Debugging beyond the debugger

Published on May 8, 2019

Most programming – and sysadmin – problems can be debugged in a fairly straight forward manner using logs, print statements, educated guesses, or an actual debugger. Sometimes, though, the problem is more elusive. There’s a wider box of tricks that can be employed in these cases but I’ve not managed to find a nice overview of them, so here’s mine. I’m mainly focusing on Linux and similar systems, but there tend to be alternatives available for other Operating Systems or VMs if you seek them out.



tcpdump prints out descriptions of packets on a network interface. You can apply filters to limit which packets are displayed, chose to dump the entire content of the packet, and so forth.

Understanding Docker volume mounts

Published on Apr 1, 2019

One thing that always confuses me with Docker is how exactly mounting volumes behaves. At a basic level it’s fairly straight forward: you declare a volume in a Dockerfile, and then either explicitly mount something there or docker automatically creates an anonymous volume for you. Done. But it turns out there’s quite a few edge cases…

Over-the-top optimisations with Nim

Published on Dec 9, 2018

For the past few years I’ve been taking part in Eric Wastl’s Advent of Code, a coding challenge that provides a 2-part problem each day from the 1st of December through to Christmas Day. The puzzles are always interesting — especially as they get progressively harder — and there’s an awesome community of folks that share their solutions in a huge variety of languages.

To up the ante somewhat, Shane and I usually have a little informal competition to see who can write the most performant code. This year, though, Shane went massively overboard and wrote an entire benchmarking suite and webapp to measure our performance, which I took as an invitation and personal challenge to try to beat him every single day.

For the past three years I’d used Python exclusively, as its vast standard library and awesome syntax lead to quick and elegant solutions. Unfortunately it stands no chance, at least on the earlier puzzles, of beating the speed of Shane’s preferred language of PHP. For a while I consoled myself with the notion that once the challenges get more complicated I’d be in with a shot, but after the third or fourth time that Shane’s solution finished before the Python interpreter even started1 I decided I’d have to jump ship. I started using Nim.

DNS-over-TLS on the EdgeRouter Lite

Published on Dec 17, 2017

EdgeRouter Lite

DNS-over-TLS is a fairly recent specificiation described in RFC7858, which enables DNS clients to communicate with servers over a TLS (encrypted) connection instead of requests and responses being sent in plain text. I won’t ramble on about why it’s a good thing that your ISP, government, or neighbour can’t see your DNS requests…

I use an EdgeRouter Lite from Ubiquiti Networks at home, and recently configured it to use DNS-over-TLS for all DNS queries. Here’s how I did it.

I was thinking about switching DNS providers recently, and found myself whoising random domains and looking at their nameservers. One thing lead to another and I ended up doing a survey of the nameservers of the top 100,000 sites according to Alexa.

The top providers by a large margin were, unsurprisingly, Cloudflare and AWS Route 53. Between them they accounted for around 30% of the top 100k sites.

Android testing with Espresso and Spoon

Published on May 16, 2017

I’ve been spending some time recently setting up automated testing for our collection of Android apps and libraries at work. We have a mixture of unit tests, integration tests, and UI tests for most projects, and getting them all to run reliably and automatically has posed some interesting challenges.

Running tests on multiple devices using Spoon

Spoon is a tool developed by Square that handles distributing instrumentation tests to multiple connected devices, aggregating the results, and making reports.

As part of our continuous integration we build both application and test APKs, and these are pushed to the build server as build artefacts. A separate build job then pulls these artefacts down to a Mac Mini we have in the office, and executes Spoon with a few arguments:

java -jar spoon-runner.jar \
    --apk application.apk \
    --test-apk applicationTests.apk \
    --fail-on-failure \

Spoon finds all devices, deploys both APKs on them, and then begins the instrumentation tests. We use two physical devices and an emulator to cover the form factors and API versions that are important to us; if any test fails on any of those devices, Spoon will return an error code and the build will fail.

Shoring up SSHd configuration

Published on Oct 18, 2016

OpenSSH logo

I recently came across a useful tool on GitHub called ssh-audit. It’s a small Python script that connects to an SSH server, gathers a bunch of information, and then highlights any problems it has detected. The problems it reports range from potentially weak algorithms right up to know remote code execution vulnerabilities.

Two yubikeys

I recently noticed that I’d accidentally lost my previous GPG private key — whoops. It was on a drive that I’d since formatted and used for a fair amount of time, so there’s no hope of getting it back (but, on the plus side, there’s also no risk of anyone else getting their hands on it). I could have created a new one in a few seconds and been done with it, but I decided to treat it as an exercise in doing things properly.

Background: GPG? Yubikey?

GPG or GnuPG is short for Gnu Privacy Guard, which is a suite of applications that provide cryptographic privacy and authentication functionality. At a basic level, it works in a similar way to HTTPS certificates: each user has a public key which is shared widely, and a private key that is unique to them. You can use someone else’s public key to encrypt messages so only they can see them, and use your own private key to sign content so that others can verify it came from you.

A Yubikey is a small hardware device that offers two-factor authentication. Most Yubikey models also act as smartcards and allow you to store OpenPGP credentials on them.

Why you should be using HTTPS

Published on Jun 17, 2016

EFF HTTPS Everywhere logo

One of my favourite hobbyhorses recently has been the use of HTTPS, or lack thereof. HTTPS is the thing that makes the little padlock appear in your browser, and has existed for over 20 years. In the past, that little padlock was the exclusive preserve of banks and other ‘high security’ establishments; over time its use has gradually expanded to most (but not all) websites that handle user information, and the time is now right for it to become ubiquitous.

Docker logo

Over the past few weeks I’ve gradually been migrating services from running in LXC containers to Docker containers. It takes a while to get into the right mindset for Docker - thinking of containers as basically immutable - especially when you’re coming from a background of running things without containers, or in “full” VM-like containers. Once you’ve got your head around that, though, it opens up a lot of opportunities: Docker doesn’t just provide a container platform, it turns software into discrete units with a defined interface.

With all of your software suddenly having a common interface, it becomes trivial to automate a lot of things that would be tedious or complicated otherwise. You don’t need to manage port forwards because the containers just declare their ports, for example. You can also apply labels to the application containers, and then query the labels through Docker’s API.