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Softmap guide


In this guide, we are going to show how to build one of these:

softmap 4

... using the example configuration for Wikipedia.


  • Assume Ubuntu 16.04
  • Assume 1x Balancer
    • eg: micro instance AWS, named "Brenda (the Balancer)"
  • Assume 1+ Worker
    • eg: medium/large instance AWS, named "Wolfgang (the Worker)"
  • You've only got a laptop / single machine?
    • Skim this document but go read the main README
      • experiment with hardmap which has less overhead/complication

Install process

  • Install Ubuntu and Onionspray on both Brenda and Wolfgang
    • as the root user - ON BOTH MACHINES
      • update all patches
      • set up for inbound SSH / systems administration, etc.
      • set up (if not already) a non-root user for Onionspray purposes
        • possibly you can use a pre-existing non-root account like ubuntu or www
    • as the non-root user - ON BOTH MACHINES
      • Follow the Onionspray Ubuntu Install Instructions here.
        • ... they are literally only three lines of cut and paste.
  • Set up that Brenda can SSH to Wolfgang without passwords, as the non-root user
    • check that ssh works from brenda to wolfgang:
      • ssh wolfgang uptime # from brenda.


These steps need to be done in a specific order:

  • Change directory into the onionspray directory:
    • cd onionspray
  • Create a site.tconf file in the onionspray directory:
  • Do the following to create the onion keys and NGINX/Tor configuration files:
    • onionspray config site.tconf
    • NOTE: You may want to take a moment to review the content of the generated site.conf (note new name) before progressing to the next step.
    • SUGGESTION: you may want to delete or rename site.tconf (note old name) at this point, to reduce confusion and/or risk of editing the wrong file in the future.
  • Do the following to tell Brenda about Wolfgang the Worker:
    • echo wolfgang > onionspray-workers.conf
    • ... or edit the file, one hostname per line.
  • Do the following to push the configurations to the workers.
    • onionspray ob-remote-nuke-and-push
    • NOTE: This is a destructive push. You do not want to run this command whilst "live" workers are listed in onionspray-workers.conf, to do so would impact user service in a bad (although recoverable) way.

Test and launch

  • Check that ssh works:
    • onionspray ps
  • Start the workers. This creates worker onions-addresses which are essential for the following steps:
    • onionspray start -a
  • Check the workers are running:
    • onionspray status -a
  • Start Onionbalance This fetches the worker onion-addresses (via ssh) and creates the Onionbalance configs, and launches the daemon:
    • onionspray ob-start -a
  • Check mappings and status:
    • onionspray ob-maps -a
    • onionspray ob-status -a

Launching at boot

Do this on all machines, because presumably you will want workers and the balancer to autostart:

onionspray make-init-script
sudo cp /etc/init.d/
sudo update-rc.d defaults


Adding an extra worker ("William")

  • Stop Onionbalance; don't worry, your service will keep working for several hours via Wolfgang:
    • onionspray ob-stop # this only affects Brenda.
  • Rename the existing onionspray-workers.conf file.
    • mv onionspray-workers.conf onionspray-workers.conf,old
  • Create a new onionspray-workers.conf, containing the new workers:
    • echo william > onionspray-workers.conf
    • feel free to edit/add more workers to this new file.
  • Push the configs to the new workers:
    • onionspray ob-remote-nuke-and-push
    • NOTE: remember that this command is destructive, hence the rename of the old onionspray-workers.conf file, so that Wolfgang is not affected and keeps your service up while you are doing this.
  • Start the new worker.:
    • onionspray start -a
  • Check that the new workers are running:
    • onionspray status -a
  • Append the old workers to the new list:
    • cat onionspray-workers.conf,old >> onionspray-workers.conf
    • feel free to go sort/edit/prune onionspray-workers.conf if you like.
  • Restart onionbalance, using the expanded list of all workers:
    • onionspray ob-start -a
    • onionspray ob-maps -a
    • onionspray ob-status -a
  • Don't forget to configure Onionspray to "launch at boot" on William / the new servers:
    • ... else sadness will result.

Removing a worker ("Wolfgang")

Now that we have Wolfgang and William running, perhaps we want to decommission Wolfgang?

  • Stop Onionbalance; don't worry, your service will keep working for several hours via William:
    • onionspray ob-stop # this only affects Brenda
  • Backup the existing onionspray-workers.conf file, in case of disaster:
    • cp onionspray-workers.conf onionspray-workers.conf,backup
  • Remove Wolfgang from onionspray-workers.conf:
    • use vi, emacs, nano, whatever.
  • Check that the remaining workers are all still running:
    • onionspray status -a
  • Re-start onionbalance, using the reduced list of all workers:
    • onionspray ob-start -a
    • onionspray ob-maps -a # check this output to make sure Wolfgang is gone
    • onionspray ob-status -a
  • Wait until new descriptors are fully & recently pushed (see: ob-status -a).
  • Wait a little longer as a grace period.
  • Switch off Wolfgang.

I've made a minor tweak to my configuration...

Say you've edited a BLOCK regular expression, or changed the number of Tor workers; you can push out a "spot" update to the configuration files at the minor risk of breaking your entire service if you've made a mistake - so, assuming that you don't make mistakes, do this:

  • onionspray config site.conf # on Brenda, to update the configurations
  • onionspray --local syntax # ignoring the workers, use NGINX locally to syntax-check the NGINX configs
  • onionspray ob-nxpush # replicate nginx.conf to the workers
  • onionspray nxreload
  • onionspray ob-torpush # replicate tor.conf to the workers
  • onionspray torreload
  • onionspray ps # check everything is still alive
  • onionspray status -a # check everything is still alive
  • onionspray ob-status -a # check everything is still alive

Something's gone horribly wrong...

If you do make mistakes and have somehow managed to kill all your Tor daemons, all your NGINX daemons, or (amusingly) both, you should undo that change that you made and then:

  • onionspray config site.conf # on Brenda, to update the configurations
  • onionspray --local syntax # ignoring the workers, use NGINX locally to syntax-check the NGINX configs
  • onionspray shutdown # turn everything off
  • onionspray ob-nxpush # replicate nginx.conf to the workers
  • onionspray ob-torpush # replicate tor.conf to the workers
  • onionspray start -a # start worker daemons
  • onionspray status -a # check worker daemons are running
  • onionspray ob-start -a # start onionbalance; your site will gradually start to come back up
  • onionspray ob-status -a # check status of descriptor propagation

In the worst-case scenario you might want to replace the ob-nxpush and ob-torpush with a single ob-remote-nuke-and-push

Wholesale update of Onionspray

Once you work out what's going on, and how Onionspray works, you'll see a bunch of ways to improve on this; however if you want to update your entire Onionspray setup to a new version the safest thing to do is to set up and test an entirely new balancer instance (Beatrice?) and entirely new workers (I am running out of W-names) that Beatrice manages.

The goal will be to take Beatrice's deployment to just-before the point where Onionbalance is started, marked with a :star: above. Then:

  • On Brenda, Stop Onionbalance
    • onionspray ob-stop # this only affects Brenda, stops her pushing new descriptors
  • On Beatrice, start Onionbalance
    • CHECK: you've already started & checked Beatrice's workers, yes? If so, then:
    • onionspray ob-start -a
  • On Beatrice, check mappings and status
    • onionspray ob-maps -a
    • onionspray ob-status -a
    • ...etc

Wait for Beatrice's descriptors to propagate (...onionspray ob-status -a + few minutes grace period) and if everything is okay, on Brenda you can do:

  • onionspray shutdown # which will further stop Onionspray on all of Brenda's workers

Leave Brenda and her workers lying around for a couple of days in case you detect problems and need to swap back; then purge.

Quicker update procedure

If you are a lower-risk site and don't want to go through all this change control, and if you know enough about driving git to do your own bookmarking and rollbacks, you can probably get away with this sort of very-dangerous, very-inadvisable-for-novices, "nuke-it-from-orbit" trick on Brenda:

  • git pull # see warning immediately below
  • onionspray config site.conf # generate fresh configurations
  • onionspray shutdown # your site will be down from this point
  • onionspray ob-remote-nuke-and-push # push the new configs, this will destroy worker key material
  • onionspray start -a # start worker daemons
  • onionspray status -a # check worker daemons are running
  • onionspray ob-start -a # start onionbalance; your site will gradually start to come back up
  • onionspray ob-status -a # check status of descriptor propagation

WARNING: the Onionspray trunk code changes rapidly. You might want to seek a stable release bookmark or test a version locally before "diving-in" with a randomly-timed git pull, else major breakage may result.


Assuming that there is enough disk space on Brenda, you might want to pull copies of all the configurations and logfiles on all the workers. To do that:

  • onionspray mirror # to build a local mirror of all worker onionspray installations
  • onionspray backup # to make a compressed backup of a fresh mirror, for archiving.

Tuning for small configurations

The value of tor_intros_per_daemon is set to 3 by default, in the expectation that we will be using horizontal scaling (i.e.: multiple workers) to gain performance, and that some of the workers may be down at any given time.

Also Onionspray configures a semi-hardcoded number of Tor daemons per worker, in order to try and get a little more cryptographic multiprocessing out of Tor. This value (softmap_tor_workers) is currently set to 2 and is probably not helpful to change; the tor daemon itself is generally not a performance bottleneck.

Overall, our theory is that if N=6 workers have M=2 tor daemons, each of which has P=3 introduction points, then that provides a pool of N*M*P=36 introduction points for Onionbalance to scrape and attempt to synthesise into a "production" descriptor for one of the public onions.

But if you are only using a single softmap worker then N=1 and so N*M*P is 1*2*3=6, which is kinda small; in no way are 6 introduction points inadequate for testing, but in production it does mean that basically all circuit setups for any given onion will be negotiated through only 6 machines on the internet at any given time; and that those 6 introduction points will be servicing all connection-setups for all of the onion addresses that you configure in a project. This could be substantial.

The current hard-limit cap for P / the number of introduction points in a descriptor is 10, and Onionbalance uses a magic trick ("distinct descriptors") to effectively multiply that number by 6, and so (in summary) Onionspray can theoretically support 60 introduction points for any given softmap Onion Address, which it constructs by scraping introduction points out of the pool of worker onions.

But if you only have one worker, then by default Onionbalance only has 6 introduction points to work with.

In such circumstances I might suggest raising the value of P (i.e.: tor_intros_per_daemon) to 8 or even 10 for single-worker configs, so that (N*M*P=1*2*8=) 16 or more introduction points exist, so that Onionbalance has a bit more material to work with; but a change like this is probably going to be kinda "faffy" unless you are rebuilding from a clean slate. It may also lead to temporary additional lag whilst the old introduction points are polled when a worker has "gone down", if you restart workers frequently.

And/or/else, you could always add more workers to increase N.

But what if my pool of introduction points exceeds 60?!?

That's fine; Onionbalance randomly samples from within that pool, so that (averaged over time) all of the introduction points will see some traffic; but don't push it too far because that would be silly and wasteful to no benefit. For existing v2 onion addresses (16 characters long) the optimal size of N*M*P is probably "anywhere between 18-ish and 60-ish".


What if I want localhost as part of the pool of workers?

  • See the Softmap 3 diagram.
  • This works; do echo localhost >> onionspray-workers.conf:
    • If localhost/Brenda is the only machine, you don't really need a onionspray-workers.conf file.
  • The string localhost is treated specially by onionspray, does not require ssh access.
  • Alternative: read the other documentation, use hardmap, skip the need for Onionbalance.

Why install NGINX (and everything else) on brenda, too?

  1. Orthogonality: it means all machines are the same, easy of reuse/debugging.
  2. Architecture: you may want to use Brenda for testing/development via hardmap deployments.
  3. Testing: you can use onionspray [--local] syntax -a to sanity-check NGINX config files before pushing.

How many workers can I have?

  • In the default Onionspray config, you may sensibly install up to 30 workers (Wolfgang, William, Walter, Westley...).
  • This is because Tor descriptor space will max-out at 60 daemons, and Onionspray launches 2x daemons per worker.
    • This is somewhat tweakable if it becomes really necessary.

How many daemons will I get, by default?

  • 2x Tor daemons per worker. This is configurable.
  • N NGINX daemons per worker, where N = number of cores. This is configurable.

What are the ideal worker specifications?

  • Probably machines with between 4 and 20 cores, with memory to match.
  • Large, fast local /tmp storage, for caching.
  • Fast networking / good connectivity.
  • Manually configure for (num Tor daemons) + (num NGINX daemons) == (num CPU cores), approximately.
    • You probably only need 1 or 2 Tor daemons to provide enough traffic to any machine.