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Sysadmin by Hal Stern

A third in fourths: An NFS potpourri

Another pass through automounter and NFS

July  1996
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We're not quite ready to let go of the automounter yet. Even two month's worth of automounter secrets doesn't completely cover it. So in this third installment, we examine sticky automounter situations and repair tactics and then discuss NFS authentication and Sun's WebNFS. We also share some methods for auto-sharing and automounting removable media such as CD-ROMs. (3,300 words)

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We've gently eased into the summer months (or winter doldrums for our Southern readers) with a two-month discussion of the automounter and its configuration. By now we hope that you can build maps, install and customize them to your heart's content, and perhaps you've justified the need to change every single client configuration to reach administrative harmonic convergence. Then again, if you're like the 99 percent of our readers who inhabit the real world (we're convinced there are some 'bots who digest each month's offering) you've run into some last little detail separating automounted bliss from true nirvana.

In order to enable you with powers to perform the more spiritual acts of system management -- those that actually elicit kind words from impressed users -- we'll take this third pass through the automounter and NFS. We'll start by getting stopped, looking at the various ways the automounter can get stuck, and what you can do to repair the situations. From automounters that don't work we'll move on to those that work too well, giving root-enabled users access to home directories and mail spools of unsuspecting users. We'll introduce NFS authentication to get you started on the path to a solution and take a peek at WebNFS, Sun's filesystem for the Internet. Our final section deals with auto-sharing and automounting removable media like CD-ROMs. Armed with a four-corner offensive arsenal of expert tricks, you should be prepared for anything the NFS-ready masses throw your way.

Tracing the mystery: Debugging mount attempts
Any system with hidden moving parts is bound to break. Create some complex automounter maps and you're likely to find unexpected behavior or get unintended filesystem mounts showing up in less than desirable places. The automounter has two debugging flags: -T and -v, enabling request tracing and verbose mount requests, respectively. When the -v flag is supplied on the automountd command line, each request is sent to syslog. With a single -T on the command line, you'll get significant information about the inner workings of the automounter:

	MOUNT REQUEST: name=/var/mail
	opts=ro,intr,nosuid path=/var/mail
  		PUSH /etc/
  		POP /etc/
  		mapname =, key = /var/mail
     			(nfs,nfs) / 	-rw,intr,nosuid,actimeo=0	sunrise:/var/mail 
  		nfsmount: sunrise:/var/mail /var/mail rw,intr,nosuid,actimeo=0
  		ping sunrise OK
  		mount sunrise:/var/mail /var/mail (rw,intr,nosuid,actimeo=0)
  		mount sunrise:/var/mail OK
	MOUNT REPLY    : status=0

Supply a double trace flag (-T -T) and you get detail targeted at those with source code.

Killing the automounter and restarting it with a plethora of flags isn't conducive to rapid problem solving or user satisfaction. If you have a variety of volumes mounted, it may be hard to kill the automounter gracefully and have it start up again without side effects. Fortunately, there's a back door into setting the debug options. When the automounter sees a lookup request for a file name starting with an equal sign (=), it parses the name to see if it matches one of the following settings:

	=v	Toggle -v on/off
	=0	Turn off all tracing
	=1	Set -T (simple trace)
	=2	Set -T -T (advanced trace)

This trick only works for indirect mount points, where the automounter would match the file name component to a map key. For example, turn on verbose mount request logging and simple tracing by performing two "ls" operations on the appropriate files in /net (a default indirect map):

	# ls /net/=v
	# ls /net/=1

Only the superuser can toggle the debugging flags. If you're using /home as an indirect automounter mount point, you could just as easily have done:

	# ls /home/=v /home/=1

What kind of problems are you likely to uncover? One of the more typical misbehaviors stems from the * wildcard key being substituted into the server specification, producing an illegal server name or an invalid server path name. For example, you use a default entry in the auto.home map like:

	*	&:/export/home

If a user accidentally uses /home/fred instead of /home/bigboy/fred, an attempt is made to mount fred:/export/home. You may have a machine with that name, producing unexpected mount results, or the automounter may fail trying to resolve the host name.

If you see messages complaining "Can't remount," check for overlapping map entries. You may be mounting one filesystem on top of part of another, making it impossible to unmount the the underlying directory after it has reached quiescence. Check hierarchical maps and those with variables or wildcards carefully to make sure the name spaces of each map remain independent. This error is also common with subdirectory mounts (see SunWorld Online's May SysAdmin column) where the actual mount point changes depending upon the order in which the subdirectories are accessed.


Auto Pileups: Unsticking the automounter
By far the most common problem is when the automounter gets stuck waiting for a server that has crashed, or when the daemon is unable to resolve a mount point due to name server, network loading, or map syntax problems. The automounter emulates an NFS server, so when it gets stuck or stops processing requests, the user-visible symptoms are the same as for a crashed NFS server: "server not responding" messages in the console window and a general lock up of processes accessing the failed server. Instead of seeing a server name, however, you'll see the process id of the automounter daemon:

	pid203@/home not responding, still trying

The automounter is single threaded, so it only processes one mount request at a time. Subsequent requests for the automounter's services are routinely ignored until the current mount operation completes. If the mount in progress makes no progress, other processes talking to the automounter have their requests dropped, just as an overloaded server drops incoming NFS RPC packets.

From the point of view of the process that tickled the automounter, an NFS server (the one running on the local machine) has crashed, so the standard NFS warning is displayed. It may be having trouble talking to a server that crashed, or it may be encountering NIS/DNS problems that lead to high latency in host name resolution, routing problems that prevent mount requests from reaching the server, or other variations of lossy networks.

You can immediately tell what map is causing the problem. But if you want to see the key in the map that is leading to the hang, you'll need to turn on debugging before you coax the automounter into a compromising position. It's possible that the automounter has gotten wedged because it can't get enough CPU to process the map files and send off an NFS mount RPC. Remember that the automounter daemon is a user-level process, although it spends most of its life making system calls. Be sure your system isn't suffering from some runaway real-time processes or sources of high-level interrupts, like serial line input, that could prevent a user-level process from completing a series of system calls. In most cases, however, the automounter pileups are caused by an unresponsive server or name service problems that prevent the daemon from converting map entries into valid server IP address and path name specifications.

Early versions of the automounter could be lulled to sleep faster than some infant children. In response to bugs, and the need for non-Sun automounter functionality, Jan-Simon Pendry wrote the publicly available amd. A code archive is available for ftp from, and an archive of amd notes, questions and bug fixes is available at the University of Maryland. One of the nicer features of amd is that of a keep-alive mount point: The automounter pings the currently mounted server from a replicated set, until it finds that it no longer gets a response. When the server ostensibly has died, amd renames the old mount point so that future references cause a new mount (of another server) to be completed. amd tries its best to never block a user-level process.

Does this make amd better than the Solaris automounter? The keep-alive feature helps when you need to start a new series of processes that rely on a dead mount point. The new requests cause new mounts to be completed on the new staging area, while the old mount point (and processes waiting on it) spin quietly in the background. Neither amd nor the automounter help you if you need to recover processes waiting on a crashed server. Those processes go into disk wait and can't be cleaned up easily. To get an inventory of processes using a particular mount point, use the lsof utility to locate processes with open files on the automounted directory hierarchy. (see SunWorld Online's September 1995 SysAdmin column).

Averting the evil eyes: Using stronger authentication
Sometimes the automounter works too well. A user has root access on her own machine, so she creates another login (for you) on her machine with a trivial password. A quick "su" to root, and then an "su fred", and voila! -- she's now browsing your home directory, reading your mail and generally enjoying the privileges of membership in your e-life. How do you prevent users from accessing others' files when they can basically do what they want as root? Gain a stronger measure of control using Secure NFS, Sun's layering of strong authentication on top of the NFS V2 and V3 protocols.

Secure NFS uses Secure RPC, the same mechanism used by NIS+ to authenticate client requests. Secure RPC uses a verifier attached to the credentials for each RPC request. The verifier includes the user's credentials and a timestamp to prevent request replays. The verifier is encrypted with a session key unique to each user-host pair. How do the NFS server and user's client determine the session key? A large random value is chosen as the key and is passed from the client to the server using public key encryption. The server and user keys are maintained in an NIS or NIS+ table. The public key is left is plaintext, and the private key is encrypted using the user's (or root's in the case of a server) login password.

To complete the key exchange, the user needs to decrypt her private key using her login password. If the correct login password isn't provided, the secret key can't be decrypted, and the user cannot be authenticated to the server. Nosy users that create duplicate, fake logins can't gain access to the spoofed users' NFS-mounted files because they can't decrypt the user's private key. See the man pages for publickey, newkey, and chkey for more information on generating the public key pairs, building the NIS and NIS+ tables, and setting up server keys.

Turn on Secure NFS using the secure mount option in /etc/vfstab or in the automounter map and by sharing (or exporting) the filesystem with the secure option as well. On the client side, the secure flag tells the kernel RPC code that it needs to supply encrypted verifiers and credentials with each request. On the server side, the option ensures that credentials are verified before allowing access to the file. User credentials that have no verifier or can't be decrypted properly are treated as null credentials, giving the user the same permissions as nobody.

Here are some other warnings and advisories to help you ward off evil prowling eyes on your network:

Secure NFS is only part of a security strategy, not a panacea. It slows down the most obvious su-to-someone-important sneak through, but it doesn't prevent more onerous systematic attacks. NFS was designed to run on a local area network, with some measure of internal security -- that is, you have some level of trust built up for the hosts and users on that network. When you make NFS filesystems available to unknown hosts or users, you need to think carefully about the value of the data you're exposing or opening up for damage.

Why then would anyone use NFS over the Internet? The TCP/IP protocol for Web page exchange, HTTP, is fairly inefficient at moving multiple files, opening a new TCP connection for each transfer. It's also hard to browse through directories of files with a protocol designed for pure file transfer. There are times when you'd like to bring together the transparent access capabilities of HTTP with the file transfer and browsing efficiency of a distributed filesystem, which is what Sun has done with WebNFS.

Take a quick glance at the WebNFS information on Sun's Web server.

WebNFS provides a general purpose file transfer mechanism for the Internet. It differs from the generic NFS protocol in a two subtle ways. First, the mount protocol is eliminated, so only NFS requests pass between client and server. To get an initial file handle (needed for all lookup, directory reading and file operations), the client sends a request with a zero-length file handle, which the WebNFS server interprets as a request for the handle to be filled in. Normally, the NFS mount protocol returns the file handle of the filesystem's top-level exported (shared) directory to the client. The second difference is that clients can ask for multiple pathname components to be resolved in a single call, instead of one at a time. This multiple component lookup reduces the number of NFS RPC calls needed to start moving data.

WebNFS isn't restricted to making data available to the public. Running NFS through a firewall -- internal or external -- is difficult because the mount protocol uses UDP to reach the portmapper. You need to let through UDP packets to the portmapper, UDP traffic to the rpc.mountd daemon, and UDP or TCP requests to the NFS server port. Creating a firewall configuration to pass the required packets through may leave you with a significantly weaker perimeter. WebNFS eliminates the mount protocol and can restrict traffic to NFS over TCP, letting you connect clients and servers through a firewall with only minimal port exposures.

Is WebNFS a good idea? Again, it's not a cure-all for data sharing over insecure networks, but it's an improvement over existing protocols. The October 11, 1995 edition of the New York Times ran a front-page story entitled "Discovery of Internet Flaws Is Setback for On-Line Trade," in which the security flaws of NFS were blamed for the lack of growth in electronic commerce. Despite the mismatch between technical facts and conclusions, the article highlighted the key point raised in the previous section: If you're sharing data over a public network, you need to make sure it's not sensitive (if you're on the server side), and you need stronger guarantees about the quality and authenticity of the data you pick up on the client side. If you use WebNFS with some selected group of net surfers, consider making digital signatures available for files that you'll want authenticated. (see SunWorld Online's February SysAdmin column.

Sharing without caring: Automating access to removable media
So far we've looked at ways of improving transparent, secure access to filesystems, without worrying about whether the filesystems are there or not. What happens when you want to have a client automount a CD-ROM? You need to make the volume available for sharing after it's been inserted and mounted. The Solaris volume manager, vold provides the foundation for making CD-ROMs and NFS work together.

The volume manager uses /etc/vold.confto determine what devices it manages and where to mount them. We'll look at the volume manager and its configuration in more detail in a coming month. Sitting underneath vold is the real workhorse -- the removable media mounting tool rmmount. It uses its own configuration file, /etc/rmmount.conf, to guide it through media changes such as inserts and ejects. Add the following line to /etc/rmmount.conf to have all CD-ROM devices automatically shared as soon as they are mounted:

	share  cdrom*

Have the clients mount the server CD-ROMs using the server:/cdrom path specification, and you'll be able to automatically access each server's CD-ROM as it is loaded. A typical automounter map, auto_cdrom, for a network of CD-ROM drives looks like this:

	*	&:/cdrom

The auto_master entry for this indirect map is:

	 /cds	auto_cdrom

You can't drop the network of CD-ROMs onto /cdrom on the clients, or you'll collide with the local volume manager. The maps above mount server-side CD-ROMs on /cds/fred, /cds/bigboy, and so on.

As usual, there are things to keep in mind:

Having gone through most variations on the NFS and automounter theme, you should be in a position to make nearly any kind of filesystem available just about anywhere. Doing the difficult under adverse conditions is de rigeur for system management. It also frees time for more important things -- like the USENIX Security Symposium. When you have your users sliding from volume to volume without your involvement, you can make your own transparent access to events much more entertaining.

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