SSL at Dreamhost

I have been wanting to secure my websites with SSL/TLS since the day I signed up with Dreamhost, but gave up after realizing I would have had to pay quite a bit extra on top of hosting and domains. Back then I would have needed to buy both static IPs, and the certificates. A few years back we started getting free certificates that were recognized by most browsers, but Dreamhost was still requiring the purchase of a static IP. Next Dreamhost stopped requiring a static IP, and I actually started the process of obtaining a free certificate, but eventually gave up due to the whole process requiring more time than I had available.

When Let’s Encrypt entered the field I got quite excited. I was even prepared to do the work this time around to write the certificate renewal automation myself. But when I finally got the time to do the work, I realized that Dreamhost had actually done all the work for me, and provided really easy setup through their management panel.

The hardest part turned out to be to find and fix all the non-https links. Dreamhost has good wiki pages about secure hosting in general, how Let’s Encrypt works at Dreamhost, how to force SSL everywhere, and how to configure WordPress for SSL. The instructions worked for the most part. Even after going through all the steps for WordPress I found non-https links when viewing the blog, and had to look for them in the templates and so on.

Next I went through my external links and converted many to https links. Of all the domains that I link to and can support SSL, Amazon seems to be the only one that redirects from https to plain http in some cases, or provides mixed environment if you follow an https link. The astore that used to work in an iframe no longer worked like that, and had to become a regular link. Hopefully Amazon fixes their end sooner rather than later.

Catching Up

I moved from Egnyte to Quixey in 2014. At Egnyte I had been the lead sync engineer for a while, working both on the client and server side (mostly server side towards the end). At Quixey I started working on Python Flask application, tweaking performance, logging and so forth. After about 6 months I switched to a devops role, where I got to learn a lot about AWS and Docker.

Just last month I left Quixey and moved to Amazon Lab126, and back into application development. For the first time in my career I got to start a major product from scratch, which is pretty cool. I decided to go with Flask again, and picked Amazon Aurora for the database.

I’ve spent some time recently tinkering with my website and some cool Amazon gadgets. Stay tuned for more details.

Disclaimer: I am not an official spokesperson for any of the companies mentioned above. Everything I write about is my own opinion.

M2Crypto Has New Maintainer

I am excited to announce that M2Crypto has a new maintainer and homepage! As of last summer, Martin Paljak agreed to take over the project since I had not been able to dedicate enough time to keep things going.

Martin is a long time M2Crypto contributor and was a security expert even before his contributions to M2Crypto. He has probably forgotten more about software security than I ever knew, so I know the project will be in safe hands.

There is also a new version of M2Crypto available on PyPI so go check it out!

Beware of cPickle

The Python pickle module provides a way to serialize and deserialize Python objects. A large downside of the pickle format is that it is not secure, meaning you should not deserialize pickles received from untrusted sources.

There is also a cPickle version of the pickle module which implements the algorithm in C and is much faster than the pure Python module. This provides somewhat surprising use cases for the cPickle module besides the obvious application save format: it turns out cPickle can be the fastest way to make a copy of nested structures. Due to speed, using cPickle can also be attractive as a data format between trusted servers.

There is an issue that you need to watch out for in the cPickle module, though. When you are serializing to or deserializing from string using the dumps and loads functions respectively, the functions do not release the GIL! This took me by surprise: I did not expect anything in the stdlib to hold on to the GIL for anything that could potentially take a long time. You can try this out easily by creating a multithreaded application where one thread tries to use cPickle.dumps on multimegabyte data structure while the other treads are printing to screen for example. You will see that while dumps is running, the other threads are stopped.

Luckily there is an easy workaround: you can use the load and dump functions with cStringIO buffer or other file-like objects.

Note that I haven’t checked if this problem applies to Python 3.x.

Decorator to Log Slow Calls

One of the most common examples given for Python decorators is a decorator that tracks how long the execution of the wrapped function took. While this is very useful in and of itself, it can cause issues when you want to apply that into production usage.

The issue I faced was that when I was trying to find out why my servers were too slow (only under production loads), I first added the simple timing decorators to everything I thought might be slow in the hopes of catching all the slow calls and maybe finding some patterns. Well, this approach worked in the sense that I did find the slow parts quickly, but it was producing much more logs than before, and I wasn’t really interested in most of this timing information.

What I really wanted was a timing decorator that would log only when the wrapped callable took too long to execute. But there were still some calls that I wanted to log always for accurate statistical purposes. I figured the best way was to make my decorator take a threshold argument with some reasonable default that I could override if I wanted.

Now while I have written decorators before, this was the first decorator that called for optional arguments. Python treats decorators that don’t take any arguments slightly differently from those that require arguments, so this complicates things a bit. The sample in Python decorator library is almost scary! I think my approach is nice and simple yet fairly sophisticated:

from time import time
import logging
import functools
log = logging.getLogger(__name__)
def time_slow(f=None, logger=log, threshold=0.01):
    def decorated(f):
        def wrapper(*args, **kw):
            start = time()
                ret = f(*args, **kw)
                duration = time() - start
                if duration > threshold:
          'slow: %s %.9f seconds', f.__name__, duration)
            return ret
        return wrapper
    if f is not None:
        return decorated(f)
    return decorated

This decorator can be placed on a callable without any arguments, or with a custom logger or threshold value. In other words, both of these would work:

def myfast():
def myslow():
    from time import sleep

and typically calling myslow only would produce log output. I chose 0.01 as a reasonable default threshold, but this of course depends a lot on the use case. The log includes the slow function’s name, as well as the time formatted with 9 decimals in order to avoid the exponential notation, which makes it easier to work with the log output (sort -n, for example). I have just used a single threshold, but an easy improvement would be to pass a list of thresholds and log at different levels depending on the duration.

M2Crypto Supports OpenSSL 1.0.x

I was supposed to release new M2Crypto version in the summer of 2010 but “real life” got in the way, and this extended all the way until this week. I finally decided that I’d better push out a new release even though there was just one significant change: OpenSSL 1.0.x support. However, I felt this was really important since OpenSSL 1.0.x has been out for almost a year now, and it is starting to get difficult to deal with software that does not work with pre-1.0.x.

Unfortunately I made a mistake in my first release to PyPI: I used the commands to build, sign and upload a source distribution, but I did this from a tree I had svn exported. Due to the way the M2Crypto was constructed this meant that the tarball was lacking vital files. Yesterday I did a new 0.21.1 release from the Subversion checkout, so the tarball now includes everything.

Long Silence

If you have been following my blog you have probably noticed I haven’t been writing, or in fact doing anything publicly in the last few months. A lot happened in my personal life, for example I moved to Santa Clara, but more importantly I was buried with work.

It is weird how I always read about other people working insane hours at startups, but it hadn’t really happened to me. Sure, especially early on in my career I did put in a few all nighters, but not consistently. This time it was different.

I had been working on a large project for several months, of which I was the main architect and developer, and we finally deployed it into production. And all hell broke loose! Some problems could have been avoided by having had a better test setup (especially load testing), some was my inexperience dealing with heavily loaded system, some we could caulk to 3rd party software not quite ready for prime time, some to running software on VMs when we should have run on bare hardware, some to bizarre VM freezes (like minutes at time, which is obviously disastrous for a server), some lessons learned with Python GIL and multithreaded applications, plus various other bits and pieces and finally made worse by our steady and respectable growth in both number customers and sizes of data sets. I plan to write about some of that in later posts.

Since customers were being affected, and we didn’t see the full scope of problems in advance, I thought I would work extra hours and fix the issues. I was being optimistic, and assumed just the most pressing issue that was killing us was the one that would get us over the hump. This turned into days, then weeks, then months of working 60-70 hour weeks, 6-7 days a week on 5-6 hours of sleep, fixing issue after issue after issue. Combine this with the move to a new city and things were really crazy for a while. I don’t understand how I did it, given how little time we had to test on many occasions, but I believe I never introduced a catastrophic bug that got rolled into production (if you discount the initial deployment ;). Finally, just before Christmas, things started humming the way I had planned and how they had worked in our tests months before. Of course there is still a lot of work to do to improve things, but they can be addressed in a more sustainable pace.

Luckily the work I was doing was very interesting, or I wouldn’t have been able to do it for such a long period. In retrospect I can now finally say that I have now personally faced the problem of scaling, and while I’ve always said it is a good problem to have, I now also realize trying to solve it can easily lead to exhaustion because the pressure is huge to solve the issues quickly.

While I learned a lot of things and will be able to avoid some of the issues in the future, this also clearly showed what kind of testing we still need to do better. Besides being better for users of the software, it is also better for developer health and sanity…

I am still recovering from that ordeal both mentally and physically, but I have been feeling much better. I do realize I am suffering from some burnout, but I am also starting to get the itch to continue developing my own software, both free and paid. M2Crypto release has been pending for around 6 months now, and my Android apps are really in need of an upgrade.

I am also months behind in some personal correspondence. So sorry! I will try to get my inbox in order in the next couple of weeks as well.

EV Guidelines Holding Up

About a month ago I was reading a post how one can use a browser while disabling all certificates that it ships with. While this can work, it is definitely not for the lazy or someone not very familiar with the issues. The author’s comment that it was trivial to get an EV certificate with nothing but email verification got me worried, since this should not have been possible per the EV guidelines (PDF).

I tried to comment, but comments had already been closed. I tried to find the author’s email address, but could not (in a couple of minutes of searching that I had available), so I filed a bug to Mozilla to track this down. Luckily it turns out the comment is misleading, and EV guidelines were followed. Thanks to Kathleen Wilson for tracking down the post author and clarifying things!