mytestcode.py:

#!/bin/python

def add(value1, value2):
    return value1 + value2

Simple enough, just a simple function to return the value of two numbers added together. Let’s create some test cases, shall we?

#!/bin/python

from mytestcode import add

class TestAdd(object):
    def test_add(self):
        assert add(1,1) == 2

    def test_add_fail(self):
        assert add(1,1) != 3

What we have here are two simple test cases. First, we test to make sure that if we call the add function with two values, 1 and 1, we get a 2 as a return value. Second, we test that providing the same values as input does not return a 3. Simple, right? But have we really tested all of the corner cases? What happens if we feed the function a negative? How about a non-numeric value? Are there cases where we can cause an exception?

To be fair, the original function is poorly written and is merely being used as a simple example. This is the problem with contrived examples, of course. They miss important details, often simply things too much, and can lead to beginners making big mistakes when using them as teaching tools. So please, be aware, the above code really isn’t very good code. It’s intended to be simple to understand.

Let’s take a look at some “real” code directly from my distributed scanner project. This particular code is something I found on Stack Overflow when I was looking for a way to identify whether a process was still running or not.

#!/usr/bin/python

import errno
import os
import sys

def pid_exists(pid):
    """Check whether pid exists in the current process table.
    UNIX only.
    """
    if pid < 0:
        return False
    if pid == 0:
        # According to "man 2 kill" PID 0 refers to every process
        # in the process group of the calling process.
        # On certain systems 0 is a valid PID but we have no way
        # to know that in a portable fashion.
        raise ValueError('invalid PID 0')
    try:
        os.kill(pid, 0)
    except OSError as err:
        if err.errno == errno.ESRCH:
            # ESRCH == No such process
            return False
        elif err.errno == errno.EPERM:
            # EPERM clearly means there's a process to deny access to
            return True
        else:
            # According to "man 2 kill" possible error values are
            # (EINVAL, EPERM, ESRCH)
            raise
    else:
        return True

Testing this code should be relatively straightforward, with the exception of the os.kill call. For that, we’ll need to delve into mock objects. Let’s tackle the simple cases first:

#!/usr/bin/env python

import pytest

from libs.funcs import pid_exists

class TestFuncs(object):
    def test_pid_negative(self):
        assert pid_exists(-1) == False

    def test_pid_zero(self):
        with pytest.raises(ValueError) as e_info:
            pid_exists(0)

    def test_pid_typeerror(self):
        with pytest.raises(TypeError):
            pid_exists('foo')
        with pytest.raises(TypeError):
            pid_exists(5.0)
        with pytest.raises(TypeError):
            pid_exists(1234.4321)

That’s relatively simple. We verify that False is returned for a negative PID and a ValueError is returned for a PID of zero. We also test that a TypeError is returned if we don’t provide an integer value. What’s left is handling a valid PID and testing that it returns True for a running process and False otherwise. In order to test the rest, we could go through a lot of elaborate setup to start a process, get the PID, and then test our code, but there’s a lot that can go wrong there. Additionally, we’re looking to test our logic and not the entirety of another module. So, what we really want is a way to provide an arbitrary return value for a given call. Enter the mock module.

The mock module is part of the unittest framework in python. Essentially, the mock module allows you to identify a call or an object that you want to create a fake version of, and then provide the behavior you’re expecting that mocked version to have. So, for instance, you can mock a function call and simply provide the return value you’re looking for instead of having to call the function directly. This functionality allows you to precisely test your logic versus doing a deeper integration test.

To finish up our testing code for the pid_exists() function, we want to mock the os.kill() function and have it return specific values so we can check the various branches of code we have.

    @patch('os.kill')
    def test_pid_exists(self, oskillobj):
        oskillobj.return_value = None
        assert pid_exists(100) == True

    @patch('os.kill')
    def test_pid_does_not_exist(self, oskillobj):
        oskillobj.side_effect = OSError(errno.ESRCH, 'No such process')
        assert pid_exists(1234) == False

    @patch('os.kill')
    def test_pid_no_permissions(self, oskillobj):
        oskillobj.side_effect = OSError(errno.EPERM, 'Operation not permitted')
        assert pid_exists(1234) == True

    @patch('os.kill')
    def test_pid_invalid(self, oskillobj):
        oskillobj.side_effect = OSError(errno.EINVAL, 'Invalid argument')
        with pytest.raises(OSError):
            pid_exists(2468)

    @patch('os.kill')
    def test_pid_os_typeerror(self, oskillobj):
        oskillobj.side_effect = TypeError('an integer is required (got type str)')
        with pytest.raises(TypeError):
            pid_exists(1234)

The above code tests all of the branching available in the rest of the code, verifying the logic we’ve written. The code should be pretty straightforward. The return_value attribute of a mock object directly defines what we want the mocked function to recall while the side_effect attribute allows us to throw an exception in response to the function call. With those two features of a mocked object, we’re able to successfully test the rest of the cases we need.

This little journey to learn how to write unit tests has been fun and informative. I just need to finish up the rest of the code, striving to hit as close to 100% coverage as I can while keeping the test cases reasonable. It’s taken a while to get going, but the more code I’ve been writing, the faster and more accurate I’m getting. As they say, “practice makes perfect,” though I’d settle with functionally complete and relatively bug-free.

One final word of caution. I’m a sole developer working on this code, so I’m the only one around to write test cases. In a larger shop, the originator of the logic should not be the one writing the test cases. The reason for this is that the original coder typically knows their code quite well and has expectations regarding how the code will be used. For instance, I’m expecting that anyone calling the add() function I wrote above to only supply numbers and I haven’t added any sort of type checking or input validation. As a result, I avoided adding test cases that supply invalid inputs, knowing that would fail. Someone else writing the test cases would likely have provided a number of different inputs and found that input validation was missing. So if you’re in a larger shop, do yourself a favor and have someone else write your test cases. And to ensure they provide robust test cases, only provide the function prototypes and not the full function definitions.

It’s docker, it’s a container, it’s… a process?

In a previous post I discussed Docker from a high level. In this post, we’ll take a closer look at how processes run in a container and how it differs from the common view of the architecture that is used to explain Docker. Remember this?

Docker Layers

The problem with this image, however, is that while it helps conceptualize what we’re talking about, it doesn’t reflect reality. If you listed the processes outside of the container, one might think you’d see the docker daemon running and a bunch of additional processes that represent the containers themselves:

[root@dockerhost ~]# ps -ef
UID        PID  PPID  C STIME TTY          TIME CMD
root         1     0  0 Oct15 ?        00:02:40 /usr/lib/systemd/systemd --switched-root --system --deserialize 21
root         2     0  0 Oct15 ?        00:00:03 [kthreadd]
root         3     2  0 Oct15 ?        00:03:44 [ksoftirqd/0]
...
root      4000     1  0 Oct15 ?        00:03:44 dockerd
root      4353  4000  0 Oct15 ?        00:03:44 myawesomecontainer1
root      4354  4000  0 Oct15 ?        00:03:44 myawesomecontainer2
root      4355  4000  0 Oct15 ?        00:03:44 myawesomecontainer3

And while this might be what you’d expect based on the image above, it does not represent reality. What you’ll actually see is the docker daemon running with a number of additional helper daemons to handle things like networking, and the processes that are running “inside” of the containers like this:

[root@dockerhost ~]# ps -ef
UID        PID  PPID  C STIME TTY          TIME CMD
root         1     0  0 Oct15 ?        00:02:40 /usr/lib/systemd/systemd --switched-root --system --deserialize 21
root         2     0  0 Oct15 ?        00:00:03 [kthreadd]
root         3     2  0 Oct15 ?        00:03:44 [ksoftirqd/0]
...
root      1514     1  0 Oct15 ?        04:28:40 /usr/bin/dockerd-current --add-runtime docker-runc=/usr/libexec/docker/docker-runc-current --default-runtime=docker-runc --exec-opt nat
root      1673  1514  0 Oct15 ?        01:27:08 /usr/bin/docker-containerd-current -l unix:///var/run/docker/libcontainerd/docker-containerd.sock --metrics-interval=0 --start-timeout
root      4035  1673  0 Oct31 ?        00:00:07 /usr/bin/docker-containerd-shim-current d548c5b83fa61d8e3bd86ad42a7ffea9b7c86e3f9d8095c1577d3e1270bb9420 /var/run/docker/libcontainerd/
root      4054  4035  0 Oct31 ?        00:01:24 apache2 -DFOREGROUND
33        6281  4054  0 Nov13 ?        00:00:07 apache2 -DFOREGROUND
33        8526  4054  0 Nov16 ?        00:00:03 apache2 -DFOREGROUND
33       24333  4054  0 04:13 ?        00:00:00 apache2 -DFOREGROUND
root     28489  1514  0 Oct31 ?        00:00:01 /usr/libexec/docker/docker-proxy-current -proto tcp -host-ip 0.0.0.0 -host-port 443 -container-ip 172.22.0.3 -container-port 443
root     28502  1514  0 Oct31 ?        00:00:01 /usr/libexec/docker/docker-proxy-current -proto tcp -host-ip 0.0.0.0 -host-port 80 -container-ip 172.22.0.3 -container-port 80
33       19216  4054  0 Nov13 ?        00:00:08 apache2 -DFOREGROUND

Without diving too deep into this, the docker processes you see above serve a few processes. There’s the main dockerd process which is responsible for management of docker containers on this host. The containerd processes handle all of the lower level management tasks for the containers themselves. And finally, the docker-proxy processes are responsible for the networking layer between the docker daemon and the host.

You’ll also see a number of apache2 processes mixed in here as well. Those are the processes running within the container, and they look just like regular processes running on a linux system. The key difference is that a number of kernel features are being used to isolate these processes so they are isolated away from the rest of the system. On the docker host you can see them, but when viewing the world from the context of a container, you cannot.

What is this black magic, you ask? Well, it’s primarily two kernel features called Namespaces and cgroups. Let’s take a look at how these work.

Namespaces are essentially internal mapping mechanisms that allow processes to have their own collections of partitioned resources. So, for instance, a process can have a pid namespace allowing that process to start a number of additional processed that can only see each other and not anything outside of the main process that owns the pid namespace. So let’s take a look at our earlier process list example. Inside of a given container you may see this:

[root@dockercontainer ~]# ps -ef
UID        PID  PPID  C STIME TTY          TIME CMD
root         1     0  0 Nov27 ?        00:00:12 apache2 -DFOREGROUND
www-data    18     1  0 Nov27 ?        00:00:56 apache2 -DFOREGROUND
www-data    20     1  0 Nov27 ?        00:00:24 apache2 -DFOREGROUND
www-data    21     1  0 Nov27 ?        00:00:22 apache2 -DFOREGROUND
root       559     0  0 14:30 ?        00:00:00 ps -ef

While outside of the container, you’ll see this:

[root@dockerhost ~]# ps -ef
UID        PID  PPID  C STIME TTY          TIME CMD
root         1     0  0 Oct15 ?        00:02:40 /usr/lib/systemd/systemd --switched-root --system --deserialize 21
root         2     0  0 Oct15 ?        00:00:03 [kthreadd]
root         3     2  0 Oct15 ?        00:03:44 [ksoftirqd/0]
...
root      1514     1  0 Oct15 ?        04:28:40 /usr/bin/dockerd-current --add-runtime docker-runc=/usr/libexec/docker/docker-runc-current --default-runtime=docker-runc --exec-opt nat
root      1673  1514  0 Oct15 ?        01:27:08 /usr/bin/docker-containerd-current -l unix:///var/run/docker/libcontainerd/docker-containerd.sock --metrics-interval=0 --start-timeout
root      4035  1673  0 Oct31 ?        00:00:07 /usr/bin/docker-containerd-shim-current d548c5b83fa61d8e3bd86ad42a7ffea9b7c86e3f9d8095c1577d3e1270bb9420 /var/run/docker/libcontainerd/
root      4054  4035  0 Oct31 ?        00:01:24 apache2 -DFOREGROUND
33        6281  4054  0 Nov13 ?        00:00:07 apache2 -DFOREGROUND
33        8526  4054  0 Nov16 ?        00:00:03 apache2 -DFOREGROUND
33       24333  4054  0 04:13 ?        00:00:00 apache2 -DFOREGROUND
root     28489  1514  0 Oct31 ?        00:00:01 /usr/libexec/docker/docker-proxy-current -proto tcp -host-ip 0.0.0.0 -host-port 443 -container-ip 172.22.0.3 -container-port 443
root     28502  1514  0 Oct31 ?        00:00:01 /usr/libexec/docker/docker-proxy-current -proto tcp -host-ip 0.0.0.0 -host-port 80 -container-ip 172.22.0.3 -container-port 8033       19216  4054  0 Nov13 ?        00:00:08 apache2 -DFOREGROUND

There are two things to note here. First, within the container, you’re only seeing the processes that the container runs. No systems, no docker daemons, etc. Only the apache2 and ps processes. From outside of the container, however, you see all of the processes running on the system, including those within the container. And, the PIDs listed inside if the container are different from those outside of the container. In this example, PID 4054 outside of the container would appear to map to PID 1 inside of the container. This provides a layer of security such that running a process inside of a container can only interact with other processes running in the container. And if you kill process 1 inside of a container, the entire container comes to a screeching halt, much as if you kill process 1 on a linux host.

PID namespaces are only one of the namespaces that Docker makes use of. There are also NET, IPC, MNT, UTS, and User namespaces, though User namespaces are disabled by default. Briefly, these namespaces provide the following:

  • NET
    • Isolates a network stack for use within the container. Network stacks can, and typically are, shared between containers.
  • IPC
    • Provides isolated Inter-Process Communications within a container, allowing a container to use features such as shared memory while keeping the communication isolated within the container.
  • MNT
    • Allows mount points to be isolated, preventing new mount points from being added to the host system.
  • UTS
    • Allows different host and domains names to be presented to containers
  • User
    • Allows a mapping of users and groups with container to the host system, thereby preventing a root user within a container from running as did 1 outside of the container.

The second piece of black magic used is Control Groups or cgroups. Cgroups isolates resource usage for a process. Where Namespaces creates a localized view of resources for a process, cgroups creates a limited pool of resources for a process. For instance, you can assign specific CPU, Memory, and Disk I/O limits to a container. With a cgroup is assigned, the process cannot exceed the limits put on it, thereby preventing processes from “running away” and exhausting system resources. Instead, the process either deals with the lower resource limits, or crashes.

By themselves, these features can be a bit daunting to set up for each process or group of processes. Docker conveniently packages this up, making deployment as simple as a docker run command. Combined with the packaging of a Docker container (which I’ll cover in a future post), Docker becomes a great way to deploy software in a reproducible, secure manner.

The obligatory Docker 101 post

Welcome to the obligatory Docker 101 post. Before I dive into more technical posts on this subject, I thought it would be worth the time to explain what docker is and what I find exciting about it. If you’re familiar with Docker already, there likely won’t be anything new here for you, but I welcome any feedback you have.

So, what is Docker? Docker is a containerization technology first release as open source in 2013. But what is containerization? Containerization, or Operating System Level Virtualization, refers to the isolation, using kernel-level features, of a set of processes in which the processes only see a localized view of the system. This differs from Platform Virtualization in that Containerization is not presenting a set of virtual resources to the isolated processes, but is presenting real resources limited only by the configuration of that particular container.

One of the more common explanations of this architecture is shown in the following image:

Docker Layered Model

This image is a bit problematic in that it doesn’t truly represent what you actually see on a docker host, but we’ll save that for a later blog post. For now, trust that the above is a very simplified view of the docker world.

So why containerization and why Docker in particular? There are a number of benefits that containerization technology provides. Among these are immutability, portability, and security. Let’s touch briefly on each of these.

Immutability refers to the concept of something being unchangeable. In the case of containerization, a container is considered to be immutable. That is, once created, the container itself will remain unchanged for the duration of its life. But, it’s important to understand what this means in practice. The container image itself is immutable, but once running, the contents of the container can be changed within the parameters of its execution. The immutable piece of this comes into play when you destroy a running container and recreate it from the container image. That recreated image will have the exact same characteristics as the original container, assuming the same configuration is used to start the container. A notable exception to this is external volumes. Any volume external to the container is not guaranteed to be immutable as it’s not part of the original container image.

Portability refers to the ability to move containers between disparate systems and the container will run exactly the same, assuming no external dependencies. There are limitations to this such as requiring the same cpu architecture across the systems, but overall, a container can be moved from system to system and be expected to behave the same. In fact, this is part of the basis of orchestration and scalability of containers. In the event of a failure, or if additional instances of a container are necessary, they can be spun up on additional systems. And provided any external dependencies are available to all of the systems that the container is spun up on, the containers will run and behave the same.

Containers provide an additional layer of security over traditional virtual or physical hosts. Because the processes are isolated within the container, an attacker is left with a very limited attack surface. In the event of a compromise, the attacker only gets a foothold on that instance of the container and is generally left with very little tooling inside of the container with which to pivot to additional resources. If an attacker is able to make changes to the running container, the admin can simply destroy the container and spin up a new one which will no longer have the compromised changes. Obviously the admin needs to identify how the attacker got in and patch the container, but this ability to destroy and recreate a container is a powerful way to stop attackers from pivoting through your systems.

Finally, the internal networking of the docker system allows containers to run with no externally accessible ports. So, for instance, if you’re running some sort of dynamic site that requires a proxy, application, and database, the system can be set up such that the proxy is the only externally accessible container. All communication between the proxy, application, and database can be performed over the internal docker networking which has no externally accessible endpoint.

There’s a lot to be excited about here. Done correctly, the days of endlessly troubleshooting issues caused by server cruft are over. Deployment of resources because incredibly straightforward and rapid. Rollbacks become vastly simplified as you can just spin up the old version of the container. Containers provide developers a means to run their code locally, exactly as it will be run in production!

I’ve been working with containers for about 3 years now and the landscape just keeps expanding. There’s so much to learn and so many new tools to play with.

Finally, I’m going to leave you with a talk by Alice Goldfuss. Alice is an engineer that currently works for Github. She has a ton of container experience and a lot to say about it. Definitely worth a watch.

So, new digs?

It looks a bit different around here lately. Sure, it’s roughly the same as what it was, but something is off.. A little bit here and there, so what changed?

Well, to tell the truth, I’ve switched blogging platforms. Don’t get me wrong, I love Serendipity. I’ve used it for years, love the features, love the simplicity. Unfortunately, Serendipity doesn’t have the greatest support for offline blogging, updates are relatively sparse, and it’s limited to just blogging. So I decided it’s time for a change.

Ok. Deep breath. I’ve switched to WordPress. Yes, yes, I know. I’ve decried WordPress as an insecure platform for a long time, but I’ve somewhat changed my thinking. The team at WordPress has done a great job ensuring the core platform is secure and they’re actively working to help older installations upgrade to newer releases. Plugins are where the majority of the security issues exist these days, and many of the more popular plugins are being actively scanned for security issues. So, overall, the platform has moved forward with respect to security and is more than viable.

I’ve also been leveraging Docker in recent years. We’ll definitely be talking about Docker in the coming days/weeks, so I won’t go into it here. Suffice it to say, Docker helps enhance the overall security of the system while simultaneously making it a breeze to deploy new software and keep it up to date.

So, enjoy the new digs, and hopefully more changes will be coming in the near future. WordPress is capable of doing more than just blogging and I’m planning on exploring some of those capabilities a bit more. This is very much a continuing transition, so if you see something that’s off, please leave a comment and I’ll take a look.

Network Enhanced Telepathy

I’ve recently been reading Wired for War by P.W. Singer and one of the concepts he mentions in the book is Network Enhanced Telepathy. This struck me as not only something that sounds incredibly interesting, but something that we’ll probably see hit mainstream in the next 5-10 years.

According to Wikipedia, telepathy is “the purported transmission of information from one person to another without using any of our known sensory channels or physical interaction.“ In other words, you can think *at* someone and communicate. The concept that Singer talks about in the book isn’t quite as “mystical” since it uses technology to perform the heavy lifting. In this case, technology brings fantasy into reality.

Scientists have already developed methods to “read” thoughts from the human mind. These methods are by no means perfect, but they are a start. As we’ve seen with technology across the board from computers to robotics, electric cars to rockets, technological jumps may ramp up slowly, but then they rocket forward at a deafening pace. What seems like a trivial breakthrough at the moment may well lead to the next step in human evolution.

What Singer describes in the book is one step further. If we can read the human mind, and presumably write back to it, then adding a network in-between, allowing communication between minds, is obvious. Thus we have Network Enhanced Telepathy. And, of course, with that comes all of the baggage we associate with networks today. Everything from connectivity issues and lag to security problems.

The security issues associated with something like this range from inconvenient to downright horrifying. If you thought social engineering was bad, wait until we have a direct line straight into someone’s brain. Today, security issues can result in stolen data, denial of service issues, and, in some rare instances, destruction of property. These same issues may exist with this new technology as well.

Stolen data is pretty straightforward. Could an exploit allow an attacker to arbitrarily read data from someone’s mind? How would this work? Could they pinpoint the exact data they want, or would they only have access to the current “thoughts” being transmitted? While access to current thoughts might not be as bad as exact data, it’s still possible this could be used to steal important data such as passwords, secret information, etc. Pinpointing exact data could be absolutely devastating. Imagine, for a moment, what would happen if an attacker was able to pluck your innermost secrets straight out of your mind. Everyone has something to hide, whether that’s a deep dark secret, or maybe just the image of themselves in the bathroom mirror.

I’ve seen social engineering talks wherein the presenter talks about a technique to interrupt a person, mid-thought, and effectively create a buffer overflow of sorts, allowing the social engineer to insert their own directions. Taken to the next level, could an attacker perform a similar attack via a direct link to a person’s mind? If so, what access would the attacker then attain? Could we be looking at the next big thing in brainwashing? Merely insert the new programming, directly into the user.

How about Denial of Service attacks or physical destruction? Could an attacker cause physical damage in their target? Is a connection to the mind enough access to directly modify the cognitive functions of the target? Could an attacker induce something like Locked-In syndrome in a user? What about blocking specific functions, preventing the user from being able to move limbs, or speak? Since the brain performs regulatory control over the body, could an attacker modify the temperature, heart rate, or even induce sensations in their target? These are truly scary scenarios and warrant serious thought and discussion.

Technology is racing ahead at breakneck speeds and the future is an exciting one. These technologies could allow humans to take that next evolutionary step. But as with all technology, we should be looking at it with a critical eye. As technology and biology become more and more intertwined, it is essential that we tread carefully and be sure to address potential problems long before they become a reality.

Suspended Visible Masses of Small Frozen Water Crystals

The Cloud, hailed as a panacea for all your IT related problems. Need storage? Put it in the Cloud. Email? Cloud. Voice? Wireless? Logging? Security? The Cloud is your answer. The Cloud can do it all.

But what does that mean? How is it that all of these problems can be solved by merely signing up for various cloud services? What is the cloud, anyway?

Unfortunately, defining what the cloud actually is remains problematic. It means many things to many people. The cloud can be something “simple” like extra storage space or email. Google, Dropbox, and others offer a service that allows you to store files on their servers, making them available to you from “anywhere” in the world. Anywhere, of course, if the local government and laws allow you to access the services there. These services are often free for a small amount of space.

Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and many, many others offer email services, many of them “free” for personal use. In this instance, though, free can be tricky. Google, for instance, has algorithms that “read” your email and display advertisements based on the results. So while you may not exchange money for this service, you do exchange a level of privacy.

Cloud can also be pure computing power. Virtual machines running a variety of operating systems, available for the end-user to access and run whatever software they need. Companies like Amazon have turned this into big business, offering a full range of back-end services for cloud-based servers. Databases, storage, raw computing power, it’s all there. In fact, they have developed APIs allowing additional services to be spun up on-demand, augmenting existing services.

As time goes on, more and more services are being added to the cloud model. The temptation to drop self-hosted services and move to the cloud is constantly increasing. The incentives are definitely there. Cloud services are affordable, and there’s no need for additional staff for support. All the benefits with very little of the expense. End-users have access to services they may not have had access to previously, and companies can save money and time by moving services they use to the cloud.

But as with any service, self-hosted or not, there are questions you should be asking. The answers, however, are sometimes a bit hard to get. But even without direct answers, there are some inferences you can make based on what the service is and what data is being transferred.

Data being accessible virtually anywhere, at any time, is one of major draws of cloud services. But there are downsides. What happens when the service is inaccessible? For a self-hosted service, you have control and can spend the necessary time to bring the service back up. In some cases, you may have the ability to access some or all of the data, even without the service being fully restored. When you surrender your data to the cloud, you are at the mercy of the service provider. Not all providers are created equal and you cannot expect uniform performance and availability across all providers. This means that in the event of an outage, you are essentially helpless. Keeping local backups is definitely an option, but oftentimes you’re using the cloud so that you don’t need those local backups.

Speaking of backups, is the cloud service you’re using responsible for backups? Will they guarantee that your data will remain safe? What happens if you accidentally delete a needed file or email? These are important issues that come up quite often for a typical office. What about the other side of the question? If the service is keeping backups, are those backups secure? Is there a way to delete data, permanently, from the service? Accidents happen, so if you’ve uploaded a file containing sensitive information, or sent/received an email with sensitive information, what recourse do you have? Dropbox keeps snapshots of all uploaded data for 30 days, but there doesn’t seem to be an official way to permanently delete a file. There are a number of articles out there claiming that this is possible, just follow the steps they provide, but can you be completely certain that the data is gone?

What about data security? Well, let’s think about the data you’re sending. For an email service, this is a fairly simple answer. Every email goes through that service. In fact, your email is stored on the remote server, and even deleted messages may hang around for a while. So if you’re using email for anything sensitive, the security of that information is mostly out of your control. There’s always the option of using some sort of encryption, but web-based services rarely support that. So data security is definitely an issue, and not necessarily an issue you have any control over. And remember, even the “big guys” make mistakes. Fishnet Security has an excellent list of questions you can ask cloud providers about their security stance.

Liability is an issue as well, though you may not initially realize it. Where, exactly, is your data stored? Do you know? Can you find out? This can be an important issue depending on what your industry is, or what you’re storing. If your data is being stored outside of your home country, it may be subject to the laws and regulations of the country it’s stored in.

There are a lot of aspects to deal with when thinking about cloud services. Before jumping into the fray, do your homework and make sure you’re comfortable with giving up control to a third party. Once you give up control, it may not be that easy to reign it back in.

Looking into the SociaVirtualistic Future

Let’s get this out of the way. One of the primary reasons I’m writing this is in response to a request by John Carmack for coherent commentary about the recent acquisition of Oculus VR by Facebook. My hope is that he does, in fact, read this and maybe drop a comment in response. <fanboy>Hi John!</fanboy> I’ve been a huge Carmack fan since the early ID days, so please excuse the fanboyism.

And I *just* saw the news that Michael Abrash has joined Oculus as well, which is also incredibly exciting. Abrash is an Assembly GOD. <Insert more fanboyism here />

Ok, on to the topic a hand. The Oculus Rift is a VR headset that got its public start with a Kickstarter campaign in September of 2012. It blew away it’s meager goal of $250,000 and raked in almost $2.5 Million. For a mere $275 and some patience, contributors would receive an unassembled prototype of the Oculus Rift. Toss in another $25 and you received an assembled version.

But what is the Oculus Rift? According to the Kickstarter campaign :

Oculus Rift is a new virtual reality (VR) headset designed specifically for video games that will change the way you think about gaming forever. With an incredibly wide field of view, high resolution display, and ultra-low latency head tracking, the Rift provides a truly immersive experience that allows you to step inside your favorite game and explore new worlds like never before.

In short, the Rift is the culmination of every VR lover’s dreams. Put a pair of these puppies on and magic appears before your eyes.

For myself, Rift was interesting, but probably not something I could ever use. Unfortunately, I suffer from Amblyopia, or Lazy Eye as it’s commonly called. I’m told I don’t see 3D. Going to 3D movies pretty much confirms this for me since nothing ever jumps out of the screen. So as cool as VR sounds to me, I would miss out on the 3D aspect. Though it might be possible to “tweak” the headset and adjust the angles a bit to force my eyes to see 3D. I’m not sure if that’s good for my eyes, though.

At any rate, the Rift sounds like an amazing piece of technology. In the past year I’ve watched a number of videos demonstrating the capabilities of the Rift. From the Hak5 crew to Ben Heck, the reviews have all been positive.

And then I learned that John Carmack joined Oculus. I think that was about the time I realized that Oculus was the real deal. John is a visionary in so many different ways. One can argue that modern 3D gaming is largely in part to the work he did in the field. In more recent years, his visions have aimed a bit higher with his rocket company, Armadillo Aerospace. Armadillo started winding down last year, right about the time that John joined Oculus, leaving him plenty of time to deep dive into a new venture.

For anyone paying attention, Oculus was recently acquired by Facebook for a mere $2 Billion. Since the announcement, I’ve seen a lot of hatred being tossed around on Twitter. Some of this hatred seems to be Kickstarter backers who are under some sort of delusion that makes them believe they have a say in anything they back. I see this a lot, especially when a project is taking longer than they believe it should.

I can easily write several blog posts on my personal views about this, but to sum it up quickly, if you back a project, you’re contributing to make something a reality. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t. But Kickstarter clearly states that you’re merely contributing financial backing, not gaining a stake in a potential product and/or company. Nor are you guaranteed to receive the perks you’ve contributed towards. So suck it up and get over it. You never had control to begin with.

I think Notch, of Minecraft fame, wrote a really good post about his feeling on the subject. I think he has his head right. He contributed, did his part, and though it’s not working out the way he wanted, he’s still willing to wish the venture luck. He may not want to play in that particular sandbox, but that’s his choice.

VR in a social setting is fairly interesting. In his first Oculus blog post, Michael Abrash mentioned reading Neal Stephenson’s incredible novel, Snow Crash. Snow Crash provided me with a view of what virtual reality might bring to daily life. Around the same time, the movie Lawnmower Man was released. Again, VR was brought into the forefront of my mind. But despite the promises of books and movies, VR remained elusive.

More recently, I read a novel by Ernest Cline, Ready Player One. Without giving too much away, the novel centers around a technology called the OASIS. Funnily enough, the OASIS is, effectively, a massive social network that users interact with via VR rigs. OASIS was the first thing I thought about when I heard about the Facebook / Oculus acquisition.

For myself, my concern is Facebook. Despite being a massively popular platform, I think users still distrust Facebook quite a bit. I lasted about 2 weeks on Facebook before having my account deleted. I understand their business model and I have no interest in taking part. Unfortunately, I’m starting to miss out on some aspects of Internet life since some sites are requiring Facebook accounts for access. Ah well, I guess they miss out on me as well.

I have a lot of distrust in Facebook at the moment. They wield an incredible amount of information about users and, to be honest, they’re nowhere near transparent enough for me to believe what they say. Google is slightly better, but there’s some distrust there as well. But more than just the distrust, I’m afraid that Facebook is going to take something amazing and destroy it in a backwards attempt to monetize it. I’m afraid that Facebook is the IOI of this story. (It’s a Ready Player One reference. Go read it, you can thank me later)

Ultimately, I have no stake in this particular game. At least, not yet, anyway. Maybe I’m wrong and Facebook makes all the right moves. Maybe they become a power for good and are able to bring VR to the masses. Maybe people like Carmack and Abrash can protect Oculus and fend off any fumbling attempts Facebook may make at clumsy monetization. I’m not sure how this will play out, only time will tell.

How will we know how things are going? Well, for one, watching his Facebook interacts with this new property will be pretty telling. I think if Facebook is able to sit in the shadows and watch rather than kicking in the front door and taking over, maybe Oculus will have a chance to thrive. Watching what products are ultimately released by Oculus will be another telling aspect. While I fully expect that Oculus will add some sort of Facebook integration into the SDK over time, I’m also hoping that they continue to provide an SDK for standalone applications.

I sincerely wish Carmack, Abrash, and the rest of the Oculus team the best. I think they’re in a position where they can make amazing things happen, and I’m eager to see what comes next.