[Howto] My own mail & groupware server, part 3: Git server

Running your own mail and groupware server can be challenging. I recently had to re-create my own setup from the ground and describe the steps in a blog post series. This blog post is #3 of the series and covers the integration of an additional Git server.

Running your own mail and groupware server can be challenging. I recently had to re-create my own setup from the ground and describe the steps in a blog post series. This blog post is #3 of the series and covers the integration of an additional Git server setup.

This post is all about setting up an additional Git server to the existing mail server. Read about the background to this setup in the first post, part 1: what, why, how?, and all about the mail server setup itself in the second post, part 2: initial mail server setup.

Gitea as Git server

I heavily use Git all the time. And there are enough information where I feel more comfortable when I host them only on infrastructure I control. So for the new setup I also wanted to have a Git server, as fast as possible.

In the past I used Gitlab as Git server, but that is very resource intensive and just overkill for my use cases. Thus years ago I already replaced Gitlab with Gitea – a lightweight, painless self-hosted git service. It is quickly set up, simple to use, offers nevertheless all relevant Git features, and simply does it’s job. Gitea itself is a fork of Gogs, which was not really community friendly. These days Gitea is a way more active and prospering project than Gogs.

Background: Nginx as reverse proxy in Mailu

So how do you “attach” Gitea to a running Mailu infrastructure? Mailu itself comes with a set of defined services, and that’s it. There is no plugin or module system to extend it. However, the project does offer special “overrides” directories where additional configuration can be placed – this applies to Nginx as well! That way, a service can be placed right next to other Mailu services, behind the same reverse proxy, and that way benefit from the already existing setup and for example the certificate regeneration. Also, there is no problem with the already used ports 80 and 443, etc.

Overrides can be placed in /data/mailu/overrides/nginx. They are basically just snippets of Nginx configuration. Note though that they are included within the the main server block! That means they can only work on locations, not on server names. This is somewhat unfortunate since I used to address all my old services via sub-domains. git.bayz.de, nc.bayz.de, etc. With the new setup and the limit to locations this is not an option anymore, everything has to work on different working directories: bayz.de/git, bayz.de/nc, etc.

This is somewhat unfortunate, because that also meant that I had to reconfigure clients, and also ask others to reconfigure their clients when using my infrastructure. I would be happy to get back to a pure sub-domain based addressing, but I don’t see how this could be possible without changing the actual Nginx image.

Adding Gitea entry to Nginx Override

Having said that, to add Gitea to Nginx, create this file: /data/mailu/overrides/nginx/git.conf

location /gitea/ {
  proxy_pass http://git:3000/;
}

And that’s it already. More configuration is not needed since Mailu already configures Nginx with reasonable defaults.

This also gives a first hint that it is pretty easy to add further services – I will cover more examples in this ongoing blog post series.

Additional entry to docker compose

To start Gitea itself, add it to Mailu’s docker-compose.yml:

  # gitea

  git:
    image: gitea/gitea:latest
    restart: always
    env_file: mailu.env
    depends_on:
      - resolver
    dns:
      - 192.168.203.254
    volumes:
      - /data/gitea:/data
      - /etc/timezone:/etc/timezone:ro
      - /etc/localtime:/etc/localtime:ro
    ports:
      - "22:22"

Note the shared volumes: that way the Gitea configuration file will be written on your storage in /data/gitea/gitea/conf/app.ini .

Also, we want to set UID and GUID for Gitea via environment variables. Set this in your mailu.env:

###################################
# Gitea settings
###################################
USER_UID=1000
USER_GID=1000

Setting up Gitea basic configuration

Now let’s configure Gitea. It is possible to pre-create a full Gitea configuration and start the container with it. However, documentation on that is sparse and in my tests there were always problems.

So in my case, I just started and stopped the container (docker compose down and up) a few times, edited some configuration, once registered an admin user via the GUI and was done. While this worked, I can only recommend to closely track the logs during that time to ensure that no one else is accessing the container and does mischief!

So, the first step is to start the new Docker compose service. This will write a first vanilla configuration of Gitea. Afterwards, add the correct domain information in the [server] section in the Gitea configuration file app.ini:

Note that the ROOT_URL value ensures the required rewrite of all requests and links so that the setup works flawlessly with the above mentioned Nginx configuration!

Next, bring the service down and up again (Docker compose down and up), login to your new service (here: git.bayz.de/gitea ) and register a new admin user. Note that here you also have to pick the database option. For small systems with only very few concurrent connections sqlite is fine. If you will serve more users here, or automated access, pick Postgresql. However, to make that work you need to bring up another Postgresql container. One of the next posts will introduce one, so you might want to re-think your setup then.

Directly after this admin registration is done, in the Gitea configuration fileapp.ini in the [server] section change the value of DISABLE_REGISTRATION to true. Stop and start the service again, and no new (external) users can register anymore.

But how do we register new users now?

Central services authentication in Mailu: mail

One of the major hassles with my last setup was the authentication. I started with a fully blown OpenLDAP years ago, which was a pain to manage and maintain already. Moving over to FreeIPA meant that I had better interfaces and maybe even a UI, but it was still a complex, tricky service. Also while almost every service out there can be connected to LDAP, that is not always easy or a pleasant experience. And given that I only have a few users on my system, that is hardly worth the trouble.

Mailu offers an interesting approach here: users are stored in a DB, and external services are asked to authenticate against the email services (IMAP, SMTP). I was surprised to learn that indeed many services out there support this or have plugins for that.

Gitea can authenticate against SMTP sources, and I decided to go that route:

  • In Gitea, access “Site Administration”
  • Click on “Authentication Sources”
  • Pick the blue button “Add Authentication Source”
  • As “Authentication Type“, choose SMTP
  • Give it a name
  • As “SMTP Authentication Type“, enter LOGIN
  • As “SMTP Host“, provide the external host name here (more on that further down below) lisa.bayz.de
  • Pick the right “SMTP Port“, 587
  • And limit the “Allowed Domains” if you want, in my case to bayz.de
  • Of course, tick the check box “Enable TLS Encryption” and also the check box “This Authentication Source is Activated

After this is done, log out of Gitea and log in with an existing mail user. It should just work! And that all without any trace of LDAP! Awesome, right?

A word about the SMTP host in the above configuration: do not try to enter here the SMTP docker compose service directly. This will not work: port 587 is managed by the Nginx proxy which acts as mail proxy here, which redirects auth mail requests to the admin portal. The internal SMTP container does not even listen on port 587.

What’s next?

With my private Git server back to live I felt slightly better again. Now I had the infrastructure at my hands I needed to tackle the cloud/file sharing part of all of it to also lay the foundations for the groupware pieces: Nextcloud.

More about that in the next post.

Featured image by Myriam Zilles from Pixabay

[Howto] Create your own cloud gaming server to stream games to Fedora

A few months back I wanted to give a game a try which only runs on Windows and requires a dedicated GPU. Since I have neither of those, a decided to set up my own Windows cloud gaming server to stream the game to my Linux machine.

A few months back I wanted to give a game a try which only runs on Windows and requires a dedicated GPU. Since I have neither of those, a decided to set up my own Windows cloud gaming server to stream the game to my Linux machine.

Dozens of years ago there was one game I played day and night. For weeks, months, maybe even years. Till today I can still remember the distinct soundtrack which makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck: UFO: Enemy Unknown. I loved the game! A few years ago I also played one of the open source games inspired by UFO quite some time, UFO: AI. That was fun.

Sequels to the original game were released, two over the last couple of years. But they never really were an option since they required Windows (or so I thought) and above all, time. However, few months ago I first realized that one of the sequels, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, was available for Android. Since I have a brand new flagship Android tablet I gave it a shot – and it was great! But since the Android version was seriously limited, I played it again on Linux. That barely worked with my limited Intel GPU. But it was playable, and I had fun.

I was infected with the urge to play the game more – and when a thid sequel was announced, I at least wanted to play the second one, XCOM 2. But how? My GPU was too limited and eGPUs are expensive and often involve a lot of hassle – even if I would be willing to buy a Windows license. So I searched if cloud gaming could do the trick.

Cloud Gaming Services

The idea of cloud gaming is that heavy machines in the data center do the rendering, and the client machine only displays the end result. That shifts the burden of the powerful GPU towards the data center, and the client only needs to have simple graphics to show a stream of images. This does however require a rather responsive broad band connection between the client and the data center.

This principle is not new, but got new attention recently when Google announced their cloud gaming offer Stadia. I checked if any cloud gaming services offered my game of choice – and was available on Linux. Unfortunately, the results were disappointing:

  • Stadia: no XCOM2, no Linux client via Chrome Browser (thanks to zesoup)
  • GeForce Now: no XCOM2, no Linux client
  • Playstation Now: XCOM2 available, but no Linux client
  • Vortex: no XCOM2, no Linux client

Some of the above can be used on Linux with the help of Lutris, which uses Wine in the background. But for me that would only count as a last resort. I was not that desperate yet.

However, not all was lost yet: some services are not tied to a certain game catalog, but instead offer a generic server and client onto which you can install your games. The research results were first promising: shadow.tech offers machines for just that and a working Linux client! However, they are not available at my place.

The solution: Parsec

So with all ready-to-consume options out of the picture, I was almost willing to give up (or give Lutris and Playstation Now a chance, or even buy a eGPU). But then I stumbled upon something interesting: Parsec, a client for interactive game streaming.

Parsec is a high performance, low latency 60 FPS remote access product connecting you to your computer from anywhere.

Parsec features

That itself didn’t solve my problem. But it opened a window to a new solution: in the past, the company offered cloud hosted game servers on their own. Players could connect to it with their Parsec client and play games on them together – or on their own. The Parsec promise is that their client is fast enough for a reasonable good experience.

The server offer was canceled some time ago – but there was no one stopping me launching my own server and connect the Parsec client to it. And that is what I did. Read on to learn how to do that yourself.

Step 1: Getting a Windows cloud server with a reasonable GPU

What is needed is a cloud hosted Windows machine with a reasonable GPU. In best case the data center hosting the machine should not be on the other side of the planet. AWS, Azure, GCP and other have such offers. But there is even a better route: during my research I found Paperspace, a company specialized on providing access to GPU or AI cloud platforms. That is perfect for this use case!

Paperspace does not really advertise their support for gaming platforms. But after I signed up and looked what was needed to create my first cloud server I found a Parsec template:

That makes the entire process very easy!

  • Sign up with Paperspace, get billing sorted out (yes, this stuff costs money)
  • Get to Core -> Compute -> Machines, create a new machine
  • From Public Templates, get the Parsec cloud gaming template
  • Pick the right size for your games; for me a P4000 was enough.
  • Make sure to add a public IP and enough storage. Many today’s games easily consume dozens of GB
  • Set the auto-shutdown timer. No need to waste money.
  • Start the machine.

And that’s it already. Once the machine starts, you will notice a Parsec icon on the home screen. Time to get that working.

Step 2: Get Parsec

Parsec has clients for Linux based operating systems such as Ubuntu and Raspberry. There is even an AppImage or a Snap – unfortunately not a Flatpak yet. However, if you are not willing to use AppImage or Snap for whatever reason, you can download the Ubuntu deb and create a RPM out of it. There is even a handy script for that. Any way, get it installed.

Sign up to Parsec, start the client, log in, and you are almost there:

Step 3: Play

After Parsec is all set, just start the cloud server, start Parsec there (maybe log in to your Parsec account), connect to the session on your client – and you are good to go: You can start playing!

For a first test I just watched some Youtube videos and was surprised by the quality. Next I logged in to my Steam account, got my XCOM2 installed and played along happily!

Performance and user experience

But how good is the performance? Well, that depends mostly on one factor: network. Due to unfortunate circumstances I was “able” to test this setup with three very distinct networks in a short time frame:

  • A rather slowish, unstable WiFi with a lot of jitter
  • A LTE connection, provided to me via WiFi hotspot
  • A top-notch, high performance mesh WiFi

When you have slow pings (everything below 25 ms) and/or a lot of jitter, I cannot recommend that you go this path. Otherwise it can be a serious option!

The first network I was on was horrible slow, and the experience was horrible. XCOM2 has basically permanent background music, and the constant interruptions in the music and audio sequences were in fact the worst for me.

The LTE based network was slightly better, but still far from a native feeling. I was able to get a good experience out of this and have fun, but that about was it.

However, the third option, WiFi on almost wired quality, was so good that in times I forgot that I was not playing the game natively. There was no visible lag, the graphics were crystal clear, the music was never interrupted, etc. I was impressed – and had great sessions that way!

I can only recommend to always keep an eye on the connection quality reported in the Parsec overlay:

As Parsec mentions:

At 60 frames per second, 1 frame is around 16ms. By combining decode, encode and network, you’ll have the amount of frames the client lags behind.

Parsec about lag latency

Having this in mind, the above screenshot shows a connection with an unfortunate lag, leading to a not-that-good experience.

Recap

If you don’t have the hardware and/or software to play your favorite game, cloud gaming can be a solution for your problem. And if there is no proper offering out there, it is possible to get this working on your own.

Running your own cloud gaming server is surprisingly easy and not too expensive. It does feel somewhat weird in the beginning especially if you usually only use clouds for your professional work. But it is a fun experience, and the results can be staggering – if your network is up for the job!

Featured image by Martin Str from Pixabay

[Howto] My own mail & groupware server, part 2: initial mail server setup

Running your own mail and groupware server can be challenging. I recently had to re-create my own setup from the ground and describe the steps in a blog post series. This blog post is #2 of the series and covers the initial mail server setup.

Running your own mail and groupware server can be challenging. I recently had to re-create my own setup from the ground and describe the steps in a blog post series. This blog post is #2 of the series and covers the initial mail server setup.

This post is all about setting up an initial mail server. Read about the background to this setup and the decisions I took in the first post, My own mail & groupware server, part 1: what, why, how?

Getting a server

The first thing of hosting your own mail server is to answer a simple question: where? Do you have an internet connection at home with fast uploads and maybe even a fixed IPv4? Or is cloud the only option? And if you take the cloud, will it be a virtual server or a root server?

My home connection doesn’t really allow for a larger server setup, so cloud is the only option. Cloud always means someone else’s computer, never forget that! But if you pick a hardware machine it is at least harder to access/copy that machine without your knowledge compared to a virtual instance.

My mail setup always run on root servers, and for the last years I picked Hetzner as the hoster. Their server auction often has appealing things on sale, so that you can get something “decent enough” for around $30 per months.

So, for my new server I got one from the server auction again:

Server provisioning

The server was up quickly. The next step was to get it provisioned properly. Mailu requires docker compose. And since Docker is not properly supported on CentOS 8 I decided to got with CentOS 7. This I rebooted the server into security mode and started Hetzner’s custom installer to install centos77 minimal. RAID 1 was already configured, I just altered the partition sizes and moved most of the storage to the custom mount point /data.

DNS

Besides the basic provisioning I added rDNS entries for IPv4 and IPv6 – don’t forget those, they are important for many spam filters!

Speaking of DNS, the domain someone wants to use for mail needs to be set up in DNS as well. At least the following things should be done:

  • create an A entry named @ for your server IPv4
  • create an AAAA entry named @ for your IPv6
  • create an A entry with your server’s host name for the server IPv4
  • create an AAAA entry with your server’s host name the for server IPv6
  • create a MX entry pointing to A entry for server host name (not a CNAME!)
  • add a CAA entry for letsencrpyt: 0 issue "letsencrypt.org"

Many of those entries were still there from my previous setup, but I had to adjust the IP addresses to the new server and add the new host – host name “lisa”, named after the Simpsons.

Basic user and SSH

After setting up a new server, the next step usually is to add a new user: adduser liquidat creates it, usermod -aG wheel liquidat adds my user to the sudo group, and additionally I set the group wheel to NOPASSWD via visudo.

Also, copy the authorized keys from the root user to the new user – cp -r /root/.ssh /home/liquidat/ – and correct their ownership: chown -R liquidat:liquidat /home/liquidat/.ssh

Just to be sure the “right” ssh keys are there, copy your usual set over: ssh-copy-id liquidat@lisa.bayz.de . Personally, afterwards I removed all besides the currently most trusted (ssh-ed25519…).

Last but not least deactivate root login to ssh:

  • Set PermitRootLogin no in /etc/ssh/sshd_config
  • Also, in /etc/ssh/sshd_config set Port 2222 (we want to use port 22 for the git server later on)
  • Restart sshd: systemctl restart sshd

Encrypted partition

One of the most important steps for me (YMMV) is an encrypted hard drive. In my personal risk assessment this impedes many possible hardware attacks from certain actors. Of course certain risks remain.

As mentioned, most of the storage is setup in a partition on /data. So it has to be encrypted properly, formatted and made available again. Note that this requires you to log into the machine after every reboot and actively decrypt the partition. If your server ever goes down, all services on it are down until you decrypted the partition!

  • Umount existing mount: sudo umount /data/
  • Remove /data entry from /etc/fstab
  • Set up crypted device: sudo cryptsetup luksFormat /dev/md3
  • Get passphrase via pwgen -y 50
  • Decrypt the device: sudo cryptsetup luksOpen /dev/md3 verysecret
  • Create a file system on it: sudo mkfs.ext4 /dev/mapper/verysecret
  • Mount it: sudo mount /dev/mapper/verysecret /data

I can only recommend to verify the decryption afterwards:

  • Reboot server
  • Decrypt storage: sudo cryptsetup luksOpen /dev/md3 verysecret
  • Mount storage: sudo mount /dev/mapper/verysecret /data

Docker Compose

Next I had to install Docker. Personally not my first choice to run containers, I would rather use Podman or even get my hands dirty with Kubernetes. But alas, time was short and pressure was high.

To get Docker onto the machine:

  • Remove CentOS’ Docker packages: sudo yum remove -y docker docker-client docker-client-latest docker-common docker-latest docker-latest-logrotate docker-logrotate docker-engine
  • Install tooling to easier add third party repos: sudo yum install -y yum-utils
  • Add Docker’s third party repo for CentOS: sudo yum-config-manager --add-repo https://download.docker.com/linux/centos/docker-ce.repo
  • Install Docker: sudo yum install -y docker-ce docker-ce-cli containerd.io
  • We don’t want autostarts of Docker since the device is still encrypted: sudo systemctl disable docker
  • Get Docker up: sudo systemctl start docker
  • Create Docker group: sudo groupadd docker
  • Add user to it: sudo usermod -aG docker $USER
  • Load new group immediately: newgrp docker
  • Get compose: sudo curl -L "https://github.com/docker/compose/releases/download/1.25.5/docker-compose-$(uname -s)-$(uname -m)" -o /usr/local/bin/docker-compose
  • Make compose executable: sudo chmod +x /usr/local/bin/docker-compose

I will always wonder why they never managed to get compose out there as a package. Not that hard, I’d say?!

But anyhow, the stage was set now: the server was up and running, a user was ready to do work, the device was properly secured, I was ready to set up the mail server!

Installing Mailu

Getting Mailu up and running is really a matter of minutes. I must admit I was impressed – especially since I knew how much time my own setup ate over the years. Basically you use a config file generator from them which will generate a docker-compose.yml, and then start it. That’s really all!

  • sudo mkdir /data/mailu
  • create config file via https://setup.mailu.io/master/
    • make sure to add all kinds of subdomains you will be using
    • in my case: don’t activate webmail or caldav, I will be using Nextcloud for that
  • download config files via wget as instructed​: one docker-compose.yml and a mailu.env containing all the entered variables
  • verify that ANTIVIRUS is indeed defined and not commented out in mailu.env (thanks to dhoppe for that)
  • docker-compose -p mailu up -d

And that’s it, really! My mail server setup was already running, after minutes. Next I added an admin user:

  • create a password for the admin user via pwgen 20
  • create admin password: docker-compose -p mailu exec admin flask mailu admin postmaster bayz.de $PASSWORD
  • log in to admin interface: https://lisa.bayz.de/admin/, login is postmaster@$DOMAIN

The Mailu admin interface is nothing spectacular, but does it’s job:

After this, I did some housework: not strictly necessary, but helpful:

  • Add abuse alias to postmaster
  • Add admin alias to postmaster (needed for RUA, dmarc aggregated reports)
  • Generate DNS entries for SPF, DKIM, etc and add them to your DNS domain entries
  • Add other users or even domains at will; all domains entered must be present in the mailu.env config file!

And that’s it! I was able to send myself mail via some freemail accounts. And with a classic mail client (Thunderbird, or something on the phone) I could also send mails. It all just worked!

Get word out there

However, I still had to get word out there that there is a new mail server and that it will be sending valid mails.

For example, I registered the new mail server at the DNS whitelist, DSWL: many spam filters check against that.

Next, I let Microsoft know of the new machine and registered it at postmater.live.

Last but not least I checked in with Google’s postmaster service.

Verifying and testing the setup

Now it was time for serious testing. I already said mail is hard, right? You better not do mistakes in your configuration, otherwise your mail is marked as spam quickly. So how about some online tests to check how good my new server scored against various spam filters? Here is a list of online checks of all kinds, including services to which someone can send mails to get them analyzed:

All these tests were green. And should always be! As a small private mail server I cannot afford it to have even the tiniest error. If you decide to setup something like this: do not proceed in your mail setup if some test shows something like “9/10” or other inferior results. Fix them all! I cannot stress this enough.

Having said that, you will realize that indeed this setup is not perfect: first and foremost, we will not be accepting mails via IPv6. Thus services testing delivery in IPv6 will report problems. Second, DANE is not working out of the box with Mailu. In the long term I hope that I will be able to update this guide to include both functions properly.

What’s next?

So the mail server was up and running. I was already able to use it with IMAP clients. And given my story leading to this setup you cannot believe how relieved I was once everything worked again and mails were coming in.

I knew that there was still a lot to do – and I will post more posts about the other steps in other blog posts – but the most important task was accomplished.

I’d like to thank the Mailu team for their awesome work on this piece of code – it is really great and I highly appreciate the ease of use and the simple admin capabilities.

Featured image by Felix Lichtenfeld from Pixabay

[Howto] My own mail & groupware server, part 1: what, why, how?

Running your own mail and groupware server can be challenging. I recently had to re-create my own setup from the ground, and this blog post is the first in a series describing all the steps.

Running your own mail and groupware server can be challenging. I recently had to re-create my own setup from the ground, and this blog post is the first in a series describing all the steps.

Running mail servers on your own

Running your own mail server sounds tempting: having control over a central piece of your own communication does sound good, right?

But that can be quite challenging: The mail standards are not written for today’s way to operate technology. Many of them are vague, too generic to be really helpful, or just not deployed widely in reality. Other things are not standardized at all so you have to guess and test (max message sizes, anyone?). Also, even the biggest providers have their own interpretations of the standards and sometimes aggressively ignore them which you are forced to accept.

Also there is the spam problem: there is still a lot of spam out there. And since this is an ongoing fight mail server admins have to constantly adjust their systems to newest tricks and requirements. Think of SPF, DKIM, DMARC and DANE here.

Last but not least the market is more and more dominated by large corporations. If your email is tagged as spam by one of those, you often have no way to figure out what the problem is – or how to fix it. They simply will not talk to you if you are not of equal size (or otherwise important). In fact, if I have a pessimistic look into the future of email, it might happen that all small mail service providers die and we all have to use the big services.

Thus the question is if anyone should run their own mail server at all. Frankly, I would not recommend it if you are not really motivated to do so. So be warned.

However, if you do decide to do that on your own, you will learn a lot about the underlying technology, about how a core technology of “the internet” works, how companies work and behave, and you will have huge control about a central piece of today’s communication: mail is still a corner stone of today’s communication, even if we all hate it.

My background

To better understand my motivation it helps to know where I come from: In my past job at credativ I was project manager for a team dealing with large mail clusters. Like, really large. The people in the team were and are awesome folks who *really* understand mail servers. If you ever need help running your own open source mail infrastructure, get them on board, I would vouch for them anytime.

And while I never reached and never will reach the level of understanding the people in my team had, I got my fair share of knowledge. About the the technological components, the developments in the field, the challenges and so on. Out of this I decided at some point that it would be fun to run my own mail server (yeah, not the brightest day of my life, in hindsight…).

Thus at some point I set up my own domain and mail server. And right from the start I wanted more than a mail server: I wanted a groupware server. Calendars, address books, such a like. I do not recall how it all started, and how the first setup looked like, but I know that there was a Zarafa instance once, in 2013. Also I used OpenLDAP for a while, munin was in there as well, even a trac service to host a git repository. Certificates were shipped via StartSSL. Yeah, good times.

In summer 2017 this changed: I moved Zarafa out of the picture, in came SOGo. Also, trac was replaced by Gitlab and that again by Gitea. The mail server was completely based on Postfix, Dovecot and the likes (Amavisd, Spamassassin, ClamAV). OpenLDAP was replaced by FreeIPA, StartSSL by letsencrypt. All this was setup via docker containers, for easier separation of services and for simpler management. Nginx was the reverse proxy. Besides the groupware components and the git server there was also a OwnCloud (later Nextcloud) instance. Some of the container images were upstream, some I built myself. There was even a secondary mail server for emergencies, though that one was always somewhat out of date in terms of configuration.

This all served me well for years. Well, more or less. It was never perfect and missed a lot of features. But most mail got through.

Why the restart?

If it all served me well, why did I have to re-create the setup? Well, a few days ago I had to run an update of the certificates (still manually at that time). Since I had to bring down the reverse proxy for it, I decided run a full update of the underlying OS and also of the docker images and to reboot the machine.

It went fine, came back up – but something was wrong. Postfix had problems accepting mails. The more I dug down, the deeper the rabbit hole got. Postfix simply didn’t answer after the “DATA” part in the SMTP communication anymore. Somehow I got that fixed – but then Dovecot didn’t accept the mails for unknown reasons, and bounced were created!

I debugged for hours. But every time I thought I had figured it out, another problem came up. At one point I realized that the underlying FreeIPA service had erratic restarts and I had no idea why.

After three or four days I still had no idea what was going on, why my system was behaving that bad. Even with a verified working configuration from backup things went randomly broken. I was not able to receive or send mails reliably. My three major suspects were:

  • FreeIPA had a habit in the past to introduce new problems in new images – maybe this image was broken as well? But I wasn’t able to find overly obvious issues or reports.
  • Docker was updated from an outdated version to something newer – and Docker never was a friend of CentOS firewall rules. Maybe the recent update screwed up my delicate network setup?
  • Faulty RAM? Weird, hard to reproduce and changing errors of known-to-be-working setups can be the sign of faulty RAM. Maybe the hardware was done for.

I realized I had to make a decision: abandon my own mail hosting approaches (the more sensible option) – or get a new setup running fast.

Well – guess what I did?

Running your own mail server: there is a project for that!

I decided to re-create my setup. And this time I decided to not do it all by myself: Over the years I noticed that I was not the only person with the crazy idea to run their own mail server in containers. Others started entire projects around this with many contributors and additional tooling. I realized that I would loose little by using code from such existing projects, but would gain a lot: better tested code, more people to ask and discuss if problems arise, more features added by others, etc.

Two projects caught my interest over time, I followed them on Github for quite a while already: Mailu and mailcow. Indeed, my original plan was to migrate to one of them in the long term, like in 2021 or something, and maybe even hosted on Kubernetes or at least Podman. However, with the recent outage of my mail server I had to act quickly, and decided to go with a Docker based setup again.

Both projects mentioned above are basically built around Docker COmpose, Postfix, Dovecot, RSpamd and some custom admin tooling to make things easier. If you look closer they both have their advantages and special features, so if you think to run your own mail server I suggest you look into them yourself.

For me the final decision was to go with mailu: mailu does support Kubernetes and I wanted be prepared for a kube based future.

What’s next?

So with all this background you already know what to expect from the next posts: how to bring up mailu as a mail server, how to add Nextcloud and Gitea to the picture, and a few other gimmicks.

This will all be tailored to my needs – but I will try to keep it all as close to the defaults as possible. First to keep it simple but also to make this content reusable for others. I do hope that this will help others to start using their own setups or fine tuning what they already have.

Image by Gerhard Gellinger from Pixabay

[Short Tip] Flatten nested dict/list structures in Ansible with json_query

A few days ago I was asked how to best deal with structures in Ansible which are mixing dictionaries and lists. json_query can help here!

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A few days ago I was asked how to best deal with structures in Ansible which are mixing dictionaries and lists. Basically, the following example was provided and the questioned remained how to deal with this – for example how to flatten it:

    myhash:
      cloud1:
        region1:
          - name: "city1"
          - size: "large"
          - param: "alpha"
        region2:
          - name: "city2"
          - size: "small"
          - param: "beta"
      cloud2:
        region1:
          - name: "city1"
          - size: "large"
          - param: "gamma"

I was wondering a lot how to deal with this – after all dict2items only deals with dicts and fails when it reaches the lists in there. I also fooled around with the map filter, but most of my results also required some previous knowledge about the data structure, were only acting by providing “cloud1.region1” or similar.

The solution was the json_query filter: it is based on jmespath and can deal with the above mentioned structure by list and object projections:

  tasks:
  - name: Projections using json_query
    debug:
      msg: "Item value is: {{ item }}"
    loop: "{{ myhash|json_query(projection_query)|list }}"
    vars:
      projection_query: "*.*[]"

And indeed, the loop does create a simplified output of all the elements in this nested structure:

TASK [Projections using json_query] **********************************************************
ok: [localhost] => (item=[{'name': 'city1'}, {'size': 'large'}, {'param': 'alpha'}]) => {
    "msg": "Item value is: [{'name': 'city1'}, {'size': 'large'}, {'param': 'alpha'}]"
}
ok: [localhost] => (item=[{'name': 'city2'}, {'size': 'small'}, {'param': 'beta'}]) => {
    "msg": "Item value is: [{'name': 'city2'}, {'size': 'small'}, {'param': 'beta'}]"
}
ok: [localhost] => (item=[{'name': 'city1'}, {'size': 'large'}, {'param': 'gamma'}]) => {
    "msg": "Item value is: [{'name': 'city1'}, {'size': 'large'}, {'param': 'gamma'}]"
}

Of course, some knowledge is still needed to make this work: you need to know if you are projecting on a list or on a dictionary. So if your data structure changes on that level between executions, you might need something else.

Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay