Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Linux Adventure Part 5: Everything is Broken

Ye gods.

You know all the stuff I wrote in the last five blog posts or so about the NAS unit? Well, it turns out that while it worked, side effects broke some the unit's functionality. First, the unit's network light would flicker and then it would cease to go to sleep, a critical function for energy savings on a 24/7 appliance. Then I also noticed the Diskstation would not shut down or restart when given the manual command to do so in the software.

After much gnashing of teeth and many face palms, I learned that bootstrapping the unit caused the issues. Synology generally is quite liberal about bootstrapping, even including information on how to do it in its official support resources. However, the operating system software, Disk Station Manager (DSM), gets updated regularly. Usually, this is a good sign that shows a company hasn't abandoned its product and is actively supporting and improving it. However, it also means that the environment running the station is a moving target. And by also allowing bootstrapping, Synology has led me into the very bear traps I see corporate IT shops sticking their balls into every day.

Young Profession, Old Debate

In the corporate IT world, there's an established debate about "build vs buy". Do you build the software you need from scratch or do you buy an off-the-shelf package? The debate usually has these points:

  • PRO: Software is customized to your needs and way of doing business
  • PRO: You have complete control of the code
  • PRO and CON: You have complete responsibility for the code
  • PRO: Proprietary business knowledge is institutionalized in the code
  • PRO: Enterprise processes are enforced by the software globally (barring proper implementation)
  • CON: In-house development is expensive
  • CON: In-house development often requires non-software shops to have proficiency in software development (bigger con: in reality most IT shops have at best mediocre competency).
  • PRO: Properly implemented, a custom software team can more rapidly change the software than a major vendor can or will
  • PRO: Buying someone else's software is less expensive because you don't have to have in-house development resources and licensing is cheaper than development. That's the theory reality I'm not convinced it's less expensive, but I agree that writing a check monthly is probably less work than having to account for a staff of developers and all the extra HR overhead.
  • PRO: Buying means you just use the software and the vendor handles development and support. Those of you that know better can laugh now.
  • CON: Your business now does business the way the vendor's software wants you to, not necessarily the way your business people want to.
  • CON: There may be limited capacity for customization of the vendor software to implement proprietary strategic processes
  • CON: Reality shows that for core business (not commodity items like word processing or spreadsheets) buying is still expensive and implementation missteps often negate any cost advantage
  • PRO: Certain industry standard processes, if implemented well, can be a part of the vendor software
  • CON: It is rare that all companies do business exactly the same way
  • PRO: Vendors may be able to capitalize on integration with common third party packages for things like accounting
  • CON: You may think that a vendor is more dedicated to the principles of good software design and best practices and therefore will deliver stable, efficient and intuitive high-quality software just like the kind you find on Apple computers. The truth is that some shops may be very good, but most are made up the same knuckleheads that soured you on the "build" approach.

We Want to Have our Cake and Eat it Too

In the 80's and 90's it was common for companies to take a "build" approach. Software was new and exciting and there weren't many vendor packages available, so the typical IT guy said, "Oh, it's easy, all we have to do is..." and much spaghetti code was born.

Later companies started realizing what a mess it was to maintain crappy systems. Prodded along by drinks on the golf course and rides on corporate yachts, they decided to buy instead. But they made a critical mistake. They still wanted to do business "their" way and that required changing the software they bought. They wanted the best of both worlds but ended up with the worst of both worlds by buying and then heavily customizing.  Oops.

Now they had vendors that wouldn't or couldn't respond quickly to changing the software to fix or add desired functionality. Their in-house customizations did address some of the core software's gaps but built by inexperienced developers, proved cantankerous and bug-ridden and the users hated using them. And there was another issue: when the vendor had a new version, upgrades were that much harder because they could break the customizations. Many would suffer nervous breakdowns during this time, but consulting companies would happily offer help in exchange for a chunk of the company's life savings.

Holy Crap I did it Too!

That brings me back to the NAS unit. I got it initially so I could store my photos, documents and music in one location instead of having them dispersed on four different PCs and dozens of other flash cards and portable drives and memory sticks. I could have rolled my own by putting together a simple Linux server in a low profile case, but I wanted the off-the-shelf solution that would let me plug-and-play. I wanted the benefits of commodity.

But like the corporate idiots before me, I got greedy and wanted this wonderful Linux server to do more. So I bootstrapped. I customized. And I encountered an incompatibility with the latest version of the NAS software that doesn't work when you also have the NAS change the default shell to bash from ash. It caused other commands in the script to fail, so several services such as the sleep function and the audio server and photo server ceased to work. The unit would not even heed the manual shutdown or restart commands. Ugh.

I suppose I'm not quite as stupid as the so called "leadership" which commits to decisions that really create hassles for thousands of people and ultimately cost billions and billions of dollars. My suffering is confined to just me; honest men wouldn't have it any other way. But I do feel some embarrassment at having made a similar mistake.

Sometimes It Takes Two to Mess Things Up

I had help though. For the first year I owned the Synology unit I was pretty happy with it. I still am, when it comes to the basic functionality of the unit. However, when I spend money on something I expect it to work, not to be brittle like the rest of the software out there. The support forums for the Diskstations are filled with people that have similar problems as mine, and some even from folks that did not bootstrap. It appears that the regular updates to the DSM software can be risky, which shouldn't surprise me, but the level of dramatic errors and functionality loss that can occur do. This is Synology's hardware, not mine, so they ought to be able to release a beta that doesn't crush functionality. This excellent thread [] shows though that apparently Synology's developers took several short cuts and made some sloppy moves in building their software and products.

In my case, I had to remove the lines I added to profile config to launch the bash shell and allow it to remain in the default ash shell. Now the Diskstation again responds to the manual shutdown and restart commands. After reindexing, Audiostation is back to working status. However, the sleep behavior is still broken, and now the next thing for me to try is downgrading the DSM software (currently in version 4.3 beta) back to perhaps version 4.2. The DSM front-end software warns before doing DSM updates that the DSM software cannot be rolled back, but thanks to the enterprising user community, there are ways to do it.

I'll be working on downgrading the software. I will probably lose the GUI-based task scheduler since that was part of the 4.3 beta, but I may still be able to access crontab in ash, and create the scheduled job that way. And having the Diskstation off for a bit isn't so bad; it'll be nice not to worry about those Internet pinheads that keep probing the machine. In the meantime I'll continue to use my laptop for some of my Linux needs.

Monday, September 09, 2013

The Linux Adventure Part 4: Putting the machine to work

All right. Moving the vpnc command to the main script has indeed worked, though I do need to quickly get onto obfuscating the password so it doesn't sit visible in the config file.

Once I did that, I confirmed it ran ok, connecting to the VPN, running the database copy, and then disconnecting from the VPN. All ran well.

To automate, I utilized a new feature of the Synology Diskstation's DSM software, version 4.2. There's now an integrated Task Scheduler. Interestingly, it doesn't appear to be a simple GUI interface to crontab. Instead it has some proprietary commands and probably data structures. It's also poorly documented. The help file explains what the various parts of the Task Scheduler screen are but doesn't have Synology's usually good tutorials on operating the feature. DSM 4.2 is in beta I believe, so perhaps the documentation will improve when the final product is out.

In any event, it's fairly self-explanatory to set the custom user job up. You give it a name and enter the command exactly as you would enter it at the command line interface, and then set a frequency. You can also run on demand at any time from the GUI.

I don't like that there's no record of tasks in the logs when you run them. Perhaps that will also be improved in the final release. But as it stands, when you run a task it doesn't look like anything is happening and none of the task's output is displayed anywhere.

You have to run this line from the terminal session and it will give you information on the scheduled tasks and what their last run status was:

/tmp/synoschedtask --get

Aside from the /tmp directory being a weird place to put a main feature, this line will return a list of the scheduled tasks and their configurations, along with a last run time and status.

At this point I have a boat load of error handling and feedback features to add but can now start taking advantage of automation to have this thing run automatically every day.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Synology Diskstation Security Tips

If you have a Synology Diskstation and you're only using it for local hosting of files on your local lan or wifi network, this may not be as critical.

IP Auto Block

But if you've opened up the unit to accept connectivity from the outside world via the Internet you would be well advised to regularly log in as the admin and review the system logs. I didn't notice much activity at first when I allowed remote access to the Diskstation, but recently I started seeing regular attempts to login from unknown sources. Several each day like these:

It's really unnerving to see that. I'm not naïve but my server is literally a tiny speck of nothing in the universe and has nothing of value to anyone but me. Yet the universe must be filled with pinheads who have nothing better to do than try and hack random IP addresses. Actually, it's highly likely the login attempts aren't being done by a human but by a bot that's already found its way onto other servers and is just probing.

The Diskstations have a feature called IP Auto Block. You can find it in the Control Panel of the Synology server admin tool. Turning it on will make the Diskstation automatically block any IP communication once it has witnessed five failed login attempts. I highly recommend you turn this on. Since turning it on my Diskstation has regularly been blocking several addresses each week. Ye gods, is there no honor left in this world?

Antivirus Essential

Also, Synology offers a utility called Antivirus Essential that you'll find in the Package Center under Security. It's a free anti-virus tool. So far I haven't had issues with viruses getting on the Diskstation but I'd also recommend installing this package to help ward off some potential problems.

(Update Jan 2015) Maintain System Updates

People complain all the time about Microsoft's regular patching. Unfortunately, given the propensity for people with too much time on their hands to be constantly hacking systems, I think Windows users must keep abreast of updates (even if some of the updates are of questionable quality!). The same is true for the Synology gear. I recently posted about issues [] I had with the Diskstation updates, and it turned out my device might have been compromised by some bitcoin hack. So, although updates have sometimes wreaked havoc with my Diskstation's sleep function, the reality is that part of my security responsibility is to keep up with updates.

The Linux Adventure Part 3: A Path to Success

Installing MySQL on the Diskstation

Continuing from the last installment: there are several items I listed on the to-do list that actually were already done. I didn't need to install MySQL on the Diskstation as it is already on there and enabled either by default or when I first configured it at setup.

Installing Bash on Ash

From the last installment, I had already installed the ipkg package management software. The command ipkg install bash will pull down the bash shell and install it on the Diskstation.

Test Manual Run of Existing Script

In preparation for the script test I first ran /opt/sbin/vpnc . This opened a connection to my client's VPN.

I then copied my existing bash script over to the Diskstation. But ran into several issues when trying to execute it. I had to relearn simple things like making sure the path was a part of calling a script unless it was already in the working directory (pwd shows current working directory).

I also had to learn new confusing things about Linux since a few confusing things weren't enough.

I made bash the initial shell by adding a few lines to the root profile to launch the bash shell. You can find these on the Synology Google hits for "Synology bash" but even after now getting the bash prompt when signing in (bash-3.2#)I still had to use special syntax to run the bash scripts through the bash shell.

In other words, I installed the bash shell, got it to be the default when logging in, but still the scripts will try to run under the Diskstation's native ash shell []. Got that? Thank you so much Linux. So upon initial attempts to run I would get beautifully intuitive syntax error messages like this:
Line 15: syntax error: unexpected "("

Using parenthesis when defining variables indicates you are using an array to store the value. I don't know many languages that don't support parenthesis or arrays, but because ash is designed to be super lightweight it doesn't quite have all the same functionality as bash. Here is a thread [] explaining that ash doesn't support arrays. You can take a look at the documentation for ash []. It's pretty amazing considering its tiny footprint.

But rather than look for ways to reinterpret the script in ways compatible for ash, I found some other people had similar problems. Ipkg installs bash under /opt/bin and you have to execute the bash script almost like a parameter to the bash command. Like so (where the working directory is the location of the script):
/opt/bin/bash ./

This now made the Diskstation try to execute the script, but I was not home free yet. There were some calls in the script to commands such as mysqldump and mysql, and both of these also needed to be prefaced with their directory locations. So I updated the script by adding /usr/syno/mysql/bin to the front of those command calls.

Now the script started to run, but I got one last error before it would complete the backup. The Diskstation told me it couldn't find the destination database on MySQL localhost where I would be copying the source database to. So I launched phpMyAdmin (a Diskstation natively supported package) and connected to the localhost server, then simply created an empty database for the backup.

It Works! I've Finally done Something that Works!  

    - Doc Brown (Back to the Future)

Now I ran the script and it worked just as it had on my laptop, reaching out via the VPN to the client database, grabbing the tables it needed, and copying them to the Diskstation. Awesome. Additional tips:
  • The Diskstation's MySQL installation is found at /usr/syno/MySQL/bin
  • The Diskstation's MySQL localhost server stores databases at /volume1/@database/mysql 
Now I have opened up some options and benefits for this task. I have:
  • Multiple ways to back up my client's database
    • mobile notebook
    • desktop at home
    • remotely connecting to the Diskstation
  • Increased my knowledge of the Diskstation and my love for Linux's idiosyncrasies
  • Gained a backup of the backup (the Diskstation utilizes mirroring)
There are a few things left to do before the process is fully automated. I need to add the vpnc commands to the script if possible so I don't have to do those manually. Also, add error handling to that if something goes wrong the script will correctly tidy up after itself, closing the vpnc connection and exiting the script.