Certbot headaches!

Modifying certificates with certbot. It works and it was a long journey to get it done.

If anyone’s reading this you may have noticed the URL is wp.boba.org. Possibly you entered www.wp.boba.org to get here and saw it change to wp.boba.org. Whatever. Until this evening (15 Jan, 2020) the URL’s protocol would have been http://. https:// wouldn’t have even connected. Now, even if http:// is entered it changes to https://. Hooray!!

The SSL certificate for this website is now part of the alanboba.net certificate. But, until tonight, I was unable to expand the domains in the alanboba.net certificate to include wp.boba.org and www.wp.boba.org.

My attempts to expand the alanboba.net certificate began nearly a month ago. Everything I tried failed. In desperation I posted on the LetsEncrypt community forum a little over three weeks ago, Apache certificate modification not successful, hoping someone would quickly recognize the problem and suggest a solution.

That didn’t pan out. Not a lot of respondents. The fix suggested didn’t address the issue the error message presented, the request was “unauthorized”, or suggest if the message might be misleading.

Domain: wp.boba.org
Type: unauthorized
Detail: Invalid response from http://wp.boba.org/.well-known/acme-challenge/QVV-1Skk-Xvrr6QAL-IvvDZuMGnhr2mNOfoAWbkYCnw []: "\n\n404 Not Found\n\n

More reading. More checking settings on this server. Some experimental configuration changes to see if the issue resolved and the command certbot –expand… would succeed in adding two additional domains to the existing certificate. None of the changes worked.

Finally came across a different command and decided to try it. As I understood it, it is meant to renew existing certificates not add domains to them. However it does include a “webroot” parameter and some of the documents I’d read suggested the webroot location might not be correctly interpreted by the command I was using.

The documentation I found doesn’t say anything to suggest the command can be used to expand the domain names covered by a certificate. I just had an inspiration and decided that if webroot might be the problem then explicitly specifying the webroot and adding domain names at the same time might turn the trick.

Tonight I tired the command with the webroot parameter and my additional domains appended to the list of domains already on the certificate. Surprise and delight! The domains were added to the certificate AND the protocol is now changed to https:// even if http:// is used in the URL name!

The following command…

sudo certbot run -a webroot -i apache -w /var/www/wp.boba.org/public_html -d alanboba.net,boba.org,sclc.boba.org,train.boba.org,training.boba.org,www.alanboba.net,www.boba.org,wp.boba.org,www.wp.boba.org

Produced the output below. Plus it added my two additional domains to the existing certificate and modified apache’s config for the website so http:// requests are rewritten as https://. Like I said at the beginning, hooray!!

Saving debug log to /var/log/letsencrypt/letsencrypt.log
Plugins selected: Authenticator webroot, Installer apache
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
You have an existing certificate that contains a portion of the domains you requested (ref: /etc/letsencrypt/renewal/alanboba.net.conf)
It contains these names: alanboba.net, boba.org, sclc.boba.org, train.boba.org, training.boba.org, www.alanboba.net, www.boba.org
You requested these names for the new certificate: alanboba.net, boba.org, sclc.boba.org, train.boba.org, training.boba.org, www.alanboba.net, www.boba.org, wp.boba.org, www.wp.boba.org.
Do you want to expand and replace this existing certificate with the new certificate?
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
(E)xpand/(C)ancel: E
Renewing an existing certificate
Performing the following challenges:
http-01 challenge for wp.boba.org
http-01 challenge for www.wp.boba.org
Using the webroot path /var/www/wp.boba.org/public_html for all unmatched domains.
Waiting for verification...
Cleaning up challenges
Deploying Certificate to VirtualHost /etc/apache2/sites-enabled/boba.org-le-ssl.conf
Deploying Certificate to VirtualHost /etc/apache2/sites-enabled/boba.org-le-ssl.conf
Deploying Certificate to VirtualHost /etc/apache2/sites-enabled/sclc.boba.org-le-ssl.conf
Deploying Certificate to VirtualHost /etc/apache2/sites-enabled/train.boba.org-le-ssl.conf
Deploying Certificate to VirtualHost /etc/apache2/sites-enabled/train.boba.org-le-ssl.conf
Deploying Certificate to VirtualHost /etc/apache2/sites-enabled/boba.org-le-ssl.conf
Deploying Certificate to VirtualHost /etc/apache2/sites-enabled/boba.org-le-ssl.conf
Created an SSL vhost at /etc/apache2/sites-available/wp.boba.org-le-ssl.conf
Deploying Certificate to VirtualHost /etc/apache2/sites-available/wp.boba.org-le-ssl.conf
Enabling available site: /etc/apache2/sites-available/wp.boba.org-le-ssl.conf
Deploying Certificate to VirtualHost /etc/apache2/sites-available/wp.boba.org-le-ssl.conf
Please choose whether or not to redirect HTTP traffic to HTTPS, removing HTTP access.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
1: No redirect - Make no further changes to the webserver configuration. 2: Redirect - Make all requests redirect to secure HTTPS access. Choose this for new sites, or if you're confident your site works on HTTPS.
You can undo this change by editing your web server's configuration.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Select the appropriate number [1-2] then [enter] (press 'c' to cancel): 2
Enhancement redirect was already set.
Enhancement redirect was already set.
Enhancement redirect was already set.
Enhancement redirect was already set.
Enhancement redirect was already set.
Enhancement redirect was already set.
Enhancement redirect was already set.
Redirecting vhost in /etc/apache2/sites-enabled/wp.boba.org.conf to ssl vhost in /etc/apache2/sites-available/wp.boba.org-le-ssl.conf
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Your existing certificate has been successfully renewed, and the new certificate has been installed.
The new certificate covers the following domains: https://alanboba.net,https://boba.org, https://sclc.boba.org, https://train.boba.org,https://training.boba.org, https://www.alanboba.net, https://www.boba.org,https://wp.boba.org, and https://www.wp.boba.org

regex – headaches and solutions

Regex could save your bacon. Try it.

Need to parse a string that doesn’t have a consistent layout but does contain regular patterns that need to be keyed on to extract information (or change it)? Want to extract values from a string without complex nested IN(…, MID(…, SUBSTR(…, LEN(… functions?

Regex seems to be the tool to use, if you can wrap your mind around the syntax for patterns that need to be keyed on. There’s plenty of examples to be found that illustrate searching for phone numbers, social security numbers, ZIP codes, ZIP+4, IPv4 addresses and so on. Add in features like look ahead, look behind, greedy or non greedy searching and I get the feeling there’s more than enough material to develop an entire graduate level course to formulate and understand regex expressions.

My own forays into regular expressions have focused mostly on mundane simple patterns. I did however find a couple uses for the look behind to extract a substring from an irregular length string. And the substring to extract was not fixed length. To me the function based way of parsing the string would have been much more complex than working out the regex syntax.

In one case there was a substring for the size of a hard drive. That substring varied in length depending on the size of the drive. In another case strings for monitor make and model, which could each be different lengths because more than one manufacturer was in the dataset and model names varied.

In both cases the target string was preceded by a fixed string that could be used to locate the sought for value within the larger string. And the position of the target string within the larger string varied because the details before it changed from pc to pc. Rescued by the regex look behind!

I posted about it on LinkedIn if you’re interested to look. Samanage and Powershell – two tools to produce helpful reports.

The significant portions of the statements are below. They allowed looking into the string for a pattern, `Fixed hard disk media”~size: “` or `name: “` or `manufacturer: “`, and then extracting the portion of the string that immediately followed.

$regexdrv = '(?<=Fixed hard disk media"~size: ")([^"]+)'
Select-String -Pattern $regexdrv | %{$_.Matches}
$regexdisp = '(?<=name: ")([^"]+)|(?<=manufacturer: ")([^"]+)'
Select-String -Pattern $regexdisp -AllMatches | %{$_.Matches}

If you find yourself struggling to parse out some information from a string, take a look at regex. You could find the solution to your problem.

Remote Support

Using RealVNC and AeroAdmin to help people at their computer

I provide remote computer support to people. Mostly to family but also occasionally to friends and acquaintances.

For family I’ve been using RealVNC. For other folks, AeroAdmin.

RealVNC has several advantages from my perspective. Two important ones are there’s a native Linux version. Family doesn’t use Linux but I do and I want to be able to run something directly on my system rather than running it through layers. Secondly and most importantly for family, it’s running all the time on their system. If support is needed we get on the phone, I start the connection, a message pops up on their screen and they click OK to allow the connection. Shazam! remote support has started. There’s nothing for them to install, no program for them to start. Just ask for support then click OK.

Other pluses are it runs on Linux so I have remote access to my own system when I’m away from it and I can register up to five systems in my RealVNC account with no subscription license required.

For the person I’m tutoring now and others I’ve helped in the past AeroAdmin has been the way to go. There’s a free license that allows occasional usage without charge. When I say “occasional” I don’t mean to imply crazy limited. From my perspective the free license is very generous with the time and connections allowed. I have certainly never bumped into the usage limits.

Of course there’s drawbacks to both. With RealVNC the issue is running it on my system. RealVNC occasionally freezes and restarts. When it does I either have to wait out the freeze before I can begin using my pc again (same experience whether I’m connected remotely or at the keyboard) or I restart my system if I’m at the keyboard. An issue I choose to live with because it gives me remote access to my system and I know how to deal with it. When I’m at the keyboard I sometimes just shut down RealVNC so there’s no chance it interrupts me. I really should file a bug report but haven’t bothered yet. And since it’s me that’s affected, not family I provide remote support to, I know what’s going on and corrective actions I can take.

EDIT 3/2020: I found the issue back in January. A wall paper changer set to change wall paper every five minutes. Increased the interval to 15 minutes and the problem became less frequent. Switched to a different wallpaper changer and the problem has gone away

AeroAdmin is a different story. The biggest challenge is always getting the person who needs to use it to get it on their system, get it started, provide me the information I need to connect, and finally make the correct choices when the connection starts so I can actually help. That sounds hard but it’s not. But it is for many people.

I’ve made documentation and sent it to people. I’ve recently made this video, AeroAdmin, letting someone help you. But it is still a challenge. Getting the connection started so people can get help always seems to be the biggest issue.

Another AeroAdmin drawback, for me not the person supported, is that I need to run Wine to run AeroAdmin. I’ve never been a fan of Wine because whenever I tried it my system was changed in ways that I couldn’t easily undo. Plus, depending on the install package, it added things to my system that I didn’t want. Getting stuck with things I didn’t want was one of the reasons for getting away from Windows. However AeroAdmin does run well under Wine so, when I need it, I run it in an isolated Linux vm with Wine installed so Wine isn’t impacting my actual running system.

Certbot automatic authentication

Enable certificate auto renew after a manual renew.

I have a number of websites run from my own web server, like this one. Something I set up to experiment with web technologies and gain some insight into how things work.

One of the things I did was setup HTTPS for the websites once I found about about EFF‘s LetsEncrypt service. I wanted to see if I could provide secure connections to my sites even if they’re only for browsing.

I was able to get HTTPS working for my sites and have the certificates renew automatically. Then I changed ISPs. With TWC, now Spectrum, there was never a problem with the automated renewals. With Optimum the renewals didn’t work.

Emails alerting me to certificate expiration were my first indication there was a problem.

The logs indicated that files on my server couldn’t be manipulated to confirm my control of the website. Plus, entering the website address as boba.org or http://boba.org no longer connected to the website (externally, on the local network it still worked). Connection to any of my hosted sites now required prefixing https:// to the name. Automatic translation from http to https no longer worked.

After talking, chatting online actually, with Optimum they told me yup, that’s just the way it works. “We block port 80 to protect you” and “you can’t unblock it”.

Panic! How to maintain my certificates so https continues working? Fortunately certbot offers a manual option that requires updating DNS TXT records. It’s slow and cumbersome and NOT suitable for long term maintenance of even one certificate containing one domain but it works.

Sixty days pass and the certificate expiration emails start again. This time I determined that I’d speak to a person at Optimum and not use the chat. After some time with my Optimum support tech, and after she escalated to a supervisor, I was told there is in fact a way to open port 80. And it is a setting available to me via my account login. So I opened port 80 and thought all set now, renewals will happen automatically.

Not so. I got more certificate expiration warning emails. What to do? All the automated renewal tests I tried indicated a problem with a plugin. I read the certbot documentation, did searches for the error and tried to find a solution that was applied to the problem I had. I didn’t find it. But I did get a clue from a post that said once a manual certification has been done that setting needs to be removed before automated renewal will work again.

After more digging I discovered the certificate config files in /etc/letsencrypt/renewal. In them were two variables that seemed likely to be related to the auto renew problem. They were authenticator = and pref_challs =. The settings were manual and dns-01 respectively.

I never touched these files. It turns out doing manual renewal with DNS TXT records using the command sudo certbot certonly --manual --preferred-challenges dns --cert-name <name> -d <name1>,<name2>,etc just changes the config files in the background. Attempting auto renew later doesn’t work because the settings in the config files have now been changed to authenticator = manual and pref_challs = dns-01.

There was no help I could find that explicitly listed the acceptable values for these variables. And I didn’t have copies of these files from before the changes. After digging around in the help for a while I decided it was likely they should be authenticator = apache and pref_challs = http-01.

I made the change for one certificate and tested auto renew. Eureka, it worked!!

Next I changed the config files for all the certificates and did a test to see if it worked.

$ sudo certbot renew --dry-run
** DRY RUN: simulating 'certbot renew' close to cert expiry
** (The test certificates below have not been saved.)
Congratulations, all renewals succeeded. The following certs have been renewed:
/etc/letsencrypt/live/alanboba.net/fullchain.pem (success)
/etc/letsencrypt/live/andrewboba.org/fullchain.pem (success)
/etc/letsencrypt/live/danielboba.org/fullchain.pem (success)
/etc/letsencrypt/live/kevinkellypouredfoundations.com/fullchain.pem (success)
/etc/letsencrypt/live/www.anhnguyen.org/fullchain.pem (success)
/etc/letsencrypt/live/www.conorboba.org/fullchain.pem (success)
/etc/letsencrypt/live/www.mainguyen.org/fullchain.pem (success)
** DRY RUN: simulating 'certbot renew' close to cert expiry
** (The test certificates above have not been saved.)

It worked. All my certificates will again auto renew.

This website was created after the problems began. So I didn’t even attempt to make it https. Now that I’ve figured out how to have my certs auto renew again I’ll be converting this site over to https too.

Windows 10 images

Windows’ various versions are the computer operating system I’ve supported my entire professional career. There have been very occasional instances of supporting other systems like Mac’s OS, both before and after Apple switched their OS to UNIX.

There’s many things I don’t like about Windows. I’ve stopped using it for my personal systems for around a decade now. One of many gripes is the installation and update process.

For a while I was fortunate enough to have a professional staff who developed Windows deployment images for our company. They were very good and made image deployment “just work”. It was to the point that about all that was necessary was network boot the pc, point it to the image source and sit back and wait.

I reviewed the procedures they created. Asked questions to better understand what needed to be done to create the Windows images. I never actually was hands on creating an image though. Not from my staff’s documentation and not with any of them shoulder surfing me through the process.

Years later I reached the point of needing to create zero touch deployment images on my own. I failed. It seemed I was close to the solution but never quite there.

Microsoft’s documentation is terribly frustrating for me for the task of image creation. I’ve not found a single Microsoft webpage that goes from zero to bootable deployment image. There’s lots and lots of webpages with instructions for various portions of the work. And some webpages with basic outlines that have links (too many) to details that themselves have many links to more details. Alice never went down such a deep rabbit hole.

Then I found Kari Finn`s guide to “Create media for automated unattended install of Windows 10” on tenforums.com. Kari takes all the diversions Microsoft provides and narrows them down into a single linear process that goes from having installation media to having a zero touch custom installation image. BRAVO and thank you Kari!

Using the guide I’ve finally made my first successful zero touch deployment image!!!

From here I’ll make custom images for the software installations and architectures, BIOS/MBR and UEFI/GPT, that I need to support.

Finally I can make my own images. The world is my oyster.

About time

I am fascinated by science. It defines, refines, and changes our understanding of our very existence.

Changes in understanding both great and small have included insects and mice springing spontaneously from rotting food and undisturbed left over grain, the earth going from the center of the universe to just a planet orbiting a star in a solar system orbiting a galactic core, and the sun being the only star in the universe with planets to stars with planets being common.

To follow a scientific method everything that’s defined must be observable and repeatable by independent researchers.

So how are things defined that aren’t testable? Things like time. Wait, what? We all know what time is, yes. We experience the flow every day. Our watches measure it. Our phones, computers, and networks measure it to enable communication. Scientists predict eclipses and tourists flock to see them based on the predictions the scientists publish. It all seems to work.

Then you read something like this, Do We Actually Experience the Flow of Time?

Now what.

Passwords: Make it safe

Got hacked, locked out of files and accounts? It happens to lots and lots of people.

A few people are actual selected targets. A small minority I believe. The others? They’re the “catch” the result of cyber criminals casting a wide net with their tools.

When I talk with people about safe passwords they often say things like “I can’t remember so many” or “It’s too hard to come up with good memorable passwords” and often “I just don’t understand how to manage it”.

To them I say a password manager is your friend and protector. Refer to this article, Why You Shouldn’t Use Your Web Browser’s Password Manager, for useful information about password managers.

A few things that I see a bit differently than the article.

First, I disagree with the basic premise. In my experience the best way for people to start doing something new is to start from where they’re already at.

So if you want to use the password manager in your web browser then go ahead. You must stick to using that browser. If you already do that why not stick with it?

Second, I disagree that the open source password managers mentioned are more complex than the password managers mentioned, especially if you already store files on the cloud with Dropbox, Google Drive, etc.

And I see an advantage for the separate password manager. If you use a password manager like KeepassX and the file sharing site gets hacked you’re still the only one with the password database’s password. If your online password manager site is hacked then all your passwords are compromised.

In the case of using your browser or something like LastPass to manage your passwords an account must be created with the provider of the password management service. Essentially only one layer of protection.

If KeepassX or something similar is used there’s two layers. The file sharing website and the password database itself.

Multi layer protection is where it’s at baby! (said in Austin Powers voice)

The most important part of all this is to set up different complex passwords for each site you use.

Use your browser’s password manager, an external service like LastPass or a separate password manager like KeepassX combined with an online file storage service to create unique complex passwords for each site you use and you’ve improved your security by leaps and bounds.

Virtual Host??

Setting up Apache to support multiple websites on one host. My server already does that for my public websites.

However I want to control what is returned to the browser if a site isn’t available for some reason. So I’ve set up a virtual server with multiple sites. Each site works when enabled. However if the site is set up to be unavailable, disabled, no index file, etc. the default page returned to the browser is not what I’d like.

Need to identify a few fail conditions, see what the server returns when the condition exists, see if what’s returned for a given condition is the same regardless which site the failure is generated by, then figure out why the webserver is sending back the page it does.

Reasons not available:

  • site not being served, e.g. not enabled on server
  • site setting wrong, e.g. DocumentRoot invalid
  • site content wrong, no index file

Answers that might be returned:

  • site not available
  • forbidden
  • …other’s I’ve seen but don’t remember now

From what I’ve read it seems whatever’s in 000-defalut.conf should control which page/site loads when a site isn’t available. That’s not the result I’m getting.

Either I’m doing it wrong or I’m just not understanding what’s supposed to happen and how to make it happen.

More digging…


Important VirtualBox command to be familiar with. Get virtual machine info that can be copy pasted into documents and other commands.

vboxmanage list runningvms

Also display running machine properties without having to navigate the UI. Good for quick review of network settings too.

vboxmanage showvminfo "VWebHostTest" | grep "Name: \|Rule"
Name:                        VWebHostTest
NIC 1 Rule(0):   name = Web8000, protocol = tcp, host ip = , host port = 8000, guest ip = , guest port = 8000
NIC 1 Rule(1):   name = Web8001, protocol = tcp, host ip = , host port = 8001, guest ip = , guest port = 8001
NIC 1 Rule(2):   name = Web8002, protocol = tcp, host ip = , host port = 8002, guest ip = , guest port = 8002
NIC 1 Rule(3):   name = Web8003, protocol = tcp, host ip = , host port = 8003, guest ip = , guest port = 8003
NIC 1 Rule(4):   name = Web8004, protocol = tcp, host ip = , host port = 8004, guest ip = , guest port = 8004
NIC 1 Rule(5):   name = ssh, protocol = tcp, host ip = , host port = 2223, guest ip = , guest port = 22
NIC 1 Rule(6):   name = web8080, protocol = tcp, host ip = , host port = 8080, guest ip = , guest port = 8080
NIC 1 Rule(7):   name = web8800, protocol = tcp, host ip = , host port = 8800, guest ip = , guest port = 80