Debian-Powered Drupal Configuration Policy

Thursday, October 4th, 2012

By Elizabeth Krumbach

LinuxForce’s web hosting services are designed to provide our customers with the benefits of strong security, simple on-going administration and maintenance, and support for the web software to work well in a large number of situations including multi-site support for applications.

We achieve these objectives by operating a Debian infrastructure with close adherence to Debian’s policy, web application policy and PHP policy.

In particular, we use the Debian package for Drupal 6. This provides community supported upgrades with a strong, well-documented policy. Like other software which ships in Debian, the software version is often somewhat older than the most recent upstream release, but it is regularly patched for security by the maintainer and the Debian security team.

In addition, this infrastructure also offers:

  • Only one package needs to be upgraded whenever there is a security patch, instead of every site individually
  • Strong separation from site specific themes, modules, libraries, uploaded files helps keep files you want to edit away from the Drupal core files (which you don’t want to edit)
  • The automation the infrastructure provides disk, memory, and sysadmin time to be minimized, thus reducing costs
  • The benefits of code maturity, as the Debian Drupal maintainers have thought through many boundary cases which it would take our staff time and trial-and-error to re-discover

Site layout

Experienced Drupal admins may find some of the file locations for the package confusing at first, so let’s clarify the differences to ease the transition.

Our infrastructure supports multiple sites per server. This is implemented by providing each site with their own dbconfig.php and settings.php files, plus the following directories:

  • files/
  • themes/
  • modules/
  • libraries/

All of these are configurable by the user, and are located in /etc/drupal/6/sites/ The site also inherits the contents of these default directories from core Drupal.

Access to these files via FTP is discussed below.

Core Drupal files are located in /usr/share/drupal6/ and are shared between all the Drupal sites on the server. They should not be edited since all changes to these files will be lost upon upgrade of the Debian Drupal package.

Users & Permissions

A jailed userdrupal FTP account is created to manage the files for the Drupal install.

The userdrupal account is the owner of all the configurable files located in /etc/drupal/6/sites/

The system-wide www-data user must have access to the following by having the www-data group own them and be given the appropriate permissions:

  • Read access to dbconfig.php
  • Write access to the files/ directory (this is where Drupal typically stores uploaded files)

All files (with the exception of dbconfig.php) should be writable by userdrupal, the userdrupal group itself is enforced by the system but all users should be configured client-side to respect group read-write permissions to maintain strict security, this is a umask of 002.

Additional Users and non-Drupal Directories

If there is a non-developer who needs to have access to the files directory, for instance, a specific FTP user for that use may be created and added to the userdrupal group.

For ease of administration, if multiple users exist and we are able to support an ssh account (static IP from client required) for handling administration, sudo can be configured to allow said user to execute commands on behalf of the userdrupal ftp user. Remember to add “umask 002” to the .bashrc to respect group read-write permissions.

If additional directories outside the Drupal infrastructure are required for a site, they will be placed in /srv/www/ and a separate jailed ftp user created to manage the files here. If a cgi-bin is required, it will be placed in /srv/www/

Caveats and Cautions

Because of shared use for core Drupal files located in /usr/share/drupal6/ you may experience problems with the following:

  • Some drush commands and plugins assume the drupal files are editable files within the same document root as the rest of your files, thus may not work as expected
  • When you upgrade the drupal6 package all sites are upgraded at once without testing, customers who are concerned about the impact of the upgrade changes and require very high uptimes can be accommodated by testing the site with the upgraded versions of PHP and Drupal in a testing VM
  • Since the Debian package name does not change, you cannot install the drupal6 package from an older Debian version alongside one from a current version, a separate virtualized Debian environment may be needed for testing upgrades if support is uncertain (this issue does not exist with upgrades from drupal6 to drupal7, as they can be installed alongside each other)
  • A policy for handling root level .htaccess files should be developed if they wish to be used


Although the Debian way differs from the Drupal tarball approach, it makes it possible to scale the service to many sites saving disk, memory, and sysadmin effort. By leveraging this Drupal infrastructure provided by Debian, Linuxforce provides one-off Debian package deployments to dedicated systems, shared arrangements for small businesses who are running several sites, and infrastructure deployments for businesses who provide hosting services. We also offer a boutique hosting service for select customers on one of our systems.

Some Initiatives Resulting From DebConf10

Thursday, September 30th, 2010

By CJ Fearnley

I attended DebConf10 in early August at Columbia University in New York City. I thought I’d document some of the initiatives that resulted from that event.

I attended the Debian Policy BoF. It inspired me to start reviewing Debian Policy and led to my submission of a bug report to improve the description of the archive areas in Debian. In the BoF (Birds of a Feather) session, Russ Allbery requested help from everyone including non DDs (Debian Developers) to make policy clearer and more descriptive, so I obliged. I see that the negotiated text has been accepted and included in the git repository for the next release.

During the Debian Science sessions that I attended (see especially the video from the Debian Science Round Table), the idea of engaging upstream providers (software projects that are packaged by integrators like Debian) more effectively was discussed. This led me to draft a proposal that I posted to the Debian Project mailing list: Improving coordination / support for upstreams. There was precious little feedback, but I think it is a profoundly important issue: how do we improve coordination of upstreams with projects like Debian that integrate their software. So far there is very little infrastructure or knowledge about this important issue in the management of FOSS (Free and Open Source Software). How do you think we should start to address this problem?

I helped with the herculean task of getting Sage, a FOSS mathematics system, back into Debian. After discussing the issue during the Debian Science track at DebConf10, I met Lucas Nussbaum in the hacklab and he (with help from Luca Falavigna) managed to get the old buggy version of Sage removed from unstable (apparently, this version was causing support issues for the upstream Sage community, so this was a positive step forward). I also submitted five bugs (#592349, #592354, #592425, #592426, and #592429) about new upstream versions that are needed. I posted two detailed reports of work needed on packaging Sage for Debian to appropriate mailing lists. Getting Sage into Debian is the kind of big FOSS management challenge that I’m excited about. But I will need a lot of help to make progress. Let me know if you are interested in contributing to the effort!

Finally, for the record, here are links to the sessions where I participated in the discussion (video is available): Bits from the DPL, SPI BOF, Enterprise Infrastructure BOF, Mathematical Software in Debian, Overall presentation of Debian Science, and Debian Science Round Table.

Seven Observations On Software Maintenance And FOSS

Monday, November 30th, 2009

By CJ Fearnley

The November 2009 issue of Communications of the ACM (CACM) has a very interesting article by Paul Stachour and David Collier-Brown entitled “You Don’t Know Jack About Software Maintenance”. The authors argue energetically for using versioned data structures and “continuous upgrading” to improve the state of the art of software maintenance.

The piece got me thinking about FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) and “continuous upgrading”. Here are seven observations on FOSS software maintenance that occurred to me as I reflected on the CACM article:

  1. FOSS projects “continuously” apply bug fixes and feature enhancements at no additional cost to their users. By applying these improvements “continuously”, the user reaps a steady stream of “interest payments” providing ever-improving security, performance, and functionality.
  2. Since FOSS incurs no licensing or license management costs, upgrading FOSS is not hindered by capital expenses.
  3. Typically support in FOSS projects is focused on the current stable version. Therefore, upgrading to the current stable version is the preferred way to receive the best support from FOSS communities.
  4. One of the key reasons behind Debian‘s strong track record of “continuous upgrading” is its way of handling the tricky issues involved with dependent library upgrades (such as libc6,, & etc). The chapter on Shared Libraries in the Debian Policy Manual details a proven method to effectively handle library upgrade issues (including its sophisticated handling of versions).
  5. When upgrading is applied routinely and “continuously”, it becomes crucial to support customizations across upgrades which can be one of the biggest obstacles to a smooth upgrade (see my earlier post on customization and upgradeability). One reason for Debian’s effectiveness in this regard is its robust configuration file handling policy.
  6. It is worth noting that the “continuous” implied here is not the one emphasized in dictionaries (which takes its nuances from the mathematical / physics concept of “no interruptions” and the epsilon-delta definition that students of Calculus learn). That concept of “continuous” is impossible in systems administration which is necessarily discrete as are all computer operations. The connotation required here is, perhaps, “unending”, or “eternal” or somesuch.
  7. The “right” frequency for “continuous” upgrades is a complex tradeoff between business requirements and upgrade infrastructure maturity. Debian and Ubuntu provide vary mature support for “continuous upgrading”. They support the upgrade of production servers through release after release after major release with minimal downtime or risk of a glitch that could affect users. Their current release frequency of about 2 years may be the best we can do given the current state of the art of software maintenance. I hope we can learn to increase the frequency as better engineered upgrade policies are developed.

I prefer the name “eternally regenerative software administration” over “continuous upgrading”. It avoids the philosophical problems with the word “continuous” and emphasizes the active, “ecological” approach needed to envision the engineering of “regenerativity” in software. By that I mean software maintenance should involve building the system so each new version enables installation of the next while facilitating management of any customizations and integration with other software (including libraries and other “helper” applications). Regenerativity is the process of growth and change used by Nature itself. Software maintenance needs to follow similar principles.

Customization, Upgradeability and Eternally Regenerative Software Administration

Friday, October 16th, 2009

By CJ Fearnley

Mary Hayes Weier wrote an interesting article in this week’s edition of InformationWeek on "Alternative IT: CIOs are more receptive than ever to new software models". What is great about her article is how she captured the divergent views on IT models (such as SaaS, cloud computing, etc.) and gave nice vignettes of different organizations trying different parts of various models. I especially valued her use of cognitive dissonance to leave the reader thinking … better informed but without a firm conclusion.

There are so many parts of the article that I could blog about, but the one that touched the core of my thinking about “eternally regenerative software administration” was the quote by Bill Louv, CIO at GlaxoSmithKline, who said

"And here’s the rub: When you customize software, it’s difficult to implement future upgrades from the vendor"

Louv touched the very bane of eternally regenerative software administration! Software should accommodate both customization and upgradeability: these two elements of software administration are at the heart of my notion of eternally regenerative software administration: how to preserve customizations and provide smooth (near zero downtime with almost no glitches) upgrades through major release after major release. It is a big challenge, but in our experience the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) communities are at the leading edge in finding solutions to these conflicting objectives. Here are some of the innovative ideas from the FOSS world which should serve as models or design patterns for all software developers (if only these ideas would become commonplace!).

First, Debian (a FOSS operating system which is the root of Ubuntu, Knoppix, Xandros and many other Linux distributions) requires that their official packages, a collection of software prepared for easy administration, must adhere to a very mature policy. Debian’s policy is a marvel in the FOSS world and to a very large degree is responsible for its strong support for both customization and upgradeability. I think Debian’s reputation for stability and maintainability is almost certainly due to their decision to develop a consensus-driven policy that its software must implement.

For example, the Debian package maintainer, Luigi Gangitano, for Drupal, a FOSS content management platform, did a great job making the software both customizable and maintainable. The package supports configuration of multiple virtual hosts which can all be upgraded at once! And the Debian drupal6 package stores the look-n-feel in /etc/drupal/6/themes/ so that each site’s GUI can be customized without interfering with upgrades. If only all web applications were built to be as maintainable as Debian’s Drupal package!

Another example is the overlay support included in RT: Request Tracker, a FOSS ticket tracking system. This allows putting replacement subroutines in special files in /usr/local/share/ which overlay or substitute the upstream code. This approach is more likely to break on upgrades, but it supports minimal changes to the business logic with a decent chance that upgrades will be smooth.

There are countless more examples from the FOSS world of innovative solutions to inter-accommodate customization and upgrades in support of eternally regenerative software administration. What are some of your favorite examples?