Saturday, October 20, 2012

Gah! TCP doesn't won't work the way I want :(

Well, I've been having more fun messing around with Node.js and allowing myself to be distracted by interesting problems. The latest of which was triggered by my desire to integrate the BrowserStack beta API for cross browser testing. This is a nice service that will fire up any number of different versions of browsers and point them at a URL that you specify. Integrating this with Testacular and Mocha means that I can run all my browser javascript tests in all browser variants and get the results right back in my shell immediately, without having to run a myriad of browser versions locally :) This even includes mobile platforms :D

So what's the catch?

Well, in order for BrowserStack to connect to my Testacular server it needs to hit a public URL. Unfortunately my development machine is not reachable on a public URL (nor do I want it to be, at least not really public). The solution suggested by BrowserStack was to use a simple service called LocalTunnel. This service provides a client with which you can create an SSH tunnel to a local port that you specify. The service then allocates a random subdomain of from which it will forward HTTP requests to your local port. Very useful and sounds easy, right? Unfortunately when I tried the client it didn't work and the only clues were leading me into a world of SSH keys, etc.

Hence the distraction. As I probably want to fire up my tunnel and browsers programatically I'm not so fond of relying on command line interfaces and really I want a node module to do it. What's more if I'm going to dig around in secure connections why don't I take the opportunity to expand my knowledge in a direction that I want it expanded. So I decided I would implement my own tunnel service and client solution in node and thus the tls-tunnel package was born.

Early on I figured I didn't want to mess about with generating random sub domains and trying to route based on the sub domain on which a connection was made so instead I decided to assign ports on the server to satisfy client connections. This way whenever a new client connects and requests a tunnel the server will allocate a port from a predefined range of available ports and start listening on that.

My plan was to use a free Heroku or Nodejitsu instance to then deploy my tls-tunnel server when I needed it.

This is where I learnt a hard lesson in the problems of bottom up development. Although I am applying TDD principles I did in fact fail to validate one of my initial assumptions - that I could use multiple ports! Both Heroku and Nodejitsu will only expose one port to your application... this could/should have been a red flag. I realised this early on but plowed ahead anyway thinking that at a later date I could apply a small change to my tunnel and instead use the random subdomain solution to differentiate between tunnels.

So I got my tunnel working using TLS (hence the name) with clients and servers authenticating each other with their own self signed SSL certificates. I was pretty proud of myself for implementing something that was in theory protocol agnostic - I had noticed that other similar solutions were limited to HTTP traffic... this should have been a red flag!

I next turned to the problem of making it all work on one port. Having already learnt quite a bit about the TLS/SSL problem domain I now learned a hard lesson about the TCP domain or more specifically the Node.js net domain.

I had made the assumption that when a raw TCP socket was connected to a server I would be able to read out the domain name that it had used... Wrong!!!

What LocalTunnel is doing is using the HTTP protocol to get the domain name that was used for the connection. GAH!! and what do you know this is the same reason the Heroku and Nodejitsu limit access to a single port. Double GAH!!!

So now I'm left with a choice. My solution can still work but I'm going to have to put it on an Amazon EC2 instance or something (I can get one for free for now). Or I can bite the bullet and implement the same HTTP restriction (boo) and do subdomain based tunnelling.

It's not such a simple choice though. On the one hand it's easy to integrate Heroku and Nodejitsu into my development and testing process (and even share that) as opposed to the hoops I will have to jump through to get it up and running on an EC2 instance. But on the other I don't want to limit my solution to HTTP and I haven't actually verified yet that I can use random subdomains on either service (once bitten, etc).

Perhaps there is a third way though - maybe if I only support one tunnel at a time I can use a single port...

That said, I'm leaning towards the EC2 solution for flexibility ("lean"-ing might be a bad choice of word here though - if you'll excuse the pun ;))

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