The Best of 2016

See the 2015 post here!

Here is my second installment of the best things I’ve found, learned, read, etc. These things are listed in no particular order, and may not necessarily be new.

This annual “Best Of” series is inspired by @fogus and his blog, Send More Paramedics.

Favorite Blog Posts Read

Articles I’ve Written for Other Publications

I’ve continued to write for a few different outlets, and still find it a lot of fun. Here is the total list for 2016.

Favorite Technical Books Read

I haven’t read as much this year as previously

  • The Cathedral & the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary – Really cool book about early community software development practices (at least that’s what I got out of it). Also covers some interesting history on the start of time-sharing systems and move to open-source platforms.
  • Computer Lib – An absolute classic, the original how-to book for a new computer user, written by Ted Nelson. I managed to track down a copy for a *reasonable* price and read the Computer Lib portion. Still need to get through Dream Machines.

Favorite Non-Technical Books Read

Number of Books Read

5.5

Favorite Music Discovered

Favorite Television Shows

Black Mirror (2011), Game of Thrones (2011) , Westworld (2016)

Programming Languages Used for Work/Personal

Java, JavaScript, Python, Perl, Objective-C.

Programming Languages I Want To Use Next Year

  • Common Lisp – A “generalized” Lisp dialect.
  • Clojure – A Lisp dialect that runs on the Java Virtual Machine
  • Go – Really interested to see how this scales with concurrent network programming.
  • Crystal – Speedy like go, pretty syntax.

Still Need to Read

Dream Machines, Literary Machines, Design Patterns, 10 PRINT CHR$(205.5+RND(1)); : GOTO 10

Life Events of 2016

  • Got married.
  • Became a homeowner.

Life Changing Technologies Discovered

  • Amazon Echo – Not revolutionary, but has a lot of potential to change the way people interact with computers more so than Siri or Google Now. The fact that I can keep this appliance around and work with it hands free gives me a taste of how we may interact with the majority of our devices within the next decade.
  • IPFS – A distributed peer-to-peer hypermedia protocol. May one day replace torrents, but for now it is fun to play with.
  • Matrix – A distributed communication platform, works really well as an IRC bridge or replacement. Really interested to see where it will go. Anyone can set up a federated homeserver and join the network.

Favorite Subreddits

/r/cyberpunk, /r/sysadmin, /r/darknetplan

Completed in 2016

Plans for 2017

  • Write for stuff I’ve written for already (NODE, Lunchmeat, Exolymph, 2600)
  • Write for new stuff (Neon Dystopia, Active Wirehead, ???, [your project here])
  • Set up a public OpenNIC tier 2 server.
  • Participate in more public server projects (ntp pool, dn42, etc.)
  • Continue work for Philly Mesh.
  • Do some FPGA projects to get more in-depth with hardware.
  • Organization, organization, organization!
  • Documentation.
  • Reboot Raunchy Taco IRC.

See you in 2017!

 

Building DIY Community Mesh Networks (2600 Article)

Now that the article has been printed in 2600 magazine, Volume 33, Issue 3 (2016-10-10), I’m able to republish it on the web. The article below is my submission to 2600 with some slight formatting changes for hyperlinks.

Building DIY Community Mesh Networks
By Mike Dank
Famicoman@gmail.com

Today, we are faced with issues regarding our access to the Internet, as well as our freedoms on it. As governmental bodies fight to gain more control and influence over the flow of our information, some choose to look for alternatives to the traditional Internet and build their own networks as they see fit. These community networks can pop up in dense urban areas, remote locations with limited Internet access, and everywhere in between.

Whether you are politically fueled by issues of net neutrality, privacy, and censorship, fed up with an oligarchy of Internet service providers, or just like tinkering with hardware, a wireless mesh network (or “meshnet”) can be an invaluable project to work on. Numerous groups and organizations have popped up all over the world, creating robust mesh networks and refining the technologies that make them possible. While the overall task of building a wireless mesh network for your community may seem daunting, it is easy to get started and scale up as needed.

What Are Mesh Networks?

Think about your existing home network. Most people have a centralized router with several devices hooked up to it. Each device communicates directly with the central router and relies on it to relay traffic to and from other devices. This is called a hub/spoke topology, and you’ll notice that it has a single point of failure. With a mesh topology, many different routers (referred to as nodes) relay traffic to one another on the path to the target machine. Nodes in this network can be set up ad-hoc; if one node goes down, traffic can easily be rerouted to another node. If new nodes come online, they can be seamlessly integrated into the network. In the wireless space, distant users can be connected together with the help of directional antennas and share network access. As more nodes join a network, service only improves as various gaps are filled in and connections are made more redundant. Ultimately, a network is created that is both decentralized and distributed. There is no single point of failure, making it difficult to shut down.

When creating mesh networks, we are mostly concerned with how devices are routing to and linking with one another. This means that most services you are used to running like HTTP or IRC daemons should be able to operate without a hitch. Additionally, you are presented with the choice of whether or not to create a darknet (completely separated from the Internet) or host exit nodes to allow your traffic out of the mesh.

Existing Community Mesh Networking Projects

One of the most well-known grassroots community mesh networks is Freifunk, based out of Germany, encompassing over 150 local communities with over 25,000 access points. Guifi.net based in Spain, boasts over 27,000 nodes spanning over 36,000 km. In North America we see projects like Hyperboria which connect smaller mesh networking communities together such as Seattle Meshnet, NYC Mesh, and Toronto Mesh. We also see standalone projects like PittMesh in Pittsburgh, WasabiNet in St. Louis, and People’s Open Network in Oakland, California.

While each of these mesh networks may run different software and have a different base of users, they all serve an important purpose within their communities. Additionally, many of these networks consistently give back to the greater mesh networking community and choose to share information about their hardware configurations, software stacks, and infrastructure. This only benefits those who want to start their own networks or improve existing ones.

Picking Your Hardware & OS

When I was first starting out with Philly Mesh, I was faced with the issue of acquiring hardware on a shoestring budget. Many will tell you that the best hardware is low-power computers with dedicated wireless cards. This however can incur a cost of several hundred dollars per node. Alternatively, many groups make use of SOHO routers purchased off-the-shelf, flashed with custom firmware. The most popular firmware used here is OpenWRT, an open source alternative that supports a large majority of consumer routers. If you have a relatively modern router in your house, there is a good chance it is already supported (if you are buying specifically for meshing, consider consulting OpenWRT’s wiki for compatibility. Based on Linux, OpenWRT really shines with its packaging system, allowing you to easily install and configure packages of networking software across several routers regardless of most hardware differences between nodes. With only a few commands, you can have mesh packages installed and ready for production.

Other groups are turning towards credit-card-sized computers like the BeagleBone Black and Raspberry Pi, using multiple USB WiFi dongles to perform over-the-air communication. Here, we have many more options for an operating system as many prefer to use a flavor of Linux or BSD, though most of these platforms also have OpenWRT support.

There are no specific wrong answers here when choosing your hardware. Some platforms may be better suited to different scenarios. For the sake of getting started, spec’ing out some inexpensive routers (aim for something with at least two radios, 8MB of flash) or repurposing some Raspberry Pis is perfectly adequate and will help you learn the fundamental concepts of mesh networking as well develop a working prototype that can be upgraded or expanded as needed (hooray for portable configurations). Make sure you consider options like indoor vs outdoor use, 2.4 GHz vs. 5 GHz band, etc.

Meshing Software

You have OpenWRT or another operating system installed, but how can you mesh your router with others wirelessly? Now, you have to pick out some software that will allow you to facilitate a mesh network. The first packages that you need to look at are for what is called the data link layer of the OSI model of computer networking (or OSI layer 2). Software here establishes the protocol that controls how your packets get transferred from node A to node B. Common software in this space is batman-adv (not to be confused with the layer 3 B.A.T.M.A.N. daemon), and open80211s, which are available for most operating systems. Each of these pieces of software have their own strengths and weaknesses; it might be best to install each package on a pair of routers and see which one works best for you. There is currently a lot of praise for batman-adv as it has been integrated into the mainline Linux tree and was developed by Freifunk to use within their own mesh network.

Revisiting the OSI model again, you will also need some software to work at the network layer (OSI layer 3). This will control your IP routing, allowing for each node to compute where to send traffic next on its forwarding path to the final destination on the network. There are many software packages here such as OLSR (Optimized Link State Routing), B.A.T.M.A.N (Better Approach To Mobile Adhoc Networking), Babel, BMX6, and CJDNS (Caleb James Delisle’s Networking Suite). Each of these addresses the task in its own way, making use of a proactive, reactive, or hybrid approach to determine routing. B.A.T.M.A.N. and OLSR are popular here, both developed by Freifunk. Though B.A.T.M.A.N. was designed as a replacement for OLSR, each is actively used and OLSR is highly utilized in the Commotion mesh networking firmware (a router firmware based off of OpenWRT).

For my needs, I settled on CJDNS which boasts IPv6 addressing, secure communications, and some flexibility in auto-peering with local nodes. Additionally, CJDNS is agnostic to how its host connects to peers. It will work whether you want to connect to another access point over batman-adv, or even tunnel over the existing Internet (similar to Tor or a VPN)! This is useful for mesh networks starting out that may have nodes too distant to connect wirelessly until more nodes are set up in-between. This gives you a chance to lay infrastructure sooner rather than later, and simply swap-out for wireless linking when possible. You also get the interesting ability to link multiple meshnets together that may not be geographically close.

Putting It Together

At this point, you should have at least one node (though you will probably want two for testing) running the software stack that you have settled on. With wireless communications, you can generally say that the higher you place the antenna, the better. Many community mesh groups try to establish nodes on top of buildings with roof access, making use of both directional antennas (to connect to distant nodes within the line of sight) as well as omnidirectional antennas to connect to nearby nodes and/or peers. By arranging several distant nodes to connect to one another via line of sight, you can establish a networking backbone for your meshnet that other nodes in the city can easily connect to and branch off of.

Gathering Interest

Mesh networks can only grow so much when you are working by yourself. At some point, you are going to need help finding homes for more nodes and expanding the network. You can easily start with friends and family – see if they are willing to host a node (they probably wouldn’t even notice it after a while). Otherwise, you will want to meet with like-minded people who can help configure hardware and software, or plan out the infrastructure. You can start small online by setting up a website with a mission statement and making a post or two on Reddit (/r/darknetplan in particular) or Twitter. Do you have hackerspaces in your area? Linux or amateur radio groups? A 2600 meeting you frequent? All of these are great resources to meet people face-to-face and grow your network one node at a time.

Conclusion

Starting a mesh network is easier than many think, and is an incredible way to learn about networking, Linux, micro platforms, embedded systems, and wireless communication. With only a few off-the-shelf devices, one can get their own working network set up and scale it to accommodate more users. Community-run mesh networks not only aid in helping those fed up with or persecuted by traditional network providers, but also those who want to construct, experiment, and tinker. With mesh networks, we can build our own future of communication and free the network for everyone.

 

Hyperboria 101 – Moving Through The Mesh

This article was originally written for and published at N-O-D-E on February 14th, 2016. It has been posted here for safe keeping.

HYPERBORIA 101 – MOVING THROUGH THE MESH

Hyperboria is a network built as an alternative to the traditional Internet. In simple terms, Hyperboria can be thought of as a darknet, meaning it is running on top of or hidden from the existing Internet (the clearnet). If you have ever used TOR or I2P, it is a similar concept. Unlike the Internet, with thousands of servers you may interact with on a day-to-day basis, access to Hyperboria is restricted in the sense that you need specific software, as well as someone already on the network, to access it. After configuring the client, you connect into the network, providing you with access to each node therein.

WF8CEM9

INTRODUCTION

Hyperboria isn’t just any alternative network, it’s decentralized. There is no central point of authority, no financial barrier of entry, and no government regulations. Instead, there is a meshnet; peer-to-peer connection with user controlled nodes and connected links. Commonly, mesh networks are seen in wireless communication. Access points are configured to link directly with other access points, creating multiple connections to support the longevity of the network infrastructure and the traffic traveling over it. More connections between nodes within the network is better than less here. With this topology, all nodes are treated equally. This allows networks to be set up inexpensively without the infrastructure needed to run a typical ISP, which usually has user traffic traveling up several gateways or routers owned by other companies.

But what is the goal of the Hyperboria network? With roots in Reddit’s /r/darknetplan, we see that the existing Internet has issues with censorship, government control, anonymity, security, and accessibility. /r/darknetplan has a lofty goal of creating a decentralized alternative to the Internet as we know it through a scalable stack of commodity hardware and open source software. This shifts the infrastructure away from physical devices owned by internet service providers, and instead puts hardware in the hands of the individual. This in itself is a large undertaking, especially considering the physical distance between those interested in joining the network, and the complexities of linking them together.

While the ultimate idea is a worldwide wireless mesh connecting everyone, it won’t happen overnight. In the meantime, physical infrastructure can be put in place by linking peers together over the existing Internet through an overlay network. In time with more participation, wireless coverage between peers will improve to the point where more traffic can flow over direct peer-to-peer wireless connections.

ADVANTAGES

The Hyperboria network relies upon a piece of software called cjdns to connect nodes and route traffic. Cjdns’ project page boasts that it implements “an encrypted IPv6 network using public-key cryptography for address allocation and a distributed hash table for routing.” Essentially, the application will create a tunnel interface on a host computer that acts as any other network interface (like an ethernet or wifi adapter). This is powerful in the way that is allows any existing services you might want to face a network (HTTP server, BitTorrent tracker, etc.) to run as long as that service is already compatible with IPv6. Additionally, cjdns is what is known as a layer 3 protocol, and is agnostic towards how the host connects to peers. It doesn’t matter much if the peer we need to connect to is over the internet or a physical access point across the street.

All traffic over Hyperboria is encrypted end-to-end, stopping eavesdroppers operating rogue nodes. Every node on the network receives a unique IPv6 address, which is derived from that node’s public key after the public/private keypair is generated. This eliminates the need for additional encryption configuration and creates an environment with enough IP addresses for substantial network expansion. As the network grows in size, the quality of routing also improves. With more active nodes, the number of potential routes increases to both mitigate failure and optimize the quickest path from sender to receiver.

Additionally, there are no authorities such as the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) who on the Internet control features like address allocation and top level domains. Censorship can easily be diminished. Suppose someone is operating a node hosting content that neighboring nodes find offensive, so they refuse to provide access. As long as that node operator can find at least one person somewhere on the network to peer with, he can continue making his content accessible to the whole network.

PEERING

One of the main differences between Hyperboria and networks like TOR is how connection to the network is made. Out of the box, running the cjdns client alone will not provide access to anything.

To be able to connect to the network, everyone must find someone to peer with; someone already on Hyperboria. This peer provides the new user with clearnet credentials for his node (an ip address, port number, key, and password) and the new user enters them into his configuration file. If all goes to plan, restarting the client will result in successful connection to the peer, providing the user access to the network.

However, having just one connection to Hyperboria doesn’t create a strong link. Consider what would happen if this node was experiencing an outage or was taken offline completely. The user and anyone connecting to him as an uplink into the network would lose access. Because of this, users are encouraged to find multiple peers near them to connect to.

In theory, everyone on the network should be running their node perpetually. If a user only launched cjdns occasionally, other nodes on the network will not be able to take advantage of routing through the user’s node as needed.

With the peering system, there is no central repository of node information. Nobody has to know anyone’s true identity, or see who is behind a particular node. All of the connections are made through user-to-user trust when establishing a new link. If for any reason a node operator were to become abusive to other nodes on the network, there is nothing stopping neighboring nodes from invalidating the credentials of the abuser, essentially kicking them off of the network. If any potential new node operator seemed malicious, other operators have the right to turn him away.

MESHLOCALS

The most important aspect of growing the Hyperboria network is to build meshlocals in geographically close communities. Consider how people would join Hyperboria without knowing about their local peers. Maybe someone in New York City would connect to someone in Germany, or someone in San Franscisco to someone in Philadelphia. This creates suboptimal linking as the two nodes in each example are geographically distant from each other.

The concept of a meshlocal hopes to combat this problem. Users physically close together are encouraged to form working groups and link their nodes together. Additionally, these users work together to seek new node operators with local outreach to grow the network. Further, meshlocals themselves can coordinate with one another to link together, strengthening regional areas.

Meshlocals can also offer more in-person communication, making it easier to configure wireless infrastructure between local nodes, or organize actions via a meetup. Many meshlocals have gone on to gain active followings in their regions, for example NYC Mesh and Seattle Meshnet.

INSIDE THE NETWORK

After connecting to Hyperboria, a user may be at a loss as to what he is able to do. All of these nodes are connected and working together, but what services are offered by the Hyperboria community, for the Hyperboria community? Unlike the traditional Internet, most services on Hyperboria are run non-commercially as a hobby.

For example, Hyperboria hosts Uppit: a Reddit clone, Social Node: a Twitter-like site,and HypeIRC: an IRC network. Some of these services may additionally be available on the clearnet, making access easy for those without a connection to Hyperboria. Others are Hyperboria-only, made specifically and only for the network.

As the network grows, more services are added while some fade away in favor of new ones or disrepair. This is all community coordinated after all; there is nothing to keep a node operator from revoking access to his node on a whim for any reason.

FUTURE

As previously mentioned, the ultimate goal of Hyperboria is to offer a replacement for the traditional Internet, built by the users. As it stands now, Hyperboria has established a core following and will see more widespread adoption as meshlocals continue to grow and support users.

Additionally, we see new strides in the development of cjdns with each passing year. As time has gone on, setup and configuration have becomes simpler for the end-user while compatibility has also improved. The more robust the software becomes, the easier it will be to run and keep running.

We also see the maturation of other related technologies. Wireless routers are becoming more inexpensive with more memory and processing power, suitable for running cjdns directly. We also see the rise of inexpensive, small form factor microcomputers like the Raspberry Pi and Beaglebone Black, allowing anyone to buy a functional, dedicated computer for the price of a small household appliance like an iron or coffee maker. Layer 2 technologies like B.A.T.M.A.N. Advanced are also growing, making easily-configurable wireless mesh networks simple to set up and work cooperatively with the layer 3 cjdns.

CONCLUSION

Hyperboria is an interesting exercise in mesh networking with an important end goal and exciting construction appealing to network professionals, computer hobbyists, digital activists, and developers alike.

It’ll be interesting to see how Hyperboria grows over the next few years, and if it is indeed able to offer a robust Internet-alternative for all. Until then, we ourselves can get our hands dirty setting up hardware, developing software, and helping others do the same. With any luck, we will be able to watch it grow. One node at a time.

SOURCES

https://github.com/cjdelisle/cjdns
https://docs.meshwith.me
https://www.reddit.com/r/darknetplan/comments/1vq87d/project_meshnet_for_everyone_a_complete/
https://www.reddit.com/r/dorknet/comments/xry23/this_is_my_first_time_hearing_about_darknet_i/

––
BY MIKE DANK (@FAMICOMAN)

 

Just Meshing Around

This article was originally written for and published at Philly Mesh on January 28th, 2014. It has been posted here for safe keeping.

The first time I remember hearing about mesh networks was sometime around 2005. Through rigorous searches, I had finally tracked down a complete run of Seattle Wireless TV, a proto-podcast that ran from July of 2003 until June of 2004. This hunt was undergone for my own personal interests; I was and am something of an online-video-series junkie, and I have since posted all the episodes for download on Archive.org where they will be preserved for anyone to watch for years to come. The topics of these episodes varied from interviews with operators, to wardriving tips, and even antenna creation. Pretty popular topics back then, but now the show serves as a fantastic time capsule from a technologically-simpler time. Even ten years ago, “getting into” wireless networking seemed radically different. Everyone tried their hand at wardriving, embraced 802.11g, and wired cantennas to their Orinoco cards. Here is a prime example of the times — some Seattleites setting up their own mesh network in 2002. Essentially, Wi-Fi was king and you could have it in your own home. I didn’t end up jumping into the mix until years later. I got my first laptop in 2006 and even then I usually embraced a wired connection. Watching these video shows was my own little outlet into what the cool kids were doing. It wasn’t until a little later that I decided it was time to play.

In 2007, I received a La Fonera router from Fon courtesy of a free giveaway (I actually managed to snag one on the very last day they offered the promotion). I thought it might be cool to join their Wi-Fi collective, but I was much more interested in what else I could do with the device. The day it came in the mail I promptly researched what others were doing with it and joined in on the popular act of flashing dd-wrt firmware onto the little device to get some expanded functionality. This process was harder than I expected and my lack of knowledge on the subject at the time showed. After many frustrating hours  flipping back and forth between telnet, tftp, and IRC chatter  I had a fully functioning dd-wrt router of my very own. While this was a feat all in itself, it went on to inspire me to see what I could do with other routers. I soon grew a little collection of second-hand Linksys WRT54G routers to tinker with and take up space on my work bench. I tried out different firmwares like OpenWrt and Tomato and always tried to keep something new running on a separate network for me to play with so I didn’t accidentally bring down the whole house’s internet access with a bad flash or misconfiguration.

Years later, I ended up working with wireless technology in a professional capacity. However, I was no longer handling everyone’s favorite suite of 802.11 protocols but the new-fangled 802.15.4 for low-rate wireless personal area networks. I focused on the ZigBee specification and its derivatives, which were and are a popular choice for technologies like home automation systems, wireless switches, electrical meters, etc. I spent months toying with the technology, working to understand the encryption, capture and dissect the traffic, and create and transmit my own custom packets. While the technology itself was enough to hold my interest, I felt a draw toward the technology’s use of wireless mesh networking to create expansive networks.

This wasn’t my first foray into the world of mesh networking per se. Prior to my work with ZigBee, I focused on meshing briefly to combat network interruption when creating the topology for a hobby-run IRC network I was administrating. This was, however, my first time applying mesh ideas wirelessly. I quickly learned the ins and outs of the Zigbee specification and the overarching 802.15.4 standard, but I couldn’t help thinking about how these technologies applied to Wi-Fi and how much fun an 802.11 mesh network would be.

Soon, I discovered the existence of Philly Mesh, a Philadelphia-based mesh network in its infancy that connected with Hyperboria: a global decentralized network of nodes running cjdns. I made a few posts to its subreddit, added my potential node to the map, and ordered some TP-Link routers to play with. While the group seemed to be gathering support, it ultimately (and much to my dismay) stagnated. Expansion stopped and communication dwindled. People disappeared and services started to fall apart. Over the next year I tried to work through getting my own node up but hit several setbacks. I bricked a router, ran into configuration problems, suffered from outdated or missing documentation, and then bricked another router. Eventually, after a seemingly endless process of torment and discovery, I connected to the network using a Raspberry Pi. My first cjdns node was up.

After this, I made a push to revive the Philly Mesh project. I constructed a new website, revived some of the services, and started my push for finding community involvement. Though it stands to be a slow process, things are coming together and people are coming forward. Whether or not we will have a thriving mesh network in the future is unknown, but the journey in this case interests me just as much as the destination.

As of now, I’m embracing wireless mesh as a hobby. I still have a pile of routers to play with and test firmware on, and am getting new hardware every so often. As for the bricked TP-Links, I’ve picked up USB/TTL adapter in an attempt to correct my wrongdoings and get cjdns set up properly. I’m also constantly playing with my settings on the Raspberry Pi installation as I have to firewall things off, assure reliability for an application crash, and generally make sure things are running smoothly. Additionally, I’ve been toying around with different technologies to set up an access point through the Raspberry Pi such as a USB/Ethernet adapter to bridge a connection between an old router and the Pi, and a USB dongle to create an access point in a more direct model. Aside from the Raspberry Pi and assorted routers, I’m also interested in getting cjdns installed and configured on plug computers like the Pogoplug and single board computers like the BeagleBone Black.

Where will all of this take us? Hopefully this is a stepping stone on the way to building a thriving local mesh, but the future is unknown. I’d love to get some nodes set up wirelessly within the city, but I’m only one person out in the suburbs tinkering away. While I’m sitting here learning about setting up devices, I only hope to share what I find with others who might benefit from having someone else carve out an initial path. I, by myself, can work to build a local mesh but it wouldn’t be nearly as robust or expansive as if I worked within a team sharing ideas and experience.

If you’re reading this, you have the interest. You may not have the know-how, the money for high-tech equipment, or a location nearby other potential operators, but you have the desire. If there’s anything that I’ve learned throughout my ongoing mesh adventure, it’s that good things take time and nothing happens overnight.

Tomorrow, we can work to build a strong mesh for our city. As for today, why don’t we get started?