Running a personal server

Maybe you read some of my posts on software raid and lvm, or maybe you have a spare pc lying around and want a box you can use as a small personal server and are wondering about some tips for running it with less hassle. I am sharing a few things that I have learnt about running a personal server (though some will apply to any Linux server or always-on machine) that make my life as a part-time admin easier. This is by no means an exhaustive list, nor necessarily the correct way to run a box, but it works well for me and so should be useful to others as well.

ADSL port forwarding

If your box is behind an ADSL modem (and unless you have a professional server and datacentre to put it in, it probably is) then by default the NAT addressing and firewall will mean that you cannot get in remotely to your box. This may be fine if you don’t want anything from the box accessible, but I tend to like being able to ssh in from anywhere, so you need to set up some port forwarding from your ADSL router/modem to get into your box

I wont attempt to describe how your ADSL modem/router config works, you’ll have to read it’s manual, but the ports you probably want are:

ssh 22 – if you want to log from outside your home network with ssh
smtp 25 – if you want your box to be able to receive email
ftp 21 – if you want ftp (though I recommend sftp or scp which use ssh and therefore encrypt your password and data)
http 80 – if you want webpages visible from the internet
https 443 – if you want webpages visible from the internet and want to use https encrypted http

Dynamic DNS

Unless you have a fixed IP address from your ISP, you will probably want some sort of Dynamic DNS system that sets a hostname to have your current IP address. I use http://dyndns.afraid.org as they are free, you can host your own domain there and there are plenty of domains you can use for sub-domains if you don’t want to buy a domain. They provide lots of scripts to help you keep your IP address recorded correctly whenever it changes

Mail

I really want mail configured for delivery, as that is one of the easiest ways to get alerts from your machine (though twitter could be cool too though). If you have a email to smms gateway or smartphone with push email then these alerts can be very fast and direct.

I use exim, not because it is the fastest or most configurable mail system available, but because it is very easy to get configured and running on Debian or Ubuntu. Simply install the exim4 package and the debconf wizard will get you up and running.

sudo aptitude install exim4

The wizard, which can be re-run with the command sudo dpkg-reconfigure exim4-config, asks you how you want to configure exim. Normally you select the first or second option (“internet site; mail is sent and received directly using SMTP” or “mail sent by smarthost; received via SMTP or fetchmail”). Most of the questions come with sensible defaults. If you selected the second option you will get asked what your smarthost for sending mail is, in many cases this is just mail.your.isp or you can use google if you have an account, but it will require authentication which which is a little more complicated to set up.

Next you want to set all email for ‘root’ to forward to you preferred email address.
Edit /root/.forward to look like this

# Exim filter   < <== do not edit or remove this line!

if error_message then finish endif

deliver me@myemail.com

You can test sending email with a simple command line of mail root -s test followed by a message and then CTRL+d. You should get the email at your address set above.

Logwatch

I like to know what is happening on my boxes, and logwatch does a great job at summarising the changes that have happened very day. Install logwatch with

sudo aptitude install logwatch

and it will email root every day with a summary of log changes and other useful info.

As I don’t actually want this information every day, I moved the cronjob for logwatch from daily to weekly with

sudo mv /etc/cron.daily/00logwatch /etc/cron.weekly/00logwatch

so now I get a weekly summary for my box, which is good enough for me

Raid emails

As I use software raid to make my disks a little more redundant (Warning: RAID is not a backup strategy. 2 disks CAN (and sod’s law / murphey’s law says that at the worst possible time they actually will) both die at the same time. RAID simply gives you an extra chance to get a new disk without having to get your data from a backup)

If you use software RAID, make sure your raid config
cat /etc/mdadm/mdadm.conf
has the following lines set appropriately

MAILADDR root
MAILFROM raid@myserver.com

Smart disk monitoring

As I don’t trust disks (and you shouldn’t either, as they will die on you at the most annoying time) I like to have the S.M.A.R.T disk monitoring installed, which does occasional tests on the disks, and can warn you if the disk starts showing bad sectors. If your disk does have bad sectors, it is probably best to replace it pretty soon, though sometimes you can just get a very small set of bad sectors and live with the disk for a long time.

Install smart with

sudo aptitude install smartmontools

and if you have logwatch installed too, then the SMART reports get added to your logwatch summaries (including disk temperatures which can be a good indication of airflow in your box)

Toughening SSH

I found that I had a lot of attempted logins on my box because SSH was open on the default port. One solution is to move the default port, but I am likely to forget to use that port number and just confuse myself… So I started looking at other ways to reduce the risk of having someone brute-force their way into an account.

You can use some really good stuff like fail2ban to take failed logins and firewall that IP off for a while, but I decided that I wanted something even stronger. I disabled password logins completely via SSH! To do this you will need to have created a ssh keypair and set up the public key on your server and make sure it works to log you in BEFORE you disable password logins.

To disable password logins, simply edit
/etc/ssh/sshd_config
and change

PasswordAuthentication yes

to say “no” instead.┬áThis will mean that you can never log in with a password, and have to use a ssh key. This will be almost impossible to brute-force, though you do have to keep your private ssh keyfile secure.

As a minimum, you may want to think about setting

PermitRootLogin no

in your sshd config so that the root account cannot be brute-forced, as this is probably the most common account that attempts are made on.

Monitoring with Munin

To keep an idea of how busy the box is, the cpu and ram usage, disk usage and many more things I have installed munin to monitor my servers. Munin logs system activity and automatically creates web-accessible charts of the status of your box. An example is online at http://munin.ping.uio.no/. I have set mine as password protected via an apache htaccess file with htpassword (there are plenty of resources online for how to do this), so that only I can see how busy my box is.

If you also install sensord and lm-sensors then munin can also chart things like fan speeds and temperatures

Security updates

Whether you are running Debian, Ubuntu or any other linux OS, make sure you check how to setup security updates for your distribution and install updates regularly. Having old packages is possibly the easiest way to get your box exploited.

If you don’t like having to remember to install packages you can install cron-apt to download the packages and tell you, so you can install them, or even install them for you (however it is generally a good idea to know what is going onto your system before it goes in, just in case anything looks suspicious or might break something)

/etc in revision control

Have you ever made a change to your system config, then realised not long later that it was a bad change, but can’t remember what you did?

Introducing etckeeper. etckeeper is a very clever package that takes /etc and puts it all in git. It can easily be configured to automatically commit every time you install or remove a package, so that all you have to do if you found something in /etc is broken is check the recent changes!

Simply install it with

sudo aptitude install etckeeper

and it pretty much works out of the box (It also supports other code control tools other than git, but the default is git)

Anything Else?

This list is by no means complete, and there are probably many more common tweaks you can do – Please leave a comment if you think of anything else that fits in or anything I might be doing wrong (hey, nobody’s perfect!) as I am always looking to improve how I run my little servers.

If you have several machines and static IP addresses then you can configure syslog to log to across the network, which would be cool as you could have errors logged from a box that has had bad disk crashes and dies and still know why. However I don’t have static IP’s so have not looked into this much

About Anton Piatek

I am a Software Developer working for IBM, but a bit of a Ubuntu addict. I love cool tech toys, and am slightly obsessed by photography
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6 Responses to Running a personal server

  1. Nice post Anton. Although, getting to your box if you lose your SSH key (via a local HD crash, for instance!) might be tricky…

  2. Anton Piatek says:

    Mike – Good point. If you do lose all your keys (I have several computers I can use a key from) then you would have to go there in person and login with a keyboard… but then, this is a personal server so that shouldn’t be too difficult a task :p

  3. Beanz says:

    Nice post. Perhaps you should use “dpkg-divert --divert /etc/cron.weekly/00logwatch --rename /etc/cron.daily/00logwatch” to make your logwatch change more permanent?

  4. Anton Piatek says:

    A good suggestion, however do not think this is needed as they are config files and dpkg will prompt before overwriting any changes you have made

  5. Beanz says:

    Suppose a logwatch upgrade includes improvements in the conffile that you have moved. I think you are correct that the deleted file wont be recreated as I think the improved version will be discarded if the file has been (re)moved. However, with a divert the improvements would be applied – automatically if you made no other changes – to the file in the new location. That seems like a useful feature that you’d miss?

    Admittedly in this case it is a trivial file and arguably it doesn’t matter but I think using dpkg-divert is good habit to adopt.

  6. Anton Piatek says:

    You are indeed correct, and it is probably a good idea to do in general

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