Wednesday, 18 March 2020

COVID19 - Provisioning remote access with Linux

When I started in my current role, they were using a conventional Cisco IPSEC based vpn. While with a few config tweaks it worked, it was from ideal for security or user experience. The big security issue is that it creates a big hole in your firewall – from a device bridged to the internet! A further concern was that authentication was via a password. While I could have put in a RADIUS server with a MFA authentication source, this still required users to either:
  • take their work computer (and all the data stored on their local disk) off site
  • install and configure some very esoteric software on their own hardware

Fixing all these problems would take massive amounts of efforts to provide a very limited service with continuing security problems.

If everything they need is on their computer in work – then I just need to find a way of providing access to their computer at work remotely. So here are the ingredients for the recipe I used:

All the above, with the exception of the free certificate, are open-source and available from official Ubuntu repos (this software is also available for other Linux and BSD systems). In addition I wrote custom scripts to
  • provision users (with QR codes for Google auth)
  • run wakeonlan and rdesktop
  • collect activity stats
Now all a user needs to get connected is a mobile device running an authenticator application and an internet connected browser.
Once they get their head around the fact that they don't need to be sitting in front of the computer they are using, the users are very happy with the experience. We have fewer reports of issues than we do from the legacy VPN users. The 2-factor authentication provides much better security.

The only difficult bit was stripping out the full “desktop experience” from Openbox. I don't want my users shutting down the machine or mapping drives! Initially I tried xfreerdp as the RDP client but had a lot of issues with keyboard mapping. As hinted at above, the machine is heavily locked down – users have no shell on the loca machine. This was easy to implement but impacted on the behaviour of some terminal emulators (required for onward ssh access). Openbox and systemd don't play nice together – so running “last” reports all users have “gone away”. This seems to be yet another systemd issue. However I get more useful usage monitoring from the script to collect activity stats (this finds openbox processes and interrogates /proc to find the user, display and other information). It would be trivial to add in screen captures here – but decided to leave this out for now. Its also possible for additional users to join a VNC session, but this is currently blocked on the firewall until I think up a way of handling it which does not reduce the overall security.

The version of noVNC installed from repo is rather old, and the current client (i.e. the html and javascript parts) have a lot of improvements - I downloaded these files from github and copied them over the repo install.

I chose tigervnc as, although all the vncservers support multi-head usage on Linux, the package version of this seemed closest to my usage model.

Currently this is running on a 2 core virtual machine. The initial 2Gb of RAM was all but used up with 17 users online and this has since been changed to 8Gb. The 2CPUs is overkill – with 20 users working online, the load was around 0.3 and bandwidth was averaging 200kbps with a peak of 500kbps.

Out of curiosity I looked up what Microsoft say you need for an RDS server. A comparison with what I am currently running is shown below:

Microsoft recommendMy server uses
Base OS2Gb250Mb
RAM Per user64Mb100Mb
CPU Per user0.060.015
B/W Per user64kbps25kbps

So in terms of the hardware resources there's not a clear winner – however having worked in an environment which used Microsoft RDS extensively, supporting the Linux system is a lot cheaper in terms of manpower. And that's before considering the costs of licensing the Microsoft solution and implementing 2FA.

Some more details in a later post.


  1. I've just added vnstat to track the bandwidth and draw pretty graphs on the status page.

  2. Now I'm seeing a lot more usage by different staff it does look like the bandwidth usage I cited above is rather low - and an average of 64kbps is more accurate.