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Infrastructure living the ideals of software freedom

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Can organisations with limited resources be digitally sovereign and still provide modern services? It is not trivial, but the FSFE proves it's possible. Take a deep dive with us into our infrastructure to learn how we run all the different services within the FSFE and cope with numerous challenges. A story non only for techies.

Charity, non-profit organisations run into limits every day: personnel, budget, time, and the pressing question how to use donations most efficiently. When it comes to technical infrastructure, many organisations unfortunately decide to outsource and use proprietary, non-free services. By this, they give up software freedom and thereby digital sovereignty and independence.

Since its founding more than 20 years ago, the FSFE has been pursuing the opposite way. Right from the start, we have relied on Free Software although it sometimes meant not being able to use and offer trendy services. Also, given the limited resources, we constantly have to choose between useful features and maintainability.

The four freedoms and Free Software services on top

And still, neither is our infrastructure perfect nor is it 1:1 transferable to other organisations. But we think it's important that organisations exchange their experiences and learning, especially when it's about something as important as software freedom.

Therefore, let us take you on a journey through our infrastructure and its principles, from shiny user interfaces of our services, crossing the virtualisation methods and monitoring, down to the bare metal servers they are running on. This is a story not only for techies, but for everyone interested in making or keeping an NGO independent from proprietary service providers.

One team and its principles

All of the FSFE's infrastructure is managed by the System Hackers. Only a few years ago, in a time of larger technical debt and restructuring, the team was only three people. Fortunately, since then we have experienced a steady growth of membership. Today, it is a healthy team consisting of 9 active volunteers, complemented by two staff members who dedicate some of their working time to the team's tasks.

A group picture of the System Hackers in 2020
Picture from the 2020 meeting of the System Hackers in Lyon

With a team this size it was crucial to define the most basic principles of this team. They form the basis of the System Hackers' goals: as much control as possible over services and servers by using 100% Free Software, internal and external transparency, and bearable complexity, and at the same time providing useful features for the various FSFE teams and the whole community.

Aside from purely asynchronous work, emails, and chat, the System Hackers also met at least once per year in pre-pandemic times, and continue doing that in virtual form. During these meetings, we were able to tackle more complex decisions and technical changes efficiently, but also just enjoyed non-technical conversations and fun activities. The team is coordinated by us, the authors of this text, Albert and Max, who also maintain a large number of services and systems.

Services, services everywhere

The FSFE's infrastructure is very service-oriented. Volunteers and staff rely on basic functionality like sending and receiving email or exchanging files, but also on a website fed by a version control system, a wiki, or video chat systems. To give an example for the complex interconnection of different components, just drafting and releasing this news item involved at least 12 services that have to seamlessly work together.

The currently most crucial and used services contain Mailman for mailing lists, or Gitea as our Git version control system. To allow sharing and saving knowledge our Wiki Caretakers maintain MoinMoin, while Björn takes care of Nextcloud to share files, coordinate tasks, and collaboratively edit documents. We run our own BigBlueButton and Jitsi instances for video conferencing, and XMPP/Jabber for text-based chats. Very recent service additions are Matrix as another chat service, initiated and maintained by Michael, and Peertube for hosting and sharing our videos on own infrastructure, made possible by Alvar.

The list of services is much larger and also contains fundamental systems like the Account Management System and Community Database developed by Reinhard, our own DNS servers, or Drone as our CI/CD system that processes data from Gitea, checks them, and deploys them on other servers eventually.

Needless to say, the team regularly receives requests to provide additional services. Here, the challenge is to make a careful selection based on available resources (computing, space, volunteer time) and estimated use for the organisation, and evaluating whether a solution is well-maintainable, not largely overlapping with existing services, and generally leaving a good impression.

Sometimes that also means we have to test solutions in practice over a longer period of time. Real-time editing of documents is a good example for that, for which we currently have multiple possibilities available. Longer documents are often edited as ODF files via Collabora Online attached to Nextcloud, but some editors prefer Etherpad or use Git directly. All solutions have advantages and downsides, and finding a good path between having diverse options on one side, and tool overload on the other is anything but trivial.

Virtualisation and deployment

While the FSFE owns dedicated servers in actual racks (we will come to that later), all services run in some sort of virtualisation. In total there are 43 virtual machines distributed over different data centres at the time of writing this article. Some have a purely internal role, for instance being a gateway for other virtual machines or assisting web services with obtaining TLS certificates.

All virtual servers of the FSFE
An overview of the currently running virtual servers of the FSFE, and their distribution over the different clusters.

Some others, in turn, themselves host a number of diverse services. Since 2017 we have been using Docker as a container engine. That has not been an easy choice since the technology adds a lot of complexity and sometimes requires stunning workarounds to be operated in a secure fashion. On the other hand, especially for smaller services or larger self-coded tools, it is great to spin them up quickly, test and deploy them via our Continuous Integration system, provide a more or less uniform local development environment, and maintain an (admittedly limited) reproducibility of configurations.

We are regularly evaluating alternative engines that provide a more seamless rootless mode, are still compatible with our CI/CD system (Drone) and reverse proxy, and ideally do not require a major rewrite of existing deployment code. Also, here again, it is important for the System Hackers that at least two members understand a high-priority technology in depth.

To bootstrap virtual machines and deploy non-container services in a reproducible way, we rely a lot on Ansible, a provisioning and configuration management tool. While Ansible deployments may also have their shortcomings, we appreciate the infrastructure-as-code approach that can be executed from any computer and does not require a central server. Meanwhile, only the minority of services are deployed via neither Ansible nor Docker which makes understanding existing infrastructure, onboarding new volunteers, and documenting changes much easier.

The all-seeing eye and uniformity

Dozens of servers and services: how do you know if there is a problem with one of them? We have to admit that up until two years ago we sometimes only learnt about a crashed server via an email from a random friendly community member. Now a monitoring system based on Icinga2 takes care of this. Currently 50 hosts and 690 services are continuously checked, for example for pending upgrades of the operating system, systemd services, failed backups, disk space, or TLS certificate validity.

This is eased by other parts of our strategy: except 4 virtual machines, all run on Debian GNU/Linux. After initial creation, a new machine will experience a baseline setup taking care of fundamental security settings, monitoring, backup, and automatic upgrades. Thanks to this, maintenance of a server is mostly limited to the service it is running, and other improvements can be applied to a large number of hosts automatically within a few minutes.

To further ease management and maintenance, we sometimes write our own tools. For instance ssh-key-distributor provides a simple interface and deployment method to manage and document access via SSH on our servers. Or docker-utils which is tailored to our Docker infrastructure and takes care of analysing and upgrading Docker images and containers. Both tools have been created by our working student Linus. You can find more tools and generally most Ansible/Docker deployment code in the System Hackers' Git organisation.

Bare metal servers

Unlike the current trend of the IT industry, we are proud to run the vast majority of services on our own physical servers. This guarantees the most sovereignty, data security by full disk encryption, and technological independence for us. To increase resilience, we bundle three servers each into a Proxmox cluster with Ceph storage, so if one physical server crashes a virtual machine is just moved to one of the two other servers in the cluster.

As an additional safety net, the three clusters and a solo machine are spread over four different data centres which kindly donate the colocation to us.

However, this is only possible thanks to a fortunate combination of conditions. First of all, we are lucky to have Albert with us who has a lot of experience with, among various other areas, Proxmox, Ceph, and the depths of networking. Then, we have the kind support of the data centres providing colocation as well as hardware donors, and the FSFE supporters that contribute financially. And we also profit from a more or less identical setup on all four sites which makes maintenance a bit easier. But still, we are considering giving up the cluster containing the oldest servers as well as the solo physical machine to reduce work and complexity.

Challenges behind and ahead

Over the course of the years, we managed to overcome many challenges: technical debt, antique software that blocked operating system upgrades, lack of hardware resources, fatal crashes of single points of failures, and hard technical decisions about how to develop the infrastructure further. In one of these hard times, our back-then intern and since then System Hacker Vincent played an important role and helped set the foundation for the good state we are in today. Despite all preparation and evaluation, we have made many mistakes, but most importantly we have learnt a lot by them.

Facing us right now are new hurdles. For example, with the high amount of servers, we can no longer give every virtual machine a dedicated IPv4 address. Unfortunately, many technologies and internet services, even large proprietary and supposedly professional companies, still do not support the more modern, future-proof, and already 20 years old IPv6 protocol. This requires us to fiddle around with a few hacks like reverse proxies, container discovery services, NAT, and VPNs.

Another interesting decision ahead is the one of communication channels. While plain-text email and, since 2004, XMPP/Jabber have formed the de-facto standard within the FSFE, many people meanwhile prefer Matrix, Discourse, or still the traditional IRC. While we see advantages and disadvantages for all of them, we also want to avoid fragmentation of our community. This is not a pure technical question, but a great example of the need for good inter-team communication and decision-making.

Last but not least, we have a few technologies that are head scratchers for us. Let's take Mailman 2 as an example that has powered our 116 mailing lists for years. Unfortunately, the project is no longer actively developed, and the successor and its alternatives all have serious downsides. Here, we need to conduct a careful evaluation and many tests, and eventually find the best solution in the mass of imperfect options.

With all that said, we would like to express our thanks to the many Free Software projects and their developers out there. They grant us the ability to choose from different solutions, they form the basis of our infrastructure, and they provide astonishing solutions that make our lives easier every day. It is a pleasure to be part of this large community.

Why all of this?

As you can see, the technical infrastructure of our organisation is anything but boring or simple. This is not only due to the size of the FSFE and its community, but also due to our own high standards: living software freedom in practice and maintaining as much technical independence and sovereignty as possible. At the same time, we care for technical accessibility to also allow non-technical contributors to interact with our services. That sometimes requires extra work and tools, but we are convinced that it is worth it.

All of this depends on the dedication and long-time commitment of many people, and is fed by its productive use and the feedback of the whole FSFE community. And it is only possible thanks to the FSFE's supporters who enable us to invest resources in a fully Free Software infrastructure. If you share this ideal, please consider a donation.