Linux Fu: User Space File Systems — Now For Windows, Too!

One of the nice things about the Unix philosophy that Linux inherited is that the filesystem is very modular. That’s good, too, because a typical system might want a choice of filesystems like ext4, reiserfs, btrfs, and even network systems like nfs. Besides that, there are fake file systems like /sys and /dev that help Linux make everything look like a file. The downside is that building a filesystem required changing the kernel or, at least, writing a loadable module. That’s not as hard as it sounds, but it is a little more difficult than writing a normal program. Then came FUSE — file system in user space. This is a single file system module that allows you to create new file systems by writing ordinary code.

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Linux Fu: Mixing Bash And Python

Although bash scripts are regularly maligned, they do have a certain simplicity and ease of creation that makes them hard to resist. But sometimes you really need to do some heavy lifting in another language. I’ll talk about Python, but actually, you can use many different languages with this technique, although you might need a little adaptation, depending on your language of choice.

Of course, you don’t have to do anything special to call another program from a bash script. After all, that’s what it’s mainly used for: calling other programs. However, it isn’t very handy to have your script spread out over multiple files. They can get out of sync and if you want to send it to someone or another machine, you have to remember what to get. It is nicer to have everything in one file.

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Linux Fu: A Little Bit Of (Network) History Repeating Itself

These days, embedded systems often have networks and that can make them significantly more complex. Networks are usually pretty nondeterministic and there are a variety of oddball conditions. For example, when your public-access pick and place machine gets written up on Hackaday and you suddenly get a 50X surge in traffic, how does your network stack handle it? While there’s no silver bullet for network testing, there are some tricks that can make it easier and one of those is the tcpreplay utilities that allow you to record complex network traffic and then play it back in a variety of ways. This has many benefits, especially if you manage to capture that one thing that triggers bad behavior sporadically. Being able to play it back on demand can speed up diagnostics considerably.

General Idea

You probably know that tcpdump allows you to grab packet captures from a network interface and save them to a file. If you prefer a GUI, you probably use Wireshark, which uses the same underlying library (libpcap) to grab the data. In fact, you can capture data using tcpdump and look at it with Wireshark, although there are other tools like tcptrace or Ngrep that can work with the output, also.

While the output of the command can be a little cryptic without tool support, a program called tcpreplay can take that data and feed it back in a variety of ways. Of course, you can modify the file first — there are tools to make that easier and — if you need to — you can craft your own network traffic by hand or using one of a variety of tools. This process is often called “packet crafting.”

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Linux Fu: Shell Script File Embedding

You need to package up a bunch of files, send them somewhere, and do something with them at the destination. It isn’t an uncommon scenario. The obvious answer is to create an archive — a zip or tar file, maybe — and include a shell script that you have to tell the user to run after unpacking.

That may be obvious, but it assumes a lot on the part of the remote user. They need to know how to unpack the file and they also need to know to run your magic script of commands after the unpack. However, you can easily create a shell script that contains a file — even an archive of many files — and then retrieve the file and act on it at run time. This is much simpler from the remote user’s point of view. You get one file, you execute it, and you are done.

In theory, this isn’t that hard to do, but there are a lot of details. Shell scripts are not compiled — at least, not typically — so the shell only reads what it needs to do the work. That means if your script is careful to exit, you can add as much “garbage” to the end of it as you like. The shell will never look at it, so it’s possible to store the payload there.

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Linux Fu: VPN For Free With SSH

If you see a lot of banner ads on certain websites, you know that without a Virtual Private Network (VPN), hackers will quickly ravage your computer and burn down your house. Well, that seems to be what they imply. In reality, though, there are two main reasons you might want a VPN connection. You can pay for a service, of course, but if you have ssh access to a computer somewhere on the public Internet, you can set up your own VPN service for no additional cost.

The basic idea is that you connect to a remote computer on another network and it makes it look like all your network traffic is local to that network. The first case for this is to sidestep or enhance security. For example, you might want to print to a network printer without exposing that printer to the public Internet. While you are at the coffee shop you can VPN to your network and print just like you were a meter away from the printer at your desk. Your traffic on the shop’s WiFi will also be encrypted.

The second reason is to hide your location from snooping. For example, if you like watching the BBC videos but you live in Ecuador, you might want to VPN to a network in the UK so the videos are not blocked. If your local authorities monitor and censor your Internet, you might also want your traffic coming from somewhere else.

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Linux Fu: Monitor Disks

If you want a quick view of a Linux system’s process load, you can use top or — slightly nicer — htop. But what if you want a quick snapshot of how the disk system is doing? There are a few tools you can use, some of which are not nearly as common as top.

First, iotop

Most similar to top is iotop. This program shows you the total and current disk read and write numbers for the file system and also shows you who is eating up the most disk I/O.  This screen looks busy:

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Linux Fu: Troubleshooting Incron

You probably know about cron, a program that lets you schedule programs to run at various times. We’ve also talked about incron, which is very similar but instead of time, it reacts to changes in the file system. If you ever wanted to write a program that, say, detects a change in a file and automatically uploads it to a programmer, backs it up, e-mails it somewhere, or anything else, then incron might be for you. Although we’ve talked about it before, incron has some peculiarities that make it very difficult to debug problems, so I thought I’d share some of the tricks I use when working with incron.

I was thinking about this because I wanted to set up a simple system where I have a single document directory under git control. Changing a markdown file in that folder would generate Word document and PDF equivalents. Conversely, changing a Word document would produce a markdown version.

This is easy to do with pandoc — it speaks many different formats. The trick is running it only on changed files and as soon as they change. The task isn’t that hard, but it does take a bit to debug since it’s a bit nontrivial.

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