Create squashfs archive from stdin and sign it on-the-fly

Create squashfs archive from stdin and sign it on-the-fly

May 8, 2021
linux, network

The use-case might be a little specific but I’ll describe it nonetheless, hoping it may help someone. A while ago I read Practical Forensic Imaging by Bruce Nikkel and tried out the sfsimage script that he presented therein.

The idea is as simple as it is brilliant: combine open-source disk recovery tools like dc3dd with the great compression and usability of readonly squashfs filesystems. The imaged disk is piped directly into a virtual file inside the archive and some metadata of the acquisition is added alongside it to create a “forensic image”. This image can be mounted and inspected without elevated privileges using squashfuse – all the while usually only taking a fraction of the original disk size.

Why?! #

Yesterday I migrated one of my small virtual servers at Hetzner to a new one – no big deal in itself. But before I finally deleted the server, I wanted to have a complete “backup image” – just in case I forgot to migrate something. Sure, I could just archive the entire filesystem with tar or zip. But a ZIP can’t be sent back over SSH on-the-fly and a TAR is not really browseable without first decompressing the entire thing – meh. Furthermore, neither would allow me to restore the entire machine simply by writing out the disk image.

You could of course always use a “reverse” SSHFS mount and just not bother with piping your archives through standard output. Courtesy of boltblog:

dpipe /usr/lib/ssh/sftp-server = ssh sshfs \
  :/path/on/local/machine /tmp/mnt -o slave

Either way, there’s so many different ways you could generate some sort of useful data on standard output. So the obvious solution was to just image the entire disk with dd and mount it in a loopback device if I should need it later. Luckily Hetzner allows you to reboot into a rescue environment, where your disk is completely quiescent.

Speaking in pseudofiles #

I took a look at sfsimage to see how the tool writes disk image files and it turns out that mksquashfs has a concept of pseudofiles to create block and character devices in the archive without elevated privileges. It also allows you to use the output of a command as a file’s contents. In order to image a disk you would use dd or dc3dd and omit the of= argument so it writes to standard output. If you simply used cat, the file would contain whatever you pipe into the mksquashfs command. A simple example that writes the current date to a file called now inside the archive might look like this:

date | mksquashfs /dev/null archive.sqsh -p "now f 644 0 0 cat"
Notice the /dev/null there? This will end up writing a character special file called null in the archive. To avoid that, you can use an empty directory; this is exactly what sfsimage does, too.

On-the-fly checksumming #

At this point I wanted to add a signed checksum of the raw disk image, so that I could theoretically verify that the image has not been altered later. I don’t really have any particular reason for that; it’s more a case of “just because I can”.

Preferably, you would do that without re-reading the entire disk image a second time, which would effectively double the time required. You cannot simply use a second pseudofile either, because the first command “gobbles” up the entire input until EOF. The solution is to split the input stream with tee and use a process substitution, which will write the checksum to a temporary file. That file can then be signed and quietly appended to the squashfs archive. (You could probably split into additional file descriptors and avoid the temporary file but I haven’t tried that yet.)

Looking at sfsimage again, there is already an example of using “plain old dd” with tee and md5sum all in a single pipe. However, at this point the somewhat inflexible configuration and usage of sudo thorughout the script (it assumes that you want to image a block device after all …) was annoying me and I wanted it simpler. So without much further ado, this is the simplified core in just a couple of lines:

ssh dd if=/dev/sda |\
  tee >(sha256sum | sed 's/-/disk.img/' >/tmp/disk.img.sha256) |\
  mksquashfs /tmp/emptydir archive.sqsh -comp zstd -p "disk.img f 644 0 0 cat" \
&& mksquashfs /tmp/disk.img.sha256 archive.sqsh -quiet

It does add some overhead but I believe that is mostly due to sha256sum and mksquashfs contending for CPU cycles. Depending on your bandwidth you might also want to compress the stream remotely and decompress it again locally before archival; using the -C option of ssh is utterly useless though because it uses the same algorithm as gzip – which actually made the transfer slower in my tests. Instead use zstd:

ssh "dd if=... | zstd" | zstd -d |\

Signing the checksum #

At this point it is trivial to just sign the checksum file however you like before you append the disk.img.sig to the archive. I like signify as a lightweight alternative to GPG – but you do you. Signify can’t directly sign the disk image because it limits the length of the message that you can sign.

Wrap it up #

In the end I wrote myself a small replacement script for sfsimage that did just this one thing: checksum and write whatever it receives on standard input into a new squashfs archive. Hence, I’ve called the result squashpipe and saved it to my dotfiles:

... | squashpipe archive.sqsh

The script handles -n to specify the filename inside the archive, -m to adjust the file mode and -s to optionally sign the checksum with a signify key as described above:

signify -Gn -p ~/ -s ~/key.sec
... | squashpipe -n data -s ~/key.sec archive.sqsh

The checksum contains a BSD-style tag that signify can verify directly. Mount the archive and verify the signature and checksum easily with:

mkdir mnt/ && squashfuse archive.sqsh mnt/ && mnt/
signify -Cx data.sig -p ~/