stories of war between boy and machine

Multiple-user student webserver

[The following post has been superceded by a more recent one, which tidies up the installation a bit and automates the LAMP installation.]

For today’s (well, the last week or so) post, I’ll outline the steps needed to build a webserver that can be used by multiple users, authenticated from an active directory environment, to host content stored in individual personal directories. Last month, our existing student webserver (StudentNet) died as it was being hosted  on a disk array that was long overdue for being replaced. After 4 hard disk failures on a RAID 6 enclosure (accounting for the two hot spares that had been setup), it then died taking 10 servers down with it. Hopefully we will be able to purchase a new storage array soon – but in the meantime we need to get StudentNet back up and running for the start of term in October.

What is (or was) StudentNet?

StudentNet was a Ubuntu 12 server that was originally advertised as having the following software installed:

  • Apache
  • PHP
  • MySQL
  • Perl
  • Python
  • Firefox
  • X11
  • Oracle Java 7 (JRE and JDK)

It could be accessed internally on-campus through SSH and CIFS and finally, users could access their own directory via a web-browser by appending the url with their student ID, even externally. For now, I am only focusing on the items in bold.

Setup a basic LAMP server

First things first is to install a new VM on our ESX cluster. I recently updated the local ISOs available to the host machines to include Ubuntu 14 but I suspect that this will likely make no difference than had I stuck with using Ubuntu 12. As I have absolutely no idea of what sort of CPU load to expect, I decided to set the VM as having a single 4-core virtual CPU with 16GB of memory; it can be expanded later in the virtual machine settings. For making a new disk, I selected FFD3 – the new drive array, built from 6 (5 + 1 hot swap) 15K RPM SAS drives, collected up from no-longer (and never particularly often) used servers lying around. Like the existing SAS drives that failed they are old disks still, but most probably saw barely any use in their life (all were pillaged from other Dell servers we had around). Now, FFD3 is going to be exclusively used for studentnet – so I can allocate the entire disk group with thick provisioning to be used by the VM – if the I/O activity shreds these disks to oblivion, nothing else shares them and we can just rebuild the whole server again.

During a standard installation of Ubuntu, you can select a LAMP server as an option, but after selecting only to install OpenSSH and running a package update, I then went ahead to configure it as a LAMP server by manually installing the following:

  • apache2
  • apache2-utils
  • mysql-server
  • php-pear
  • php5
  • php5-mysql
  • php5-gd
  • php5-mcrypt
  • php5-curl
  • libapache2-mod-auth-mysql

The first thing I went ahead and did was to configure MySQL by running mysql_install_db followed by mysql_secure_installation, selecting the options to remove remote login through root and removing the test database.

I then modified /etc/apache2/mods-enabled/dir.conf to push index.php to be the preferred file (So that it now reads as “DirectoryIndex index.php index.html index.cgi index.xhtml index.htm_”) and did a service apache2 restart.

Finally, to test it all I created a new .php file for testing success under /var/www/html/ that just verifies mysql and php. It works!

LDAP support

I downloaded PowerBroker Identity Services from and installed it bash. I think it can probably
also be installed by running apt-get install pbis-open but I had installed 7.5 by downloading the package manually already. PBIS replaces Likewise, which used to be in the Ubuntu repository (but apparently now isn’t), and enables users to logon with active directory credentials. This means that students can now, hopefully, log in with their student IDs.

However, to do this, first we need to join the server to Active Directory by using the /opt/pbis/bin/domainjoin-cli command with the format of

“OU=<folder>,DC=<Our university>,DC=ac,DC=uk” serviceaccountforad

(you don’t need to add the domain to the account name). PBIS prompts you for the password and, after this, the errors started (albeit usually with no descriptions).

Now to change the PBIS configuration defaults for users logging on (so, which directory is created for them etc)

 sudo /opt/pbis/bin/lwsm refresh lsass
 sudo /opt/pbis/bin/config AssumeDefaultDomain true
 sudo /opt/pbis/bin/config HomeDirUmask 072
 sudo /opt/pbis/bin/config Local_LoginShellTemplate /bin/bash
 sudo /opt/pbis/bin/config Local_HomeDirTemplate %H/%D/%U
 sudo /opt/pbis/bin/config LoginShellTemplate /bin/bash
 sudo /opt/pbis/bin/config HomeDirTemplate %H/%D/%U
  [which represent Homedirectory/Domainname/Username]
 sudo /opt/pbis/bin/config UserDomainPrefix UOB 
 [Prefixes users and groups with UOB]
 [This restricts who can use the system, but wont use it for now. In future we might.]
 sudo /opt/pbis/bin/config RequireMembershipOf "UOB\\allStudents" "UOB\\CSTLinuxServerAdmins" "UOB\\allStaff"

I then added the Linux Server Admins group to the list of super users by running VISUDO and appending it with this like at the bottom

%CSTLinuxServerAdmins ALL=(ALL) ALL

Now, any user in that group can make system changes. Only a few people should be allowed to do this though! For a bit more security, I edited /etc/login.defs to change UMASK to 072 from 022. This means that now, nobody except people outside the group can read data and nobody except the owner can modify it.

After restarting the server, it is still joined to the domain and I can successfully log in as either a staff member or student!


Enabling user directories

So it seems that to get what we want, user-specific web folders, we have to use “userdir”. If I type “a2enmod userdir” to enable the module, and restart the apache2 service, I now should be able to login with WinSCP, right?

Right! I have my own directory specified as /home/UOB/(my username)/, however I can also browse other directories outside of /home/, which needs to be secured sometime. After making the changes below to /etc/apache2/mods-enabled/userdir.conf, users can put all of their files into a folder in their home directory named /public_html/ and access them through a browser at http://<server><username/. Without the following changes, users who try to view the page will get a message that they are forbidden from being able to do so.

<Directory /home/UOB/*/public_html>
   AllowOverride All
   Options MultiViews Indexes SymLinksIfOwnerMatch IncludesNoExec
      #Pre-Apache 2.4
      #Order allow,deny
      #Allow from all
      Require all granted
   <LimitExcept GET POST OPTIONS>
      #Pre-Apache 2.4
      #Order deny,allow
      #Deny from all
      Require all denied

And with that (on default Ubuntu 14 installations, it is just really two changes as highlighted), we now have a working student webserver!

Next time, I will probably try and get user directories working with Samba in Windows, so that users can drive map to their area on studentnet – but this will likely make them re-use it again as a storage area where they will inevitably run files from again, creating the huge I/O activity we saw before. But we will see how students need and use it over the coming months.


  • To test if the server is in AD, I just run “pbis status”. I have found servers that have somehow “lost” their AD binding, you can just then use “/opt/pbis/bin/domainjoin-cli join” to rejoin the domain and restore AD connectivity. You can also check the config file by doing “/opt/pbis/bin/config –dump” and seeing if the settings match up as above. This might also be /opt/likewise/bin/lwconfig instead, for older installations that used Likewise before PB took over.
  • Sometimes the server may not join if the computer has been moved from its original OU to another one. To remedy this, I went into the Active Directory tree structure and deleted the computer account on the domain controller. I then attempted to rejoin the server with a success.

Bootnote: I had originally used “pbis join” as the command to join the domain. However there seems to be actually nowhere on the internet at the time of writing that specifies “pbis join” as being a command to use! It might be possible to use this instead of domainjoin-cli, but there must be something that domainjoin-cli does that pbis join doesn’t.

I suspect this is to do with /etc/pam.d/common-session which pbis join doesn’t alter, but domainjoin-cli does (it adds session sufficient and session optional to the end of the file). Additionally, the syntax is a little different than if you were to use domainjoin-cli as above (error descriptions are not always forthcoming so from the small amount on the “pbis join” command, I can only assume that this isn’t fully supported by Powerbroker – yet?):

  • First of all, I had Error 40022; I forgot my AD service account password, so I had to reset it.
  • Then I had Error 40320 – LW_ERROR_LDAP_INVALID_DN_SYNTAX – I had the syntax wrong; you don’t need to have the entire OU/DC structure, just the OU as follows: “LowestFolder/NextFolder/Computers/TopOfTree”.
  • This gave me Error 40318 – LW_ERROR_LDAP_NO_SUCH_OBJECT – I had the syntax now the wrong way around; The error indicates that the OU object doesn’t exist as it was written, so it is now  “TopOfTree/Computers/NextFolder/LowestFolder”.

After correct this one last time, it now finally works using pbis join –ou “TopOfTree/Computers/NextFolder/LowestFolder” serviceaccountforad.

However, this actually didn’t allow me to login, even after rebooting, as any domain user. I could find them wiith “pbis find-user-by-name” and a username of someone I know and it returns a user, telling me that it can locate users. But I can’t log in as one, bizarrely. It was then that I reverted to using domainjoin-cli

Thanks, in part, to

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