The end of the PPTP VPN


In September 2013 IT Services launched a new VPN service, based around Junos Pulse. This replaced the older PPTP based service, but the two ran in parallel for 9 months to give people a chance to transition.

On 30th June 2014 08:45, the PPTP VPN was switched off, ending 12 years of PPTP VPN use at the University of Bristol.

The story starts not with a VPN, but with wireless networking…

In 2001, Bristol dipped its toe into wireless networking, and started work on the “Nomadic Network”

Wireless technology was still young, and wireless encryption wasn’t widely supported on client devices. So Nomadic used an open, unencrypted SSID with restricted routing. The only thing you could get to was a bank of PPTP VPN concentrators, referred to as “roamnodes”

These roamnodes were cheap commodity x86 boxes with no disk.  They booted a custom linux live CD which held its config on a floppy disk.  This made upgrades/rollback really easy (pull out the CD, put the new one in, reverse process to revert)

The idea was that you connected to the wireless (or plugged your laptop in to one of the public network sockets, and connected to the access network via PPPoE), then span up a VPN connection to get on the university network.

That all sounds a bit clunky these days, but back then it was sophisticated enough that several other universities around the UK picked up the system – and we won the UCISA Award for Excellence in 2003. (Which caused a certain amount of amusement in the office at the time. They managed to misspell “Excellence” on the oversized novelty presentation cheque!)

As a VPN was an integral part of the Nomadic Network, it was convenient to use the same technology to provide off-site access to UoB restricted resources (as anyone using the wireless already had the client configured)

By 2005 wireless technology had moved on and work started to replace the Nomadic Network with a wireless system which eventually evolved into the eduroam service we have today.

Although the wireless no-longer had need of a VPN component, the VPN was retained and rebuilt as a stand alone service. The service had a refresh in 2007 to upgrade it to CentOS 5 – and it’s been running the same OS, on the same hardware ever since.

That hardware is long since out of extended hardware maintenance (and both of the remaining nodes have known hardware issues) client support for PPTP is now patchy and difficult to debug, it’s not compatible with a lot of home broadband routers, some major ISPs actively block PPTP and finally, the encryption used in our implementation had some weaknesses which we’d really rather it hadn’t! (although we have no evidence that those weaknesses were ever exploited)

So that’s why we’ve replaced it!

In some ways, I’m sorry to see it go as it’s one of the services I was initially employed to support. In many other ways though, it’s done its job and been surpassed by other technology. Maintenance and support of the service had become problematic. It’s time to move on.

For a service with approximately 500 users a month, it needed a surprising number of resources to keep it going.

Now that it’s gone we can shut down 2 physical PPTP head nodes, 5 unmanaged virtual linux servers which provide supporting services (authentication, dhcp, dns, web redirects etc) and 2 hypervisors which are also out of hardware maintenance.

The new Junos Pulse VPN is a single appliance. Much more efficient on rack space, power and cooling!

Waving goodbye to Usenet


The University of Bristol has had a Usenet service for over 25 years, and it’s finally time for our Eternal September to end.  The service is set to be switched off on 28th August 2013.

Working out exactly how long Bristol has had a Usenet service for isn’t all that easy as most of the people involved in the early days aren’t at Bristol any more.

The earliest posting I’ve found so far [1] is from 3rd March 1988, which came via a machine in Computer Science.

Does this mean Bristol first got access to Usenet in 1988?  I’m not sure.

I think it’s likely that before 1988 messages were posted from Bristol via UUCP (as messages from 1986 exist, posted via UUCP from Bath and it’s probably reasonable to assume that Bristol were doing similar things at the time) but without knowing the naming/addressing scheme in use they’re not going to be easy to find.

In 1998, the University of Bath needed to replace the hardware running their own usenet service, and shortly after the hardware in use at Bristol was also due for renewal.  Paul Smee suggested sharing service between Bristol and Bath, Bath agreed and have been running for us ever since.

In 2004, Paul Smee retired and as Paul Seward was the last person to ask a Usenet related question before Paul Smees retirement (and had the same initials) Paul was given responsibility for supporting the service at the Bristol end.  A task which has entailed sending a whopping 8 emails in the last 9 years! (although only 1 of those was actually to an end user)

In 2010, Janet retired the national Usenet peering service which Bath were using to keep the server supplied with articles.  Bath restructured the service to peer directly with 7 other institutions around the world and kept it going.

Here we are over 25 years later, and Bath have decided that usage of the service has dwindled to the point that it’s not worth keeping it going.  In the last 3 months of the service only 9 machines at Bristol have connected to it to read news.  Given that we’ve got more machines than that in my office alone (and I’m responsible for one of the machines on the list from Bath!), I’m inclined to agree with them.

I’ll personally be sad to see it go. I’ve been on Usenet since 1995 – and was actually introduced to it (and email) before the Web.  I’ve met some of my best friends on Usenet and although the groups I follow have reduced in traffic significantly over the last couple of years (from 40+ posts a day to 10-15 posts a day)  I can’t give up my news habit completely and I’m looking for a new (free!) server.

Competition time!

Internet archaeology isn’t easy, and I’m pretty confident that earlier usenet postings from Bristol exist.  Google Groups has an “advanced search” option which allows you to search their archive back as far as 1981.

If you can find a message from before 3rd March 1988, go into the “more message actions” dropdown list (top right of the message) and select “Show original” – either slap the URL of the resulting page in the comments for this page, or post the contents of the Message-ID: line.

The person who finds the earliest message before disappears on 28th August 2013 will win a selection of Fabulous! Prizes!™