Case Study: Virtualizing an Existing Solaris ISP Environment
05 March 2012

The Context

My client was a mid-sized not-for-profit organization. It was made up of a number of departments, all of whom had access to “hosting”, which existed to provide whatever was required for those departments’ online presence. Effectively, hosting was a small, independent ISP.

Hosting was nothing but trouble. From the customer’s point of view, the service was unreliable, with terrible security issues. From management’s point of view, it was overcomplicated, a drain on resources, and generally far more trouble than it was worth.

I had worked on the old platform a few years before, when the job was constant firefighting. When I was hired again, it was with the brief to “fix hosting”.

The Problem

A Broken Platform

There had been nothing approaching a CTO, or any kind of strategy, for most of the prior lifetime of hosting. Customers had been given whatever they wanted, whether it was the right thing to do or not, poor decisions had been made early on, and much of the infrastructure felt like a loosely connected bunch of CV-building exercises.

We ran a mix of Solaris 8 and 9 on a variety of mostly old SPARC hardware. The racks were primarily full of v100s and v210s, with a few T2000s and a v480 cluster with a bunch of Photon arrays hanging off it. The cluster was Veritas (VCS), with the disks managed, naturally, through VxVM. The license cost a fortune, no one in the organization really knew how to work it, and it wasn’t even configured properly. (It once took a whole weekend to fail over an NFS service.) Add to this the fact that the big 480s and the Photons, with sixty-six 10,000rpm disks, were probably sucking down more power than everything else put together. This had to go.

The UPS and the air-con were sweating, constantly above 90% capacity, and we were paying too much to Sun for support on too much ageing hardware, the vast majority of which was overspecced for the job it was doing.

Nothing was built the same way; the only constant was that everything was built with everything: we were spending hours every night backing up entire distributions.

It was clear that the way to fix hosting was to rebuild it, from the ground up. But what exactly did I have to rebuild?

No Documentation

The first problem was that we had little idea what we had. Everything was scattered everywhere, and the problem was this basic:

The only documentation I could find was that which I’d written three years before, and that was no longer current. Throw in the world’s worst host naming scheme, completely inconsistent and illogical naming and layout of everything cluster-related, and you had a heck of a knot to unpick before any kind of work could be done.

Poor Dialogue With Customers

We hosted a lot of legacy and third-party sites. In many cases we weren’t able to find out who owned the things we knew we had. A lot of code which did have an owner was very old and unmaintained, and people were not prepared to spend money to have it fixed or updated. This led to…

Frequent Security Issues

Sites had been hacked several times, through gigantic security holes down to poor coding and exploits in ancient software. The nature of the shared hosting (many Apache vhosts on a small number of servers; content shared by NFS, writable by the web server user) meant than when one site was compromised, many others were too. Even the people who did look after their code had their sites defaced or removed due to the neglect of those who didn’t.

When I started looking around, I found autoindexed directories visible to the world, containing, among other things, raw SQL dumps of the production databases!

A Mess of Software

We had a lots of software, in lots of versions. Many sites were PHP, and no two servers ran the same version. We had MySQL 3.0, 4.0, 4.1 and 5.0 services on the cluster, as well as Oracle. ColdFusion, Tomcat and JRun. We had two backup systems (NetBackup and Amanda), some email was handled with Exim, some with sendmail. We ran a Lotus Notes on old Netra T1. And, as I said earlier, it wasn’t clear how much of this was current or essential to the business, and even less clear how it hung together.

A Messy Network

We had about forty servers, and eight or nine subnets. We therefore had too many NICs in use, too much cabling, too many routers, and a horrific situation where a Cisco CSS had been strongarmed into becoming the heart of the network. It joined pretty much everything together, and had the most dreadful configuration. I say we had too many routers, but from another point of view we didn’t have enough. The CSS handled most of the routing, and it handled it slowly.

NFS was over-used. Everything was on NFS. When you requested a page, the content came from one of a number of NFS shares on the cluster. The logs were on NFS too, and the subnets hosting the NFS shares communicated with the web servers by going through the aforementioned CSS twice.

No Monitoring or Alerting

We had Nagios, but it did pretty much nothing, and no one looked at it anyway. Almost everything in it was red because the config was years out of date. We had no off-site monitoring of the web sites.

The System was Live

I had to build a new system, but it had to be done alongside the old one. Minimal downtime was vital.

No Hardware

I had little or no budget, so a new platform had to be build on on the existing hardware.

The Solution

The first thing I did was prioritise. The constant security issues meant a new, heavily virtualized, web-server tier couldn’t come soon enough. I also had a lot of machines serving web content, and consolidating them would free up some much-needed hardware. The lowest priority was the backups: there was a well set-up L25-backed Netbackup system.


I have a lot of jobs, and I have to deal with a lot of mess people leave behind. This only adds to my obsession with the following aims. In my opinion, systems should be:

Solaris 10 was a perfect fit for this project, with its lightweight virtualization. It was still pretty new back then, with few best-pracices defined, so I had to come up with rules myself. The following seemed sensible.

Safety and Security

Every box was a properly minimal build: extraneous packages and users were removed, and only essential services ran. I did this through the Jumpstart server, and applied every hardening method I’d picked up in 15 years as a Solaris admin. Everything was, of course, behind a firewall, and the various subnets could only talk to one another on the ports they absolutely had to.

As I’ve said, all the action happened inside a zone, so it was important to protect those zones from one another. In those days you couldn’t throttle ZFS on a per-zone basis, so there was no way to stop an I/O intensive zone from interfering with the others, but it was possible to stop a runaway dataset filling the disk and DOSing the rest of the box. So, all zone datasets were capped with ZFS quotas.

Sparse zones were not only quicker to install, quicker to patch, and more economical on disk than whole-root ones, but also have the advantage of mounting most of the operating system read-only, which is a very nice security feature. We didn’t have Crossbox in Solaris 10, so I mostly used shared IP instances. As like services shared physical hosts, and were therefore on the same subnet, this was generally fine. (Except in a couple of cases, which I’ll come back to.)

I resource-capped all non-global zones, on CPU and memory. Initial limits were educated guesses, but I watched usage closely, and didn’t have to make many adjustements. The shared IP meant that, theoretically, a single zone could consume all available bandwidth, but there wasn’t much I could do about that, given the limits of the technology.

The principle of least privilege mentioned above was followed through by analyzing all our custom services with ppriv, and removing or adding privileges from the SMF manifests as required. Things like Apache and named, which normally run as root, didn’t. They ran as specially tailored users, usually with less privilege than a normal interactive user would be given.

Just in case of compromise, globals had different passwords from the NGZs, and you couldn’t SSH into the global from the NGZ anyway.


Working out what we had was the first hands-on job. I wrote scripts that scoped out all the hardware and OS configurations; worked out what Apache configs applied to which DNS names; generated IP address maps and compared to the internal DNS; things like that. Most of this eventually ended up in s-audit.

Begin at the Beginning: A Build Server, a File Server, and a Repo

This meant a first, clean Solaris 10 install with Sun Studio and just enough tools to build the Open Source software I wanted to use. I hated the “install everything” approach the previous sys-admins had used, and I knew that with the amount of legacy we had to accomodate, I couldn’t rely on Sun’s provided packages of things like Apache, MySQL and PHP. I never like the third-party freeware options, with their dependency rabbit-holes and weird filesystem layouts. Better, I thought, to do it ourselves, and build what we needed, how we needed it.

I didn’t just need to build software though, I needed to build servers.

I wanted everything configured uniformly right from the start, so a good Jumpstart setup was vital. I already had a proven Jumpstart framework, which I’d used on a number of jobs, and I didn’t need the complexity and overhead of JET. I put together minimal profiles, and was ready to build.

I also built a new NFS server. We had a 3510 array that was supposed to replace the Photons, but the previous admins had never been able to get it to work properly. We spent a little money buying a new v245, because we didn’t have any hosts which could take two HBAs, and we obviously wanted as few single-points-of-failure as possible.

After much reading and benchmarking, I decided to use the 3510 as a JBOD, having ZFS handle the RAID. The 3510 was given fully up-to-date firmware, its controllers set for full redundancy, and it was configured for in-band and, in case of emergency, out-of-band management.

Custom Tooling

It very quickly became apparent that the amount of zones we were building required something quicker and easier to use than a manually driving zonecfg and zoneadm. So, I wrote what ended up as s-zone. This let us build a variety of heavily customized zones from a single, concise command, and also expunge them completely from the system when we didn’t need them any more.

The Jumpstart framework grew a little, s-audit grew a lot, and, with hindsight, you’d call it devops. I wrote ZFS tools, to automatically snapshot, and recursive-send datasets long before things like time-slider, the auto-snapshot service, and zfs’s -R flag were available.

The Web Tier

I managed to snag a few T2000s from a defunct project. With their large number of CPU threads and super-fast IO, these were perfect for the virtualized web-server tier.

Beginning with a pair of top-spec machines, the plan was to have a separate sparse zone on each one for each website we hosted, with a load-balancer in front handling the traffic. If we needed more capacity, we could scale horizontally.

When I found legacy sites which weren’t being developed any more, I put the code into Subversion, exported it on both zones, and loopback mounted the /www filesystems read-only. That way, if the sites continued to be compromised, they couldn’t be defaced, and no one else would be affected.

I custom-built Apache, with only the modules essential to the sites. It was installed in /usr/local, loopback mounted, read-only. Where sites didn’t need their own Apache or PHP (which it turned out most did), the /usr/local mounts were shared between zones. This made it easy to upgrade software across multiple zones.

We always tried the latest-and-greatest versions of software, and if sites didn’t work, went backwards until we hit the latest version that did. Sometimes that got complicated and long-winded, with a couple of sites requiring PHP extensions that in turn required very specific versions of various libraries. (We ended up building a PHP 3.0.8 server in 2009!)

The new zones were configured in the existing front-end load balancer, clearing out all the old config as we went, so we ended up with a super-simple, tiny configuration. Sensible naming conventions built around zone names, which came from the site names they served, made for a self-documenting configuration anyone could understand at a glance.

Apache logged locally, rotating via cronolog, which gave us a performance boost over the old NFS logging. A script on the file server harvested old log files every night, being smart enough to know what should and shouldn’t be there, and alerting accordingly. It made one query to the global zone, accepting the coming-and-going of NGZs without complaint. It also expired the very old logs at the file server end as it went.

Another T2000 was added as a dev/staging box. It began as a direct clone of live, giving the developers the chance to easily trial on a equivalent-to-live environment.

Releasing Code and Content

As our NFS server was a single-point-of-failure, I wanted to get away from NFS-mounted content as much as possible. To that end I wrote a script which sat on the file server and deployed code. A flat file mapped site-names to directories and target hosts, and a single invocation would take a ZFS snapshot of the source directory and rsync from it to the appropriate hosts. (This guarantees all targets get the same, consistent, data.) Once that was done, the snap was removed. If nothing had changed, it did nothing, so it could run via cron for rudimentary CI. I also wrapped it with a simple web interface, so developers could release their own code on demand.

The CRM system was built around webDAV, and people wrote and read a fair bit of data through Subversion. So, it seemed natural to put webDAV and SVN in their own zones on the fileserver, with direct access to the disks they needed. In the past people had had difficulties getting permissions of things uploaded by DAV, the CRM system itself, Subversion, and normal users to play nicely, and ended up with horrible “777” umask and chmod hacks. A bit of careful thought and UID mapping eliminated this, and got things working in an elegant, secure fashion.


Migrating all web servers on to the T2000s gave me a stack of v210s I could re-use, and a stack of v100s I could throw in a skip. So, I next set about migrating DNS, mail, DMZ SSH hosts, log archiving, and a whole bunch of other services onto a couple of said v210s.

I made two of everything, splitting primary and secondaries across the two hosts so losing one was no more significant than losing the other.

As we moved DNS, I wrote a script to automatically test everything in the zone files, weeding out the dead entries. The infrastructure migration took over a dozen unpatched, messy as hell servers and put everything they did on two tight, economical boxes.

By rejigging the IP address space we managed to lose a couple of subnets, and by being smarter with scheduling, eliminated the need for a dedicated backup network entirely. This was also helped by the fact we were backing up a fraction of the data we were before.

We also took the opportunity to completely recable, clearing out more redundant wiring than we ever imagined, losing a couple of switches, and colour-coding cables to subnet. We turned miles of incomprehensible, tangled, sagging pink spaghetti into something you could understand by glancing at it.

System logs went over the network to a super-locked-down syslog server zone. We were able to analyze these, and the archived webserver, logs with Splunk.

As hosts were built in the new system, their LOMs were brought up-to-date, configured to present the hostname in the prompt, password protected, and put on the management subnet. Internal DNS was updated to have the hostname of the node with -lom attached to it.

The infrastructure boxes needed to have legs on all the subnets, as some of the zones only needed to talk to particular subnets. It’s no problem just to give a zone ownership of a physical NIC port, but a few things needed some non-trivial routing, which ended up in a a slightly nasty transient SMF service that waited for zones to come up, then dropped in routing according to a config file. Of course, with Crossbow, we wouldn’t have to do that today.


We had another contractor in who knew more about MySQL than me, and he chose to have a pair of DB servers, with each version of MySQL running in a separate zone on each host. They were in master-master replication mode, and behind a load-balancer. Where we had access to the code, we migrated applications by changing the database host, and once we’d proved the new database servers were good, we pointed everything else at it by remapping DNS and turning off the cluster services.

Again, we tried every database on the latest (at the time 5.0) MySQL, and moved backwards if there were problems. We ended up with four zones on each DB host.

We had hundreds of databases which we suspected weren’t being used. I wrote a DTrace script which watched filesystem activity to see which databases were being read from or written to (ignoring backups and dumps), and left it running for several weeks. By looking at the aggregated buckets in the output, we had a realistic view of usage, and were able to get rid of a huge amount of unneeded data.

Development databases ended up being put in a dedicated zone on the dev box (which opened me up to the “joys” of tuning MySQL for the T-series!). This protected live from mistakes, and, working with the devs, let us trial new configs or versions of MySQL on live-like data.

Oddballs and LDOMs

A couple of weird applications wouldn’t run in zones, because they required system calls which weren’t permitted inside a container. (Now, you can usually fix this with the limitpriv setting, but that wasn’t available then.)


This was early days for zones, and none of the industry standard monitoring frameworks knew how to deal with them. We inherited a broken Nagios setup, and made some token attempt to fit the new hosts into it. (We had a contractor in whose first attempt to write zone-aware NRPE plugins resulted in a fork-bomb that DOSed everything he ran it on. We let him go.)

We also had the remnants of a poorly implemented Big Brother setup, but I like that even less than I like Nagios. As the system settled in, I had some free time, and ended up writing a small, very zone-aware monitoring system from scratch. It was simple, but worked very well.

I’ve always believed very much in monitoring the service, rather than the boxes. We had nothing like that in the original setup, so we set up a Site24x7 account to keep an eye on the service as a whole.


I was kept a couple of spare chassis racked up, so should one of our creaky old boxes fail, all I had to do was pull disks and network cables, stick them in the spare, and be back up and running in a couple of minutes. I tweaked the OBPs of the spares to boot as quickly as they possibly could. I thought about some kind of clustering for the 3510, but it seemed too complex a solution for this system. So, I built and maintained a spare v210 with an HBA that could be manually swapped over, and the Zpool re-imported.

I also wrote a disaster recovery script for zones, which worked in tandem with s-zone to rebuild a trashed zone in seconds. As soon as Solaris supported it, I migrated all the zones to ZFS roots, to take full advantage of snapshotting. (I was slower to migrate whole servers to ZFS root, but got there eventually.)

We took nightly incremental backups with Netbackup, but also flash archived the servers regularly, so we could quickly bare-metal restore from the FLARs should the need arise. The Jumpstart framework was adapted to handle FLARs automatically: a simple boot net - install of an existing server would rebuild from the latest archive, preserving the data and local Zpools.


Though the existing NetBackup solution had been a good one, we had an entirely new estate. We were also two major version numbers behind current on the NetBackup software and the OS which hosted it, so we built a new box, with fresh policies for the new system. As our builds were so minimal, we realized we could get a lot of benefit from a disk-based media server. If we needed to recover in a hurry, there would be a good chance that whatever we wanted would still be on that staging host, and recovery would be fast and simple, likely with no need to revert to tape.

We commandeered a stack of unused commidity hardware, and built up a media server, using Solaris 10 X86, chucking all the disk (other then OS) into one huge compressed zpool.

I wrote a script which harvests NetBackup log data and fed it to a special s-audit panel.


I believe in patching aggressively. Like CI, applying patches as they come along isn’t likely to break things; applying huge great bundles every couple of years is. With minimal builds, patching is quick, and with ZFS snapshots, it’s easy to roll back if you need to.

I wrote a script to patch servers consistently. You would patch a dev box, and once it was proved good, the script would patch live to the exact same specifications. We never had a patch break anything.

What Would I do Differently If I Did it Again?

Surprisingly little. Bearing in mind that the majority of this work was done in 2007, when the technology was new and the territory relatively unexplored, I think we got a lot right. It’s been nice to see certain design decisions vindicated by the likes of Joyent.

Today, I’d do the more complicated scripting in Ruby, and dashboards with Sinatra, rather than the mix of shell and PHP I used before.  I’m not sure what OS I’d use. Solaris 10 still gives me everything I’d want, and it’s still fully supported. The more heavyweight approach to zoning in Solaris 11 has plusses and minuses; and I dislike IPS.

Another interesting area is configuration management. I have strong Chef experience now, and given that we had a dynamic, scalable, virtualized environment, it’s very tempting to think Chef would be an excellent fit. But, the environment was also small. I’ve worked on a multi-thousand instance estate, and you simply can’t run something like that without sophisticated configuration management. But, there’s a curve of effort-in versus benefit-out, and I’m not

Logging has (finally) moved on in the last couple of years, and I would probably not have anything logging straight to disk any more, but everything going into, say, Logstash.

We had a few bad experiences with master-master replication. Nowadays, I’d look at Percona and MariaDB’s native clustering.