Thursday, August 15, 2019

RX-only igates considered beneficial to the network

As probably most of you know by now, besides running the web site, I'm also one of the two main authors of the aprsc server software. aprsc runs on most of the APRS-IS servers where iGates usually connect.

There have been recent and strong claims saying that receive-only (rx-only) iGates destroy the two-way messaging feature of APRS. This has been claimed in blog posts and facebook threads. Some people ask me if this is true.

No, it is not true. Receive-only iGates do not break messaging if there are transmit-capable igates nearby, and those transmit-capable iGates are connected to an APRS-IS server which has a full APRS feed. All and servers, where iGates normally connect, do have a full feed. No problem!

Messaging would work from 1650m / 5400 ft above Vihti, even in the presence of
RX-only iGates, as long as there is at least one TX-capable iGate.

If there are no transmit-capable (TX) iGates around, two-way messaging will not work, of course. Having a transmit-capable iGate would therefore be better, but receive-only iGates are easier to set up technically, they are cheaper (receivers are practically free now), and licensing for automatic transmitters is difficult in many countries. Where transmit-capable (TX) iGates are present, receive-only iGates do not break the TX iGates, they just improve reception coverage. For messages, too.

Just to make it perfectly clear: If there are TX iGates present, additional RX-only iGates improve messaging performance. For the RF-to-IS direction (and ACKs for the IS-to-RF messages).

The common incorrect claim is that the APRS-IS server sends the message only to the latest iGate which heard a station. In fact, the APRS-IS servers (both javaprssrvr and aprsc) send the messages to all iGates which heard the station recently. In aprsc, "recently" means "within 3 hours", and I believe javaprssrvr uses something similar.

The server maintains a list of recently heard callsigns independently for each iGate client. There's a separate list of heard stations for each iGate client. When the server has a packet to pass on, it will look at all connected clients, and for each client, if the recipient of the message is found from the list of recently heard stations, the message will be sent. The scanning will not stop; the message will be given to all clients which heard the station.

I can confirm that we have written the software to do it like this, and since it is open source, you can see the code yourself. The automatic test case also validates that the server keeps working that way, so that there won't be a bug creeping in the future to break it accidentally. I've also tested that javaprssrvr behaves like this – I've run the test cases against it to confirm compatibility.

There may be problems when there is a server with a filtered feed involved (possibly a server software running at the "client" without having a full feed), but those are rare and known to be problematic. All Tier2 servers have a full feed ( ones), and so do the core servers.

The real problem is that a user, seeing one-way beaconing to the APRS-IS works, may well expect two-way messaging to work too. And when it doesn't work, there's only a timeout, no immediate feedback saying "sorry, this won't work now", which is what a sensible system would do today.

Even in that case, an rx-only igate is better than nothing! I wouldn't be so harsh against them, since the step from RX-only to TX-capable may be a bit difficult for many.

Bottom line:

In each area, there should be one TX igate, maybe two. More may create QRM as the same messages will be transmitted from APRS-IS to RF many times. RX igates will not break messaging if there are TX igates around – they just improve RX coverage.

This picture may at first seem irrelevant, but it does show me working VHF in AM (122.825 MHz),
and Flarm on 868 MHz to OGN (which runs aprsc). Flarm antenna visible in top left corner.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Server upgrades, and raw packets UI abuse

This month I'm upgrading the servers quite a bit. The old blade server hardware chassis is getting shut down and replaced with a brand new pre-owned and dumpster-dived blade server chassis. The new second-hand blades have 8 CPU cores and 192 GB memory each, which is quite sweet! I suspect the web site & database will be doing very little disk reads with this much cache around.

The downside is that we're not going to run the fibre channel SAN network, and the associated disk racks, since they're a bit power-hungry. So, internal disks only it is. To get relatively good disk IO performance I installed 1 TB SSD disks in the blades – two SSDs in each for RAID1 (~170€ with 24% VAT each, 3 blades, total 6 SSDs). The blades have CERC 6/i raid controllers, which are SATA2 and quite slow. The Samsung SSDs are capable of some 500+ Mbytes/sec reads, but the hardware controller in RAID1 config only gives out 130 Mbytes/sec. With Linux software RAID1 it can balance reads across the SSDs and give out 2*140 Mbytes/sec, which is alright. being a database application, especially with the huge cache memory, it'll be mostly random-access write heavy, so the streaming read benchmark above is not too relevant. The random-access speed of the SSD gives a nice boost, and the memory will help an awful lot.

The new servers are already running a live replica of the database, but the web service is still running on the old ones. Hoping to get the move done soon. The operating system is also getting a bump to the next major release, and some adjustments are needed to support that.

In less happy news: A few smart folks have, again, figured that it would be a great idea to download raw APRS-IS packets programmatically (using software they've written) from the user interface, the raw packets view. This is forbidden by the TOS ( and a longer reasoning can be found in the FAQ ( 
Downloading data for application use using the user interface (for example, fetching the /info/ page just to get the current coordinates of a station) wastes both human and computer resources.  
First, you need to write a parser to extract the data from the HTML (and then fix your parser every time I change my HTML layout). Second, needs to do the user interface magic (language and timezone selection, user-friendly template formatting, session set-up) for every request, all of which is unnecessary.  
[...] All of this extra overhead consumes CPU time, which in turn heats up the computer room, consumes electricity, destroys tropical rain forests, accelerates global warming, and kills kittens. And baby seals.
The correct way to obtain a raw APRS-IS feed is to connect to the APRS-IS  ( - you'll get a lightweight TCP  session with all the packets in real time. As clean CRLF-delimited rows with none of my HTML encoding to mess it up. For free, from the very same place where I get them from, and much faster! 

If one chooses to fetch the packets by hammering on my user interface, as opposed to an API, it'll create unnecessary extra load on my servers, and make me a little bit upset. Especially when someone fetches 1000 packets every time, via the Tor network, repeatedly every few seconds, and ends up fetching the same packets over and over again. That is not a great way to make use of this free service.

To make this sort of abuse harder, you'll now need to log in to view the raw packets. It's a little bit more clumsy if you're not logged in already, but the login cookies have a long lifetime so you don't need to do it that often.