One year of flying with the Raven: Ready for the Desktop?

It has been a little over one year now that I’m with the Ravenports project. Time to reflect my involvement, my expectations and hopes.

Ravenports

Ravenports is a universal packaging framework for *nix operating systems. For the user it provides easy access to binary packages of common software for multiple platforms. It has been the long-lasting champion on Repology’s top 10 repositories regarding package freshness (rarely dropping below 96 percent while all other projects keep below 90!).

For the porter it offers a well-designed and elegant means of writing cross-platform buildsheets that allow building the same version of the software with (completely or mostly) the same compile-time configuration on different operating systems or distributions.

And for the developer it means a real-world project that’s written in modern Ada (ravenadm) and C (pkg) – as well as some Perl for support scripts and make. Things feel very optimized and fast. Not being a programmer though, I cannot really say anything about the actual code and thus leave it to the interested reader’s judgement.

If you’re interested in a more comprehensive introduction to Ravenports, I’ve written one half a year ago.

Platforms

Ravenports has initially been developed on DragonFly BSD. When I became aware of it, it had already been ported to work on Linux, too. I liked the idea of the project, but had no DF or Linux boxes available for tinkering and didn’t feel like setting one up. Thus I moved on.

As I checked back a little later, FreeBSD support had been added. Since I had just lost my excuse not to try it out right away, I started playing with it – and was pretty happy. At that time I had trouble to get a port that I wrote into FreeBSD’s Ports Collection and thought that Raven could be an excellent playground to learn something and get a bit of experience that might help me later with FreeBSD.

The Xfce4 desktop – installed via Raven

I’ve long changed my mind, though! Raven is rather similar to FreeBSD’s ports system in many ways but where it differs it’s clearly superior. Also I love the cross-platform aspect and thus Raven is simply the better place for me to make home.

This year saw the introduction of Solaris/Illumos support that I tried out on OmniOS. Also Darwin support landed, upping the count of supported platforms to 5 already! Not too bad for a young project, huh? While Raven does work on all five platforms now it does so to varying degrees. But more on that later.

General activity

The Ravenports project consists of multiple Git repositories hosted on GitHub. The first one is Ravensource which most importantly holds the “raw” ports as they are written by the porters. It’s the most busy repo with over 5.200 commits since March 2017 (including almost 500 by me).

Then there’s the actual Ravenports repo that mostly contains the buildsheets which are compiled from Ravensource. It has over 1.400 commits right now.

Installing the xfce-single-core meta-package

Finally there’s the repo for the Ravenadm command-line tool. It’s approaching 900 commits since February 2017.

There’s still more to Raven like the Pkg package manager from FreeBSD (that was modified to add Zstd compression support) or libbsd4sol, a portability library which allows building code on Solaris that uses BSDisms (which was needed to add support for that platform to Raven). Most of the work on all repos was done by John alone.

With over 100 pull requests and more than 20 issues it’s clear now that there’s some interest in the project. Raven is still very small, though, with 6 people haveing contributed ports so far. After learning the basics and opening pull requests for half a year, I’ve been granted write-access to the source repository. Just recently I was able to push my 100th active port (there have been ports that became obsolete and were removed).

In general I’d say that there could of course be more people around and that the project would benefit from being able to provide more packages – though more than 3.200 is not bad at all! Also it’s good that there seems to be a growing user base which is even more important than having more porters join in. From my point of view, Raven is a healthy and fast-moving project. Still young, but doing well and heading in the right direction.

Major changes

There have been some pretty big changes that happened with Raven over time. Initially John started with a GCC6-based toolchain, only to switch to GCC7 when that was released. That was before my time with the project, but I witnessed the switch to GCC8.

Changing the toolchain certainly is a major interruption and most people are advised to just wait for the official repository to be re-rolled and then update. I had some bad luck in this regard – literally the day after I finally completed a working (and almost complete) set of basic packages for the FreeBSD_i386 platform, I faced the change to GCC8. Due to a lack of time I still haven’t repeated the switch on i386 (but I still plan to do it sometime).

The thunar file manager

Other changes that always have a huge impact (causing lots and lots of packages to be rebuilt) is adopting a new version (as well as dropping an old one) of the popular interpreter languages like Python, Perl and Ruby. Ravenports always supports two versions of Perl and Ruby and two versions of Python 3 (as well as 2.7 for now). So when Python 3.7 was released, 3.5 was removed and Perl 5.24 had to go when 5.28 was added.

Recently the former LLVM port that included everything regarding LLVM was split (LLVM, Clang, lld, openmp). Also now and then new statements are added to Ravenadm, so that old versions cannot work with a new release of the buildsheet repository (which is called “conspiracy”). But this is pretty easy to work around compared to the changes mentioned before.

So on the whole, Raven has proven that it can easily stand even big changes. For me this is essential to build faith in a project. And Raven is doing well in this regard.

Desktop-ready?

There are lots of people who will want to use Raven on servers. That’s totally fine of course. But for a project as ambitious as Ravenports, it’s necessary to provide a somewhat comfortable environment for the developers and the users alike. If it doesn’t manage to become a daily driver for people it cannot succeed.

For that reason I decided to work towards good desktop support for the little dev machine that I dedicated to my work on the project. When I started, X11 was already working and Openbox had freshly landed in the repos. So I had a simplistic environment to work with: Openbox + Xterm. However I could not even change my keyboard layout! Therefor I wrote a port for setxkbmap and eventually it was accepted as the first outside contribution to the project.

The Surf web browser

Next I did some work to get the FLTK toolkit and the EDE desktop in. Then I added my favorite terminal emulator, Sakura. This worked out pretty well and the biggest shortcoming at the end of 2017 was that there was no real graphical browser available. A lot has changed since then!

Desktop choices

Today you can choose between multiple window managers, both floating and tiling:

  • twm
  • cwm
  • openbox
  • fluxbox
  • xfwm4
  • pekwm
  • i3

And in case you prefer a real desktop environment, there are also several available:

  • Lumina (moderate, Qt-based)
  • Xfce4 (somewhat light-weight, GTK-based)
  • EDE (extremely frugal and minimalistic, FLTK-based)

Two graphical web browsers are available, Surf (which is deliberately simplistic and does not even support tabs) as well as an old version of Firefox (the last one that builds without Rust). This is certainly not perfect but much better than a year before.

Also other important programs are available, including LibreOffice! Last month the Apache webserver landed – which is a pretty complex port compared to many others.

Shortcomings

Are there packages you’ll miss? Most certainly. However there’s a wishlist now with ports that people would like to see created (please feel free to add more requests there). And that’s another good step ahead. Currently it’s almost 120 items long. Fortunately there’s been some success, too, and 26 requested ports have been created and taken of the list so far.

There are some future ports that will require lots of effort (hint: Help wanted!). The most important one that blocks some other important ports is the Rust compiler. There has been some work done on this but it’s not done, yet. Another real beast is TeX. This totally must be supported at some point. Current versions of Firefox and Chromium are often asked for. And somebody even requested Eclipse (which needs Java!). So there’s definitely more than enough work to do.

Using Raven on Linux works, but there are some flaws. Initially the Pkg package manager used to crash quite often. John traced that back to a bug in the version of SQlite that’s used internally by Pkg: The problem only struck on Linux and was fixed by using a newer version instead. While it’s much better now, there’s still the occasional problem with it.

While the packages from the repo work finde on Solaris 10u8 and above as well als Illumos, the exact version 10u8 is currently required to build packages. This is due to Solaris not being able to work with older system libraries in the build chroot. It would be great to haven an alternative ravensys-root for any Illumos distribution (OmniOS, SmartOS, Tribblix, …) available so that interested people without access to that specific closed-source Solaris version can develop Raven on that platform.

I don’t know how well Raven works on Darwin. Since I don’t have access to any macOS machines and PureDarwin is not really ready, yet, there’s currently no chance for me to test it. I intend to buy an older MacBook or something in the future, though, if I come across a fair offer and have some money available to spend on my hobby.

Some ports are not available on one platform or the other: Illumos mostly because they’d require patches to build and Linux often because it relies on additional libraries that have not yet been added to Raven. And then there’s a lot of packages that are mostly untested. All of these issues can be fixed, of course. All of those require a larger user-base, though. So it’s probably the best strategy to keep working on making Raven attractive to more users and address things when the right people show up.

What’s to come?

Currently Raven uses the primordial X11 input drivers (xf86-input-keyboard and xf86-input-mouse) on all platforms. In 2013 Linux pioneered support for generic input drivers by exposing the kernels “event devices”. Not too much later many Linux distributions adopted xf86-input-evdev. In 2014 there was a GSOC project to add evdev support for FreeBSD. Like many projects it came along a good part of the way but eventually was left unfinished. It was picked up and completed by a FreeBSD developer in 2016.

Xfce’s settings and applications menu

To use it, a special kernel had to be built so it would expose /dev/input device nodes. Then a sysctl had to be set – and eventually X11 had to be patched for emulated udev support… Why would anybody want to do all this just for different input drivers? Multi-touch support is just one valid reason. Another one is that having evdev-based input drivers is half the way to eventually support libinput, too. And that is one of the prerequisites for Wayland!

This month FreeBSD has finally enabled evdev support in the GENERIC kernel in both -CURRENT and 12-STABLE. That means the upcoming FreeBSD 12.0 will not support it out of the box, but most likely a future 12.1 will. Dragonfly BSD has also grown support for event devices and people are interested in working towards Wayland. I hope that we’ll be able to get xf86-input-evdev working with our X11 (on Dragonfly, FreeBSD and Linux) next year,

I’m taking a little break from Xfce now (but plan to port most of the remaining components later to make it a well-supported DE in Raven). There are a few things I have planned like adding Linux support for OpenVPN (it depends on some libraries and programs that are Linux only which are not yet in Raven). Also I intend to take a look at adding some more Qt5 components and write a few requested ports. And finally I want to write another post next year – a tutorial on using Ravenports and creating new ports.

So keep flying with us – it’s exciting times!

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Ravenports: A modern, cross-platform package solution

This post is about Ravenports, a universal package system und building framework for *nix systems (DragonflyBSD, FreeBSD, Linux and Solaris at the time of this writing). It’s a relatively young project that begun in late February 2017 after a longer period of careful planning. The idea is to provide a unified, convenient experience in a cross-platform way while putting focus on performance, scalability and modern tooling.

What exactly is it and why should you care? If you’ve read my previous post, you know that I consider the old package systems lacking in several ways. For me Raven already does a great job at solving some problems existing with other systems – and it’s still far from tapping its full potential.

Rationale

A lot of people will think now: “We already have quite capable package systems. What’s the point in doing it again?” Yes, in many regards it’s “re-inventing the wheel”… And rightfully so! Most of the known package systems are pretty old now and while new features were of course added, this is sometimes problematic. There is a point where it’s an advantage to start fresh and incorporate modern ideas right from the start. Being able to benefit from the experience and knowledge gained by using the other systems for two decades when designing a new system is invaluable.

Ravenadm running on FreeBSD, OmniOS, Ubuntu Linux and DragonflyBSD

Ravenports was designed, implemented and is primarily maintained by a veteran in packaging software. John Marino at a time maintained literally thousands of ports for FreeBSD and DragonflyBSD. In addition to that, he wrote an alternative build tool called Synth. Aiming for higher portability, he modified Synth to work with Pkgsrc (which is available for many platforms) and also ported the modern Pkg package manager from FreeBSD to work with it.

In the end he had too many ideas about what could be improved in package building that would not fit into any existing project. Eventually Ravenports was born when he decided to give it a try and create a new framework with the powerful capabilities that he wanted to have and without the known weaknesses of the existing ones.

How does it compare to xyz?

It probably makes sense to get to know Ravenports by comparison to others. Let’s take a look at some of them first:

1) FreeBSD’s ports system is the oldest one such framework. It’s quite easy to use today, very flexible and since the introduction of Pkg (or “pkg-ng”) it also has a really nice package manager.
2) NetBSD adopted the ports system and developed it according to their own needs. It’s missing some of the newer features that FreeBSD added later but has gained support for an incredible amount of operating systems. Unfortunately it still uses the old pkg_* tools that really show their age now.
3) OpenBSD also adopted the early FreeBSD ports system. They took a different path and added other features. OpenBSD put the focus on avoiding users having to compile their own packages. To do so, they added so-called package flavors. This allows for building packages multiple times with different compile-time options set. Their package tools were re-written in Perl and do what they are meant to. But IMO they don’t compare well to a modern package manager.
4) Gentoo Linux with its portage system has taken flexibility to the extreme. It gives you fine-grained control over exactly how to build your software and really shines in that. The logical consequence is that, while it supports binary packages, this support is rudimentary in comparison.

EDE desktop, pekwm with Menda theme and brand-new LibreOffice

FreeBSD gained support for flavors in December 2017 and NetBSD did some work to support subpackages in a GSoC project in the same year. It’s hard to retrofit major new features into an existing framework, tough. When Ravenports started in the beginning of 2017, it already had those two features: Variant packages (Raven’s name for flavors) and subpackages. As a result they feel completely natural and fit well into the whole framework (which is why they are used excessively).

Ravenports knows ports options that can be set before building a package. Like with NetBSD or OpenBSD there’s generally fewer options available compared to FreeBSD. This is because Raven is more geared towards building binary packages than being a ports framework to build on the target machine (which would defeat the goal of always providing a clean building environment). For that reason the options mostly exist to support the variants for the packages. Compared to NetBSD’s Pkgsrc, Ravenports supports much fewer operating systems right now but has a much easier bootstrap process (binary!) for all supported platforms. It also offers a much superior package manager. When comparing against FreeBSD, OpenBSD and Gentoo, Ravenports is much more portable and supports multiple operating systems and – with the exception of FreeBSD – comes with a more modern package manager for binary packages.

Strong points

As Ravenports is not tied to a single operating system, it didn’t have to take into account specific needs that are for one OS only. In general there are no second-class citizens among the supported platforms. Also it was made to be agnostic of the package manager used. Right now it’s using Pkg only but other formats could be supported and thus binary packages be installed via pacman, rpm, dpkg, you-name-it.

Repology: Raven’s package freshness in percent (06/25/2018)

It allows for different versions of some software to be concurrently installed. If you e.g. want PHP 7.2 while some of your projects are stuck with 5.6 this is not a problem. It’s also possible to define a default version for databases like MySQL and Postgres as well as languages like Perl, Python and Ruby. Speaking of MySQL: Raven knows about Oracle MySQL, MariaDB, Percona and Galera. Only the first one is currently available (the ports for the others are missing) but the selection of which product to install is already present and the others can be easily added as needed.

If you build packages yourself you’ll notice that the whole tooling is fully integrated. Everything was planned right from the beginning to interact well and thus plays together just great. Also performance is something where Raven shines: Thanks to being programmed for high concurrency, operations like port scans are amazingly fast (if you know other frameworks).

Repology: Raven’s outdated package count (06/25/2018)

Raven follows a rolling-release model with extremely current package versions. In Repology, a fine tool for package maintainers and people interested in package statistics, Ravenports is the clear leader when it comes to freshness of the package repository: It rarely falls below 98% of freshness (while no other repo has managed to even reach 90% – and Repology lists almost 200 repositories!). If it does, it’s usually for less than a day until updates get pushed.

This is only possible because much of ports maintenance is properly automated. This saves a lot of work and allows for keeping the software version current without the need for dozens of maintainers. Custom port collections are supported if you have special needs like sticking to specific program versions. This way Raven can e.g. support legacy versions that should not be part of the main tree. It might also be interesting for companies that want to package their product for multiple platforms but need to keep the source closed. Ravenports supports private GitHub repositories for cases like this. All components of project itself are completely open-source, though, and are permissively licensed.

Also Raven is not the jealous kind of application. Packages are installed into /raven by default (you can choose to build your packages with a different prefix if you wish) and thus probably separate from the default system location for software. This makes it possible to use raven in addition to your operating system’s / distribution’s package manager instead of being forced to replace it.

Shortcomings

If you ask me about permanent problems with Raven: I don’t really see any. However there’s definitely a couple of things where it’s currently way behind other package systems. Considering how young the project is this is probably no wonder.

It’s a “needs more everything” situation. In fact it has the usual “chicken egg problem”: More available ports would be nice and potentially attract more users. With more users probably more people would become porters. And with more porters there’d surely be more ports available… But every new project faces problems like this and with resolve, dedication and perseverance as well as a fair amount of work, it’s possible to achieve the goal of making a project both useful and appealing enough for others to join in. Once that happens things get easier and easier.

KeePassXC, Geany and the EDE application menu

The Ravenports catalog has over 3,000 entries right now. It’s extremely hard to compare things like the package count, though. John provided an example: FreeBSD has 8 ports for each PostgreSQL version. With 5 supported versions that’s 40 ports. Ravenports has 5 ports with 8 subpackages each. In this case the package count is comparable, but not the port count. Taking flavors and multiversions into account, all repositories look much bigger than they actually are in case of available software. Also how to measure the quality of packages? What’s with ports that are used by less than a handful of people? What with those that are extremely outdated? Do you think they should count? It’s probably best to take a look and see if the software that you need is available. It is true though, that there’s of course still many important packages missing. IMO the most important one being Rust – which is not only needed for current versions of Firefox but increasingly important to build other software, too.

Also Linux support is not perfect, yet, and Solaris support even less so. On Solaris systems Raven is currently mostly binary-only because the Solaris kernel is unable to work with system libraries other than the ones matching exactly in version. Packages built on older releases of the OS work fine on newer ones, but for each OS release, a specific build environment would need to be created before building packages is possible. This is an issue that needs to be resolved in the future (I guess some help from the Illumos/Solaris community wouldn’t hurt). Also there are packages that don’t build on Solaris without patches which are not currently available. In case of important packages this leads to blockers since all other ports which depend on one such package also cannot be built: On FreeBSD there are 3,559 packages (including variants and metapackages) available from the repository at the present time. In the Solaris repo it’s only 2,851 packages. That’s certainly a nice start – but don’t expect to run a full-fledged desktop (or even X11 at all) there, yet!

In Linux land, distributions that come with glibc version 2.23 or newer work best. On distributions with older glibc versions (e.g. CentOS 7), software will not run as the standard C library is missing some required symbols. Raven will need to be bootstrapped again to support those distros. This is likely to happen before too long, but we’re not there, yet.

Current Firefox ESR version (+ sakura and pcmanfm in the panel)

MacOS (which might be supported soon), OpenBSD and NetBSD are not currently supported, nor is Linux with musl-libc or μclibc. Also currently Raven is amd64 only. ARM64 support is planned and i386 might or might not happen but are not available now.

Current status

At this time Raven is probably most interesting for people who love tech and enjoy tinkering on *nix systems as well as those who like the features and are ok with being early adopters. Yes, in general it’s ready for the latter. At least two people (including me) use Raven’s packages exclusively on one of their machines. I’d say it is ready as a daily driver (if you can live with the limited set of software available – or consider adding more ports). In fact I built a laptop that I use e.g. for on-call duty with it. Since that one is critical, it probably needs to be considered as “in production use”.

It’s possible to install various text mode applications with Raven, but X11 is also available. You can choose from multiple window managers or from at least two desktop environments (Lumina and the ultra-light EDE). Xfce4 is partially available (i.e. the panel is already ported). If you’re looking for web browsers, a current version of Firefox ESR (called “rustless-firefox”) can be installed as well as Surf, a simple webkit-based browser. The LibreOffice suite is available in its latest version, too. The same is true for the just released Perl 5.28 and Python 3.7.

Running Chocolate DooM and Chocolate Heretic

Oh, and if you’re into gaming… It’s not all just serious stuff. Yes, you can install and play DooM!

Conclusion

Ravenports is a fascinating project with lots and lots of possibilities. I wanted to get into porting with FreeBSD for quite a while but hesitated as I’m not a programmer. Then again I had been interested in package building for a long time and had played around with it on Arch Linux quite a bit. After my submissions to FreeBSD had been rotting in bug tracker for months (and still are after almost a year), I chose to give Raven a try in the meantime.

I was already familiar with Pkg and had used Synth before, too. Bootstrapping Raven’s pkg and then installing stuff was as easy as expected. The same was true for building the ports myself. Then I did quite a bit of reading and wrote my first port. It didn’t take more than 5 minutes after I opened my pull request on GitHub, before John responded – and the port was committed not much later. This was such a huge contrast that I decided to do more with Raven.

There was a learning curve, yes, but I received lots of help in getting started. I obviously liked the project enough to become a regular contributor and even got commit access to the ravensource repo later. Currently I’m maintaining just over 80 ports and I hope to write many more in the future. There have been some hard ports along the way (where I learned a lot about *nix), but lots of things are actually pretty easy once you get the hang of it.

Tongue-in-cheek: Make chaos or “make sense”!

If this post got you interested, just give it a try. Feel free to comment here and if you run into problems I’ll try to help. After this general overview of Raven the next post I plan to write will be on actually using it.

Modern-day package requirements

A little rant first: Many thanks to the EU (and all the people who decide on topics related to tech without having any idea on how tech stuff actually works). Their GDPR is the reason for me having been really occupied with work this month! Email being a topic that I’m teaching myself while writing the series of posts about it, I have to get back to it as time permits. This means that for May I’m going to write about a topic that I’m more familiar with.

Benefits of package management

I’ve written about package management before, telling a bit about the history of it and then focusing on how package management is done on FreeBSD. The benefits of package management are so obvious that I don’t see any reason not to content myself with just touching them:

Package management makes work put into building software re-usable. It helps you to install software and to keep it up to date. It makes it very easy to remove things in a clean manner. And package management provides a trusted source for your software needs. Think about it for just a moment and you’ll come up with more benefits.

Common package management requirements

But let’s take a look at the same topic from a different angle. What do we actually require our package systems to do? What features are necessary? While this may sound like a rather similar question, I assure you that it’s much less boring. Why? Because we’re looking at what we need – and it’s very much possible that the outcome actually is: No, we’re not using the right tool!

Yes, we need package management, obviously. While there’s this strange, overly colorful OS that cannot even get the slashes in directories right, we can easily dismiss that. We’re talking *nix here, anyway!

Ok, ok, there’s OmniOS with its KYSTY policy. That stands for “keep your software to yourself” and is how the users of said OS describe the fact that there’s no official packages available for it. While it’s probably safe to assume that the common kiddies on the web don’t know their way around on Solaris, I’m still not entirely convinced that this is an approach to recommend.

Going down that road is a pretty bold move, though. Of course it’s possible to manage your software stack properly. With a lot of machines and a lot of needed programs this will however turn into an abundance of work (maybe there are companies out there who enjoy paying highly qualified staff to carefully maintain software while others rarely spend more than a couple of minutes per day to keep their stuff up-to-date).

Also if you’re a genius who uses the method that’s called “It’s all in my head!” in the Linux from Scratch book, I’m not going to argue against it (except that this is eventually going to fail when you have to hand things over to a mere mortal when you’re leaving).

But enough of those really special corner cases. Let’s discuss what we actually require our package systems to provide! And let’s do so from the perspective not of a hobby admin but from a business-orientated one. There are three things that are essential and covered by just about any package system.

Ease of use

One of the major requirements we have today is that package management needs to be easy to use. Yes, building and installing software from source is usually easy enough on *nix today. However figuring out which configure options to use isn’t. Build one package without some feature and you might notice much later that it’s actually needed after all. Or even find that you compiled something in that’s getting in the way of something else later! Avoiding this means having to do some planning.

Reading (and understanding!) the output of ./configure –help probably isn’t something you’re going to entrust the newly employed junior admin with. Asking that person to just install mysql on the new server will probably be ok, though. Especially since package managers will usually handle dependencies, too.

Making use of package management means that somebody else (the package maintainer) has already thought about how the software will be used in most of the cases. For you this means that not having to hire and pay senior admins for work that can be done by a junior in your organization, too.

Fast operations

Time is money and while “compiling!” is a perfectly acceptable excuse for a dev, it shouldn’t be for an admin who is asked why the web server still wasn’t deployed on the new system.

Compiling takes time and uses resources. Even if your staff uses terminal multiplexers (which they should), thus being able to compile stuff on various systems at the same time, customers usually want software available when they call – and not two hours later (because the admin was a bit confused with the twenty-something tmux sessions and got stuck with one task while a lot of the other compile jobs have been finished ages ago).

Don’t make your customers wait longer than necessary. Most requests can be satisfied with a standard package. No need to delay things where it doesn’t make any sense.

Regular (security) updates

It’s 2018 and you probably want that new browser version that mitigates some of the Spectre vulnerabilities on your staff’s workstations ASAP. And maybe you even have customers that are using Drupal, in which case… Well, you get the point.

While it does make sense to subscribe to security newsletters and keep an eye on new CVEs, it takes a specialist to maintain your own software stack. When you got word of a new CVE for a program that you’re using that doesn’t mean the way you built the software makes it vulnerable. And perhaps you have a special use-case where it is but the vulnerability is not exploitable.

Again this important task is one that others have already done for you if you use packaged software from a popular repository. Of course those people are not perfect either and you may very well decide that you do not trust them. Doing everything yourself because you think you can do better is a perfectly legitimate way of handling things. Chances are however that your company cannot afford a specialist for this task. And in that case you’re definitely better off trusting the package maintainers than carelessly doing things yourself that you don’t have the knowledge for.

Special package management requirements

Some package managers offer special features not found in other ones. If your organization needs such a feature this can even mean that a new OS or distribution is chosen for some job because of that. Also repositories vary greatly in the number of software they offer, in the software versions that they hold and in the frequency of updates taking place.

“Stability” vs. “freshness”

A lot of organizations prefer “stable”, well-tested software versions. In many cases I think of “stable” as a marketing word for “really old”. For certain use-cases I agree that it makes sense to choose a system where not much will change within the next decade. But IMO this is far less often the case than some decision makers may think.

The other extreme is rolling-release systems which generally adapt the newest software versions after minimal testing. And yes, at one point there was even the “Arch server project” (if I remember the name correctly), which was all about running Arch Linux on a server. In fact this is not as bad an idea as it may seem. There are people who really live Arch and they’ll be able to maintain an Arch server for you. But I think this makes most sense as a box for your developers who want to play with new versions of the software that you’re using way before it hits your actual dev or even prod servers.

Where possible I definitely favor the “deliver current versions” model. Not even due to the security aspect (patches are being backported in case of the “stable” repositories) but because of the newer features. It’s rather annoying if you want to make use of the jumphost ability of OpenSSH (for which a nice new way of doing it was introduced not too long ago) and then notice you can’t use it because there’s that stupid CentOS box with its old SSH involved!

Number of packages

If you need one or a couple of packages that are not available (or too old) in the package repository of your OS or distribution, chances are that external repos exist or that the upstream project provides packages. That may be ok. However if you find that a lot of the software that you require is not available this may very well be a good reason to think about using a different OS or distribution.

A large number of packages in the repository increases the chance that you may get what you need. Still it can very well be the case where certain packages that you require (and which are rather costly to maintain yourself) are available on another repo.

Package auditing

Some package systems allow you to audit the installed packages. If security is very important for your organization, you’ll be happy to have your package tool recommend to “upgrade or deinstall” the installed version of some application because it’s known to be vulnerable.

Flexibility

What if you have special needs on some servers and require support for rarely needed functionality to be compiled into some software? With most package systems you’re out of luck. The best thing that you can do is roll your own customized package using a different name.

The ports tree on *BSD or portage on Gentoo Linux really show their power in this case, allowing you to just build the software easily and with the options that you choose.

Heterogeneous environments

So most of the time it makes perfect sense to stick to the standard repository for your OS or distribution. If you have special needs you’d probably consider another one and use the standard repo for that one. But what about heterogeneous environments?

Perhaps your database product only runs on, say, CentOS. You don’t have much choice here. However a lot of customers want their stuff hosted on Linux but they demand newer program versions. So a colleague installed several Ubuntu boxes. And another colleague, a really strange guy, slipped in some FreeBSD storage servers! When the others found out that this was not even Linux and started protesting (because “BSD is dying”), they were already running too damn well to replaced with something that does not have as good ZFS support.

A scenario like that is not too uncommon. If you don’t do anything about it, this might lead to “camps” among the employees; some of them are sure that CentOS is so truly enterprise that it’s the way to go. And of course yum is better than apt-get (and whatever that BSD thing offers – if anything). Some others laugh at that because Ubuntu is clearly superior and using apt-get feels a lot more natural than having to use yum (which is still better than that BSD thing which they refuse to even touch). And then there’s the BSD guy who is happy to have a real OS at his hand rather than “kernel + distro-chosen packages”.

In general if you are working for a small organization, every admin will have to be able to work with each system that is being used. Proper training for all package systems is probably expansive and thus managers will quite possible be reluctant to accept more than two package systems.

Portability

There’s a little known (in the Linux community) solution to this: Pkgsrc (“package source”). It’s NetBSD’s package management system. But with probably the most important goal of the NetBSD project being portability, it’s portable, too!

Pkgsrc is available for many different platforms. It runs on NetBSD, of course. But it runs on Linux as well as on the other BSDs and on Solaris. It’s even available for commercial UNIX platforms and various exotic platforms.

For this very nature of it, Pkgsrc may be one answer for your packaging needs in heterogeneous environments. It can provide a unified means of package management across multiple platforms. It rids you of the headache of version jungle if you use different repositories for different platforms. And it’s free and open source, too!

Is it the only solution out there? No. Is it the best one? That certainly depends on what you are looking for specifically. But it’s definitely something that you should be aware of.

What’s next?

The next post will be about a relatively new alternative to traditional package management systems that tries to deliver all the strong points in one system while avoiding their weaknesses!

The history of *nix package management

Very few people will argue against the statement that Unix-like operating systems conquered the (professional) world due to a whole lot of strong points – one of which is package management. Whenever you take a look at another *nix OS or even just another Linux distro, one of the first things (if not the first!) is to get familiar with how package management works there. You want to be able to install and uninstall programs after all, right?

If you’re looking for another article on using jails on a custom-built OPNsense BSD router, please bear with me. We’re getting there. To make our jails useful we will use packages. And while you can safely expect any BSD or Linux user to understand that topic pretty well, products like OPNsense are also popular with people who are Windows users. So while this is not exactly a follow-up article on the BSD router series, I’m working towards it. Should you not care for how that package management stuff all came to be, just skip this post.

When there’s no package manager

There’s this myth that Slackware Linux has no package manager, which is not true. However Slackware’s package management lacks automatic dependency resolving. That’s a very different thing but probably the reason for the confusion. But what is package management and what is dependency resolving? We’ll get to that in a minute.

To be honest, it’s not very likely today to encounter a *nix system that doesn’t provide some form of package manager. If you have such a system at hand, you’re quite probably doing Linux from Scratch (a “distribution” meant to learn the nuts and bolts of Linux systems by building everything yourself) or have manually installed a Linux system and deliberately left out the package manager. Both are special cases. Well, or you have a fresh install of FreeBSD. But we’ll talk about FreeBSD’s modern package manager in detail in the next post.

Even Microsoft has included Pkgmgr.exe since Windows Vista. While it goes by the name of “package manager”, it turns pale when compared to *nix package managers. It is a command-line tool that allows to install and uninstall packages, yes. But those are limited to operating system fixes and components from Microsoft. Nice try, but what Redmond offered in late 2006 is vastly inferior to what the *nix world had more than 10 years earlier.

There’s the somewhat popular Chocolatey package manager for Windows and Microsoft said that they’d finally include a package manager called “one-get” (apt-get anyone?) with Windows 10 (or was it “nu-get” or something?). I haven’t read a lot about it on major tech sites, though, and thus have no idea if people are actually using it and if it’s worth to try out (I would, but I disagree with Microsoft’s EULA and thus I haven’t had a Windows PC in roughly 10 years).

But how on earth are you expected to work with a *nix system when you cannot install any packages?

Before package managers: Make magic

Unix begun its life as an OS by programmers for programmers. Want to use a program on your box that is not part of your OS? Go get the source, compile and link it and then copy the executable to /usr/local/whatever. In times where you would have just some 100 MB of storage in total (or even less), this probably worked well enough. You simply couldn’t go rampage and install unneeded software anyways, and sticking to the /usr/local scheme you separate optional stuff from the actual operating system.

More space became available however and software grew bigger and more complex. Unix got the ability to use libraries (“shared objects”), ELF executables, etc. To solve the task of building more complicated software easily, make was developed: A tool that read a Makefile which told it exactly what to do. Software begun shipping not just with the source code but also with Makefiles. Provided that all dependencies existed on the system, it was quite simple to build software again.

Compilation process (invoked by make)

Makefiles also provide a facility called “targets” which made a single file support multiple actions. In addition to a simple make statement that builds the program, it became common to add a target that allowed for make install to copy the program files into their assumed place in the filesystem. Doing an update meant building a newer version and simply overwriting the files in place.

Make can do a lot more, though. Faster recompiles by to looking at the generated file’s timestamp (and only rebuilding what has changed and needs to be rebuilt) and other features like this are not of particular interest for our topic. But they certainly helped with the quick adoption of make by most programmers. So the outcome for us is that we use Makefiles instead of compile scripts.

Dependency and portability trouble

Being able to rely on make to build (and install) software is much better than always having to invoke compiler, linker, etc. by hand. But that didn’t mean that you could just type “make” on your system and expect it to work! You had to read the readme file first (which is still a good idea, BTW) to find out which dependencies you had to install beforehand. If those were not available, the compilation process would fail. And there was more trouble: Different implementations of core functionality in various operating systems made it next to impossible for the programmers to make their software work on multiple Unices. Introduction of the POSIX standard helped quite a bit but still operating systems had differences to take into account.

Configure script running

Two of the answers to the dependency and portability problems were autoconf and metaconf (the latter is still used for building Perl where it originated). Autoconf is a tool used to generate configure scripts. Such a script is run first after extracting the source tarball to inspect your operating system. It will check if all the needed dependencies are present and if core OS functionality meets the expectations of the software that is going to be built. This is a very complex matter – but thanks to the people who invested that tremendous effort in building those tools, actually building fairly portable software became much, much easier!

How to get rid of software?

Back to make. So we’re now in the pleasant situation that it’s quite easy to build software (at least when you compare it to the dark days of the past). But what would you do if you want to get rid of some program that you installed previously? Your best bet might be to look closely at what make install did and remove all the files that it installed. For simple programs this is probably not that bad but for bigger software it becomes quite a pain.

Some programs also came with an uninstall target for make however, which would delete all installed files again. That’s quite nice, but there’s a problem: After building and installing a program you would probably delete the source code. And having to unpack the sources again to uninstall the software is quite some effort if you didn’t keep it around. Especially since you probably need the source for exactly the same version as newer versions might install more or other files, too!

This is the point where package management comes to the rescue.

Simple package management

So how does package management work? Well, let’s look at packages first. Imagine you just built version 1.0.2 of the program foo. You probably ran ./configure and then make. The compilation process succeeded and you could now issue make install to install the program on your system. The package building process is somewhat similar – the biggest difference is that the install destination was changed! Thanks to the modifications, make wouldn’t put the executable into /usr/local/bin, the manpages into /usr/local/man, etc. Instead make would then put the binaries e.g. into the directory /usr/obj/foo-1.0.2/usr/local/bin and the manpages into /usr/obj/foo-1.0.2/usr/local/man.

Installing tmux with installpkg (on Slackware)

Since this location is not in the system’s PATH, it’s not of much use on this machine. But we wanted to create a package and not just install the software, right? As a next step, the contents of /usr/obj/foo-1.0.2/ could be packaged up nicely into a tarball. Now if you distribute that tarball to other systems running the same OS version, you can simply untar the contents to / and achieve the same result as running make install after an unmodified build. The benefit is obvious: You don’t have to compile the program on each and every machine!

So far for primitive package usage. Advancing to actual package management, you would include a list of files and some metadata into the tarball. Then you wouldn’t extract packages by hand but leave that to the package manager. Why? Because it would not only extract all the needed files. It will also record the installation in its package database and keep the file list around in case it’s needed again.

Uninstalling tmux and extracting the package to look inside

Installing using a package manager means that you can query it for a list of installed packages on a system. This is much more convenient than ls /usr/local, especially if you want to know which version of some package is installed! And since the package manager keeps the list of files installed by a package around, it can also take care of a clean uninstall without leaving you wondering if you missed something when you deleted stuff manually. Oh, and it will be able to lend you a hand in upgrading software, too!

That’s about what Slackware’s package management does: It enables you to install, uninstall and update packages. Period.

Dependency tracking

But what about programs that require dependencies to run? If you install them from a package you never ran configure and thus might not have the dependency installed, right? Right. In that case the program won’t run. As simple as that. This is the time to ldd the program executable to get a list of all libraries it is dynamically linked against. Note which ones are missing on your system, find out which other packages provide them and install those, too.

Pacman (Arch Linux) handles dependencies automatically

If you know your way around this works ok. If not… Well, while there are a lot of libraries where you can guess from the name which packages they would likely belong to, there are others, too. Happy hunting! Got frustrated already? Keep saying to yourself that you’re learning fast the hard way. This might ease the pain. Or go and use a package management system that provides dependency handling!

Here’s an example: You want to install BASH on a *nix system that just provides the old bourne shell (/bin/sh). The package manager will look at the packaging information and see: BASH requires readline to be installed. Then the package manager will look at the package information for that package and find out: Readline requires ncurses to be present. Finally it will look at the ncurses package and nod: No further dependencies. It will then offer you to install ncurses, readline and BASH for you. Much easier, eh?

Xterm and all dependencies downloaded and installed (Arch Linux)

First package managers

A lot of people claim that the RedHat Package Manager (RPM) and Debian’s dpkg are examples of the earliest package managers. While both of them are so old that using them directly is in fact inconvenient enough to justify the existence of another program that allows to use them indirectly (yum/dnf and e.g. apt-get), this is not true.

PMS (short for “package management system”) is generally regarded to be the first (albeit primitive) package manager. Version 1.0 was ready in mid 1994 and used on the Bogus Linux distribution. With a few intermediate steps this lead to the first incarnation of RPM, Red Hat’s well-known package manager which first shipped with Red Hat Linux 2.0 in late 1995.

FreeBSD 1.0 (released in late 1993) already came with what is called the ports tree: A very convenient package building framework using make. It included version 0.5 of pkg_install, the pkg_* tools that would later become part of the OS! I’ll cover the ports tree in some detail in a later article because it’s still used to build packages on FreeBSD today.

Part of a Makefile (actually for a FreeBSD port)

Version 2.0-RELEASE (late 1994) shipped the pkg_* tools. They consisted of a set of tools like pkg_add to install a package, pkg_info to show installed packages, pkg_delete to delete packages and pkg_create to create packages.

FreeBSD’s pkg_add got support for using remote repositories in version 3.1-RELEASE (early 1999). But those tools were really showing their age when they were put to rest with 10.0-RELEASE (early 2014). A replacement has been developed in form of the much more modern solution initially called pkg-ng or simply pkg. Again that will be covered in another post (the next one actually).

With the ports tree FreeBSD undoubtedly had the most sophisticated package building framework of that time. Still it’s one of the most flexible ones and a bliss to work with compared to creating DEB or RPM packages… And since Bogus’s PMS was started at least a month after pkg_install, it’s even entirely possible that the first working package management tool was in fact another FreeBSD innovation.

Eerie Linux: 5 years of bloggin’!


The Eerie Linux blog silently turned 5 years just last month. I thought a while about what kind of anniversary post I should write to celebrate the fifth birthday. I was even thinking of closing the blog on that day or at least announce that I would no longer be able to write posts regularly. I decided against it. While I don’t make any promises, I will try to keep the blog up for now.

The June marathon

In the end I decided not just to hold back that birthday post (this one) but do something special instead: Write a full article every five days! It was a lot of work, but June 2017 saw 6 posts each with over 1,600 words on average with one just falling short on 2,000. I put a lot of detail into those posts and also included quite some pictures.

It has been a fun experience but also an exhausting one. I have always been pressed for time and even though I tried to create as much material on weekends if the targeted date was during the week. Still I almost never managed to complete a whole article before the day it was due and often had to finish it in the late hours of evening after work. But now it’s done and I’m happy about that! 😉

5 years of blogging

A lot has happened in the last 5 years. When I started the blog in June 2012, I had quite some time on my hands but I wasn’t sure if I would always find enough topics to write about. This has changed completely. Free time is pretty scarce these days but there’s just so much going on in technology and related areas that I have a very, very long list of things that I’d like to write about – and that list grows faster than I can write and publish articles.

I’ve also moved houses three times over these years – and still haven’t missed a single month completely. Each and every month has had at least one new article and I’m a bit proud of that because a lot of times it really hasn’t been easy.

Since 2013 every year I get most page hits from the US with Germany being second. Ranks 3+ vary.

2012

After thinking about starting a blog for over a year, in 2012 I actually started it. I had been using SuSE and Ubuntu Linux on the desktop for a while and wanted to know more about the operating system. And I figured that it would make sense to pick an ambitious but realistic project and write about it as the journey continued.

In my first half-year I wrote 24 posts introducing myself, finding a suitable distro (looking info Gentoo first but then settling for Arch), thoughts on graphical toolkits and so on. The most important articles were part of a series on installing and comparing 20 Linux desktop environments.

The 6 month of 2012 saw just over 1,000 page views and I even got my first “likes” and comments. However I had no idea if I was doing good for a blog of that kind. Considering that it was public and that the whole world could potentially visit the blog, it seemed pretty low. Especially if you consider the many hours that went into the posts. “There must be thousands of Linux blogs out there and who should read them all?”, I thought. But I went on doing what I was doing because of my own interest in Linux topics. And I also continued to blog about it. If somebody would read and enjoy it: Execllent. If not it had at least made me write an English text which is quite valuable for the non-native speaker.

2013

In retrospective, 2013 was an interesting year. I got the most comments and “likes” that I ever got in a single year. And page hits increased to just over 6,600! You can imagine that I was extremely happy that there actually proved to be some interest in what I was doing. I already had less time now and managed to write 22 posts in the whole year instead of 24 in 6 just months the year before.

I continued to explore and compare applications build with the Qt and GTK toolkits and these proved to be my most popular articles. But I also decided to take a little peek into the bigger world of *nix and have a shy first look at Hurd and BSD. My focus completely remained on Linux, though (little did I know that this would come to an end in the future!). Then I dug into package building and learned a lot by trying to update an old and no longer supported Linux distro. Finally I got my domain elderlinux.org and made the first step towards my original goal: Building my own Linux distribution (you have to have done that once, right? And if only for learning purposes).

2014

In 2014 things started to decline. The page hits raised slightly to over 6,800 but that was it. I published 14 posts, but all top ten most popular ones were written in previous years. I didn’t notice that back in the day, though. I managed to get a wide variety of topics covered, including my first post on hardware (writing about the new RISC-V platform that I still keep an eye on).

The most important achievement of the year was that I completed my Arch:E5 project. My own distribution was Arch-derived but did a lot of things different. It used the de-blobbed Linux libre kernel, was based on a different libc, replaced systemd with runit and used LLVM/Clang as the default compiler among other things. It also used a more modular repository architecture compared to mainline Arch Linux. I took this project pretty far: In the end I had a nice self-hosted distro that even came with two desktop environments to choose from. I learned a lot by doing this but since nobody else seemed to be interested in it (I didn’t reach out on the Arch forums or anything, though, to be honest!), I ended the project, continuing to explore other things.

2015

This was the year things changed. Page hits dropped: With about 6,500 hits fewer people visited my blog than even in 2013. I only wrote one post per month (with the exception of April where it was one April fools article and another setting things straight again). Only two posts of this year made it to the top 10 of most popular posts: One about the “Truly Ergonomic Keyboard” (which obviously brought some people to my blog who would probably not be interested in most other articles that I wrote) and another one that was a “FreeBSD tutorial for Linux users” (that received unusual attention thanks to being featured on FreeBSDNews).

I didn’t intend it to, but 2015 was the first year on the blog that was totally dominated by *BSD topics. Since I had started to seriously explore FreeBSD and OpenBSD, this looks like a natural thing. I wrote an April Fools post about Arch Linux’s Pacman coming to OpenBSD and then tried to prove that actually works. Then a friend asked me about FreeBSD and I decided to write a little introduction series. And then the year was more or less over.

2016

After the disappointment of declining public interest in my blog I didn’t expect much from 2016. Especially as I had been venturing deeper int *BSD territory – and liked it enough to continue writing about it. This was obviously even more niche than Linux and how many people would want to read that stuff, especially from a beginner? I was in for a surprise: the blog got more than 7,100 hits that year with four new posts (all of which were featured on FreeBSDNews) making it into to top 10 this time! I had hoped to reach 7,000 hits in 2014 and after it looked like things weren’t going in a good direction, this was a pretty rewarding experience.

I wrote about various *BSD topics: A howto on setting up a dual-boot FreeBSD/OpenBSD with full disk encryption, a little comparison of documentation in Linux and (Free)BSD, a short introduction to Vagrant and a series on getting started with Bacula on FreeBSD. And finally in December an article on using TrueOS for over three months as my daily driver. This post would spark a lot of interest in 2017, making it the top ranked popular post at the time I write this.

2017

In the first half of this year I have already written 14 articles, including two series that a lot of work went into: The adventures of reviving and updating an ancient FreeBSD 4.11 system with Pkgsrc and building a home router with OPNsense/pfsense. And now after only 6.5 month page hits had already climbed up to over 6,700! Recent 3 month have all totalled in more that 1,000, a mark that I had never reached before.

And that’s all before FreeBSD News, Lobsters and even DragonFlyDigest linked to either my pfSense vs. OPNsense article or even to the whole BSD home router series! That made the stats really skyrocket over the previous two weeks. It definitely looks like there are quite some other people out there that don’t think *BSD is boring!

Current stats

Daily blog stats 07/2017

Before the great rush I was receiving about 20 to 60 page hits each day. The new record is now 425 hits on Jul 18 after Lobste.rs picked up the pfSense vs. OPNsense comparison!

Weekly blog stats 07/2017

Weekly hits were between 140 and 370 between Jan and Jul. And then there was this week that saw 1.200 page hits – this is as much as the whole month of May this year and that was the absolute monthly record before!

Monthly blog stats 07/2017

Between January 2016 and June 2017, the blog received 440 (January ’16) and 1.200 (May ’17) hits. And then July happened with over 2.700 hits!

Yearly blog stats 07/2017

The best blogging year so far had been 2016 with 7.100 hits – now at the end of July 2017, this blog has already seen over 8.800 hits. I’m pretty confident to reach the magic mark of 10.000 this time (wow!).

The future?

Of course I cannot say for sure. But I’ve found my place in the FreeBSD community and made a comfortable home with GhostBSD. After becoming part of the small team that develops this OS, I’ve faced quite some challenges and without any doubt there are more to come. But it is a great learning experience and being a (albeit small) part of it feels very rewarding.

And even though time is a very limiting factor I currently don’t feel like taking a break any longer! I will definitely continue to explore more BSD and write about it. Next station: Some preparations for an article on using jails on the newly installed OPNsense router (or anywhere else!). Thanks for reading – and see you soon.

Building a BSD home router (pt. 3): Serial access and flashing the firmware

Part 1 of this article series was about why you want to build your own router, and how to assemble the APU2 that I chose as the hardware to build this on. Part 2 gave some Unix history and explained what a serial console is.

In this post we will prepare a USB memstick to update the BIOS and connect to the APU2 using the serial console. Then we’ll flash the latest firmware on there.

Cables and serial connections

In the ol’ days you would simply connect the COM port on one machine to the COM port on the other. Today a lot of newer laptops don’t even have a serial port (if yours still has one of those funny devices that you’d access through /dev/fd0, chances are pretty high though, that it also has a COM port!). Fortunately USB to serial adapter cables exist, solving that problem.

The APU2 has a male DB9 (9 pins) serial port. RS-232 is the common standard for serial communication. According to it, some pins are used to transfer information while others are used to receive information. Now if you connect two machines with a straight serial cable, both will talk on the same pins and listen on the same pins. So both will send data over pins that nobody listens on and never receive anything on the other pins. This is not really useful. To make the connection work, you need a crossed-over cable (a so-called null modem cable or adapter). This means that the receiving pins on one end are paired with transmitting pins on the other end and vice versa.

I thought that I would never need a nullmodem cable at home. I still don’t think that I might ever need a straight serial cable. And I could in fact take one home from work and return it the other day. However I could already see what would have happened in that case: When I get some time to tinker with my APU it will be on the weekend and I won’t have the cable in reach when I need it. So I got my own. And while I was at it, I decided to not only get a USB to RS-232 DB9 serial adapter cable (look for the PL2303 chipset translating USB to serial: It’s well supported across a wide range of operating systems including FreeBSD). I also bought a null modem adapter and a gender changer. So now I’m completely flexible with my gear. However you probably just want to get a null modem cable USB/female DB9 (or ask somebody who has one if you could borrow it).

Another thing that you have to know is the baud rate (modulation rate) for your connection. A higher baud rate means a faster connection. As long as both connected machines agree on the baud rate, everything is fine. If they disagree, this can lead to displaying garbage instead of the actual console or in seemingly nothing happening at all.

To flash or not to flash

At the time of this writing, PC Engines have released 5 updates for the APU2’s firmware and if you like the improvements, it makes sense to put the newest version on there. They recommend booting TinyCore Linux and then using flashrom to flash the BIOS.

Flashrom is available for FreeBSD, too. I would imagine that it works as well. However I have no experience with that and flashing stuff always bears the risk of bricking your device (for which case PC Engines offers a small rescue device). If I had thought about this right at the beginning, I would probably have tried it out. But my APU2 is already updated and since this post is public and not just for me… Well, let’s just do this by the book and use Linux for that.

If you’re a little anxious and don’t feel well about flashing at all, leave it be; in general the old BIOS will do, too. Flashing according to a guide does not have a high risk of bricking your device but even a small risk is a risk. Disclaimer: You decide. And it’s all your responsibility, of course.

Alright, we need to prepare a USB stick with TinyCore and the ROM on it. PC Engines even offer a howto guide showing how to create this using FreeBSD. That guide works, but it clearly shows that those guys know Linux a lot better than (modern) FreeBSD. For that reason I’m going to modify it slightly here and use today’s tools.

Preparing the BIOS updater memstick

First we’re going to download the TinyCore tarball and the zipped ROM (you might want to take a look if a newer version than shown here is out) and install the syslinux package (containing the that Linux bootloader):

% su -
# mkdir -p /tmp/apu2 && cd /tmp/apu2
# fetch http://pcengines.ch/file/apu_tinycore.tar.bz2 http://pcengines.ch/file/apu2_v4.0.7.rom.zip
# pkg install syslinux

Now attach your USB memstick to the system and after a couple of seconds look at the dmesg if you don’t know what device it will be attached to:

# dmesg | tail
[...]
da0 at umass-sim0 bus 0 scbus2 target 0 lun 0
da0: < USB DISK 2.0 PMAP> Removable Direct Access SPC-4 SCSI device
[...]

So for me it’s da0 in this case and I need to supplement the “X” that I use in the following commands with “0”. You should use whatever number you figured out. PC Engine’s howto suggests zeroing out the stick and if it isn’t a new and unused one that makes sense. In my case this leads to an error:

# dd if=/dev/zero of=/dev/daX bs=1m
dd: /dev/da0: Operation not supported

# mount
[...]
/dev/da0s1 on /media/disk (ext2fs, local, nosuid)

Looks like this is because GhostBSD automatically mounted da0s1 when it found an EXT2 filesystem from a previous task in there. So let’s unmount that and try again:

# umount /media/disk
# dd if=/dev/zero of=/dev/daX bs=1m

Depending on the speed and size of your memstick (and the generation of your USB port) this can take quite some time to finish. And since dd normally is working quietly, you might want to know how far it came so far. Fortunately FreeBSD implements the SIGINFO signal. Just press CTRL+T while it is running and it print some status information like this:

load: 1.52  cmd: dd 92084 [physwr] 379.15r 0.00u 0.56s 0% 3188k
2512+0 records in
2512+0 records out
2634022912 bytes transferred in 379.208179 secs (6946113 bytes/sec)

When it’s done, we can create an MBR partitioning scheme on the now empty stick as well as an MBR partition and write the bootcode on the stick so that we can boot off of it at all:

# gpart create -s mbr daX
da0 created
# gpart add -t fat32 daX
da0s1 added
# gpart bootcode -b /boot/boot0 daX
bootcode written to da0

The next thing to do is putting a FAT32 filesystem on the partition and force install the Syslinux bootloader there that will be chainloaded by the bootcode that we wrote into the MBR.

# newfs_msdos /dev/daXs1
newfs_msdos: trim 40 sectors to adjust to a multiple of 63
[...]
# syslinux -if /dev/daXs1

Now we need to mount the new filesystem and put the OS on there:

# mount -t msdosfs /dev/daXs1 /mnt
# tar xjf apu_tinycore.tar.bz2 --no-same-owner -C /mnt

We’re writing to a FAT filesystem – and as the primary filesystem from a once popular single user OS it does simply not support concepts like file ownership. That’s why we need “–no-same-owner” here (otherwise we’d see harmless but unnecessary warnings). As the next step we’ll add the ROM image and check its integrity – we don’t want to flash garbage on our APU and brick it, do we?

# unzip -d /mnt apu2_v4.0.7.rom.zip
# grep -c `md5 -q /mnt/apu2_v4.0.7.rom` /mnt/apu2_v4.0.7.rom.md5
1

Make sure that the last command outputs 1 (in which case the calculated md5 hash matches)! If it does not, delete the zip file, download it again and extract it over the corrupt ROM file. Finally sync the filesystem, unmount it and remove the USB stick:

# sync
# umount /mnt

The memstick is ready. If you want to test it, boot some other PC or laptop from it. If you can read the line “Booting the kernel” and then nothing seems to happen anymore, it means that it’s working. TinyCore is configured to use the serial console, that’s why you don’t see anything on your screen and your keyboard doesn’t do anything after that. Just turn your computer off and plug the USB stick out.

Attaching the serial console and flashing the BIOS

Alright, back to the APU2 (finally). Put the memstick into one of the USB ports and attach your serial cable to the COM port. Now connect the other end of the null modem cable with another computer running FreeBSD (or Linux or whatever – this should all work, you’ll just have to figure out how to connect to a serial console on your OS).

Open a terminal, become root and attach the serial console (cuaU0 is the USB to serial adapter, 115,200 the baud rate):

% su -
# cu -l /dev/cuaU0 -s 115200
Connected

Now connect the APU2 to power and see what happens! If you don’t do anything, the BIOS should load TinyCore from the memstick after a couple of seconds:

Connected to the serial console – and booting Linux

If nothing happens, you might have the wrong cable (is it really crossed-over?). Or maybe you’ve mistyped the baud rate? The “Connected” by the way only means that your host system has attached to the serial cable. You’ll get that message even when the other end is not connected to anything or the machine at the other end is turned off.

Once Linux was loaded, use flashrom to update the APU’s firmware like PC Engines show in their howto. Then reboot.

Preparing to flash the BIOS

The APU2’s BIOS supports the serial console. That means that even before the machine has booted an operating system with serial console capability, you can access and configure the BIOS of the headless machine:

Serial access to the BIOS settings

Another nice thing that comes with the APU is the Memtest program. If you want to know whether your new hardware is actually good or might probably have bad ram, put it to the test for a couple of hours or over night:

The firmware comes with Memtest

If you’re using cu as in my example, you can close the serial connection using the character sequence ~. (tilde and dot).

What’s next?

You now know how to access your box using the serial console. Next time we’ll make use of that skill again to put pfSense as the first of two options on the APU. The other option is OPNsense which will be covered in a later post. Both are FreeBSD-based router/firewall operating systems.

Back and forth: Linux and *BSD

This is kind of the post that I wanted to write much earlier this year. After running a Linux-only environment at home for years, I had become less and less happy with the general direction things seem to be heading. I had run FreeBSD and OpenBSD on real hardware (old laptops) and several versions of PC-BSD in VirtualBox over the years. In January I decided to step forward and install PC-BSD (10.2) on my primary computer for daily usage. It remained a short episode – and this post will describe why. When TrueOS was released to the public I decided to try out that right away. But that will be another post.

Initial contact

I cannot remember when I first read about the BSDs. That must have been many years ago when I became interested in reading a bit about UNIX. I remember beastie and puffy and I remember that I failed installing a system in a VM because it was somehow too complicated. It likely was OpenBSD and the chance is quite high that I quit during the partitioning which probably was way over my head at that time.

While I never lost interest in it (Unix fascinated me) I decided to “learn Linux first” as that was the system I had chosen to run my computers with. As the Linux world was big enough for years (trying out the various desktops, doing a lot of distro hopping, …) I touched *BSD only rarely. Basically it was limited to installing PC-BSD in a VM when I found out that a new version was released. It seemed to be nice but I didn’t see any benefit over my Linux systems and so I stuck with that.

After studying something entirely different, I had made the decision to break up and get into the IT instead, even though was I well beyond the age that you usually start an apprenticeship. In my country that means that you apply to a company to work as an apprentice there half of the week and go to school the other days. Being somewhat of a Linux nerd I had only applied to companies that I knew weren’t using Windows – I had left that mess and was determined to avoid it in the future as far as possible. In the end I signed a contract of apprenticeship with a hosting company, moved into the area and started learning Linux a lot deeper than I had before. And… I came in contact with FreeBSD.

Being a hosting company that had been founded in the nineties, it had of course started on FreeBSD. Even though the focus of the company shifted to Linux years ago, there still were about 100 servers running FreeBSD. My colleagues generally disliked those servers – simply because they were different. And our CIO declared that he hated them and would love to get rid of them as FreeBSD was totally obsolete these days. If it hadn’t been for our boss to have a soft spot for them (as that had been what he started with and also what he had come to know best over the years) there definitely would have been far less FreeBSD servers around.

Digging into FreeBSD

Now for whatever reason I do have a heart for underdogs and so I begun to be interested in those odd systems quite a bit. Nobody wanted to touch those dinosaurs if he didn’t really have to. However somebody had to take care of them anyways, right? They were production servers after all! I volunteered. There were moments where I kind of regretted this decision but now in hindsight it was an excellent choice. I’ve learned a ton of little things that made me understand *nix and even the IT in general quite a bit better compared to what I would know now if I had followed the straight Linux path.

I also found out that only very few things that the colleagues hated about our FreeBSD boxes were things to actually blame FreeBSD for. By far the biggest problem was that they simply had been neglected for like a decade? Our Linux systems used configuration management, the FreeBSDs were still managed by hand (!). We had some sophisticated tooling on Linux, on the BSD boxes there were crude old scripts to (kind of) do the same job. Those systems were not consistent at all; some at least had sudo others made you use su if you needed to use privileged commands… Things like that. A lot of things like that. So it wasn’t exactly a miracle that the BSDs were not held in very high regard.

As I said, I didn’t really see any real advantage of BSD before. Linux even seemed to be easier! Think network interfaces for example: “eth + number” is easier than “abbreviation of interface driver + number”. But Linux has since moved to “enp0s3” and the like… And when you think again, it does make a lot of sense to see what driver an interface uses from the name. Anyways: I begun to like that OS! FreeBSD’s ports framework was really great and I realized the beauty of rc.config (Arch Linux did away with their central config file to get systemd. What a great exchange… – not!). Also I liked the idea of a base system quite a bit and /rescue was just genius. Would my colleagues lose their contempt for our BSD servers if they were configured properly? I thought (and still think) so.

My apprenticeship was nearing its end and I had to choose a topic for the final project work. I was advised to NOT do something Linux related because the examiners… *cough* lacked experience in that field (in the past an apprentice even failed because they have no idea what they are doing. He went before court and it was decided in his favor. A re-examination by people who knew Linux got him an A!). Now things like that make me angry and calls upon the rebel in me. I handed in a FreeBSD topic (evaluating Puppet, Chef, SaltStack and Ansible for orchestration and configuration management of a medium-sized FreeBSD server landscape).

So for servers I was already sold. But could *BSD compete on the desktop, too? I built two test systems and was rather happy with them. However I wanted to try out a BSD system optimized for desktop usage. Enter PC-BSD.

Working with PC-BSD

I was called nuts for making that switch just days before the final presentation of the written project work (“you need to pass this – your entire career depends on it!!”). But I didn’t want to do a presentation on a FreeBSD topic using a Linux machine! Well, in fact I had been too optimistic as the installation turned out to be… rather problematic due to a lot of bad surprises. To be fair: Most of them weren’t PC-BSD’s fault at all. The BIOS mode on my computer is broken in it not supporting booting off GPT partitions in non-UEFI mode. This lead to my drives disappearing after installation – and myself wondering if my classmates were right… Never change a running system! Especially not if you’re pressed for time!

After I found out what the problem was, installing to MBR was an easy thing to do. I still needed every single night that I had left but I got everything to work to at least the level that allowed me to hold my presentation. Another thing was that I had enabled deduplication on my ZFS pool. “24 gigs of memory should be enough to use that feature!”, I thought. Nobody had told me that it slows down file deletion so much that deleting about 2 GB of data meant to go and do something else while ZFS was doing its thing. Even worse: The system was virtually unresponsive while doing that so you could forget browsing the web or something like that in the meantime. But truth be told this was my own mistake due to my very own ignorance about ZFS and I can hardly blame PC-BSD for it.

I kept PC-BSD on my laptop for about 1.5 month before I needed to return to Linux – and I would in fact even have returned earlier had I had the time to reinstall. While some issues with PC-BSD vexed me, too, I could have lived with most of them. But my wife complained all the time and that of course meant the end for my PC-BSD journey.

So what were (some) of the issues with it? My wife mostly uses the PC to check email when our children are occupied with something for a moment. For her the very long boot time was extremely annoying. And really it took multiple times as long as the Linux system before (and that was still one with Upstart!). Keeping one user logged in and changing to another user quickly wasn’t possible – which meant that I had to shut down my multiple virtual machines and log out completely if my wife just wanted to quickly check mail or something. Not cool. Things like that.

And then there were a few things that annoyed me. It drew power from the battery much, much faster than the previous Linux system. When watching a video, the screen saver kept interrupting it. Firefox had strange issues from time to time and liked to crash. Working with EXT4 formatted disks was a pain. And so on and so forth.

Of course there were good parts, too. I had a real FreeBSD system at my hands with access to ports. Two firewalls (that are nothing like the mess that is netfilter/iptables!) to choose from. Excellent documentation. Nice helper tools (like the automounter, wifi manager, disk manager, etc.). Several supported desktops to choose from. And of course the well thought-out update system that I liked a lot. Thinking about it, there are a lot of good parts actually. Unfortunately even a ton of things nice to have have a hard time covering things conceived as no-gos. That’s life.

I had intended to update to 10.3 and then write a complete blog post about PC-BSD. My wife didn’t like the idea much, though. In addition to that I had little spare time and no alternative spare hardware, so there wasn’t a chance for me to actually do that.

Interlude: Linux

So it was back to Linux. With systemd this time. I’m not exactly friends with that omnivoristic set of tools that annoyed me perhaps just not enough to switch the system over to runnit or openrc. Other than that life was good again (as my wife was happy and I could do my work). But there was one thing in the short period of time with PC-BSD that had changed everything: I had caught the bug with ZFS!

Fourtunately there’s ZFSonLinux, right? So I installed that and created a pool to use for my data. In general that worked but it’s a bit more hassle to set up compared to FreeBSD where you basically get it for free without having to do anything special! If you don’t want to compile all packages related to ZFS yourself for each new kernel, there’s a third-party package repository for Arch. ZFS is not in the official ones. At some point the names of the packages changed and the update failed. I didn’t find anything about that and had to figure out myself what happened.

After another kernel and ZFS update that I did in the morning succeed. But when I came home, my wife told me that when she logged in, she was logged out again almost instantly. I booted the computer and logged in – the same thing happened. What was that? No error message, no nothing. The system simply dropped me back at the login manager… So I switched to text mode to take a look at what might be wrong with the system. Long story short: My pool “homepool” which held all user’s home directories was not available! And worse: zpool import said that there were no pools available for import… With the update, ZFS had stopped working! That hit me in the wrong moment whan I had very little time and so I had to downgrade as the quickest solution.

In the end I chose to compile the “solaris porting layer” and the other packages myself. This was not so bad actually but knowing that on FreeBSD I’d have access to ZFS provided by the operating system without having to do anything (and that nobody was going to break it without it probably being fixed again in no time) vexed me. Of course there were other things, too, and using FreeBSD on other boxes, I wanted it back on my main desktop machine as well.

What’s next?

I installed TrueOS and used it for over three months. The next post will be a critical writeup about TrueOS.