Breaking Eggs And Making Omelettes

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Small Time DevOps

December 31st, 2020 by Multimedia Mike

When you are a certain type of nerd who has been on the internet for long enough, you might run the risk of accumulating a lot of projects and websites. Website-wise, I have this multimedia.cx domain on which I host a bunch of ancient static multimedia documents as well as this PHP/MySQL-based blog. Further, there are 3 other PHP/MySQL-based blogs hosted on subdomains. Also, there is the wiki, another PHP/MySQL web app. A few other custom PHP- and Python-based apps are running around on the server as well.

While things largely run on auto-pilot, I need to concern myself every now and then with their ongoing upkeep.

If you ask N different people about the meaning of the term ‘DevOps’, you will surely get N different definitions. However, whenever I have to perform VM maintenance, I like to think I am at least dipping my toes into the DevOps domain. At the very least, the job seems to be concerned with making infrastructure setup and upgrades reliable and repeatable.

Even if it’s not fully automated, at the very least, I have generated a lot of lists for how to make things work (I’m a big fan of Trello’s Kanban boards for this), so it gets easier every time (ideally, anyway).

Infrastructure History

For a solid decade, from 2004 to 2014, everything was hosted on shared, cPanel-based web hosting. In mid-2014, I moved from the shared hosting over to my own VPSs, hosted on DigitalOcean. I must have used Ubuntu 14.04 at the time, as I look down down the list of Ubuntu LTS releases. It was with much trepidation that I undertook this task (knowing that anything that might go wrong with the stack, from the OS up to the apps, would all be firmly my fault), but it turned out not to be that bad. The earliest lesson you learn for such a small-time setup is to have a frontend VPS (web server) and a backend VPS (database server). That way, a surge in HTTP requests has no chance of crashing the database server due to depleted memory.

At the end of 2016, I decided to refresh the VMs. I brought them up to Ubuntu 16.04 at the time.

Earlier this year, I decided it would be a good idea to refresh the VMs again since it had been more than 3 years. The VMs were getting long in the tooth. Plus, I had seen an article speculating that Azure, another notable cloud hosting environment, might be getting full. It made me feel like I should grab some resources while I still could (resource-hoarding was in this year).

I decided to use 18.04 for these refreshed VMs, even though 20.04 was available. I think I was a little nervous about 20.04 because I heard weird things about something called snap packages being the new standard for distributing software for the platform and I wasn’t ready to take that plunge.

Which brings me to this month’s VM refresh in which I opted to take the 20.04 plunge.

Oh MediaWiki

I’ve been the maintainer and caretaker of the MultimediaWiki for 15 years now (wow! Where does the time go?). It doesn’t see a lot of updating these days, but I know it still serves as a resource for lots of obscure technical multimedia information. I still get requests for new accounts because someone has uncovered some niche technical data and wants to make sure it gets properly documented.

MediaWiki is quite an amazing bit of software and it undergoes constant development and improvement. According to the version history, I probably started the MultimediaWiki with the 1.5 series. As of this writing, 1.35 is the latest and therefore greatest lineage.

This pace of development can make it a bit of a chore to keep up to date. This was particularly true in the old days of the shared hosting when you didn’t have direct shell access and so it’s something you put off for a long time.

Honestly, to be fair, the upgrade process is pretty straightforward:

  1. Unpack a set of new files on top of the existing tree
  2. Run a PHP script to perform any database table upgrades

Pretty straightforward, assuming that there are no hiccups along the way, right? And the vast majority of the time, that’s the case. Until it’s not. I had an upgrade go south about a year and a half ago (I wasn’t the only MW installation to have the problem at the time, I learned). While I do have proper backups, it still threw me for a loop and I worked for about an hour to restore the previous version of the site. That experience understandably left me a bit gun-shy about upgrading the wiki.

But upgrades must happen, especially when security notices come out. Eventually, I created a Trello template with a solid, 18-step checklist for upgrading MW as soon as a new version shows up. It’s still a chore, just not so nerve-wracking when the steps are all enumerated like that.

As I compose the post, I think I recall my impetus for wanting to refresh from the 16.04 VM. 16.04 used PHP 7.0. I wanted to upgrade to the latest MW, but if I tried to do so, it warned me that it needed PHP 7.4. So I initialized the new 18.04 VM as described above… only to realize that PHP 7.2 is the default on 18.04. You need to go all the way to 20.04 for 7.4 standard. I’m sure it’s possible to install later versions of PHP on 16.04 or 18.04, but I appreciate going with the defaults provided by the distro.

I figured I would just stay with MediaWiki 1.34 series and eschew 1.35 series (requiring PHP 7.4) for the time being… until I started getting emails that 1.34 would go end-of-life soon. Oh, and there are some critical security updates, but those are only for 1.35 (and also 1.31 series which is still stubbornly being maintained for some reason).

So here I am with a fresh Ubuntu 20.04 VM running PHP 7.4 and MediaWiki 1.35 series.

How Much Process?

Anyone who decides to host on VPSs vs, say, shared hosting is (or ought to be) versed on the matter that all your data is your own problem and that glitches sometimes happen and that your VM might just suddenly disappear. (Indeed, I’ve read rants about VMs disappearing and taking entire un-backed-up websites with them, and also watched as the ranters get no sympathy– “yeah, it’s a VM; the data is your responsibility”) So I like to make sure I have enough notes so that I could bring up a new VM quickly if I ever needed to.

But the process is a lot of manual steps. Sometimes I wonder if I need to use some automation software like Ansible in order to bring a new VM to life. Why do that if I only update the VM once every 1-3 years? Well, perhaps I should update more frequently in order to ensure the process is solid?

Seems like a lot of effort for a few websites which really don’t see much traffic in the grand scheme of things. But it still might be an interesting exercise and might be good preparation for some other websites I have in mind.

Besides, if I really wanted to go off the deep end, I would wrap everything up in containers and deploy using D-O’s managed Kubernetes solution.

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Running Windows XP In 2016

January 1st, 2016 by Multimedia Mike

I have an interest in getting a 32-bit Windows XP machine up and running. I have a really good yet slightly dated and discarded computer that seemed like a good candidate for dedicating to this task. So the question is: Can Windows XP still be installed from scratch on a computer, activated, and used in 2016? I wasn’t quite sure since I have heard stories about how Microsoft has formally ended support for Windows XP as of the first half of 2014 and I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant.

Spoiler: It’s still possible to install and activate Windows XP as of the writing of this post. It’s also possible to download and install all the updates published up until support ended.

The Candidate Computer
This computer was assembled either in late 2008 or early 2009. It was a beast at the time.


New old Windows XP computer
Click for a larger image

It was built around the newly-released NVIDIA GTX 280 video card. The case is a Thermaltake DH-101, which is a home theater PC thing. The motherboard is an Asus P5N32-SLI Premium with a Core 2 Duo X6800 2.93 GHz CPU on board. 2 GB of RAM and a 1.5 TB hard drive are also present.

The original owner handed it off to me because their family didn’t have much use for it anymore (too many other machines in the house). Plus it was really, obnoxiously loud. The noisy culprit was the stock blue fan that came packaged with the Intel processor (seen in the photo) whining at around 65 dB. I replaced the fan and brought the noise level way down.

As for connectivity, the motherboard has dual gigabit NICs (of 2 different chipsets for some reason) and onboard wireless 802.11g. I couldn’t make the latter work and this project was taking place a significant distance from my wired network. Instead, I connected a USB 802.11ac dongle and antenna which is advertised to work in both Windows XP and Linux. It works great under Windows XP. Meanwhile, making the adapter work under Linux provided a retro-computing adventure in which I had to modify C code to make the driver work.

So, score 1 for Windows XP over Linux here.

The Simple Joy of Retro-computing
One thing you have to watch out for when you get into retro-computing is fighting the urge to rant about the good old days of computing. Most long-time computer users have a good understanding of the frustration that computers keep getting faster by orders of magnitude and yet using them somehow feels slower and slower over successive software generations.
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Saying Goodbye To Old Machines

November 30th, 2014 by Multimedia Mike

I recently sent a few old machines off for recycling. Both had relevance to the early days of the FATE testing effort. As is my custom, I photographed them (poorly, of course).

First, there’s the PowerPC-based Mac Mini I procured thanks to a Craigslist ad in late 2006. I had plans to develop automated FFmpeg building and testing and was already looking ahead toward testing multiple CPU architectures. Again, this was 2006 and PowerPC wasn’t completely on the outs yet– although Apple’s MacTel transition was in full swing, the entire new generation of video game consoles was based on PowerPC.


PPC Mac Mini pieces

Click for larger image


I remember trying to find a Mac Mini PPC on Craigslist. Many were to be found, but all asked more than the price of even a new Mac Mini Intel, always because the seller was leaving all of last year’s applications and perhaps including a monitor, neither of which I needed. Fortunately, I found this bare Mac Mini. Also fortunate was the fact that it was far easier to install Linux on it than the first PowerPC machine I owned.

After FATE operation transitioned away from me, I still kept the machine in service as an edge server and automated backup machine. That is, until the hard drive failed on reboot one day. Thus, when it was finally time to recycle the computer, I felt it necessary to disassemble the machine and remove the hard drive for possible salvage and then for destruction.
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Evolution of Multimedia Fiefdoms

September 30th, 2014 by Multimedia Mike

I want to examine how multimedia fiefdoms have risen and fallen through the years.


Medieval Castle

Back in the day, the multimedia fiefdoms were built around the formats put forth by competing companies: there was Microsoft/WMV, Apple/MOV, and Real/RM as the big contenders. On2 always wanted to be a player in this arena but could never quite catch a break. A few brave contenders held the line for open source and also for the power users who desired one application that could handle everything (my original motivation for wanting to get into multimedia hacking).

The computer desktop was the battleground for internet-based media stream. Whatever happened to those days? Actually, if memory serves, Flash-based video streaming stepped on all of them.

Over the last 6-7 years, the battleground has expanded to cover mobile devices, where Flash’s impact has… lessened. During this time, multimedia technology pretty well standardized on a particular stack, namely, the MPEG (MP4/H.264/AAC) stack.

The belligerents in this war tried for years to effectively penetrate new territory, namely, the living room where the television lived. This had been slowgoing for years due to various user interface and content issues, but steadily improved.

Last April, Amazon announced their entry into the set-top box market with the Fire TV. That was when it suddenly crystallized for me that the multimedia ecosystem has radically shifted. Now, the multimedia fiefdoms revolve around access to content via streaming services.

Off the top of my head, here are some of the fiefdoms these days (fiefdoms I have experience using):

  • Netflix (subscription streaming)
  • Amazon (subscription, rental, and purchased streaming)
  • Hulu Plus (subscription streaming)
  • Apple (rental and purchased media)

I checked some results on Can I Stream.It? (which I refer to often) and found a bunch more streaming fiefdoms such as Google (both Play and YouTube, which are separate services), Sony, Xbox 360, Crackle, Redbox Instant, Vudu, Target Ticket, Epix, Sony, SnagFilms, and XFINITY StreamPix. And surely, these are probably just services available in the United States; I know other geographical regions have their own fiefdoms.

What happened?

When I got into multimedia hacking, there were all these disparate, competing ecosystems. As a consumer, I didn’t care where the media came from, I just wanted to play it. That’s what inspired me to work on open source multimedia projects. Now I realize that I have the same problem 10-15 years later: there are multiple competing ecosystems. I might subscribe to fiefdoms X and Y, but am frustrated to learn that something I’d like to watch is only available through fiefdom Z. Very few of these fiefdoms can be penetrated using open source technology.

I’m not really sure about the point about this whole post. Multimedia technology seems really standardized these days. But that’s probably just my perspective because I have spent way too long focusing on a few areas of multimedia technology such as audio and video coding. It’s interesting that all these services probably leverage the same limited number of codecs. Their differentiation comes from the catalog of content that each is able to license for streaming. There are different problems to solve in the multimedia arena now.

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