Homebrew Server

Last Update:

Table of Contents

Status: Closed

As of the last update, I’m putting this project to a halt until further notice.

For now, I’ll believe the experts: servers on-prem (i.e. in our home) may not be a good idea at the moment.

Below the line is an archive of my notes, incomplete as is.


I want to host this site (ohio.araw.xyz) in a server that I physically have with me.

Simply put, a server is just like any other computer, with lots of functionalities, like providing services or serving files to other computers (clients, as they are called in this context) that access it.

In my use case, I will use it to host the HTML files of this site, and serve it to you, visitors, through your device/s (clients).

The server will actually be an old laptop that’s just lying around here. And it’s not actually mine. The MSI Wind Netbook belongs to Isya, and I got her permission to use it for this project.

Specifications of the Machine

It’s old…

By today’s standards, it’s an old machine. If the numbers don’t make sense to you, just look at the OS: it shipped with Windows XP!

Back in the day, Windows XP received many praises for its performance. These days, though, it’s vulnerable to a lot of cyberattacks, more so that Microsoft has stopped supporting it since 2014. And yet, some institutions still use it. If their computers are connected to the Internet, they are exposed to black hat hackers.

screenshot of the laptop's system properties

And now, a crappy photo of the laptop’s system properties

… but works fine.

Just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s no longer valuable. For its age, its quick to boot up. It would likely improve if and when the hard drive is replaced with a solid state drive, although, doing so is really unnecessary.

In its current state, it “runs out of breath” trying to run modern applications with its very limiting hardware.

The next best thing is to refurbish it into something that isn’t resource intensive. This project will also be a learning process for me on how to manage my own small server.

A suitable operating system

To many system administrators (sysadmin), a suitable operating system (OS) could mean many different things.

I’m no sysadmin by profession, so the OS I want running in this homebrew server shall be stable, requires minimal maintenance, and is (relatively) easy to set up.

It shouldn’t require much effort, knowing that my use case—serving static files of small personal website—is simple enough.

At the moment, I have considered these two OS, because they still have support for 32-bit architecture (which this laptop has), and meet my requirements above:

I also have experience in using both, albeit in a 64-bit architecture.

Using OpenBSD as a server

OpenBSD is a fully functional, Unix-like OS based on Berkeley Networking Release 2 (Net/2) and 4.4BSD-Lite.

For now, I choose OpenBSD as a server because it’s simpler to set up. As a result of its simplicity, it’s also hailed as one of the most secure OS out there.

Before anything else, a disclaimer: While I’ll do my best to update this document, assume that the most recent documentation there is can be found over at the OpenBSD website. Their manual pages contain the details needed to operate a machine running on OpenBSD, and is entirely available offline on a base install.

Installing OpenBSD on bare metal

If you’re new to the system, I highly recommend to go over the OpenBSD FAQ - Installation Guide at least once.

I downloaded the image from a Debian-based system, through the terminal, so most of the commands here are based on that.

1. Download the installer

There are mirrors1 from which to download the installer. They are found here. I chose the nearest location to reduce download time.

curl -OJ http://mirror.rise.ph/pub/OpenBSD/6.9/i386/install69.img

2. Create Install Media in Flash Drive

Plug in the USB stick. The following command assumes that the disk is recognized as sdc1. Check with dmesg, df -h, or lsblk commands, as root if need be.

sudo dd if=install*.img of=/dev/sdc1 bs=1M

The dd utility copies the standard input if (or input file) to the standard output of (or output file, which, in this case, is the USB drive). bs stands for block size, and we set it to 1 megabyte.

In my case, the successful output is:

450+0 records in
450+0 records out
471859200 bytes (472 MB, 450 MiB) copied, 31.9492 s, 14.8 MB/s

3. Proceed with the Installation.

Insert the USB drive into the machine. Boot from the USB drive.

On the prompt, select **(i)**nstall and answer the questions.

The default answers are sane. Most of my choices are the default ones.

Below is an incomplete list of questions during the installation, that I put here to remind my FutureSelf of the choice I made:

DNS domain name? araw.xyz
Do you want the X Window System to be started by xenodm(1)? no2
Which disk contains the install media? sd03
Directory does not contain SHA256.sig. Continue without verification? yes

Reboot after installation.

Then login as root.

Enable apmd(8)

rcctl enable apmd
rcctl set apmd flags -a -z 7
rcctl start apmd

apmd is Advanced Power Management Daemon.
-a option means BIOS-initiated suspend or standby requests are ignored if the system is connected to line current (plugged) and not running from batteries.
-z option means to automatically suspend the system if no AC is connected and the estimated battery life is equal or below 7 percent.

Add username to /etc/doas.conf

echo 'permit yourUserName' > /etc/doas.conf

Reboot to make the changes.

Set up wi-fi and ethernet networks

Before doing anything else, it’s important to be connected to the internet.4 This is to update any firmwares (using fw_update) and patches (using syspatch).

Ethernet

Most OpenBSD developers recommend using ethernet if it’s available. It’s reliable and secure.

Network interfaces are named by taking the shorthand version of the network card.

This laptop has re(4), i.e. Realtek 8139C+/8169/816xS/811xS/8168/810xE 10/100/Gigabit Ethernet device.

To set it up, I created a file /etc/hostname.re0 using vi5, and put these two lines in:

dhcp
up

To make the file /etc/hostname.re0 belong to the root (the super user) and wheel, and to set the necessary permissions, I entered these commands as root:

chown root:wheel /etc/hostname.re0
chmod 0640 /etc/hostname.re0

Activate the ethernet connection by entering this as root:

sh /etc/netstart

If successful, it’s possible now to update the firmwares. Enter as root:

fw_update

Wi-fi

This laptop has wi-fi capabilities, but isn’t immediately compatible due to firmware issues. As mentioned, firmware can be updated by fw_update if ethernet connection was successful. Otherwise, skip to the next section to get the firmware updates.

This laptop has ath(4), i.e. Atheros IEEE 802.11a/b/g wireless network device with GPIO.

To set up the wifi, I created a file /etc/hostname.athn0 as root and input these following lines:

nwid myHomeWiFi wpakey p@s&w0rD
dhcp
up

Like with the ethernet, specify that the file belongs to root and wheel, set the permissions, and activate the connection by entering the following lines, as root:

chown root:wheel /etc/hostname.athn0
chmod 0640 /etc/hostname.athn0

sh /etc/netstart

Installing the needed firmware (from another device)

Not everything might work as expected. Ethernet might not work out of the box. Wi-fi is unlikely to work, too, if the firmwares aren’t updated. If you find yourself in this situation, there’s another solution: get the firmware files from another computer that’s connected to the internet.

Then:

  1. On your OpenBSD machine, fw_update will determine the firmwares needed which are:
    • intel-firmware
    • athn-firmware
    • inteldrm-firmware.
  2. On the other device (the one connected to the internet), I downloaded the firmwared files from http://firmware.openbsd.org. However, the USB drive to which I would save these must be formatted as FAT32. (OpenBSD can’t natively read ext4 or NTFS partitions.)
    1. There are different ways to format a USB drive to FAT32, depending on the platform you’re doing the formatting on. In my Debian-like system, I installed dosfstools.
      sudo apt install dosfstools
      
    2. I plugged in and located the USB drive by running this in terminal:
      lsblk
      

      In my case, it’s /dev/sdc .

    3. Unmount the USB drive, because it can’t be formatted when mounted:
      sudo umount /dev/sdc
      
    4. I created a new partition table, which will be msdos.
      sudo parted /dev/sdc --script -- mklabel msdos
      
    5. I specified that the whole drive must be of FAT32 file system, primary partition type:
      sudo parted /dev/sdb --script -- mkpart primary fat32 1MiB 100%
      
    6. Format the drive to FAT32:
      sudo mkfs.fat -F 32 -I /dev/sdc
      
    7. (Optional) To check if the device has been partitioned correctly:
      sudo parted /dev/sdc --script print
      
  3. Insert the USB drive that has now the firmware files to the OpenBSD machine. As root, enter diskutil list. The USB drive will appear to have several partitions, e.g. sd1c.
  4. Create a mount point under /mnt (as root):
    mkdir /mnt/usb
    
  5. Mount the USB (as root):
    mount /dev/sd1i /mnt/usb
    
  6. Once mounted, install the firmware manually (as root):
    fw_update -p /mnt/usb
    
  7. Reboot.

Optional things

In this laptop, I’m going install several binaries from the ports, namely git (version control system), and neovim (text editor). To install in one go, enter as root:

pkg_add git neovim 

SSH Server and Client

In order for the client to connect to the server, a user account must be created on the server. During OpenBSD install, I had already created a user.

Now, to set up the SSH6:

Client Side

Before generating, be sure to check first whether there are any existing ones.

Enter ls -al ~/.ssh to do that. Check the listing to see if public SSH key (sometimes referred to as “pubkey”) already exists. Filenames include:

To generate a new key:

  1. Enter this in the terminal:
    ssh-keygen -t ed25519 -a 100
    

    -t ed25519 option specifies the type of key;
    -a 100 option specifies the number of key derivation function rounds used.

  2. Follow the prompts. I left the defaults as they are, but feel free to configure for your use case.
  3. In order to add key, start the ssh-agent in the background.
    eval "$(ssh-agent -s)"
    
  4. Add the SSH private key to the ssh-agent.
    ssh-add ~/.ssh/id_ed25519
    
  5. When going to the remote server using SSH, you’ll be prompted for a password everytime. Instead of that, we can use the SSH key. Copy that into the remote server:
    ssh-copy-id username@example.com
    

    This will prompt you one last time for the password of the server. If successful, the server will no longer prompt you for password everytime you SSH into it.

Server Side (the OpenBSD machine)

A few tweaks are needed to make SSH a pleasant experience.

  1. Login—or SSH into—the server:
    ssh username@example.com
    
  2. Edit /etc/ssh/sshd_config:
    # find PasswordAuthentication, comment it out, 
    # and turn 'yes' to 'no'
    # so bad actors can't login even if they know the passwd
    PasswordAuthentication no
    
    # find PermitRootLogin, comment it out, 
    # and turn 'no' to 'yes'
    # so rsync can access the root when syncing files
    PermitRootLogin yes
    

Other Noteworthy Inconveniences

In this section, I’ll discuss the obstacles (read: rookie mistakes) that I had to go through.

LAN Ports problem

At the time of writing, our internet service provider is PLDT Home Fibr. Subscription comes with an actual telephone and a router. The router has four LAN ports.

To improve the reach to the second floor of our home, we connected another router (Xiaomi brand) to LAN port 1. This second router has been working well since.

By default, LAN ports 2, 3, and 4 are disabled. I didn’t know that. When first setting up the ethernet connection for the OpenBSD machine, it wasn’t detecting anything.

During troubleshoot, I tried the three remaining ports with different ethernets that were available to me at the time. None of this approaches worked.

Takeaway/s


  1. It’s just a server that provides the exact copy of data from another server. Usually to provide a means of redundancy. ↩︎

  2. Since this is going to be a server, I don’t need graphical user interface. ↩︎

  3. The USB drive. This might be different for every other machine. At any point during the installation, type ? to list the possible choices. ↩︎

  4. Note that you might encounter a problematic situation in which you need to install the firmware, e.g. for your wifi card, but you need a working network connection to do that. A workaround is discussed in the following sections. ↩︎

  5. vi is a text editor already present in the base install of OpenBSD. I’m familiar with it, but ultimately I’ll use (neo)vim. ↩︎

  6. The SSH (secure shell) protocol uses encryption to secure the connection between a client and a server. All user authentication, commands, ouput, and file transfers are encrypted to protect against attacks in the network. For more info: https://www.ssh.com ↩︎




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