Getting started with Apache Cassandra


Scaling a database, regardless of the technology behind it, is always a challenge. This is particularly true with a traditional RDBMS such as MySQL and PostgreSQL which power most applications out there. With “standard” replication it is possible to scale reads but not writes as in most configurations there’s just a single master and many slaves. Then there is the issue of high availability: a single master means a single point of failure. Replication lag can also be an issue in many cases.

For MySQL there are solutions based for example on the Galera replication (in the past I’ve often used Percona’s XtraDB Cluster with success) which removes the replication lag issue and make it possible to scale reads and to some extent also writes while also having a highly available system at the same time (I’m sure there are similar solutions for other RDBMS). Unfortunately, a system like this requires that each node store a copy of all of the data, making it impossible to manage huge volumes of data however beefy the servers are. Techniques such as sharding can help with this but can be a nightmare depending on the upfront design.

Over the past few years, new technologies commonly referred to as “NoSQL” (which stands for “Not only SQL” or “Non relational” depending on who you ask) have become very popular as they address some or all the aforementioned issues with relational databases and are a better fit when scalability and high availability of huge volumes of data are paramount.

One of the best NoSQL database systems currently available is Apache Cassandra, which was open sourced by Facebook in 2008 and became an Apache project in 2010. At the moment of this writing the latest version is 3.10.

Based on Amazon Dynamo for the distributed architecture and Google’s BigTable for the data model, Cassandra is an open source distributed, masterless, highly available (no SPOF), fault tolerant and very fast NoSQL database system written in Java that runs on commodity servers and offers near linear scalability; it can handle very large volumes of data across lots of nodes even in different data centers.

Sounds great, right? It does have some limitations though such as the lack of joins and limited support for aggregations in CQL (Cassandra Query Language, a SQL-like language which we’ll look into later); however these limitations are by design to force you to denormalize data so that most queries can be efficiently executed on a single node rather than on multiple nodes or the entire cluster, which wouldn’t be very efficient. Other limitations include per-partition ordering defined when creating a table, and that data for a partition must fit on a single node (it’s important to design tables so that partitions don’t grow indefinitely). The key here is not to try to just use Cassandra as a replacement for a RDBMS when designing applications.

Besides Facebook, many companies such as Netflix and Apple use Cassandra to manage massive amounts of data distributed across thousands of nodes in multiple data centers. Cassandra is available in various flavours, including a “standard” open source version and those offered by DataStax with additional features. In this post, we’ll see how to set up and use a Cassandra cluster using the standard open source version. We’ll use Ubuntu 16.04 LTS as the Linux distro for the nodes of the cluster, so many steps will be different if you use another distro.

Setting up the nodes

To play with Cassandra, I suggest you either use a virtualisation software on your computer (hereinafter the “host”) such as the free Virtualbox, or use some cloud VPS provider such as Amazon AWS, Digital Ocean, or others – which will cost money though. If you go the first route – which I recommend for simplicity – make sure you configure your VMs with “bridged” virtual network adapters otherwise you may have some problems with networking between the nodes.

I will assume here that you use a virtualisation software. To get started, run ifconfig on the host and take note of your IP address; we’ll configure the Cassandra nodes to use static IPs in the same network so that the host can easily SSH into the each node. In my case, for example, the IP of the host is

To setup the first node, create a VM configured with as many cores as the number of cores on your computer and 1GB or more of RAM depending on how much RAM is installed on the host.

Start this first VM, the login and as root edit with VIM or another editor the file /etc/network/interfaces to change the line

iface enp0s3 inet dhcp

with these lines (taken from a node of my test cluster as example):

iface enp0s3 inet static

Make sure you specify the correct name for the network interface in your case, and the correct IP and gateway. In my case, the gateway is and I’m gonna use IPs from to for the 4 nodes in the test cluster (we’ll set up 4 nodes to observe how Cassandra behaves depending on the replication factor).

Next, edit /etc/hostname and change the hostname to something like node1. I’m gonna name my nodes as node1 to node4. Done that, edit /etc/hosts and add the following, so that the node will already have some configuration to reach the other nodes later:    node1    node2    node3    node4

Reboot with sudo reboot for the changes to take effect.

To more easily work on the VM from a terminal on the host, edit ~/.ssh/config on the host and add

Host node1
  Hostname node1
  User user

Do the same for node2, node3 and node4.

Also, still on the host, edit /etc/hosts and add: node1 node2 node3 node4

Then run ssh-copy-id node1 to copy your SSH key (assuming you have one) into the VM and then run ssh node1, and login.

Now that you are in the VM from a terminal on the host, you need to install Java as it’s Cassandra’s main dependency.
Run the following commands:

sudo add-apt-repository ppa:webupd8team/java
sudo apt update
sudo apt install oracle-java8-installer

To check if Java is correctly installed run

java -version

Next, run the following to install Cassandra:

echo "deb 36x main" | sudo tee -a /etc/apt/sources.list.d/cassandra.sources.list
curl | sudo apt-key add -
sudo apt update
sudo apt install cassandra

Cassandra should now be up and running as a single node – you can check with

ps waux | grep cassandra

Next, stop Cassandra with

sudo service cassandra stop

Then edit /etc/cassandra/cassandra.yaml and change the following:
– set cluster_name to whatever, or leave it as the default “Test Cluster” (make sure though you use the same cluster name on all of the nodes);
– search for seed_provider and under seeds set the IP of this first node to; this means that the first node will kinda use itself to seed its data, another way of saying that it will start as a single node cluster;
– change listen_address and rpc_address to; the former is the address the other nodes will connect to in order to exchange information with this node through “gossip”. The latter is the address clients will connect to in order to execute queries.

Now restart Cassandra with:

sudo service cassandra start

You can run nodetool status to verify that the single node cluster is up and running. You’ll see something like

Datacenter: datacenter1
|/ State=Normal/Leaving/Joining/Moving
-- Address Load Tokens Owns (effective) Host ID Rack
UN 2.78 MiB 256 100% 2611d399-71f6-4696-90f1-2cc390f1079e rack1

Where “UN” stands for “UP and Normal” (Normal meaning the node is fully operational).

To set up the other nodes, repeat all the steps so far but make sure you set, on each node:
cluster_name to the same name you specified on the first node
listen_address and rpc_address to the IP address of the new node
seeds to the IPs of the other nodes

If you run nodetool status again from any node, you’ll see something like the following

Datacenter: datacenter1
|/ State=Normal/Leaving/Joining/Moving
-- Address Load Tokens Owns (effective) Host ID Rack
UN 2.72 MiB 256 46.9% 6bace8f9-469b-439b-9f70-4c9ceb1848ed rack1
UN 209.79 KiB 256 48.8% 2611d399-71f6-4696-90f1-2cc390f1079e rack1
UN 2.22 MiB 256 51.5% cf555392-5d96-4ad4-81bb-60c70c397fdf rack1
UN 225.34 KiB 256 52.8% 6627812b-0400-4a32-aaee-c1bdd4daff1d rack1

This shows that all the 4 nodes are up and running in the same cluster.

Connecting to the cluster with a client

CQL, or Cassandra Query Language, is a SQL-like language that can be used to communicate with Cassandra from clients and execute queries. You can experiment with CQL using the cqlsh shell provided with Cassandra upon installation. In order for it to work, you must install python and the driver for Cassandra:

sudo apt install python python-pip
sudo pip install cassandra-driver

The last step might take some time. Now you should be able to run cqlsh from any node with:


You can specify the IP address of any node, it doesn’t matter really. You’ll see a prompt similar to this:

Connected to Test Cluster at
[cqlsh 5.0.1 | Cassandra 3.6 | CQL spec 3.4.2 | Native protocol v4]
Use HELP for help.

For a full reference on CQL see Here I’ll show a few basic commands to get started.

From the CQL prompt, run:

create keyspace testdb WITH replication = {'class': 'SimpleStrategy', 'replication_factor': 1};

Here we are creating a keyspace, that is a database in Cassandra parlance, named testdb. We are specifying SimpleStrategy, which means a simple replication factor for the cluster; in a production environment you may want to use NetworkTopologyStrategy instead since this allows to specify a different replication factor for each data center. The replication factor is simply the number of nodes which will hold replicas of the data. It is also possible to change the replication factor after creating the table, as we’ll see later.

Now, let’s create a sample table which will contain names, after switching to the newly created keyspace:

use testdb;
create table names (first_name text, last_name text, PRIMARY KEY (last_name, first_name));

We can then insert data as we would do in a typical SQL database:

insert into names (first, last) values ('Vito', 'Botta');

Note: when creating the table we specified a composite primary key on the last_name and first_name columns; the first column specified is also the partition key, meaning that the rows having the same values for that column will be stored together in the same partition. As mentioned earlier, it is important that tables are designed in such a way that partitions don’t grow indefinitely because each partition must fit entirely on each node that contains a replica of it; for example you may partition by date. The second column, first_name, will determine the ordering of the data. So we’ll basically have names with the same last name stored together and sorted by first_name.

To test this let’s load some sample data. I should mention that you can generate some test data can be done with the cassandra-stress tool but here we’ll use a simple Ruby script to generate some random names to play with. Assuming Ruby is already installed, run

gem install cassandra-driver
gem install faker

to install the gems required for this example. cassandra-driver is the equivalent of an ORM for Cassandra, while faker is a library that generates real-looking sample data, in this case we’ll use it to generate first names and last names. Open an editor and create a file named e.g. cassandra-test.rb with the following content:

require "cassandra"
require "faker"

cluster = Cassandra.cluster(hosts: ["", "", "", ""])
keyspace = 'testdb'
session = cluster.connect(keyspace)
statement = session.prepare('INSERT INTO names (first_name, last_name) VALUES (?, ?)')

1_000.times do
  batch = session.batch do |batch|
  1_000.times do
  batch.add(statement, arguments: [Faker::Name.first_name, Faker::Name.last_name])

In this sample script, we are connecting to the cluster specifying the IPs of its nodes (you don’t have to specify all of them, as it will automatically figure out the missing nodes and use this information for automatic load balancing), switching to the testdb keyspace, creating a “prepared statement”, then generating and executing 1000 batches of 1000 inserts each with first names and last names generated by Faker. This way we create approximately 1M rows (I say “approximately” because Faker may generate duplicate combinations of first name and last name so the total rows created will likely be close to 1M but not exactly 1M, because new rows with an existing combination of first name and last name will be ignored when inserting). The reason why I am running 1000 times a batch of 1000 inserts is that there is a limit to the size of the batch that can be executed at once.

Run the script with:

ruby cassandra-test.rb

Then, to check that the data has been generated, go back to cqlsh on any node and run

select * from names limit 10;

You’ll see something like the following:

 last | first
 Jacobi | Abelardo
 Jacobi | Adolph
 Jacobi | Agustina
 Jacobi | Aileen
 Jacobi | Alayna
 Jacobi | Alberto
 Jacobi | Alexandrea
 Jacobi | Alexandrine
 Jacobi | Alycia
 Jacobi | Amalia

Now run nodetool status on any node and see how the data is distributed across the nodes (“Owns”) – remember that we created the keyspace specifying a replication factor of 1. You’ll see something like this:

Datacenter: datacenter1
|/ State=Normal/Leaving/Joining/Moving
-- Address Load Tokens Owns (effective) Host ID Rack
UN 2.11 MiB 256 24.8% 6bace8f9-469b-439b-9f70-4c9ceb1848ed rack1
UN 203.69 KiB 256 24.6% 2611d399-71f6-4696-90f1-2cc390f1079e rack1
UN 294.43 KiB 256 26.1% cf555392-5d96-4ad4-81bb-60c70c397fdf rack1
UN 232.2 KiB 256 24.5% 6627812b-0400-4a32-aaee-c1bdd4daff1d rack1

Note that Owns is ~25% on each node. With a replication factor of 1 the data is distributed but not replicated, so if we lose one node, for example, the cluster is still up and running but we lose 25% of the data.

Let’s change the replication factor to 3 with

alter keyspace testdb with replication = {'class': 'SimpleStrategy', 'replication_factor': 3};

Run again nodetool status:

Datacenter: datacenter1
|/ State=Normal/Leaving/Joining/Moving
-- Address Load Tokens Owns (effective) Host ID Rack
UN 2.11 MiB 256 74.2% 6bace8f9-469b-439b-9f70-4c9ceb1848ed rack1
UN 208.7 KiB 256 74.9% 2611d399-71f6-4696-90f1-2cc390f1079e rack1
UN 294.43 KiB 256 73.0% cf555392-5d96-4ad4-81bb-60c70c397fdf rack1
UN 232.2 KiB 256 78.0% 6627812b-0400-4a32-aaee-c1bdd4daff1d rack1

As you can see now each node stores 75% of the data because we have 4 nodes and a replication factor of 3.

If we set the replication factor to 4:

alter keyspace testdb with replication = {'class': 'SimpleStrategy', 'replication_factor': 3};

We’ll see that each node contains all the data (Owns = 100%):

Datacenter: datacenter1
|/ State=Normal/Leaving/Joining/Moving
-- Address Load Tokens Owns (effective) Host ID Rack
UN 2.12 MiB 256 100.0% 6bace8f9-469b-439b-9f70-4c9ceb1848ed rack1
UN 198.69 KiB 256 100.0% 2611d399-71f6-4696-90f1-2cc390f1079e rack1
UN 284.43 KiB 256 100.0% cf555392-5d96-4ad4-81bb-60c70c397fdf rack1
UN 237.21 KiB 256 100.0% 6627812b-0400-4a32-aaee-c1bdd4daff1d rack1

Cool, uh?

Monitoring the cluster

We’ve already seen how the nodetool status command can list all the nodes in the cluster with some basic information about their status. Among other useful commands you can use with nodetool is nodetool info, which shows information about a particular node. You can see all the possible commands by just running nodetool without any parameters.

There are other tools which can be used for monitoring and that like nodetool communicate with Cassadra through JMX (Java Management Extensions). For example, jconsole – available with the JDK – allows to “look” inside a Java process and, in our case, to see lots of useful metrics for the Cassandra cluster. It requires a GUI though so it won’t work out of the box on our server version of Ubuntu. However you can run it from another machine (such as the host computer in our case) by connecting to a node on the port 7199. To make it work with our test cluster, you’ll need to either enable password authentication or edit /etc/cassandra/ on a node and change the line




And change




Then restart cassandra with sudo service cassandra restart. You should now be able to run jconsole on the host and connect to the remote process on the node at :7199.

Another option is DataStax OpsCenter which is a web app that allows to both monitor and manage a Cassandra cluster. It’s a great tool, but unfortunately the latest version (6.x) no longer supports open source/community editions of Cassandra. So you’d have to use the DataStax Enterprise (DSE) distribution of Cassandra instead.

Repairing a node

When a node goes down and then comes back later, it may have out of date data. Assuming a replication factor greater than 1, when you bring the node back in the cluster you should “repair” it so that the node can be updated using another replica as seed. This can be done with the nodetool repair command:

nodetool -h **ip of the node to repair** repair

Optionally, it is possible to specify a keyspace to repair

nodetool -h **ip of the node to repair** repair **name of the keyspace**

Removing a node / Adding a node back to the cluster

When a node requires maintenance or you want to reduce capacity, you can remove it from the cluster. In the case the removal is planned, you can use the

nodetool -h **ip of the node** decommission

command to decommission the node. If you run nodetool status from any node while the node is being decommissioned, you will see that the status for that node is UL, meaning that the node is still up but is leaving the cluster. Eventually, Cassandra will automatically redistribute the data stored on the node being decommissioned to the other nodes and the decommissioned node will disappear altogether from the nodetool status list. Note that decommissioning a node does not remove data from that data. Also note that if you are running this command from a node to decommission another node, you may need to configure authentication or disable it on the node being decommissioned (as explained earlier), so that the two nodes can communicate via JMX.

Because the data is not removed from a decommissioned node, before adding it back to the cluster (for example once maintenance is complete) you may want to “clear” that data if the node has been down for a while – this also makes adding the node back to the cluster quicker. To delete the data from the decommissioned node, run (on that node):

sudo service cassandra stop
cd /var/lib/cassandra
sudo rm -rf commitlog data saved_caches
sudo service cassandra start

The node will reappear in the nodetool status list as UJ (J stands for “joining”); Cassandra will redistribute the data once again including this node and eventually the status of this node will be UN.

When adding back a node to the cluster, you may want to “compact” the data stored on the other nodes, since the data that was previously copied from the decommissioned node to those nodes, remains for a while on those nodes. You can do this with the following command:

nodetool -h **ip of node** cleanup

From nodetool status you’ll see that the amount of data stored on the node (“Load“) is reduced.

We’ve seen how to decommission a node for maintenance or something like that; if a node unexpectedly dies for example due to hardware failure, you’d want to use the removenode command instead of decommission to remove it. First, take note of the ID of the node to remove from the nodetool status list, then run

nodetool removenode **ID of the node**

Adding the node back to cluster once the problem has been fixed works the same as for a decommissioned node.

This was just an introduction to Cassandra; it’s a big topic and it’s impossible to cover everything in a single post also because I am still learning myself, so I may write more about it later as I learn.

How to use Let’s Encrypt certificates with Nginx

Back in early 2011, I wrote a post on the most common reasonswhy SSL isn’t turned on by default for all websites, and one of these reasons at the time was cost.

Standard SSL certificates can be quite cheap these days, yet nothing beats free. According to their website, Let’s encrypt – which entered public beta on December 3 – is

a new Certificate Authority: It’s free, automated, and open.

So this essentially means you can get valid, trusted TLS/SSL certificates for free. Besides the cost, one thing I really like of Let’s Encrypt is that it is so easy and quick to get a new certificate! Normally you’d have to generate a Certificate Signing Request (CSR) and a private key on the server, then send the CSR to a provider/Certificate Authority in order to get the actual certificate. In many cases, the certificate you receive from the provider is a bundle of several certificates that you have to combine into a single certificate you can then install on the server. You need to repeat the process each time you need to renew the certificate.

The process overall isn’t complicated but is made much easier and quicker with Let’s Encrypt. If you use Apache, everything is pretty much automated with the Let’s Encrypt python tools, in that the certificate will be generated and installed in Apache automatically for you. The same level of support for Nginx is still in the works, but generating a certificate you can install with Nginx as well is quite straightforward.

First, you need to clone the git repo which contains the python tools you will use to generate new certificates:

git clone
cd letsencrypt

Next, you need to stop Nginx before proceeding… I know this sounds like it may be a problem, but there is a reason for this will I will explain in a moment.

service nginx stop

Now you can run the python tool which will generate the certificate for you:

./letsencrypt-auto --agree-dev-preview --server auth

This will require that you accept the terms and conditions and enter the domain or domains you need the certificate for. For example, you may want a certificate for a domain with and without the www subdomain.

Once the tool has done its stuff, you will find the new certificate in /etc/letsencrypt/live by default, with a directory for each domain which contains the following files:

cert.pem chain.pem fullchain.pem privkey.pem

The important files which you will use with Nginx are fullchain.pem and privkey.pem.

So open the relevant virtual host file (usually in /etc/nginx/sites-enabled) and add the following lines to the server block:

server {
listen 443 ssl;

server_name <domain name>;

ssl on;
ssl_certificate /etc/letsencrypt/live/<domain name>/fullchain.pem;
ssl_certificate_key /etc/letsencrypt/live/<domain name>/privkey.pem;


Of course replace domain name with the actual domain name (or names for the server_name directive if more than one, e.g. with and without www).

These are the minimum settings you need to add in order to enable https for your site, but I recommend you have a look at Mozilla’s SSL config generator for additional settings to improve the security of your setup. For example I’m currently using the following settings:

ssl_session_timeout 1d;
ssl_session_cache shared:SSL:50m;

ssl_protocols TLSv1 TLSv1.1 TLSv1.2;
ssl_prefer_server_ciphers on;

add_header Strict-Transport-Security max-age=15768000;

ssl_stapling on;
ssl_stapling_verify on;

Once you have completed the configuration, reload or restart Nginx and test the configuration with this service.

If all is configured properly you should get a very good score, e.g.:


Optionally, you may also want to redirect all the plain http traffic to the https ‘version’ of your site. To do this, just add another server block to the virtual hosts like the following:

server {
listen 80;
server_name <domain name>;
rewrite ^/(.*) https://<domain name>/$1 permanent;

So, why do you need to stop Nginx before generating a certificate with Let’s Encrypt? When you request a certificate with a typical provider, they need to verify that you own the domain and this is done, for example, by sending an email to an email address of that domain with a confirmation link. If you own the domain, of course you have access to that email address and therefore you can proceed with the next steps required to get the certificate.

With Let’s Encrypt, everything is automated but they still need to verify the ownership of the domain first. So when you run letsencrypt-auto, it starts an HTTP server listening to the port 80 and requests a certificate from Let’s Encrypt CA. The CA, in order to verify that you own the domain, makes an HTTP request to your domain, which of course will be served by letsencrypt-auto’s server, confirming that you own the domain. Because this HTTP server runs on the port 80, you can’t run your Nginx server on the port 80 at the same time, so while you generate a certificate with letsencrypt-auto you will need to stop Nginx first. It doesn’t take long to get a certificate but this may be a problem depending on the application, especially considering that -as we’ll see later- Let’s Encrypt certificates must be renewed every 90 days. There is a module for Apache that does all of this automatically without downtime, but as said the same support for Nginx is still in the works so in the meantime you will have to stop Nginx while generating the certificate. Please note that what I described is the easiest way to obtain and install a certificate with Let’s Encrypt, so there may be other ways to do this without downtime even with Nginx. Update: I found this which might be of interest.


Unfortunately, Let’s Encrypt certificates come with some limitations:

  • only Domain Validation (DV) certificates are issued, so the browsers will show the padlock as expected. However Organisation Validation and Extended Validation certificates are not available and apparently Let’s Encrypt has no plans to offer these certificates because they require some human intervention and thus they cost money, so the generation of these certificate cannot be fully automated nor offered for free, which are the key features of Let’s Encrypt.
  • wildcard certificates aren’t available either; you can get certificates for multiple subdomains though. This may be a problem with some applications.
  • certificates expire in 90 days, which seems a bit too short. See this for an explanation.
  • there is a limit of 5 certificates for a registered domain in 7 days; this limit should be lifted when Let’s Encrypt is out of beta. So for example if you request separate certificates for, and these will be counted as 3 certificates for the same domain. But of course you can request a certificate with multiple subdomains at once.
  • all major browsers are supported, but some devices don’t recognise these certificates. See this list for more info.

Even with these limitations, Let’s Encrypt is an exciting initiative and it is likely that things will improve when LE is out of beta. It’s a great service because by offering free certificates that are also easier to obtain, it will surely speed up the adoption of TLS/SSL encryption, making for a more secure web.

I don’t have any particular reasons for enabling encryption on all pages on this blog since it doesn’t manage any user data and I am outsourcing comments to Disqus, but I am planning on switching anyway because another added benefit of https is that it helps increase search engine raking.

So if you haven’t yet, check Let’s Encrypt out!

Setting up a Ubuntu server for Ruby and PHP apps

There are several guides on the Internet on setting up a Ubuntu server, but I thought I’d add here some notes on how to set up a server capable of running both Ruby and PHP apps at the same time. Ubuntu’s latest Long Term Support (LTS) release is 14.04, so this guide will be based on that release.

I will assume you already have a a server with the basic Ubuntu Server Edition installed – be it a dedicated server or a VPS from your provider of choice – with just SSH access enabled and nothing else. We’ll be bootstrapping the basic system and install all the dependencies required for running Ruby and PHP apps; I usually use Nginx as web server, so we’ll be also using Phusion Passenger as application server for Ruby and fastcgi for PHP to make things easier.

First steps

Before anything else, it’s a good idea to update the system with the latest updates available. So SSH into the new server with the IP and credentials you’ve been given and -recommended- start a screen session with

screen -S <session-name>

Now change the root password with


then open /root/.ssh/authorized_keys with and editor and ensure no SSH keys have already been added other than yours; if you see any keys, I recommend you comment them out and uncomment them only if you ever need to ask your provider for support.

Done that, as usual run:

apt-get update
apt-get upgrade -y

to update the system.

Next, edit /etc/hostname with vi or any other editor and change the hostname with the hostname you will be using to connect to this server; also edit /etc/hosts and add the correct hostname in there as well. Reboot:

reboot now

SSH access

It’s a good idea to use a port other than the default one for SSH access, and a user other than root. In this guide, we’ll be:

  • using the example port 17239
  • disabling the root access and enabling access for the user deploy (only) instead
  • switching from password authentication to public key authentication for good measure.

Of course you can choose whichever port and username you wish.

For convenience, on your client computer (that is, the computer you will be connecting to the server from) edit ~/.ssh.config and add the following content:

Host my-server (or whichever name you prefer)
Hostname <the ip address of the server>
Port 22
User root

So you can more easily SSH into the new server with just

ssh my-server

As you can see for now we are still using the default port and user until the SSH configuration is updated.

Unless your public key has already been added to /root/.ssh/authorized_keys during the provisioning of the new server, still on the client machine run

ssh-copy-id <hostname or ip of the server>

to copy your public key over. You should now be able to SSH into your server without password.

Back on the server, it’s time to setup the user which you will be using to SSH into the server instead of root:

adduser deploy

Edit /etc/sudoers and add:

deploy ALL=(ALL:ALL) ALL

On the client, ensure you can SSH into the server as deploy using your key:

ssh-copy-id deploy@my-server

You should now be able to login as deploy without password.

Now edit /etc/ssh/sshd_config and change settings as follows:

Port 17239
PermitRootLogin no
PasswordAuthentication no
UseDNS no
AllowUsers deploy

This will:

  • change the port
  • disable root login
  • disable password authentication so we are forced to use public key authentication
  • disable DNS lookups so to speed up logins
  • only allow the user deploy to SSH into the system

Restart SSH server with:

service ssh restart

Keep the current session open just in case for now. On the client, open again ~/.ssh/config and update the configuration of the server with the new port and user:

Host my-server (or whichever name you prefer)
Hostname <the ip address of the server>
Port 17239
User deploy

Now if you run

ssh my-server

you should be in as deploy without password. You should no longer be able to login as root though; to test run:

ssh root@my-server date

you should see an error:

Permission denied (publickey).


Now that SSH access is sorted, it’s time to configure the firewall to lock down the server so that only the services we want (such as ssh, http/https and mail) are allowed. Edit the file /etc/iptables.rules and paste the following:

# Generated by iptables-save v1.4.4 on Sat Oct 16 00:10:15 2010
-A INPUT -i lo -j ACCEPT
-A INPUT -d ! -i lo -j DROP
-A INPUT -p tcp -m tcp --dport 80 -j ACCEPT
-A INPUT -p tcp -m tcp --dport 443 -j ACCEPT
-A INPUT -p tcp -m tcp --dport 587 -j ACCEPT
-A INPUT -p tcp -m state --state NEW -m tcp --dport 17239 -j ACCEPT
-A INPUT -m limit --limit 5/min -j LOG --log-prefix "iptables [Positive[False?]: " --log-level 7
-A INPUT -p icmp -m icmp --icmp-type 8 -j ACCEPT
-A INPUT -j REJECT --reject-with icmp-port-unreachable
# Completed on Sat Oct 16 00:10:15 2010
# Generated by iptables-save v1.4.4 on Sat Jun 12 23:55:23 2010
# Completed on Sat Jun 12 23:55:23 2010
# Generated by iptables-save v1.4.4 on Sat Jun 12 23:55:23 2010
-A PREROUTING -p tcp --dport 25 -j REDIRECT --to-port 587
# Completed on Sat Jun 12 23:55:23 2010

It’s a basic configuration I have been using for some years. It locks all incoming traffic apart from SSH access, web traffic (since we’ll be hosting Ruby and PHP apps) and mail. Of course, make sure you specify the SSH port you’ve chosen here if other than 17239 as in the example.

To apply the setting now, run:

iptables-restore < /etc/iptables.rules

and verify with

iptables -L

You should see the following output:

Chain INPUT (policy ACCEPT)
target prot opt source destination
ACCEPT all -- anywhere anywhere
DROP all -- anywhere loopback/8
ACCEPT all -- anywhere anywhere state RELATED,ESTABLISHED
ACCEPT tcp -- anywhere anywhere tcp dpt:http
ACCEPT tcp -- anywhere anywhere tcp dpt:https
ACCEPT tcp -- anywhere anywhere tcp dpt:submission
ACCEPT tcp -- anywhere anywhere state NEW tcp dpt:17239
LOG all -- anywhere anywhere limit: avg 5/min burst 5 LOG level debug prefix "iptables [Positive[False?]: "
ACCEPT icmp -- anywhere anywhere icmp echo-request
LOG all -- anywhere anywhere LOG level warning
REJECT all -- anywhere anywhere reject-with icmp-port-unreachable

Chain FORWARD (policy ACCEPT)
target prot opt source destination

Chain OUTPUT (policy ACCEPT)
target prot opt source destination
ACCEPT all -- anywhere anywhere

Now if you reboot the server, these settings will be lost, so you need to persist them in either of two ways:

1) open /etc/network/interfaces and add, in the eth0 section, the following line:

post-up iptables-restore < /etc/iptables.rules

So the file should now look similar to the following:

auto eth0
iface eth0 inet static
address ...
netmask ...
gateway ...
up ip addr add dev eth0
post-up iptables-restore < /etc/iptables.rules


2) Run

apt-get install iptables-persistent

Either way, reboot now and verify again with iptables -L that the settings are persisted.

ZSH shell, editor (optional)

If you like me prefer ZSH over BASH and use VIM as editor, first install ZSH with:

apt-get install zsh git-core
curl -L | sh
ln -s ~/dot-files/excid3.zsh-theme ~/.oh-my-zsh/themes

Then you may want to use my VIM configuration so to have a nicer editor environment:

cd; git clone
cd dot-files; ./

I’d repeat the above commands for both the deploy user and root (as usual you can use sudo -i for example to login as root). Under deploy, you’ll need to additionally run:


and specify /usr/bin/zsh as your shell.

Dependencies for Ruby apps

You’ll need to install the various dependencies required to compile Ruby and install various gems:

apt-get install build-essential curl wget openssl libssl-dev libreadline-dev libmysqlclient-dev ruby-dev mysql-client ruby-mysql xvfb firefox libsqlite3-dev sqlite3 libxslt1-dev libxml2-dev

You’ll also need to install nodejs for the assets compilation (Rails apps):

apt-get install software-properties-common
add-apt-repository ppa:chris-lea/node.js
apt-get update
apt-get install nodejs

Next, as deploy:

Ensure the following lines are present in the shell rc files (.zshrc and .zprofile) and reload the shell so the new Ruby can be “found”:

export PATH="$HOME/.rbenv/bin:$HOME/.rbenv/shims:$PATH"
eval "$(rbenv init -)"

ruby -v should now output the expected version number, 2.2.4 in the example.

Optionally, you may want to install the rbenv-vars plugin for environment variables support with rbenv:

git clone ~/.rbenv/plugins/rbenv-vars
chmod +x ~/.rbenv/plugins/rbenv-vars/bin/rbenv-vars

Dependencies for PHP apps

Install the various packages required for PHP-FPM:

apt-get install php5-fpm php5-mysql php5-curl php5-gd php5-intl php-pear php5-imagick php5-mcrypt php5-memcache php5-memcached php5-ming php5-ps php5-pspell php5-recode php5-snmp php5-sqlite php5-tidy php5-xmlrpc php5-xsl php5-geoip php5-mcrypt php-apc php5-imap


I am assuming here you will be using MySQL – I usually use the Percona distribution. If you plan on using some other database system, skip this section.

First, install the dependencies:

apt-get install curl build-essential flex bison automake autoconf bzr libtool cmake libaio-dev libncurses-dev zlib1g-dev libdbi-perl libnet-daemon-perl libplrpc-perl libaio1
gpg --keyserver hkp:// --recv-keys 1C4CBDCDCD2EFD2A
gpg -a --export CD2EFD2A | sudo apt-key add -

Next edit /etc/apt/sources.list and add the following lines:

deb trusty main
deb-src trusty main

Install Percona server:

apt-get update
apt-get install percona-xtradb-cluster-server-5.5 percona-xtradb-cluster-client-5.5 percona-xtradb-cluster-galera-2.x

Test that MySQL is running:

mysql -uroot -p

Getting web apps up and running

First install Nginx with Passenger for Ruby support (also see this:

apt-key adv --keyserver --recv-keys 561F9B9CAC40B2F7
apt-get install apt-transport-https ca-certificates

Edit /etc/apt/sources.list.d/passenger.list and add the following:

deb trusty main

Update sources:

chown root: /etc/apt/sources.list.d/passenger.list
chmod 600 /etc/apt/sources.list.d/passenger.list
apt-get update

Then install Phusion Passenger for Nginx:

apt-get install nginx-extras passenger

Edit /etc/nginx/nginx.conf and uncomment the passenger_root and passenger_ruby lines, making sure the latter points to the version of Ruby installed with rbenv, otherwise it will point to the default Ruby version in the system. Make the following changes:

user deploy;
worker_processes auto;
pid /run/;

events {
use epoll;
worker_connections 2048;
multi_accept on;

http {
sendfile on;
tcp_nopush on;
tcp_nodelay on;
keepalive_timeout 65;
types_hash_max_size 2048;
server_tokens off;
passenger_root /usr/lib/ruby/vendor_ruby/phusion_passenger/locations.ini;
passenger_ruby /home/deploy/.rbenv/shims/ruby;
passenger_show_version_in_header off;

Restart nginx with

service nginx restart

Test that nginx works by opening http://the_ip_or_hostname in your browser.

For PHP apps, we will be using fastcgi with unix sockets. Create for each app a profile in /etc/php5/fpm/pool.d/, e.g. /etc/php5/fpm/pool.d/myapp. Use the following template:

[<app name>]
listen = /tmp/<app name>.php.socket
listen.backlog = -1
listen.owner = deploy = deploy

; Unix user/group of processes
user = deploy
group = deploy

; Choose how the process manager will control the number of child processes.
pm = dynamic
pm.max_children = 75
pm.start_servers = 10
pm.min_spare_servers = 5
pm.max_spare_servers = 20
pm.max_requests = 500

; Pass environment variables
env[PATH] = /usr/local/bin:/usr/bin:/bin
env[TMP] = /tmp
env[TMPDIR] = /tmp
env[TEMP] = /tmp

; host-specific php ini settings here
; php_admin_value[open_basedir] = /var/www/DOMAINNAME/htdocs:/tmp

To allow communication between Nginx and PHP-FPM via fastcgi, ensure each PHP app’s virtual host includes some configuration like the following:

location / {
try_files $uri /index.php?$query_string;

location ~ \.php$ {
fastcgi_split_path_info ^(.+\.php)(/.+)$;
fastcgi_pass unix:/tmp/<app name>.php.socket;
fastcgi_index index.php;
include fastcgi_params;
fastcgi_param SCRIPT_FILENAME $document_root/$fastcgi_script_name;

Edit /etc/php5/fpm/php.ini and set cgi.fix_pathinfo to 0. Restart both FPM and Nginx:

service php5-fpm restart
service nginx restart

Congrats, you should now be able to run both Ruby and PHP apps.


There are so many ways to backup a server…. what I usually use on my personal servers is a combination of xtrabackup for MySQL databases and duplicity for file backups.

As root, clone my admin scripts:

cd ~
git clone
apt-key adv --keyserver --recv-keys 1C4CBDCDCD2EFD2A

Edit /etc/apt/sources.list and add:

deb trusty main
deb-src trusty main

Proceed with the installation of the packages:

apt-get update
apt-get install duplicity xtrabackup

Next refer to this previous post for the configuration.

Schedule the backups with crontab -e by adding the following lines:

MAILTO = <your email address>

00 02 * * sun /root/admin-scripts/backup/ full
00 02 * * mon-sat /root/admin-scripts/backup/ incr
00 13 * * * /root/admin-scripts/backup/ incr


  • install postfix and dovecot with
apt-get install postfix dovecot-common mailutils
  • run dpkg-reconfigure postfix and set the following:
  • General type of mail configuration -> Internet Site
  • System mail name -> same as the server’s hostname
  • Root and postmaster email recipient -> your email address
  • Force synchronous updates on mail queue -> no
  • Local networks -> leave default
  • Mailbox size limit (bytes) -> set 10485760 (10MB) or so, to prevent the default mailbox from growing with no limits
  • Internet protocols to use -> all

  • SMTP authentication: run

postconf -e 'home_mailbox = Maildir/'
postconf -e 'smtpd_sasl_type = dovecot'
postconf -e 'smtpd_sasl_path = private/auth'
postconf -e 'smtpd_sasl_local_domain ='
postconf -e 'smtpd_sasl_security_options = noanonymous'
postconf -e 'broken_sasl_auth_clients = yes'
postconf -e 'smtpd_sasl_auth_enable = yes'
postconf -e 'smtpd_recipient_restrictions = permit_sasl_authenticated,permit_mynetworks,reject_unauth_destination'
  • TLS encryption: run
mkdir /etc/postfix/certificate && cd /etc/postfix/certificate
openssl genrsa -des3 -out server.key 2048
openssl rsa -in server.key -out server.key.insecure
mv server.key
mv server.key.insecure server.key
openssl req -new -key server.key -out server.csr
openssl x509 -req -days 365 -in server.csr -signkey server.key -out server.crt

postconf -e 'smtp_tls_security_level = may'
postconf -e 'smtpd_tls_security_level = may'
postconf -e 'smtp_tls_note_starttls_offer = yes'
postconf -e 'smtpd_tls_key_file = /etc/postfix/certificate/server.key'
postconf -e 'smtpd_tls_cert_file = /etc/postfix/certificate/server.crt'
postconf -e 'smtpd_tls_loglevel = 1'
postconf -e 'smtpd_tls_received_header = yes'
postconf -e 'myhostname = <hostname>'
  • SASL
  • edit /etc/dovecot/conf.d/10-master.conf, and uncomment the following lines so that they look as follows (first line is a comment so leave it…commented out):

Postfix smtp-auth

unix_listener /var/spool/postfix/private/auth {
mode = 0666
* edit /etc/dovecot/conf.d/10-auth.conf and change the setting auth_mechanisms to “plain login”
* edit /etc/postfix/ and a) comment out smtp, b) uncomment submission
* restart postfix: service postfix restart
* restart dovecot: service dovecot restart
* verify that all looks good

root@nl:/etc/postfix/certificate# telnet localhost 587
Connected to localhost.
Escape character is '^]'.
220 <hostname> ESMTP Postfix (Ubuntu)
ehlo <hostname>
250-SIZE 10240000
250 DSN

Test email sending:

echo "" | mail -s "test" <your email address>

There’s a lot more that could be done, but this should get you started. Let me know in the comments if you run into any issues.

CentOS Parallels VM and missing network configuration

I was using CentOS with Parallels today, and had problems with networking after cloning a template VM into several VMs. Basically, after cloning the template, the clones appear to report only the loopback interface and one eth interface which seems to be inactive, so of course Internet doesn’t work:

[root@centos ~]# ifconfig -a
eth1 Link encap:Ethernet HWaddr 00:1C:42:22:36:26
RX packets:2464262 errors:0 dropped:0 overruns:0 frame:0
TX packets:1221954 errors:0 dropped:0 overruns:0 carrier:0
collisions:0 txqueuelen:1000
RX bytes:3716624972 (3.4 GiB) TX bytes:106808282 (101.8 MiB)

lo Link encap:Local Loopback
inet addr: Mask:
inet6 addr: ::1/128 Scope:Host
RX packets:3502 errors:0 dropped:0 overruns:0 frame:0
TX packets:3502 errors:0 dropped:0 overruns:0 carrier:0
collisions:0 txqueuelen:0
RX bytes:359663 (351.2 KiB) TX bytes:359663 (351.2 KiB)
[root@centos ~]# ping
connect: Network is unreachable

I am not too familiar with CentOS so I googled and found out that networking is disabled in the default installation or something like that.

Anyway, in case someone runs into the same issue, if you run ifup it complains that the configuration for the eth interface could not be found:

[root@centos ~]# ifup eth1
/sbin/ifup: configuration for eth1 not found.
Usage: ifup <device name>

I’ve had this particular issue – missing network configuration – only with CentOS VMs, but networking doesn’t work with Ubuntu VMs either after cloning. On Ubuntu however I usually run

rm /etc/udev/rules.d/70-persistent-net.rules

and then reboot the VM, and that usually fixes it. I tried the same on the CentOS clones but it didn’t work.

It turns out on the CentOS clones there is a profile for the loopback interface and a profile for eth0 but not for eth1 – which is the interface I see in the VMs after cloning – and that’s the the reason why the configuration could not be found:

[root@centos ~]# ls /etc/sysconfig/network-scripts/ifcfg*
/etc/sysconfig/network-scripts/ifcfg-eth0 /etc/sysconfig/network-scripts/ifcfg-lo

So the way I fixed the missing configuration was by making a copy of the eth0 profile for eth1, and updating the content of the new profile with the correct device name and MAC address. First, make a copy of the profile:

[root@centos ~]# cd /etc/sysconfig/network-scripts/
[root@centos network-scripts]# cp ifcfg-eth0 ifcfg-eth1

Then, open the new profile with any editor and make sure the DEVICE name is eth1 (or whatever ethX it is for you if you have removed/added virtual NICs) and that HWADDR is set to the MAC address of the VM:


You can find the MAC address in the Network > Advanced Settings of the virtual machine:


Then, run

[root@centos network-scripts]# ifup eth1

Determining IP information for eth1... done.

And Internet should now work:

[root@centos network-scripts]# ping
PING ( 56(84) bytes of data.
64 bytes from icmp_seq=1 ttl=53 time=25.9 ms

That’s it. Not sure why this happens but anyway it’s easy to fix.

Easier backups with duplicity and xtrabackup

A little while ago I wrote a couple of scripts to take backups with duplicity and xtrabackup more easily; I am a little allergic to all the options and arguments you can use with both duplicity and xtrabackup, so these scripts use simple configuration files instead.

You can find these scripts on Github at


Xtrabackup is a great tool for taking backups (both full and incremental) of your MySQL databases without bringing them offline. When you first launch the script – admin-scripts/backup/ – without arguments, it will generate the simple configuration file as ~/.xtrabackup.config, containing the following configuration settings – you only need to set the MySQL credentials, customise the paths of source and destination, and choose how many backup chains to keep:


A backup chain is as usual made of one full backup and subsequent incrementals. The script – admin-scripts/backup/ accepts a single argument when you are taking backups, either full or incr. As these may suggest, in the first case a full backup will be taken, while the second case it will be an incremental. Backups are stored in the destination directory with the structure below:

├── full
│ ├── 2014-03-04_20-39-39
│ ├── 2014-03-09_02-00-04
│ ├── 2014-03-16_02-00-01
│ └── 2014-03-23_02-00-02
└── incr
├── 2014-03-04_20-39-53
├── 2014-03-04_20-41-21
├── 2014-03-05_02-00-02
├── 2014-03-05_13-00-02
├── 2014-03-06_02-00-07

I choose to store the incrementals separately from the full backups so to always have full backups ready for a simple copy if needed, but restoring from incrementals will work just fine. In order to restore, you can choose from any of the backups available – either full or incremental. To see the list of all the backups available you can use the list argument, which shows something like this:

> admin-scripts/backup/ list
Loading configuration from /root/.xtrabackup.config.
Available backup chains (from oldest to latest):

Backup chain 1:

Backup chain 2:

Backup chain 3:
Full: 2014-03-16_02-00-01
Incremental: 2014-03-16_13-00-01
Incremental: 2014-03-17_02-00-02
Incremental: 2014-03-21_13-00-01
Incremental: 2014-03-22_02-00-01
Incremental: 2014-03-22_13-00-02
Backup chain 4:
Full: 2014-03-23_02-00-02
Incremental: 2014-03-23_13-00-01
Incremental: 2014-03-24_02-00-03
Incremental: 2014-03-24_13-00-01
Incremental: 2014-03-25_02-00-01
Incremental: 2014-03-25_13-00-02

Latest backup available:
Incremental: 2014-03-25_13-00-02

Then, to restore any of the backups available you can run the script with the restore argument, e.g.

admin-scripts/backup/ restore 2014-03-25_02-00-01 <destination directory>

Once the restore is complete, the final result will be a destination directory ready for use with MySQL, so all you need to do at this stage (as the script will suggest) is:

  • stop MySQL
  • replace the content of MySQL’s datadir with the contents of the destination directory you’ve used for the restore
  • ensure the MySQL datadir is owned by the mysql user
  • start MySQL again

MySQL should happily work again with the restored data.


The other script is a useful wrapper which makes it a bit easier to take backups of data with duplicity; like the other script, this script also uses a configuration file instead of lots of options and arguments, and this configuration file is generated as ~/.duplicity.config when you first run the script with no arguments. The content of this configuration file is as follows:

INCLUDE=(/backup /etc /home /root /usr/local/configuration /var/log /var/lib/mysql /var/www)




# Set ENCRYPT_KEY if you want to use GPG pub key encryption. Otherwise duplicity will just use symmetric encryption.

# Optionally use a different key for signing

COMPRESSION_LEVEL=6 # 1-9; 0 disables compression; it currently works only if encryption is enabled

VERBOSITY=4 # 0 Error, 2 Warning, 4 Notice (default), 8 Info, 9 Debug (noisiest)

# Comment out the following if you want to run one or more scripts before duplicity backup.

# Comment out the following if you want to run one or more scripts after duplicity backup.

Most of these settings should be self-explanatory. backups_repository uses by default duplicity’s rsync backend, so of course you need to have SSH access to the destination server. max_volume_size: duplicity automatically splits the backup into volumes and the script will use settings that have duplicity generate one volume while the previous one is being asynchronously transferred to the destination. This should make backups faster. The ideal value for max_vol_size is really difficult to determine as it depends on many things, but in my case I have found that a value of 250 with the other settings I use for compression and encryption, makes backups fairly fast. encryption of course enables/disables the encryption of the backup; if you are doing on site backup to servers you own and that noone else controls, then I’d disable this option so to make backups quicker. Otherwise I recommend to enable it if others have access to the backup files. Encryption can be done both with (GPG) keys, or without keys, using symmetric encryption with a passphrase. Then, you can set the compression level; I’d recommend the value 6 as from my tests higher compression slows down backups for little gain. As the comment in the configuration file suggests, compression is currently available only when encryption is also enabled.

Lastly, as you can see you can choose to run other scripts before and/or after the backup with duplicity is performed. In the configuration above you can also see that I normally run the backup with the xtrabackup script first, so that the backup taken with duplicity also includes the latest MySQL backup. I find this pretty useful. Like for the other script, you need to specify the full or incr argument when taking backups; this argument will automatically be passed to the scripts specified in run_before and run_after so, for example, when taking an incremental backup with duplicity, an incremental backup with xtrabackup is taken first.

Restoring latest backup available


duplicity -v debug rsync://user@host//backup_directory <destination>

Note: Duplicity will not overwrite an existing file.

duplicity – other useful commands

Restoring from backups with duplicity is a little more straightforward than backing up, so I haven’t added any commands for this in the script really. However I’ll add here, for reference, some useful commands you may likely need when restoring or else directly with duplicity. These are examples assuming you use duplicity with symmetric encryption, in which case you need to have the PASSPHRASE environment variable set and available:

export PASSPHRASE=... # the passphrase you've used in the configuration file; you'll need this will all

If you add these commands in some other scripts, remember to unset this variable with

Listing available backups
duplicity -v debug collection-status rsync://user@host//backup_directory
Listing all files in current backup
duplicity -v debug list-current-files rsync://user@host//backup_directory
Restoring by date / specific files (e.g. 3 days ago)
duplicity -v debug -t 3D --file-to-restore FILENAME rsync://user@host//backup_directory <destination>


duplicity -v debug --restore-time 1308655646 rsync://user@host//backup_directory <destination> (unix time)
duplicity -v debug --restore-time 2011-06-21T11:27:26+02:00 rsync://user@host//backup_directory <destination>

Note: timestamps shown when listing available backups are in already in timezone, while the time on the server is in UTC. So a backup made e.g. on 24/2/2014 at 02:00 on the server means it will be listed as Mon Feb 24 04:00:35 2014. Restoring this backup means using the timestamp xxxx-xx-xxT02:00:00+02:00

If you are looking to use free tools, these scripts and commands should have your backup needs on servers covered in most cases.

Using Nginx to comply with a third-party API’s rate limits

API rate limits: the problem

I have just started a little pet project today that involves the integration of APIs of various social networks. In order to prevent abuse, among other reasons, these APIs usually restrict the number of requests that a client (normally identified by IP address) can make in a given amount of time, through rate limiting practices; an example is the Reddit API, which according to its access rules only allows 30 requests/minute per client.

Complying with this sort of API rate limits at application level, while possible, can be quite complicated, because there is the need to maintain some shared state across various instances of the application so that the API rate limits are not exceeded regardless of the instance making requests at any given time. I’m a Ruby developer, so in the past I have used a gem called SlowWeb to comply with a third party API’s rate limits. Unfortunately this gem is no longer maintained (last updates were 3 years ago), plus it is anyway limited in that it wouldn’t work by itself with multiple instance of the application since it doesn’t share state somehow by itself.

A simple solution

Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a way to comply with a third party API rate limits independently from our application, and without reinventing the wheel? This way there wouldn’t be any more the need to maintain some shared state across multiple instances of the application since the rate limiting would be handled separately. There’s a simple answer to this: web servers. It is trivial to implement such a solution with a web server like Apache or Nginx.

I normally use Nginx, so I’ll give you a very simple example (for Reddit API) with this web server. First, we need to add the following lines to Nginx’s main configuration:

http {

limit_req_zone $binary_remote_addr zone=api_name:10m rate=30r/m;


Then we need to add the following lines to a virtual host we’ll dedicate as wrapper for the third party API:

server {
listen 80;
server_name your_url.ext;

location / {
limit_req zone=api_name burst=30;
proxy_pass http://api_url.ext/;

That’s it! Now you can just use your custom URL in your application and stop worrying about the API rate limits. How it works is very simple: Nginx uses the builtin HttpLimitReqModule to limit the number of requests per session/client in a given amount of time. In the example above, we first define a ‘zone’ specifying that we want to limit requests to 30 per minute; then, in the virtual host, we let Nginx proxy all requests to the API’s URL with some “burstiness” unless the third party API does not allow this. Another bit of additional configuration you may want to add to the Nginx virtual host would be for caching, but I usually prefer handling this at application level, for example with Redis.

Know of other tricks to easily comply with API rate limits? Please let me know in the comments.

Copy files via an intermediate server with SSH/SCP

Sometimes I need to copy files from a remote server, but I can only access it through an intermediate server due to some restrictions.

I can’t remember always how to do it so I thought I’d add some notes here which may hopefully save time to others; I bet there are many ways of doing this, but here’s a couple. The first one is with SCP, using an SSH tunnel. First, start the tunnel with:

ssh -L <local-port>:<gateway-address>:<ssh-port-target-server> <target-user>@<target-server>

So, for example, given

  • I can SSH into the intermediate server (with settings stored in ~/.ssh/config for example)
  • from the intermediate server, I can SSH into the target server with the user vito and SSH listening on the port 9876

I would start the tunnel with the command:

ssh -L 5000: vito@

where 5000 is just a random port I choose. Once the tunnel is started, to copy files from the remote server, through the tunnel, you can run:

scp -P 5000 vito@ /local/destination/folder/

That’s it. SCP should copy files just as it would do if there were a direct SSH connection with the target server. Unfortunately, it is not always possible to copy files this way because SSH forwarding may have been disabled on the intermediate server for security reasons; in this case, using an SSH tunnel won’t work and you’ll see errors like:

channel 3: open failed: administratively prohibited: open failed

There is another trick though we could use in this case to copy files, using SSH directly and without a forwarding tunnel. An example:

ssh "ssh \"cat /path/to/file\"" | pv > /local/destination/folder/
477MiB 0:05:05 [1.81MiB/s] [ <=> ]

I like this trick because it doesn’t require any particular configuration on either the intermediate server or the target server, and it uses a tool like cat which I believe is available on all distros; pv is optional, but quite handy since it shows how much has been copied and the transfer speed, in realtime. In the example above pv won’t show the % of the file which has already been copied, but it’s easy to fix that by passing the -s SIZE argument (you need to know the size of the file in advance for the progress bar to be accurate).

I would be curious to know if there are other tricks to copy files via an intermediate server, so please leave a comment if you are aware of any others. 🙂