Infrastructure Week - Day 1: What is Infrastructure?

This week we’ll be taking a look into the infrastructure that runs and operates Void. We’ll look at what we run, where it runs, and why it is setup the way it is. Overall at the end of the week you should have a better understanding of what actually makes Void happen at a mechanical level.

So What Is Infrastructure, Like Really?

Infrastructure, as the term is used by Void, refers to systems, services, or machines that are owned or operated by the Void Linux project to provide the services that make Void a reality. These services range from our build farm and mirror infrastructure, to email servers for maintainers, to hosted services such as the Fastly CDN mirror. Void runs in many places on many kinds of providers, so lets take a deeper look into the kinds of hosts that Void makes use of.

Owned Physical Hardware

The easiest to understand infrastructure that Void operates is physical hardware. These are computers in either server form factors, small form factor systems, or even just high performance consumer devices that are used by the project to provide compute resources for the software we need to run. Our hardware resources are split across a number of datacenters, but the point of commonality of owned physical hardware is that someone within the Void project actually bought and owns the device we’re running on.

Owning the hardware is very different from a Cloud model where you pay per unit time that the resources are consumed, instead hardware like this is usually installed in a datacenter and co-located with many other servers. If you’ve never had the opportunity to visit a datacenter, they are basically large warehouse style buildings with rows of cabinets each containing some number of servers with high performance network and cooling available. The economy of scale of getting so many servers together in one location makes it more cost effective to provide extremely fast networks, high performance air conditioning, and reliable power usually sourced from multiple different grid connections and on-site redundant supplies.

Void currently maintains owned machines in datacenters in the US and Europe. Since we don’t always have maintainers who live near enough to just go to the datacenter, when things go wrong and we need to go “hands-on” to the machines, we have to make use of “Remote Hands”. Remote Hands, sometimes called “Smart Hands” refers to the process wherein we open a ticket with the datacenter facility explaining what we want them to do, and which machine we want them to do it to. There’s usually a security verification challenge-response that is unique to each operator, but after some shuffling, the ticket is processed and someone physically goes to our machines and interacts with them. Almost always the ticket will be for one of 2 things: some component has failed, and we would like to buy a new one and have it installed (hard drives, memory) or the machine has become locked up in some way that we just need them to go hold in the power button. Most of our hardware doesn’t have remote management capability, so we need someone to go physically push the buttons.

Occasionally, the problems are worse though, and we need to actually be able to interact with the machine. When this happens, we’ll request that a KVM/iKVM/Spider/Hydra be attached, which provides a kind of remote desktop style of access, wherein an external device presents itself as a mouse and keyboard to the machine in question, and then streams the video output back to us. We can use these devices to be able to quickly recover from bad kernel updates, failed hardware, or even initial provisioning if the provider doesn’t natively offer Void as an operating system choice, since most KVM devices allow us to remotely mount a disk image to the host as though a USB drive were plugged in.

Owned hardware is nice, but its also extremely expensive to initially setup, and is a long-term investment where we know we’ll want to use those resources for an extended period of time. We have relatively few of these machines, but the ones we do have are very large capacity, high performance servers.

Donated/Leased Hardware

Owning hardware is great, but a specific set of circumstances have to happen for that to be the right choice. The vast majority of Void’s hardware is leased or is leased hardware which is donated for our use. This is hardware that operates exactly the same as physical owned hardware above, but we usually commit to these machines in increments ranging from several months to a year, and can renew or change the contract for the hardware more easily. Most of the build machines fall into this category, since it allows us to upgrade them regularly and ensure we’re always making good use of the resources that are available to us.

Interacting with this hardware is usually a little different from hardware we physically own. Since this hardware comes from facilities where many of the same kind of machine is available, usually more automation exists to be able to remotely manage the systems. In particular we make use of a lot of hardware from Hetzner in Germany and Finland where we make use of the Hetzner Robot to remotely reboot and change the boot image of machines. For hardware that is donated to us, we usually have to reach out to the sponsor and ask them to file the ticket on our behalf since they are the contract holder with the facility. In some cases they’re able to delegate this access to us, but we always keep them in the loop regardless.

Cloud Systems

For smaller machines, usually having fewer than 4 CPU cores and less than 8GB of memory, the best option available to us will be to get the machine from a cloud. We currently use two cloud hosting providers for machines that are on all the time, and have the ability to spin up additional capacity in two other clouds.

We run a handful of machines at DigitalOcean to provide our control plane services that allow us to coordinate the other machines in the fleet, as well as to provide our single-sign-on services that let maintainers use one ID to access all Void related services and APIs. DigitalOcean has been a project sponsor for several years now, and they were the second cloud provider to get dedicated Void Linux images.

For cloud machines that need to have a little more involved configuration, we run on top of the Hetzner cloud where our existing relationships with Hetzner make it easier for us to justify our requirements, and our longer account standing shows that we’re not going to do dumb things on the platform, like run an open forwarder. Running a mail server on a cloud is itself somewhat challenging, and will be talked about later this week in more detail, so make sure to check back for more in this series.

Though we do not actively run services on AWS or GCP, we do maintain cloud images for these platforms. Sadly in GCP it is not possible for us to make our images broadly available, but it is relatively easy for you to create your own image if you desire to run Void on GCP. Similarly, you can run Void on AWS and make use of their wide service portfolio. We have evaluated in the past providing a ready to run AMI for AWS, but ultimately concluded the trade-off wasn’t worth it. If you’re interested in having a Void image on AWS, let us know.

How We Provision the Fleet

Void’s fleet spans multiple technologies and architectures, which makes provisioning it a somewhat difficult to follow process. In order of increasing complexity, we have manually managed provisioning, automatically managed OS provisioning and application provisioning, and full environment management in our cloud hosting environments.

Manually Managed

This is the most familiar to the average Void user, we just perform these steps remotely. We’ll power on a machine, boot from the live installer, and install the system to disk (almost always with a RAID configuration). Once the machine is installed and configured, we can then manage it remotely like any other machine in the fleet using our machine management tools.

Imaged Resources

Some systems we run use a Void Linux image to perform the installation. These are usually smaller VMs being hosted by the members of the Void project in slack space on our own servers, and so the automation of a large hosting company doesn’t make sense. These are systems usually running qemu and where the system gets unpacked from an image that the administrator will have prepared in advance containing the qemu guest agent and possibly other software required to connect to the network.

Cloud Resources

Cloud managed resources are probably the most exciting of the systems we operate. These are generally managed using Hashicorp Terraform as fully managed environments. By this we mean that the very existence of the virtual server is codified in a file, checked into git, and applied using terraform to grow or shrink the number of resources.

We can only do this in places though that provide the APIs needed to manage resources in this way. We currently have the most resources at DigitalOcean managed with terraform, where our entire footprint on the platform is managed this way. This works out extremely conveniently when we want to add or remove machines, since its just a matter of editing a file and then re-running terraform to make the changes real. Beyond machines though, we also host the DNS records for voidlinux.org in a DigitalOcean DNS Zone. This enables us to easily track changes to DNS since its all in the console, but managed via a git-tracked process.

Having support for terraform is actually a major factor in deciding if we’ll use a commercial hosting service or not. Remember that Void has developers all over the world in different time zones speaking different languages with different availability to actually work on Void. To make it easier to collaborate, we can apply the exact same workflows of distributed review and changes that make void-packages work to void-infrastructure and make feature branches for new servers, send them out for review, and process changes as required.

Making the Hardware Useful: Provisioning Services

For services like DigitalOcean’s hosted DNS or Fastly’s CDN, once we push terraform configuration we’re done and the service is live. This works because we’re interfacing with a much larger system and just configuring our small partition of it. For most of Void’s resources though, Void runs on machines either physical or virtual, and once the operating system is installed, we need to apply configuration to it to install packages, configure the system, and make the machines do more than just idle with SSH listening.

Our tool of choice for this is Ansible, which allows us to express a series of steps as yaml documents that when applied in order, configure the machine to have a given state. These files are called “playbooks” and we have multiple different playbooks for different machine functions, as well as functions common across the fleet. Usually upon provisioning a new machine, our first task will be to run the base.yml playbook which configures single sign on, DNS, and installs some packages that we expect to have available everywhere. After we’ve done this base configuration step, we apply network.yml which joins the machines to our network. Given that we run in so many places where different providers have different network technologies that are, for the most part, incompatible and proprietary, we need to operate our own network based on WireGuard to provide secure connectivity machine to machine.

When we have internal connectivity to Void’s private network available, we can finalize provisioning by running any remaining playbooks that are required to turn the machine into something useful. These playbooks may install services directly, or install a higher level orchestrator that dynamically coordinates services. More on the services themselves later in the week.

Why Does Void Run Where it Does?

Alternatively, why doesn’t Void make use of cloud <x> or hosting provider <y>. The simple answer is because we have sufficient capacity with the providers we’re already in and it takes a non-trivial amount of effort to build out support for new providers.

The longer answer has to do with the semi-unique way that Void is funded, which is entirely by the maintainers. We have chosen not to accept monetary donations since this involves non-trivial understanding of tax law internationally, and for Void, we’ve concluded that’s more effort than its worth. As a result, the selection of hosting providers are either hosts that have reached out and were willing to provide us with promotional credits on the understanding that they were interacting with individuals on behalf of the project, or places that Void maintainers already had accounts and though the services were good quality and good value to run resources for Void.

We regularly do re-evaluate though where we’re running and what resources we make use of both from a reliability standpoint as well as a cost standpoint. If you’re with a hosting provider and want to see Void running in your fleet, drop us a line.

This has been day one of Void’s infrastructure week. Check back tomorrow to learn about what services we run, how we run them, and how we make sure they keep running. This post was authored by maldridge who runs most of the day to day operations of the Void fleet. Feel free to ask questions on GitHub Discussions or in IRC.