Technology Tales

Adventures & experiences in contemporary technology

Changing the Ansible Vault editor from Vi to Nano

15th August 2022

Recently, I got to experimenting with Ansible after reading about the orchestration tool in a copy of Admin magazine. It came in handy for updating a few web servers that I have as well as updating my main Linux workstation. For the former, automated entry of SSH passwords sufficed but the same did not apply for sudo usage on my local machine. This meant that I needed to use Ansible Vault to store the administrator password and doing so opened up a file in the Vi editor. since I am not familiar with Vi and wanted to get things sorted quickly, I fancied using something more user-friendly like Nano.

Doing this meant adding the following line to .bashrc:

export EDITOR=nano

Saving and closing the file followed by reloading the session set me up for what was needed.

Controlling display of users on the logon screen in Linux Mint 20.3

15th February 2022

Recently, I tried using Commento with a static website that I was developing and this needed PostgreSQL rather than MySQL or MariaDB, which many content management tools use. That meant a learning curve that made me buy a book as well as the creation of a system account for administering PostgreSQL. These are not the kind of things that you want to be too visible so I wanted to hide them.

Since Linux Mint uses AccountsService, you cannot use lightdm to do this (the comments in /etc/lightdm/users.conf suggest as much). Instead, you need to go to /var/lib/AccountsService/users and look for a file called after the user name. If one exists, all that is needed is for you to add the following line under the [User] section:

SystemAccount=true

If there is no file present for the user in question, then you need to create one with the following lines in there:

[User]
SystemAccount=true

Once the configuration files are set up as needed, AccountsService needs to be restarted and the following command does that deed:

sudo systemctl restart accounts-daemon.service

Logging out should reveal that the user in question is not listed on the logon screen as required.

Limiting Google Drive upload & synchronisation speeds using Trickle

9th October 2021

Having had a mishap that lost me some photos in the early days of my dalliance with digital photography, I have been far more careful since then and that now applies to other files as well. Doing regular backups is a must that you find reiterated by many different authors and the current computing climate makes doing that more vital than it ever was.

So, as well as having various local backups, I also have remote ones in the form of OneDrive, Dropbox and Google Drive. These more correctly are file synchronisation services but disciplined use can make them useful as additional storage facilities in the interests of maintaining added resilience. There also are dedicated backup services that I have seen reviewed in the likes of PC Pro magazine but I have to make use of those.

Insync

Part of my process for dealing with new digital photo files is to back them up to Google Drive and I did that with a Windows client in the early days but then moved to Insync running on Linux Mint. One drawback to the approach is that this hogs the upload bandwidth of an internet connection that has yet to move to fibre from copper cabling. Having fibre connections to a local cabinet helps but a 100 KiB/s upload speed is easily overwhelmed and digital photo file sizes keep increasing. It does not help that I insist on using more flexible raw formats like DNG, CR2 or CR3 either.

Making fewer images could help to cut the load but I still come away from an excursion with many files because I get so besotted with my surroundings. This means that upload sessions take numerous hours and can extend across calendar days. Ultimately, this makes my internet connection far less usable so I want to throttle upload speed much like what is possible in the Transmission BitTorrent client or in the Dropbox client. Unfortunately, this is not available in Insync so I have tried using the trickle command instead and an example is below:

trickle -d 2000 -u 50 insync

Here, the upload speed is limited to 50 KiB/s while the download speed is limited to 2000 KiB/s. In my case, the latter of these hardly matters while the former leaves me with acceptable internet usability. Insync does not work smoothly with this, however, so occasional restarts are needed to keep file uploads progressing and CPU load also is higher. As rough as the user experience feels, uploads can continue in parallel with other work.

gdrive

One other option that I am exploring is the use of the command-line tool gdrive and this appears to work well with trickle. After downloading and installing the tool, getting going is a matter of issuing the following command and following the instructions:

gdrive about

On web servers, I even have the tool backing up things to Google Drive on a scheduled basis. Because of a Google Drive limitation that I have encountered not only with gdrive but also with Insync and Google’s own Windows Google Drive client, synchronisation only can happen with two new folders, one local and the other remote. Handily, gdrive supports the usual bash style commands for working with remote directories so something like the following will create a directory on Google Drive:

gdrive mkdir ttdc [ID for parent folder]

Here, the ID for the parent folder may be omitted but it can be obtained by going to Google Drive online and getting a link location by right-clicking on a folder and choosing the appropriate context menu item. This gets you something like the following and the required identifier is found between the last slash and the first question mark in the address string (so as not to share any real links, I made the address more general below):

https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/[remote folder ID]?usp=sharing

Then, synchronisation uses a command like the following:

gdrive sync upload [local folder or file path] [remote folder ID]

There also is the option to do a one-way upload and this is the form of the command used:

gdrive upload [local folder or file path] -p [remote folder ID]

Because every file or folder object has its own ID on Google Drive, it is possible to create two objects on there that appear to have the same name though that is sure to cause confusion even if you know what is happening. It is possible in each of the above to throttle them using trickle as well:

trickle -d 2000 -u 50 gdrive sync upload [local folder or file path] [remote folder ID]
trickle -d 2000 -u 50 gdrive upload [local folder or file path] -p [remote folder ID]

Handily, this works without the added drama seen with Insync and lends itself to scripting as well so it could be something that I will incorporate into my current workflow. One thing that needs to be watched is file upload failures but there may be ways to catch those and retry them so that would another thing that needs doing. This is built into Insync and it would be a learning opportunity if I was to stick with gdrive instead.

Changing the UUID of a VirtualBox Virtual Disk Image in Linux

11th July 2021

Recent experimentation centring around getting my hands on a test version of Windows 11 had me duplicating virtual machines and virtual disk images though VirtualBox still is not ready for the next Windows version; it has no TPM capability at the moment. Nevertheless, I was able to get something after a fresh installation that removed whatever files were on the disk image. That meant that I needed to mount the old version to get at those files again.

Renaming partially helped with this but what I really needed to do was change the UUID so VirtualBox would not report a collision between two disk images with the same UUID. To avoid this, the UUID of one of the disk images had to be changed and a command like the following was used to accomplish this:

VBoxManage internalcommands sethduuid [Virtual Disk Image Name].vdi

Because I was doing this on Linux Mint, I could call VBoxManage without need to tell the system where it was as would be the case in Windows. Otherwise, it is the sethduuid portion that changes the UUID as required. Another way around this is to clone the VDI file using the following command but I had not realised that at the time:

VBoxManage clonevdi [old virtual disk image].vdi [new virtual disk image].vdi

It seems that there can be more than way to do things in VirtualBox at times so the second way will remain on reference for the future.

Contents not displaying for Shared Folders on a Fedora 32 guest instance in VirtualBox

26th July 2020

While some Linux distros like Fedora install VirtualBox drivers during installation time, I prefer to install the VirtualBox Guest Additions themselves. Before doing this, it is best to remove the virtualbox-guest-additions package from Fedora to avoid conflicts. After that, execute the following command to ensure that all prerequisites for the VirtualBox Guest Additions are in place prior to mounting the VirtualBox Guest Additions ISO image and installing from there:

sudo dnf -y install gcc automake make kernel-headers dkms bzip2 libxcrypt-compat kernel-devel perl

During the installation, you may encounter a message like the following:

ValueError: File context for /opt/VBoxGuestAdditions-<VERSION>/other/mount.vboxsf already defined

This is generated by SELinux so the following commands need executing before the VirtualBox Guest Additions installation is repeated:

sudo semanage fcontext -d /opt/VBoxGuestAdditions-<VERSION>/other/mount.vboxsf
sudo restorecon /opt/VBoxGuestAdditions-<VERSION>/other/mount.vboxsf

Without doing the above step and fixing the preceding error message, I had an issue with mounting of Shared Folders whereby the mount point was set up but no folder contents were displayed. This happened even when my user account was added to the vboxsf group and it proved to be the SELinux context issue that was the cause.

Ensuring that Flatpak remains up to date on Linux Mint 19.2

25th October 2019

The Flatpak concept offers a useful way of getting the latest version of software like LibreOffice or GIMP on Linux machines because repositories are managed conservatively when it comes to the versions of included software. Ubuntu has Snaps, which are similar in concept. Both options bundle dependencies with the packaged software so that its operation can use later versions of system libraries that what may be available with a particular distribution.

However, even Flatpak depends on what is available through the repositories for a distribution as I found when a software update needed a version of the tool. The solution was to add PPA using the following command and agreeing to the prompts that arise (answering Y, in other words):

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:alexlarsson/flatpak

With the new PPA instated, the usual apt commands were used to update the Flatpak package and continue with the required updates. Since then, all has gone smoothly as expected.

Installing Perl modules using CPAN on Linux Mint 19.2

28th September 2019

My online travel photo gallery is a self-coded set of PHP scripts that read data from tables in a MySQL database. These tables are built from input XML files using a Perl script that itself creates and executes an SQL script. The Perl script also does some image processing using GraphicsMagick commands to resize images and to add copyright information and image framing. Because this processed one image at a time sequentially, it was taking several minutes to complete and only partly used the capacity of the PC that I used.

This led me to look at adding parallel processing and that is what brought me to looking at the Parallel::ForkManager Perl module. An alternative approach might have been to add new images in such a way as not to need the full run involving hundreds of image files, but that will take more work and I fancied having a look at parallelising things anyway.

If it was not there already, the first act would have been to install build-essential to get access to the cpan command. The following command accomplishes this:

sudo apt-get install build-essential

Once that is there, the cpan command needs to be run and some questions answered to get things going. The first question to answer is whether you want setup to be as automated as possible and the default answer of yes worked for me. The next question to answer regards the approach that cpan takes when installing modules and I chose sudo here (local::lib is the default value and manual is another option). After this, cpan drops into its own command shell. Here, I issued two more commands to continue the basic setup by updating CPAN.pm to the latest version and adding Bundle::CPAN to optimise the module further:

make install
install Bundle::CPAN

Continuing the last of these may need extra intervention to confirmation the suggested default of exit at one point in its operation and that takes a little time to complete. It is after this that Parallel::ForkManager can be installed using the following command:

install Parallel::ForkManager

That completed quickly and the cpan shell was exited using its exit command. Then, the new module was available in scripting after that. The actual use of this module is something that hope to describe in another post so I am ending this one here and the same process is just as applicable to setting up cpan and adding any other Perl CPAN module.

Running cron jobs using the www-data system account

22nd December 2018

When you set up your own web server or use a private server (virtual or physical), you will find that web servers run using the www-data account. That means that website files need to be accessible to that system account if not owned by it. The latter is mandatory if you you want WordPress to be able to update itself with needing FTP details.

It also means that you probably need scheduled jobs to be executed using the privileges possess by the www-data account. For instance, I use WP-CLI to automate spam removal and updates to plugins, themes and WordPress itself. Spam removal can be done without the www-data account but the updates need file access and cannot be completed without this. Therefore, I got interested in setting up cron jobs to run under that account and the following command helps to address this:

sudo -u www-data crontab -e

For that to work, your own account needs to be listed in /etc/sudoers or be assigned to the sudo group in /etc/group. If it is either of those, then entering your own password will open the cron file for www-data and it can be edited as for any other account. Closing and saving the session will update cron with the new job details.

In fact, the same approach can be taken for a variety of commands where files only can be access using www-data. This includes copying, pasting and deleting files as well as executing WP-CLI commands. The latter issues a striking message if you run a command using the root account, a pervasive temptation given what it allows. Any alternative to the latter has to be better from a security standpoint.

Moving a website from shared hosting to a virtual private server

24th November 2018

This year has seen some optimisation being applied to my web presences guided by the results of GTMetrix scans. It was then that I realised how slow things were, so server loads were reduced. Anything that slowed response times, such as WordPress plugins, got removed. Usage of Matomo also was curtailed in favour of Google Analytics while HTML, CSS and JS minification followed. What had yet to happen was a search for a faster server. Now, another website has been moved onto a virtual private server (VPS) to see how that would go.

Speed was not the only consideration since security was a factor too. After all, a VPS is more locked away from other users than a folder on a shared server. There also is the added sense of control, so Let’s Encrypt SSL certificates can be added using the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Certbot. That avoids the expense of using an SSL certificate provided through my shared hosting provider and a successful transition for my travel website may mean that this one undergoes the same move.

For the VPS, I chose Ubuntu 18.04 as its operating system, and it came with the LAMP stack already in place. Have offload development websites, the mix of Apache, MySQL and PHP is more familiar to me than anything using Nginx or Python. It also means that .htaccess files become more useful than they were on my previous Nginx-based platform. Having full access to the operating system using SSH helps too and should mean that I have fewer calls on technical support since I can do more for myself. Any extra tinkering should not affect others either, since this type of setup is well known to me and having an offline counterpart means that anything riskier is tried there beforehand.

Naturally, there were niggles to overcome with the move. The first to fix was to make the MySQL instance accept calls from outside the server so that I could migrate data there from elsewhere, and I even got my shared hosting setup to start using the new database to see what performance boost it might give. To make all this happen, I first found the location of the relevant my.cnf configuration file using the following command:

find / -name my.cnf

Once I had the right file, I commented out the following line that it contained and restarted the database service afterwards using another command to stop the appearance of any error 111 messages:

bind-address 127.0.0.1
service mysql restart

After that, things worked as required and I moved onto another matter: uploading the requisite files. That meant installing an FTP server, so I chose proftpd since I knew that well from previous tinkering. Once that was in place, file transfer commenced.

When that was done, I could do some testing to see if I had an active web server that loaded the website. Along the way, I also instated some Apache modules like mod-rewrite using the a2enmod command, restarting Apache each time I enabled another module.

Then, I discovered that Textpattern needed php-7.2-xml installed, so the following command was executed to do this:

apt install php7.2-xml

Then, the following line was uncommented in the correct php.ini configuration file that I found using the same method as that described already for the my.cnf configuration and that was followed by yet another Apache restart:

extension=php_xmlrpc.dll

Addressing the above issues yielded enough success for me to change the IP address in my Cloudflare dashboard so it pointed at the VPS and not the shared server. The changeover happened seamlessly without having to await DNS updates as once would have been the case. It had the added advantage of making both WordPress and Textpattern work fully.

With everything working to my satisfaction, I then followed the instructions on Certbot to set up my new Let’s Encrypt SSL certificate. Aside from a tweak to a configuration file and another Apache restart, the process was more automated than I had expected, so I was ready to embark on some fine-tuning to embed the new security arrangements. That meant updating .htaccess files and Textpattern has its own, so the following addition was needed there:

RewriteCond %{HTTPS} !=on
RewriteRule ^ https://%{HTTP_HOST}%{REQUEST_URI} [R=301,L]

This complemented what was already in the main .htaccess file and WordPress allows you to include http(s) in the address it uses, so that was another task completed. The general .htaccess only needed the following lines to be added:

RewriteCond %{SERVER_PORT} 80
RewriteRule ^(.*)$ https://www.assortedexplorations.com/$1 [R,L]

What all these achieve is to redirect insecure connections to secure ones for every visitor to the website. After that, internal hyperlinks without https needed updating along with any forms so that a padlock sign could be shown for all pages.

With the main work completed, it was time to sort out a lingering niggle regarding the appearance of an FTP login page every time a WordPress installation or update was requested. The main solution was to make the web server account the owner of the files and directories, but the following line was added to wp-config.php as part of the fix even if it probably is not necessary:

define('FS_METHOD', 'direct');

There also was the non-operation of WP Cron and that was addressed using WP-CLI and a script from Bjorn Johansen. To make double sure of its effectiveness, the following was added to wp-config.php to turn off the usual WP-Cron behaviour:

define('DISABLE_WP_CRON', true);

Intriguingly, WP-CLI offers a long list of possible commands that are worth investigating. A few have been examined, but more await attention.

Before those, I still need to get my new VPS to send emails. So far, sendmail has been installed, the hostname changed from localhost and the server restarted. More investigations are needed, but what I have not is faster than what was there before, so the effort has been rewarded already.

Updating Flatpack applications on Linux Mint 19

10th August 2018

Since upgrading to Linux Mint 19, I have installed some software from Flatpack. The cause for my curiosity was that you could have the latest versions of applications like GIMP or Libreoffice without having to depend on a third-party PPA. Installation is straightforward given the support built into Linux Mint. You just need to download the relevant package from the Flatpack website and running the file through the GUI installer. Because the packages come with extras to ensure cross-compatibility, more disk space is used but there is no added system overhead beyond that from what I have seen. Updating should be as easy as running the following single command too:

flatpack update

However, I needed to do a little extra work before this was possible. The first step was to update the configuration file at ~/.local/share/flatpak/repo/config to add the following lines:

[remote "flathub"]
gpg-verify=true
gpg-verify-summary=true
url=https://flathub.org/repo/
xa.title=Flathub

Once that was completed, I ran the following commands to import the required GPG key:

wget https://flathub.org/repo/flathub.gpg
flatpak --user remote-modify --gpg-import=flathub.gpg flathub

With this complete, I was able to run the update process and update any applications as necessary. After that first run, it has been integrated in to my normal processes by adding the command to the relevant alias definition.

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