Covid 19 update

March 27th, 2020 by

Microscopy image of the coronavirus.
(Image copyright NIAID; licensed under CC-BY 2.0)

Covid-19 has dramatically changed life in the UK, and the lock-down announced on Monday has lead to further changes to how we, and our customers, are operating.  This page provides an update to our previously announced Covid-19 plan.

We’re happy to report that our staff member who had some of the symptoms of covid-19 is now fully recovered and has returned to our team after a few days of rest.

Data centre access changes

Our data centre suppliers have altered their operation: 24/7 walk in access is now prohibited and every visit needs booking and justification. The “remote hands” service remains available, but at a reduced capacity as they’ve moved as many staff as possible to home working to minimise their risks.

Equinix, who supply two of our core facilities, have completely closed their facilities in Italy, Germany, France and Spain to customers. Changes are only possible via their remote hands service in those countries.  We have a significant amount of equipment in two Equinix facilities in London and Amsterdam (LD8 and AM5).

Since this announcement on Sunday, we have been anticipating a similar closure being applied to London.  This has  now been announced and will be disruptive for us, as our normal operating procedures rely on being able to move spare equipment easily between the London data centres where we have a presence.  We have been taking steps to increase the spare hardware that we have at each of our London sites in order to mitigate the impact of this when it comes into force on Tuesday 31st March.

The data centres have well-considered policies to reduce risk, and to handle a confirmed case within the facility with rapid quarantine and deep clean procedures. No access is allowed to customers showing symptoms, and all customers’ temperatures are measured before entry to the facilities. Their operations are also robust in the event they need to manage the facility remotely for a period of time.

We’ve also altered our own policy for data centre access. Customer access to our data-centre space is suspended until further notice, including for documentation-related audits (e.g. ISO27001 compliance). This should have a minimal impact; we only allowed accompanied access previously and visits have always been exceedingly infrequent.

Items shipped to us will be quarantined for 24 hours before opening. Cardboard will self-decontaminate in 24 hours.

Staff members may not meet in a data centre unless it is specifically for a piece of work that requires two people for safety reasons (typically very heavy server deployment), and only if is to maintain an essential service. Staff members may not visit multiple key data centres in a single visit to minimise the risk of transmission between key sites, and may not visit if they are showing symptoms. Data centre visits are being minimised to reduce infection risk. This may limit the range of dedicated servers we are able to provision, and we have decided to stop offering Mac Minis with OS X due to the difficulty of provisioning them remotely.

Customer support

Unsurprisingly, a wholesale shift of the UK to remote working has a significant impact on all kinds of online systems, which are now critical for day to day operations. We’re supporting existing customers to make this transition, as well as provisioning new orders for services that now need to be in the cloud.

We run a system for POhWER that is used by all their advisors to track their cases. This is a critical system; if it’s offline, hundreds of people are unable to work. We maintain this as an active/standby pair split across two of our data centres.

“You’re supporting us to enable our vital work with the most vulnerable people in society to continue in these very trying times and, through your swift upgrade actions, our new fully remote working model is delivering the information, advice and advocacy our clients depend on.”
Sandra Black, Head of Training, Risk and Quality at POhWER.

The shift to remote working means that usage on their system has approximately doubled in ten days and has started to see performance limitations. We identified the bottleneck and proposed a cost-effective upgrade combined with some configuration improvements. We then made staff available to apply the changes in an emergency late night maintenance window, restoring their site to full performance by the next working day.

Direct efforts

We were approached at the weekend by a small team comprising local IT experts and doctors who are building an information website to efficiently distribute information to NHS staff members about how to use and select the correct protective equipment for the environment they are working in. We’re providing the virtual server, security updates, backups and 24/7 monitoring service for this free of charge, which has allowed the volunteer IT experts to concentrate on building the site. We’re expecting go-live in the next day or so once the content is checked.

We’re keen to hear of any other efforts where we may be able to assist.

Adding capacity

We’ve ordered more servers to expand the three busiest VM clouds to support existing customers scaling up, and new customers with urgent needs. We want to avoid cloud full and thankfully our server supplier is fully able to continue to build and deliver servers whilst maintaining 2m spacing between employees.

DNS API: sed vs jq

March 16th, 2020 by

Our forthcoming new DNS API seeks to make automating common DNS management tasks as simple as possible. It supports both JSON and “zone file format” for inputs and outputs, which opens up some interesting options for making bulk updates to a DNS zone.

Bulk TTL change

Suppose we want to drop the TTL on all of our zone’s MX records. We could get the records in zone file format and edit them using sed:

curl -n -H 'Accept: text/dns' https://api.mythic-beasts.com/dns/zones/example.com/records/@/MX \ 
| sed -E 's/^([^ ]+) +([0-9]+)/\1 60/' \
| curl -n -H 'Content-Type: text/dns' -X PUT --data-binary @- https://api.mythic-beasts.com/dns/zones/example.com/records/@/MX

Alternatively, we could get the zone in JSON format and modify it using the awesome command line JSON-wrangler, jq:

curl -n -H 'Accept: application/json' https://api.mythic-beasts.com/dns/zones/example.com/records/@/MX \
| jq '.records[].ttl = 60' \
| curl -n -H 'Content-Type: application/json' -X PUT --data-binary @- https://api.mythic-beasts.com/dns/zones/example.com/records/@/MX

How does this work?

The most common response to seeing the second example is “cool, I didn’t know you could do that with jq!”. So what’s going on here?

The first line gets us the the MX records for example.com (the “@” means fetch records for the bare domain). This gives us some JSON that looks like this:

{
    "records": [
        {
            "data": "mx1.mythic-beasts.com.",
            "host": "@",
            "mx_priority": 10,
            "ttl": 300,
            "type": "MX"
        },
        {
            "data": "mx2.mythic-beasts.com.",
            "host": "@",
            "mx_priority": 10,
            "ttl": 300,
            "type": "MX"
        }
    ]
}

The next line modifies this JSON. jq allows you to select values within the JSON. .records selects the “records” property of the response. [] gets us all of the members of the array, and .ttl selects the “ttl” property of each one. On its own, this would extract the values from the JSON, and give us “300 300”, but jq also allows us to modify the property by assigning to it. This gives us the following JSON:

{
    "records": [
        {
            "data": "mx1.mythic-beasts.com.",
            "host": "@",
            "mx_priority": 10,
            "ttl": 60,
            "type": "MX"
        },
        {
            "data": "mx2.mythic-beasts.com.",
            "host": "@",
            "mx_priority": 10,
            "ttl": 60,
            "type": "MX"
        }
    ]
}

We can now pipe this into a PUT request back to the same URL. This will replace all of the records that the first request selected with our new records.

The first approach works in a very similar way, except rather than working on a block of JSON with jq, we use sed to modify the following zone file formatted text:

@                      300 MX    10 mx1.mythic-beasts.com.
@                      300 MX    10 mx2.mythic-beasts.com.

Choose your weapon

We think that the JSON based approach is neater, but let us know what you think on our Twitter poll. We’d also be interested to hear of specific DNS management operations that you’d like to automate, so that we can see how they’d be tackled in our new API.

Covid-19

March 11th, 2020 by

The European Bio-informatics Institute used x-rays and a lot of hard maths to draw the above picture of the main covid-19 protein.

We provide critical infrastructure to many other companies who rely on our services. Covid-19 could significantly change day to day life everywhere. At present we don’t believe it will have a significant effect on our operations.

Remote working

Mythic Beasts has always been a distributed company with no central office; all staff members normally work from home. As a result adopting remote working recommendations or enforcement will have no significant impact on our day to day operations. Normally, we have a weekly optional meeting for staff around Cambridgeshire and a compulsory all company meeting roughly once every six weeks. Migrating these meetings to conference calls will have minimal operational impact.

Reducing travel

Our sales process has always been online. We don’t routinely meet customers and have a very light attendance at conferences and industry events. Our next scheduled events are UKNOF (Manchester, April) and LINX (Manchester) both of which offer remote participation should it become necessary.

Financial stability

Mythic Beasts has been profitable every year since 2001 and carries no debt. We maintain significant cash reserves so we can self-finance routine expansion and other business opportunities, and weather unforeseen circumstances. We understand that many consider this an inefficient use of capital, but we can definitely pay our bills in the event of a global pandemic crippling the economy for a short period.

Sensible staff policies

Our staff members are provided with private healthcare. They also get sick leave which they are expected to take if ill. We also provide 30 days + bank holidays holiday to all staff members as standard and we strongly encourage them to have a two week contiguous holiday in order that we know we can operate without them in the event of sickness. We have sufficient staff levels that in the event of multiple staff members being ill for an extended period day to day operations can be maintained and only longer term projects should be delayed.

Supplier issues

We maintain stock of key components to cope with hardware failure although for some months we’ve been seeing very long lead times for hardware, especially CPUs and SSDs. This may impact our lead times for larger orders of dedicated servers or custom hardware. We think it likely that our data centre and connectivity providers may implement a change freeze as they do annually over the Christmas period and at other key times (e.g. the 2012 Olympics). This is a familiar operating environment and utilising multiple providers in multiple countries will help to mitigate this.

2020-03-12 : We run our own private phone conference and IRC service so we’re not affected by the reported load issues at the major public providers Slack, Teams, Zoom etc.

In summary, we think that day to day operations shouldn’t be affected but if you have any concerns get in touch at support@mythic-beasts.com.

New DNS API – easily update SSHFP keys

March 9th, 2020 by

We’ve got a new version of our DNS API under development.  One of the neat new features is the ability to accept input in bind zone file format (aka RFC 1035). 

One of the things that this makes very easy is adding SSHFP records to the DNS. SSHFP is a mechanism for lodging your server’s public SSH keys in the DNS so that your SSH client can automatically verify a server the first time you connect to it, rather than prompting you to confirm the host key.

Using our new API, you can add or update SSHFP keys by piping the output of ssh-keygen straight into curl:

ssh-keygen -r myhost | curl -X PUT -n https://api.mythic-beasts.com/zones/example.com/myhost/SSHFP -H 'Content-Type: text/dns' --data-binary @-

What’s going on here?

ssh-keygen -r outputs your server’s SSH public keys in RFC 1035 format:

$ ssh-keygen -r myhost
myhost IN SSHFP 1 1 e579ff6aabc2f0acf714deca53108a0c1ea7d799
myhost IN SSHFP 1 2 7c47d5dfb748ff1fd244b7289d815e83dad8c2c1652b92ac8aed8ff166733d07
myhost IN SSHFP 2 1 c5caf4cc8870acc7fd113e5a7c866822ec0d94de
myhost IN SSHFP 2 2 9f11843fa1d9da318aa4bc09bbcaacaf4a9868c4d83dfc4bad6853d0c9597a31
myhost IN SSHFP 3 1 eb8644f5fcfd555341f2063bd92044075e20da89
myhost IN SSHFP 3 2 60f3e9780f9b87e5b4d6344f2ab46decbf705123e96ef07c3247f714ca220fc4
myhost IN SSHFP 4 1 139426de48381ea46ad75dde4e412bf1c9b11e61
myhost IN SSHFP 4 2 6f094181b510bbb573048835665773eb1a2a65fd4341d95207479ed71296491b

We then pipe that into curl to make a request to the DNS API.

A PUT request to the /myhost/SSHFP endpoint replaces all existing myhost SSHFP records.

-n tells curl to get auth credentials from a .netrc file, and the “Content-Type” header tells our API that we’re providing the new records in zone file format.

What’s the point of SSHFP?

Having lodged these SSHFP records in the DNS, and provided that DNSSEC is enabled for your domain, it’s possible to connect to a server without being prompted to verify the server’s host key.

$ ssh -o VerifyHostKeyDNS=yes root@myhost.example.com 

You can avoid having to specify the -o by putting VerifyHostKeyDNS=yes in your ~/.ssh/config file.

Feedback wanted

The new DNS API isn’t quite ready for deployment, so if there are any features that you’d really like to see in the new API, now’s the time to tell us, either on Twitter or by email.

IPv6-only hosting in 2020

February 28th, 2020 by

It’s now nearly five years since we started offering IPv6-only hosting, and what started out as a source of interesting projects for enthusiastic early-adopters has become our default for most hosting requirements.

A few things have changed over the years that have made this possible:

  • The death of Windows XP, the last significant OS with a browser that didn’t support SNI (Server Name Indication). SNI makes it possible for us to proxy encrypted connections to IPv6-only hosts.
  • The widespread adoption of secure services. This means that protocols that don’t have their own proxying features (such as POP3 or IMAP) can be proxied in their encrypted form thanks to SNI.
  • Improvements to our hosting services, such as our SSH port forwarder.

This post gives a quick run-down of how we make IPv6-only hosting a reality.

Getting bytes in

There’s no getting away from the fact that an IPv6-only hosting server still needs to be able to talk to IPv4-only clients, but there’s now a good solution for doing so for pretty much all common scenarios.

Web traffic

This is the most common requirement, and also probably the easiest, as it can be handled by our v4 to v6 proxy.  The proxy is a set of servers with both IPv4 and IPv6 addresses that accept traffic for various protocols and forward it to an IPv6-only server.

The DNS for the hosted site points at our proxy servers, by means of either an ANAME or CNAME record to proxy.mythic-beasts.com.

Unencrypted HTTP traffic is easy to proxy as HTTP 1.1 is designed to support multiple websites on a single IP address.

HTTPS is also easy to proxy, thanks to the now-ubiquitous support for SNI (its successor, ESNI, may complicate this a bit in the future, but we’ll tackle that in a separate post).

Our proxy also supports PROXY protocol, which is a standard way of communicating the original client’s IP address on a proxied connection. Support for PROXY protocol is now a standard feature of NGINX and Apache.

IPv6 traffic can either follow the same route as IPv4 traffic through the proxy (as shown above) or can be routed directly to the hosting server by setting the AAAA records for the site to point at the server rather than the proxy:

This provides a slightly more direct route for IPv6 traffic, but can make the configuration on the server a little more complicated, particularly if you’re using PROXY protocol.

IMAP and POP3

These can both be proxied in their secure forms (IMAPS and POP3S) thanks to SNI, and thankfully these secure variants are now the default choice for all popular email clients.

SSH

Our customers typically want to administer their servers via SSH, and can’t guarantee that they’ll always be connecting from a v6-enabled network. The SSH protocol isn’t built on TLS/SSL so doesn’t have SNI support, and doesn’t have any equivalent features of its own.

We work around this by providing a port-forward to all virtual servers and Raspberry Pi servers from a host with a v4 IP address, so customers can make a connection to a different host on a non-standard port, and the connection will be forwarded to the IPv6 server on port 22. Details of the host and port can be found in our customer control panel.

SMTP

SMTP is a bit awkward. It’s used in two common scenarios:

  1. “Submission”, where an end-user client sends outgoing mail using authenticated SMTP
  2. Server-to-server delivery of email.

It has multiple ports in common use:

  • 25 – the standard port for server-to-server email
  • 465 – a port for SMTP over SSL
  • 587 – the standard SMTP submission port

Port 25 doesn’t use SSL/TLS at connection time, but can be upgraded to a secure connection via the STARTTLS command, which means it can’t be proxied using SNI.

Port 465 has a confused history, having been allocated by IANA for secure SMTP, then revoked in favour of STARTTLS and allocated to a different service, and then reinstated for secure SMTP submission by RFC 8314.  Port 465 is supported by our proxy, and is a good choice for SMTP submission.

Port 587 was historically plain SMTP (RFC 2476) with STARTTLS, but is being migrated to SSL by default (RFC 8314) which is proxyable thanks to SNI.  Our proxy assumes that port 587 traffic is encrypted (because it can’t do anything useful if it’s not) and as such can also be used for SMTP submission, provided you use SSL/TLS rather than STARTTLS.

For server-to-server delivery, it’s possible to use our dual-stack MX servers to handle incoming mail. This can be done by having the highest priority MX record point to the v6-only server, and then have a lower priority record
pointing to our MX servers. v4-only servers will deliver to our MX servers, and we’ll then pass it on to your v6-only server.

This isn’t a perfect solution, as it means you can’t do connection-time filtering of incoming mail.

Our MX servers need to be configured to accept mail for your domain. At present, this needs to be done by emailing support.

Getting bytes out

Your server may need to make outgoing connections to v4-only servers. Fortunately this is straightforward using our NAT64 resolvers. These are DNS resolvers that when asked for an address for a host that does not have any AAAA records will provide an IPv6 address that is mapped to the host’s v4 address. The v6 address is actually an address on one of our NAT servers that will then forward the traffic to the v4 address.

There’s a 1:1 mapping between v4 addresses and v6 addresses on the NAT server – with IPv6 we can easily allocate the equivalent of the full 32-bit IPv4 address space to a single server!

NAT64 works very well in almost all cases. We have come across a few bits of software which explicitly request an A record when doing a DNS lookup, which obviously doesn’t work.

As with any NAT configuration, you’re sharing a v4 address with other users, which can cause issues for sites that perform IP-based filtering or rate limiting.

Make the switch

Like most providers, we now charge for IPv4 addresses, but unlike most other providers it’s a tax you probably don’t need pay. We offer IPv6-only versions of all of our virtual and dedicated servers, and our Raspberry Pi servers area all IPv6-only.

Learn more

If you’d like to hear more, here are some videos of a presentation that Pete gave at the UK Network Operators Forum (UKNOF).

Introducing Sympl

July 9th, 2019 by

Unfortunately Sympl doesn’t include easy to manage graphic designers.

Hot on the heels of the Debian Buster release, we’re pleased to announce our first release of Sympl, an open-source hosting management platform for Debian.

What is Sympl?

Sympl is easiest to explain by example.

Want to create a secure website for https://example.com?

Simply create a directory:

mkdir -p /srv/example.com/public/htdocs

That’s it. Point the DNS at your server and start uploading your content. An SSL certificate will be obtained automatically from Let’s Encrypt.

Want to create a new mailbox for Brian? Simply create a directory:

mkdir /srv/example.com/mailboxes/brian

Your server now accepts mail for brian@example.com.

Mail is accessible using webmail, or using any device via secure IMAP/SSL.

Configuration is all done over SSH, so you gain all the security advantages of a highly locked down server, with much easier configuration management.

Works with you, not against you

Unlike other solutions, which take an all-or-nothing approach to managing your server, Sympl happily accepts you customising the configuration and will avoid overwriting any configuration files that you alter.

When it writes configurations for you, Sympl automatically picks best practice options. This includes things like limiting permissions for PHP, secure connections for web and email, and of course, IPv6 support throughout. It’s built on Debian Linux and runs on our dedicated servers, virtual servers and we also build the packages for the Raspberry Pi.

Sympl is 100% open source. It’s completely free to use, irrespective of the number of servers or domains you might want to use with it.

Installing Sympl

If you have a Mythic Beasts virtual server running Debian Buster you can install Sympl easily by using the install script:

wget https://gitlab.mythic-beasts.com/sympl/install/raw/master/install.sh
bash install.sh

If you want a managed Sympl server, we’ll do this for you as part of the setup.

Server management

Sympl pairs well with our managed hosting service. We monitor your server 24/7, apply security updates and take a daily backup leaving you to manage the sites running on it.

Future plans

Future plans for Sympl include automatic DNS configuration using OctoDNS, which supports a wide range of DNS providers, updated Let’s Encrypt support allowing automatic wildcard SSL certificates, and a fully functional command line parser for day to day administration tasks.

Find out more info on Sympl at sympl.host, which is (of course) hosted using Sympl.

VMHaus services now available in Amsterdam

July 3rd, 2019 by

Integration can be hard work

Last year we had a busy time acquiring Retrosnub, BHost and VMHaus. We’ve been steadily making progress in the background integrating the services the companies provide to reduce costs and complexity of management. We can now also announce our first significant feature upgrade for VMHaus. We’ve deployed a new virtual server cluster to our Amsterdam location and VMHaus services are now available in Amsterdam. VMHaus is using Mythic Beasts for colocation and network and in Amsterdam they will gain access to our extensive set of peers at AMSIX, LINX and LoNAP. Per hour billed virtual servers are available from VMHaus with payment through Paypal.

As you’d expect, every VM comes with a /64 of IPv6 space.

In the background we’ve also been migrating former-BHost KVM-based services to Mythic Beasts VM services in Amsterdam. Shortly we’ll be starting to migrate former-BHost and VMHaus KVM-based services in London to new VM clusters in the Meridian Gate data centre.

Hosting made Sympl

May 21st, 2019 by

Sympl is so simple it’s even usable by Cambridge graduates

We’re pleased to announce that we are now supporting the Sympl open source project.  Sympl is a fork of Symbiosis, a platform that makes hosting websites and email on a virtual or dedicated server simple.  Once installed, configuring a new website, or creating a new email address and mailbox, is as simple as creating a new directory.  Web server, mail server and DNS configuration is all taken care of for you.

We’ve already taken the first steps towards integrating Sympl into our infrastructure by implementing support for our DNS API in OctoDNS.  For our next step, we will be adding support for OctoDNS to Sympl.  This means that it becomes possible to use Sympl with our DNS infrastructure, but equally you can use any other provider supported by OctoDNS (we don’t believe in lock in!)

We’re now very pleased to welcome Paul Cammish, the newest member of the Mythic Beasts team.  Paul has considerable experience, having worked at a number of different ISPs since 2000, most recently at Bytemark.  Paul created the Sympl project earlier this year, in order to provide ongoing support and enhancements for the platform.

We’re very excited by the possibilities that Sympl provides, and have some interesting ideas for future developments once we’ve dealt with the immediate priorities of DNS integration, and support for the upcoming Debian Buster release.

The source code for Sympl is now available in our self-hosted GitLab instance.

Moving to Mythic Beasts just got easier

April 9th, 2019 by

We’ve just rolled out a major overhaul of our DNS management interface. We hope that you’ll find the new interface faster and easier to use. As well as improvements to the user interface, we’ve also added the ability to import zone files. This means that if you’ve got a domain that is currently hosted with another provider, you can now easily transfer all of your DNS configuration to our servers in bulk (provided that you can get them to give you a copy of your current zone file).

Our DNS management interface is included with all domain registrations.  It’s also available for domains registered elsewhere for customers of our other services, including hosting accounts, virtual servers, dedicated servers and Raspberry Pi servers.

The DNS interface includes DNS API access, allowing you to support dynamic DNS and to automate other DNS management tasks.

We believe in retaining customers through good service rather than lock-in, so naturally there’s a corresponding zone file export feature.

Round-robin DNS – another use for ANAMEs

March 22nd, 2019 by

Sensible people don’t like to hard code IP addresses in lots of different places in DNS. Better to assign it a name, and then reference that name, as it makes it clearer what’s what and if you ever need to change that IP, you’ve only got to do it one place.

CNAME records can be a good way to do this, by aliasing a DNS name to an IP. Unfortunately, the DNS specs prevent you using CNAMEs in various places that you might want to, most commonly at the root-level of your domain (the dreaded “CNAME and other data” problem).

This is where ANAME pseudo-records come in. They look just like a CNAME record, but rather than being added to the DNS, our server converts them into A and AAAA records. This allows you to get the benefits of a CNAME in places where a CNAME is not legal.

This week a customer suggested another use for ANAME records that we’d not previously thought of: round robin DNS. That is, a single DNS name that points to multiple servers. As you can’t have multiple CNAME records for the same hostname, implementing round-robin DNS means hard-coding A and AAAA records into your zone file. Like this:

proxy.mythic-beasts.com. 3600	IN	A	93.93.129.174
proxy.mythic-beasts.com. 3600	IN	A	46.235.225.189
proxy.mythic-beasts.com. 3600	IN	AAAA	2a00:1098:0:80:1000:3b:1:1
proxy.mythic-beasts.com. 3600	IN	AAAA	2a00:1098:0:82:1000:3b:1:1

Which is messy. Wouldn’t it be nicer to use the names of the servers involved? Like this:

proxy.mythic-beasts.com. 3600	IN	CNAME	 rproxy46-sov-a.mythic-beasts.com.
proxy.mythic-beasts.com. 3600	IN	CNAME    rproxy46-hex-a.mythic-beasts.com.

Sadly, the spec says you can’t do that, but thanks to a minor tweak to our DNS control panel code, you can now do it with ANAME records. Simply specify multiple ANAME records for your host name, and we’ll go and find all A and AAAA records for all of the hosts that are referenced.

Thanks to @grayvsearth for the suggestion on this one.

ANAME records are available in our DNS management interface, which is included with all domain registrations, and available for free on other domains for customers of other services. Other features include a DNS API, allowing you to obtain Wildcard Let’s Encrypt certificates.