Build Your Own Cloud Fast, Thanks to Ansible and Automation

May 22, 2016

Last year I wrote an article about installing custom linux distro on Raspberry Pi 2. Since then I configured it as my personal cloud, with email daemon, dropbox alternative, webmail, backup system and some other tools. However it appeared, that configuration like that is a real SDCard killer (tons of small files), and in a past year I had to replace it twice, each time redoing the whole configure & install again.

This was always a real time consuming PITA, so I decided to automate the whole process, thus the self-hosted-mailserver project was born.

I wrote it with "Keep it simple and secure" principle in mind. As it will be used exclusively by the owner, I assumed he would use most recent versions of software and dropped all legacy protocols (like SSL, TLS < 1.2 etc.).


First of all, you need ansible.

brew install ansible

Also if you haven't done it already, add your public SSH key file to authorized keys of the root user on your Raspberry (or any other server) and set PermitRootLogin to true (don't worry though, those scripts will take care of this security risk later on and disable it).

export MACHINE_IP=<machine IP>
ssh root@${MACHINE_IP} 'mkdir /root/.ssh && chmod 700 /root/.ssh && touch /root/.ssh/authorized_keys && chmod 600 /root/.ssh/authorized_keys'
scp ~/.ssh/ root@${MACHINE_IP}:/root/.ssh/authorized_keys

Setting up GPG

If you want to use external backups, you need to install GPG on the server (this bases on assumption, to NEVER store any private data remotely without encrypting them first). Also, you need a GPG key (you can skip next step if you have one already).

Creating a GPG key

Refer to GPG documentation for more examples, but in general all you have to do is invoke gpg --gen-key and answer its questions. Choose RSA, 4096 bits size, and never expiring key. Then export it and store it somewhere safe. You will need it in a minute. Also take a note o the Key-Id property.

brew install gpg
gpg --gen-key
gpg --export -a -r > raspberry.public
gpg --export-secret-key -a -r > raspberry.private
gpg --list-keys | grep -B1 '' | grep pub | sed 's/.*\/\(.*\)\ .*/\1/'
# *The last command returns your Key-Id, note it somewhere as well.


To make those scripts work, you need to set some of user-based variables (like passwords, emails etc.). Those variables are stored in roles/*/vars/main.yml files.


This one is pretty straightforward. The cloud uses MySQL as a database of choice, for email configuration, web applications etc. Here you need to set up a mysql root user password. If you don't plan to ever use it just type:

echo "mysql_root_password: \"$(pwgen 30 1)\"" > roles/base/vars/main.yml


Duplicity is a tool for automated backups. It is known that all people can be divided into two groups: those who have never lost important data and those who regularly perform data backups. This task, encrypts all the important data (emails, owncloud files etc.) and stores them on WebDav-based remote (personally I use

Here (besides the WebDav host, username and password) you need to put the GPG Key-Id which you noted earlier, under the encrypt_key property.

Also, there is a VERY important parameter called cache_directory. For Raspberry it is crucial to set it to somewhere outside of the microSD card - otherwise you will kill it pretty quick (as I did... twice, before noticing this out).

If you don't want to set up the duplicity (or plan to do it later manually), just remove this task from main.yml file which lives in root directory of the project.


First important service of our cloud - the mailserver. Since many things needs to be configured, this file is most complicated. So let's go through it line by line.

  • postmaster_email - Basically a local email which will receive all the mailer-daemon failure messages. Don't use some bizzare e-mail you never check here, since those messages are pretty important (your email may never reach the recipient, and you will never notice it if you don't check those warnings)
  • username, password and database - Since whole accounts setup is stored in RDBMS, you need to put its credentials here. Don't use the root! You would probably never use this account, so it is save, to put some auto-generated random characters password here.
  • domains - An array of domains you wish to serve in your server. Each item is a hash, consiting following keys:

    • name - the name of the domain (without user), i.e. for it will be
    • primary - yes or no. A primary domain (in those scripts context) is a domain you wish to receive Z-Push notifications from. If you configure only one domain (most common case), set it to true.
    • users - an array of email/password hashes which will become user accounts. Configure "real" accounts here only. There is a separate section for aliases.
    • email - user email - it's domain must match the domain name configured for this group, i.e. for given example, is valid, while is not. If you wish to have different domains, configure separate domains groups for them.
    • password - a password for user email.
    • aliases - here you can configure aliases of the emails.
    • from - the name of the alias (full email). It must match the domains name (like user email).
    • to - destination email. This one can be any valid email (doesn't have to match the domain criteria)


Configuration for both roundcube and owncloud is pretty straightforwrd. Remember, to use separate RDBMS credentials for each one, and use non-admin user with ownCloud.


Here you can configure a relay. This is pretty useful if your IP is on some kind of blacklist (which is typical for most Internet providers). Here you can set up a non-blacklisted relay server which will process your email and deliver it to the destination. This isn't a good option when it comes to privacy, but sometimes - the only one you might have.


As I mentioned - those scripts are written with security in mind. One of the features is HPKP enabled in a webserver - so you need provide a SHA256 sum here of alternate SSL key (the primary will be calculated for you by the scripts). HPKP is pretty broad topic, but you can start here if you need more details.


A configuration for all security related data. Currently it's just username, password and public key for "user" account (as you should never login directly via root).

Also you can set here an email for all security-related reports. This email should live outside of the server (for example on gmail or any other provider). The reason for this is, that when machine gets compromised the local emails may be altered or broken. Of course, nothing prevents an attacker to disable this external reporting as well, but at least you have this one extra layer of protection. It is also a good idea to set up filtering rules on this external account, to send those messages back to your usual email. Thanks to that, you will see them without accessing the external, while keeping them backed up there.

The last setting here is strong_primes. If you are setting your server on a strong machine (i.e. powerful dedicated server etc.), you can set it to true and call it a day (and skip the rest of this paragraph). However if you use some weak microcomputer (like Pi), it's better idea to set it to false and create those primes manually on better machine (like your laptop). Otherwise your ansible deployment can take hours if not days.

Creating primes manually

First of all, take look on commands you need to invoke:

cat roles/*/tasks/main.yml | grep -B1 'when: security.strong_primes' | grep shell

You need to slightly alter them, as they normally invoked on remote environment, and use filepaths typical for there (i.e. /etc/ssh). The simplest solution is to rename /etc to /tmp and fire them up with this context. So for example:

mkdir /tmp/ssh /tmp/ssl
ssh-keygen -G /tmp/ssh/moduli.all -b 4096 && ssh-keygen -T /tmp/ssh/ -f /tmp/ssh/moduli.all && mv /tmp/ssh/ /tmp/ssh/moduli && rm /tmp/ssh/moduli.all
rm /tmp/ssh/ssh_host_*key* && ssh-keygen -t ed25519 -f /tmp/ssh/ssh_host_ed25519_key < /dev/null && ssh-keygen -t rsa -b 4096 -f /tmp/ssh/ssh_host_rsa_key < /dev/null && chmod 600 /tmp/ssh/ssh_host_*key"
openssl dhparam -out /tmp/ssl/dhparams.pem 4096

After some time, you will end up with /tmp/ssh and /tmp/ssl directories with proper keys. Just copy them to the corresponding /etc directories on the server and you're set.

SSL keys

Since all communication would (and should) be handled via SSL, you need to create proper certificates. The easiest solution are self signed ones, but I strongly encourage you to use StartSSL or Let's Encrypt and issue yourself a valid, properly recognized certificate.

After you do this, it's pretty strightforward - put the private key to roles/ssl/templates/private-this-machine.pem and the certificate chain to roles/ssl/templates/certs-this-machine.pem.


ddclient is a nice Perl script used to update dynamic DNS entries for accounts on Dynamic DNS Network Service Provider. Thanks to it, if you have a dynamic IP you can assign a domain to it, and keep it in sync any time when your IP changes. It supports many providers, and I also included a Cloudflare patch. The template itself is pretty explanatory, but you can also refer to the ddclient documentation. If you don't want to use this feature (or have a Static IP), just remove ddclient from the main main.yml file.


Phew! After all this configuration, you are ready to deploy. First, you need to set an Ansible Inventory files. Since we set our public key as authorized on the remote host, all we have to put in this file is:

[local] ansible_ssh_user=root

where is remote IP of your machine obviously. And then, we can fire it up!

ansible-playbook -s -i ansible-inventory main.yml

Hopefully everything go well, and you will end up with your self-hosted, automated cloud.


We still have one thing to do - install gpg and import our keys, to make duplicity actually work. So put your private and public key on the server, and invoke (on remote):

apt-get install gnupg
gpg --import raspberry.public
gpg --allow-secret-key-import --import raspberry.private
gpg --list-keys --fingerprint --with-colons | sed -E -n -e 's/^fpr:::::::::([0-9A-F]+):$/\1:6:/p' | gpg --import-ownertrust


Well, that was a lot of configuration. Thankfully, you have to do this only once. After that, just archive all those files, encrypt and store them somewhere safe. If you ever need to redo those steps again, almost everything would be ready and prepared, and firing up a new instance will be as simple as typing a few commands.