Monthly Archives: January 2012

Some more on IPv6 in ZA

Well, there we have it. Our ministers have just said that there’s absolutely no reason it should be so hard to do:

Speaking to ITWeb yesterday, acting deputy director-general of the Presidential National Commission on Information Society and Development Themba Phiri said: “The IPv6 issue is a simple transition. All you need is the equipment that enables new registration of the domain names.”

Source: this article. I’m not entirely sure which part about this worries me out the most, but there’s a few strong contenders in-between all the apparently stupidity, clueless and out-of-reachness that this sort of opinion entails. But the fact that these people are policy-makers and decision-makers on things regarding technology here…well, their lack of knowledge is concerning. If their advisors are at fault for this opinion, their advisors should be fired. If their inability to recognize their advisor’s information as complete bullshit is the cause for them to propagate this opinion, it’s just as concerning. How do we fix this?

[update] for the non-technical readers: basically, there’s significantly more to actually getting IPv6 onto a network than just “the registration of the domain names”. Most importantly, domain names have almost nothing to do with IPv6 (short of how your computer can know to access something using IPv6 as opposed to IPv4, and where to actually try to find the resource you’re attempting to access).

Billing Failure

Alternative post title: No, really, I’m not kidding. I *really* want to give you money.

Part of the software stack/services that we have at my employer is a billing system for ISP environments. Given this, the typical features you would imagine to have in your billing system for such an environment would include the ability to bill for physical connections as well as services rendered over those connections. Possibly even just having the services without the connection. Do we have all of those? Check. Other things you might want? Hmm, let’s see, online management of your products and services? Check. Ability to pay online using credit card etc? Check. Fault logging? Check. The reason I list all these things? Because I want to show that I’m not completely unfamiliar with billing systems and/or the challenges associated with them.

With that all in mind, let’s go over to the Telkom SA billing site to pay our DSL connection bill (check out all the options you have for doing this over here).

So I do all the things required for getting my bill online [edit: I've actually done this a few months ago, this post is just coming up now because the issue is causing me problems now] and then open it here, as the page says I should. Hey great, it shows me some stuff!

Not too bad so far. Let me click on that View bill online link on the side.

Well, uh, that’s nice. No listed invoices. And the My Accounts page linked to from the first paragraph takes me to the page I just navigated from. Can’t view past invoices or search for any with success either. So I have no option for immediately paying my bill and get to go with any of the other options that range from mildly to highly inconvenient for me. Great, thanks.

I’m attempting to contact the Telkom Online Billing department, and will be using this URL as the summary of the complaint; mostly because I’ve gotten so damned tired with having to spend 5 minutes repeating the issue to every new person in the callcenter that I get redirected to each time I phone in an attempt to sort this crap out. Who knows, with any luck I might even be able to get some useful information about how other people could solve this if they also run into it.

Human-friendly headless torrents

A little while ago I was looking for a nice way to handle my automated torrent downloading on my server and consequently going through the options. Here are some that I’ve known about and used before:

  • rtorrent – a *nix command-line torrent client. Not very people-friendly at all in its default state, but a reasonably capable client
  • Deluge – a multiplatform client written in Python. Comes in web interface, daemon and GUI flavours (perhaps CLI too? I didn’t check)
  • Transmission – another multiplatform client. Comes in various flavours as well, bundled by default on Ubuntu (last time I saw, anyway)
  • ųTorrent – an extremely lightweight torrent client for Windows and Mac
  • kTorrent – a KDE-based torrent client. Can’t find platform information on a quick search.
  • qBittorrent – a Qt-based multiplatform torrent client
  • Vuze – a Java-based torrent downloader. One of the granddaddies of torrent clients.

A few years ago I used kTorrent until I had some issues with it not being quite stable yet during the KDE3 to KDE4 transition, and I tried out Transmission and Deluge for a while. Transmission’s user interface – like many other GTK applications – felt a bit like a dinky toy, but other than that the client mostly worked (I had some speed issues too that didn’t seem to come up with other clients, but never investigated much because I didn’t care for it). Deluge was what I went to after this, flicking over to Vuze every now and then when I felt I could stomach the Java crap. Through all of this, I was still usually downloading from my desktop.

After a while, I wanted to try out some other clients and at this time became a user of qBittorrent and ųTorrent, depending on what OS I was booted into. This was not ideal: I would like my downloads to continue somewhere I don’t have to care about them, regardless of what OS I was in. Which brings us to the list of requirements:

  • Keep downloading, no matter what OS I’m in
  • Be simple to interface with
  • Have the ability to do ratio-based download control as well as speed control
  • Give me some useful statistics and information. If there’s something wrong, I might want to try debug and fix it (this is probably why Transmission failed, in retrospect)
  • Preferably have some way to automatically start things by following RSS/Atom, or something of the sort.
  • Play well with the hardware/resources I would be able to give it

So, requirement 1 essentially meant I wouldn’t be using X (not even xvfb). I wouldn’t want to run a Windows VM either, and now and then ųTorrent under Wine could bomb out. So that leaves us with Deluge, rtorrent, Transmission and Vuze.

Having gotten annoyed at Transmission before, and not having enough RAM around to use Vuze without screwing over the rest of my Proliant Microserver, Deluge was next up on the list. Ends up being reasonably simple to get going, satisfies most/all of the requirements I had, but I did find some issues. The web interface can get *really* slow when you have a lot of torrents loaded; and deluged would get “stuck” sometimes, bad enough that it’d turn into a zombie process when terminated (this may or may not be because I run my server on Debian Testing). Obviously not ideal for uninterrupted autonomous work. So as little as I wanted to, I ended up with rtorrent.

After a while of dicking around with the configs and automation bits, here’s a working setup with everything you may want to get started with.

First off, rssdler config (to fetch .torrent files over RSS):

downloadDir = /storage/rss/var/watch
workingDir = /storage/rss/var/rssdler/working
minSize = 0
log = 3
logFile = /storage/rss/var/log/rssdler-downloads.log
verbose = 4
cookieFile = /storage/rss/etc/rssdler/cookies.txt
cookieType = MozillaCookieJar
scanMins = 10
sleepTime = 2
runOnce = True

link = http://site1.tld/rss
directory = /storage/rss/var/watch
regExTrue = Gutenberg|Baen
regExFalse = PDF

link = http://site2.tld/rss
directory = /storage/rss/var/watch
regExTrue = Oranges
regExFalse = Apples

Most of those options are pretty self-explanatory, so the only ones I’ll comment are are regExTrue and regExFalse: these are used to decide what from the RSS feed you want, and what you don’t. Things that match regExTrue are kept, things that match regExFalse are discarded.

A momentary note about the cookie-file format too: using MozillaCookieJar means your cookie file should be in the Netscape cookie format. Tab-separated columns on the cookie item lines.

I run rssdler from cron every 15 minutes (yes, I know it can run as a daemon, let’s just say I’m erring on the side of caution after the deluged experience on my box at the moment). The config line for my user’s cron look as follows:

# torrent stuff
*/15 * * * * /storage/rss/bin/ -c /storage/rss/etc/rssdler/rssdler.cfg -r

Next up, the rtorrent config:

## general settings
# set our working directories and sessions folder so we can persist torrents across application sessions
directory = /storage/rss/var/content/downloading
session = /storage/rss/var/sessions
port_range = 1024-65535

# set initial download rates
upload_rate = 30
download_rate = 25

## scheduler
# watch for new torrents
schedule = watch_directory,5,5,load_start=/storage/rss/var/watch/*.torrent
schedule = untied_directory,5,5,stop_untied=
schedule = tied_directory,5,5,start_tied=

# time-based throttles
schedule = throttle_1,22:00:00,24:00:00,download_rate=25
schedule = throttle_2,00:00:00,24:00:00,download_rate=25
schedule = throttle_3,05:00:00,24:00:00,download_rate=25

## dht
dht = auto
peer_exchange = yes

## events
# notification
system.method.set_key =,notify_me,"execute=/storage/bin/,$d.get_name="

# move on complete
system.method.set_key =,move_complete,"execute=mv,-u,$d.get_base_path=,/storage/rss/var/content/done;d.set_directory=/storage/rss/var/content/done"

## encryption
encryption = allow_incoming,try_outgoing,enable_retry

## allow rpc remote control
scgi_port =
encoding_list = UTF-8

Most of the comments are in the appropriate sections, since rtorrent’s internal config language is a bit crap to read. Also note that I think my throttles are configured incorrectly at the moment, need to verify that. With rtorrent in this config, I start it running under screen, which means it can continue running even when I’m logged out.

Lastly, the nginx config:

        location /RPC2 {
                include     scgi_params;
                scgi_param  SCRIPT_NAME  /RPC2;

This last bit is necessary for me to use Transdroid, a very nifty Android app I found which can act as a frontend to a few different clients from one’s mobile phone, which is damn nifty for checking up on the status of things from any random location.

And that’s it. The setup will download things from an RSS feed automatically, notify me with an email when any download completes, can be checked on quickly from my phone (and optionally any of the other rtorrent web interfaces which I didn’t check out), manage rates and ratios effectively, and I could even drop a .torrent file into the watch folder (by way of dropbox and some symlinks, for instance) and expect the same behaviour as any other torrent.

On Clouds and Wavey Hands

A friend of mine, Jonathan, was recently busy investigating some web technologies for bootstrapping a project he’s starting on and during his search for easy non-local database alternatives he came across this post that compares offerings from Microsoft and Amazon. Upon reading the post, the following quote caught my eye:

“Not surprisingly, the access to SimpleDB is much faster from inside Amazon’s network than from outside (about three times as fast). Searching the web can lead to some references about how Amazon has optimized its internal networks so that internal access to the different services is much faster than outside access. To me, it seems as a form of lock-in, not a desirable feature, …”

I’ve ranted a bit about a lack of infrastructure understanding before, so even so I encounter something every now and then which leaves me impressed with how little people in general seem to care about how things work; or, otherwise put, with only caring that they work. I’m reminded of the one scene somewhere in the series of The Matrix movies:

Neo: Why don’t you tell me what’s on your mind, Councillor?
Councillor Harmann: There is so much in this world that I do not understand. See that machine? It has something to do with recycling our water supply. I have absolutely no idea how it works. But I do understand the reason for it to work.

Both parts of that statement hold true, and I feel that it’s the latter part that people sometimes miss out on. To bring my point back to the original excerpt, I feel it’s somewhat silly to point out the fact of higher latency access without indicating that you attempted to get an understanding of what causes this, especially if you then want to jump to the next point of saying “it feels like lock-in”. Certainly it’s true that Amazon would try to improve the offering within their network, as it just makes sense to bundle a good services experience, but there are factors to consider when using this sort of service from elsewhere, factors which influence things to varying degrees. The foremost I’d list among these is physics: it takes time for the digital to reach from one location to another, because there’s various forms of media conversion likely to take place (light-to-copper, copper-to-light), there’s routing and switching which needs to happen, there’s probably some service-specific firewalling, loadbalancing and application-server interfacing likely to happen. The list goes from these “run of the mill” items which you’ll encounter on a regular basis to other things such as TCP setup time (which can also influence things in various ways depending on a whole other set of factors).

On a bigger scale, this sort of almost cargo cult thinking is pervasive in various different areas of life, and a quote from Arthur C. Clarke comes to mind: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. At the end of the day, I’m a big advocate for understanding how something works, as well as pushing boundaries and trying to improve things. So while I don’t think we should ever just sit back and be complacent with how things are, I do also think that we should strive to understand just that little bit more than we need to. I feel it’s usually, perhaps always, that extra little bit which puts us ahead of just “churning” and into the position of actually producing something just a little bit better.

Even though that little bit might not be much, a few hundred/thousand/hundred-thousand/… of it adds up. Hopefully I’m not just preaching to the choir with my current audience, but that someone else might also come across this post. And, as always, comments and thoughts welcome!