Category: General

New Server Layout

Noah Petherbridge
Posted by Noah Petherbridge on Thursday, January 12 2017 @ 12:59:42 PM

It's been on my to-do list for a while, and I've finally begun the process of rearranging my personal servers.

I've always treated my personal servers like pets rather than cattle, usually only having a single server hosted somewhere that runs all of my things. Most recently this took the form of a single Digital Ocean VPS that I named and that costs $40/mo. for 4GB RAM, and it ran all sorts of things:

  • All my websites including and a lot of legacy sites that don't even point to my server anymore but that I still had the document roots for.
  • Various random PHP apps, and a Git server, and other random nonsense.
  • My Minecraft survival server.
  • My self-hosted e-mail.
  • My XMPP chat server (until the server wouldn't start after a reboot one day).
  • My OpenVPN server (until that stopped working one day and couldn't be fixed due to the kernel not creating the /dev/tap device).
  • All sorts of random cruft on the filesystem, like custom-built local versions of Perl, Python 3.4 and Git.

The various sources of pressure that got me to finally start doing something about this include:

  • The OpenVPN server was unfixable and I'd need to start from scratch with a new VPS to re-implement it properly.
  • Digital Ocean added a Block Storage feature where you can attach a separately-growable disk to your VPS, but those are only available in certain datacenters so far. was hosted in SFO-1 but Block Storage was only available in SFO-2, so I wanted to eventually migrate to one of the data centers that supports this feature.
  • It took me all day long to configure my self-hosted e-mail, and I didn't wanna do that again too soon. First I tried setting up a brand new VPS so that I'd only have to configure mail one more time, but it wasn't going very well so I decided to go back to Google Apps for my e-mail. I still have a grandfathered free account there, anyway.

So, now I have a new server named that's only $10 for 1GB RAM and it hosts all my simple websites, including this one! It took about four hours to migrate all my websites over, and in the process I also stopped hosting many random things. Like I don't use Piwik Analytics anymore (a PHP app), nor do I host a Git server now. The new server is so much lighter than the old one for it. I don't even have PHP installed, or Apache either.

My Minecraft server will be moved to its own VPS shortly, before I finish decommissioning I'll eventually add more servers when I need to in the future too, e.g. to have a dedicated server for databases.


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Skype switched to the MSN Messenger Protocol

Noah Petherbridge
Posted by Noah Petherbridge on Tuesday, December 09 2014 @ 10:21:54 AM

Today, Fedora 21 was released and I upgraded to it immediately, and decided not to install Skype this time.

Skype for Linux has been poorly maintained, going years between updates sometimes, and who knows what kind of unknown zero-day vulnerabilities are in there. On my previous installation of Fedora, Skype twice showed a weird issue where it replaced some of its icons with Chinese (or Korean, or something) symbols. I posted about it on Reddit and the Skype forum with no responses, as if I'm the only one who's ever seen this. Was I hacked? Maybe.

I took the latest Windows version of Skype and dumped all its icons trying to find these weird symbols but came up empty-handed. And I don't know of any way to pry icons out of the Linux binary of Skype. So... for now I just don't trust it.

In other news, I decided to Google the Skype protocol, and see what the progress is on people attempting to reverse engineer it, to be able to build an open source third-party Skype client (e.g. to have support in Pidgin). The Wikipedia article said something interesting:

On June 20, 2014, Microsoft announced the deprecation of the old Skype protocol. [...] The new Skype protocol - Microsoft Notification Protocol 24 - promises better offline messaging and better messages synchronization across Skype devices.

I wrote previously that the MSN Messenger service was still alive but it looks like it's the future of Skype as well.

The Microsoft Notification Protocol (MSNP) is the protocol used by MSN Messenger/Windows Live Messenger. I'm reasonably familiar with it from back in the day when I used to work on chatbots that signed in to MSN Messenger to accept their add requests and carry on conversations with humans.

MSNP is a plain text, line-delimited protocol similar to SMTP. There is some outdated documentation up through MSNP10 that we referenced in developing an MSN module in Perl. As an example, this is what you'd see going over the network if somebody sent a chat message to a friend:

MSG 4 N 133
MIME-Version: 1.0
Content-Type: text/plain; charset=UTF-8
X-MMS-IM-Format: FN=Arial; EF=I; CO=0; CS=0; PF=22

Hello! How are you?

The protocol consisted of command lines, typically three letters long (some I remember offhand: NLN--go online, FLN--go offline, BRB--set status to "be right back", RNG--request a conversation with a contact ("ring"), ANS--accept a conversation request ("answer"), and MSG--send a message). The RNG and ANS commands were invisible to the user in the official client, but allowed for some interesting behaviors in our chatbots (like immediately sending you a message the moment you open their chat window, before you even begin to type anything!)

It's interesting that Skype "downgraded" to the MSNP though, given that Skype's old protocol was an impenetrable fortress of obfuscation and encryption that nobody's ever managed to reverse engineer. Even third party clients like Trillian that had Skype support were technically using SkypeKit, a developer tool that allowed Skype to be remote controlled, but which kept all the proprietary bits a secret still. On the other hand, it makes sense for them to make Skype conform to and their other services that used MSNP, rather than upgrade all their other services to use the Skype protocol.

The last version of Windows Live Messenger used MSNP19 (or MSNP21 depending who you ask), so the new Skype protocol is just the next version of MSNP.

In Googling MSNP24 I found this site where efforts are already underway at reverse engineering it. This other site has a lot more details on the current status of the Messenger protocol.

It's only a matter of time now until Pidgin can natively support Skype accounts. It will also be fun to program chatbots for Skype. :)


Noah Petherbridge
Posted by Noah Petherbridge on Thursday, October 16 2014 @ 05:25:36 AM

Wanna see a Twitter Bootstrap site that doesn't look like a Bootstrap site? You're looking at one right now!

I've updated the web design for to use Bootstrap, so now the site is more accessible to mobile browsers. Try resizing the browser window and see how the site reacts. On smaller screens, the left nav bumps to the bottom of the page and a button appears at the top that will scroll straight to the nav bar.

I made a few custom tweaks for my particular design though, because the fixed (non-scrolling) background image and the transparent backgrounds on the panels would cause rendering errors on Firefox for Android. So, when the screen is small enough to switch into "mobile mode", the background image becomes unfixed (so it will scroll away with the rest of the page), and the panels lose their transparent backgrounds.

I've also added a new section to my site where you can see past web designs of and see how each design was typically an evolution of a prior one.

Lavender Cosmos Solar

Markdown in Rophako

Noah Petherbridge
Posted by Noah Petherbridge on Friday, April 18 2014 @ 03:05:02 PM

I've made an update to my Rophako CMS that powers it now supports Markdown!

Blog posts can be either written in Markdown, or direct HTML (the old way). In Markdown mode, HTML is currently escaped from the post. I may change this and make it only escape HTML in comments if I find it to be a PITA in the future. ;) Oh, and emoticons still work (they're rendered after Markdown is done).

Markdown works in comments, too, but with some limitations, like I don't allow embedding images. Also, you can write entire pages on your site in Markdown. Just create a page named with a .md file extension that contains Markdown code and it "just works" (there's a built-in file in the default site that wraps your rendered document in your web design's layout).

Best of all, I'm using a handful of extensions to the Python Markdown module to enable a lot of Github style Markdown features, such as code highlighting. Here's a Python example:

def render_markdown(body, html_escape=True):
    """Render a block of Markdown text.

    This will default to escaping literal HTML characters. Set
    `html_escape=False` to trust HTML."""

    args = dict(
        lazy_ol=False, # If a numbered list starts at e.g. 4, show the <ol> there
            "fenced_code",  # GitHub style code blocks
            "tables",       #
            "smart_strong", # Handles double__underscore better.
            "codehilite",   # Code highlighting with Pygment!
            "nl2br",        # Line breaks inside a paragraph become <br>
            "sane_lists",   # Make lists less surprising
            "codehilite": {
                "linenums": False,
    if html_escape:
        args["safe_mode"] = "escape"

    return markdown.markdown(body, **args)

I'll be revisiting all my old blog posts that have code pasted in them and reformatting them in Markdown for easier maintenance. My old way of pasting code in a blog post was to open the code in vim, and then run commands like,

:let html_use_css=1

... which would output an HTML file that syntax highlights the code, and then I'd cut and paste all that junk into my blog. Blech. Markdown will be much cleaner. :D

OpenSSL for!

Noah Petherbridge
Posted by Noah Petherbridge on Friday, April 18 2014 @ 11:18:01 AM

A while after the Heartbleed SSL vulnerability made headlines, ran an article titled "It's Time to Encrypt the Entire Internet" urging everyone to deploy SSL/TLS encryption on their sites.

SSL certificates tend to be pretty expensive, though, which is one reason I hadn't looked into it that closely in the past. In a Reddit comment thread about that Wired article some people mentioned Namecheap as a good option for simple SSL certs. So, I got a simple domain-level certificate for $9 for :) So all URLs are now running over https! This blog post is about the experience of setting up SSL and wrestling with various applications in the process.

Generating the Certificate

The simplest guide I found that I followed to make a certificate was Generate CSR - Apache OpenSSL. One command creates a passphrase-protected key file, the next one generates the signing request:

openssl genrsa –des3 –out kirsle.key 2048​
openssl req -new -key kirsle.key -out kirsle.csr

You apparently need a 2048-bit RSA key these days before a Certificate Authority will consider your signing request. I pasted in my CSR file and filled out some forms, got an e-mail verification sent to the address on my WHOIS record for my domain, and before I knew it I was e-mailed a zip file containing my certificate and the Comodo CA certificates.

Certificate Chain File

Various apps will need your Certificate Authority's chain to be in a single file. You can create this file by catting the certificates into one file in "reverse" order, with your site's certificate on top, and the root certificate on bottom. Comodo gave me these files (and this is also the order for the chain file):

  • certificate: www_kirsle_net.crt
  • Intermediate CA certificate: COMODORSADomainValidationSecureServerCA.crt
  • Intermediate CA certificate: COMODORSAAddTrustCA.crt
  • Root CA certificate: AddTrustExternalCARoot.crt

So I generated the chain as follows:

cat www_kirsle_net.crt COMODORSADomainValidationSecureServerCA.crt \
    COMODORSAAddTrustCA.crt AddTrustExternalCARoot.crt > cacert.pem

Apache2 mod_ssl

I'm running a Debian server, so I just symlinked the ssl.load and ssl.conf files from my /etc/apache2/mods-available into my mods-enabled, and then edited the ssl.conf. All I changed in it was to uncomment the SSLHonorCipherOrder on line.

I removed the sites-enabled/default-ssl and then edited my config file to add a <VirtualHost *:443> version. I had to look at the default-ssl file to get an idea which options were needed (if I missed any, Apache would fail to start!)

Relevant SSL options for my VirtualHost:

    # SSL
    SSLEngine on
    SSLCertificateChainFile /etc/ssl/crt/cacert.pem
    SSLCertificateFile /etc/ssl/crt/www_kirsle_net.crt
    SSLCertificateKeyFile /etc/ssl/crt/kirsle.key
    SSLOptions +StdEnvVars
    BrowserMatch "MSIE [2-6]" nokeepalive ssl-unclean-shutdown downgrade-1.0 force-response-1.0
    BrowserMatch "MSIE [17-9]" ssl-unclean-shutdown

Note: if you leave out the chain file, web browsers will still behave fine (because they're smart enough to download the intermediary certificates themselves), but other things will break. For example, the Python requests module will throw an SSL exception if the server doesn't give it the intermediary certificates!

After making sure was working, I made an update to my Rophako CMS to support SSL sites better and then made the switch-over. Any requests going to my HTTP are redirected to the SSL version and given a Strict Transport Security header.

As a fun side note, Apache supports Perfect Forward Secrecy by default (using the default SSLCipherSuite option of HIGH:MEDIUM:!aNULL:!MD5).

Starting or restarting Apache requires you to enter the SSL key's passphrase at the command line. For simple config updates, service apache2 graceful will reload them without needing a full restart, so you don't need to enter the passphrase then.

Dovecot IMAP

I use Dovecot for my IMAP mail server on, and I wanted it to use my shiny new SSL certificate. Before this, I was using a self-signed certificate, and apparently Thunderbird doesn't even warn you if that self-signed certificate changes at any point. After the Heartbleed vulnerability was fixed, I re-generated new self-signed certs and was shocked that Thunderbird happily accepted the new certificate without even telling me. It would've been extremely easy to Man-in-the-Middle my e-mail server. (I had since then installed an extension in Thunderbird to police SSL certificates for me as a workaround).

So, configuration is pretty simple, just edit /etc/dovecot/conf.d/10-ssl.conf and enter in the new paths to your chain file and private key. Note that if you use just your domain's certificate, clients like Thunderbird that support SSL properly will complain about the certificate being insecure, and unlike web browsers, Thunderbird doesn't bother downloading the intermediary certificates itself.

One catch with Dovecot is that if your private key file is encrypted with a passphrase like mine is, doing service dovecot restart won't work. Dovecot will start in a way where it won't support TLS but will otherwise appear to function normally.

To start Dovecot with a passphrase, you need to run dovecot -p (as root) to start the service. It will prompt for your passphrase at the command line and then start up. The service can be stopped normally using service dovecot stop.

Postfix SMTP Server

This one I'm a bit upset about. Postfix has absolutely NO support for using a passphrase protected TLS key file! Even their official documentation states that the key file must not be encrypted.

That is so full of wtf. Postfix is a widely deployed SMTP server for Linux, and it has to use insecure, unprotected TLS key files. So, I'm still using a self-signed certificate for Postfix (and my Thunderbird add-on will tell me if this certificate ever changes, so don't get any ideas!). I don't send outgoing mail very often, anyway, and if I care enough I'll PGP encrypt. But, I'll be looking into an alternative SMTP server sometime soon.

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