GSM test network at 32C3, after all

Contrary to my blog post yesterday, it looks like we will have a private GSM network at the CCC congress again, after all.

It appears that Vodafone Germany (who was awarded the former DECT guard band in the 2015 spectrum auctions) is not yet using it in December, and they agreed that we can use it at the 32C3.

With this approval from Vodafone Germany we can now go to the regulator (BNetzA) and obtain the usual test license. Given that we used to get the license in the past, and that Vodafone has agreed, this should be a mere formality.

For the German language readers who appreciate the language of the administration, it will be a Frequenzzuteilung für Versuchszwecke im nichtöffentlichen mobilen Landfunk.

So thanks to Vodafone Germany, who enabled us at least this time to run a network again. By end of 2016 you can be sure they will have put their new spectrum to use, so I'm not that optimistic that this would be possible again.

No GSM test network at 32C3

I currently don't assume that there will be a GSM network at the 32C3.

Ever since OpenBSC was created in 2008, the annual CCC congress was a great opportunity to test OpenBSC and related software with thousands of willing participants. In order to do so, we obtained a test licence from the German regulatory authority. This was never any problem, as there was a chunk of spectrum in the 1800 MHz GSM band that was not allocated to any commercial operator, the so-called DECT guard band. It's called that way as it was kept free in order to ensure there is no interference between 1800 MHz GSM and the neighboring DECT cordless telephones.

Over the decades, it was determined on a EU level that this guard band might not be necessary, or at least not if certain considerations are taken for BTSs deployed in that band.

When the German regulatory authority re-auctioned the GSM spectrum earlier this year, they decided to also auction the frequencies of the former DECT guard band. The DECT guard band was awarded to Vodafone.

This is a pity, as this means that people involved with cellular research or development of cellular technology now have it significantly harder to actually test their systems.

In some other EU member states it is easier, like in the Netherlands or the UK, where the DECT guard band was not treated like any other chunk of the GSM bands, but put under special rules. Not so in Germany.

To make a long story short: Without the explicit permission of any of the commercial mobile operators, it is not possible to run a test/experimental network like we used to ran at the annual CCC congress.

Given that

  • the event is held in the city center (where frequencies are typically used and re-used quite densely), and
  • an operator has nothing to gain from permitting us to test our open source GSM/GPRS implementations,

I think there is little chance that this will become a reality.

If anyone has really good contacts to the radio network planning team of a German mobile operator and wants to prove me wrong: Feel free to contact me by e-mail.

Thanks to everyone involved with the GSM team at the CCC events, particularly Holger Freyther, Daniel Willmann, Stefan Schmidt, Jan Luebbe, Peter Stuge, Sylvain Munaut, Kevin Redon, Andreas Eversberg, Ulli (and everyone else whom I may have forgot, my apologies). It's been a pleasure!

Thanks also to our friends at the POC (Phone Operation Center) who have provided interfacing to the DECT, ISDN, analog and VoIP network at the events. Thanks to roh for helping with our special patch requests. Thanks also to those entities and people who borrowed equipment (like BTSs) in the pre-sysmocom years.

So long, and thanks for all the fish!

Osmocom Berlin meetings

Back in 2012, I started the idea of having a regular, bi-weekly meeting of people interested in mobile communications technology, not only strictly related to the Osmocom projects and software. This was initially called the Osmocom User Group Berlin. The meetings were held twice per month in the rooms of the Chaos Computer Club Berlin.

There are plenty of people that were or still are involved with Osmocom one way or another in Berlin. Think of zecke, alphaone, 2b-as, kevin, nion, max, prom, dexter, myself - just to name a few.

Over the years, I got "too busy" and was no longer able to attend regularly. Some people kept it alive (thanks to dexter!), but eventually they were discontinued in 2013.

Starting in October 2015, I started a revival of the meetings, two have been held already, the third is coming up next week on November 11.

I'm happy that I had the idea of re-starting the meeting. It's good to meet old friends and new people alike. Both times there actually were some new faces around, most of which even had a classic professional telecom background.

In order to emphasize the focus is strictly not on Osmocom alone ( particularly not about its users only), I decided to rename the event to the Osmocom Meeting Berlin.

If you're in Berlin and are interested in mobile communications technology on the protocol and radio side of things, feel free to join us next Wednesday.

Progress on the Linux kernel GTP code

It is always sad if you start to develop some project and then never get around finishing it, as there are too many things to take care in parallel. But then, days only have 24 hours...

Back in 2012 I started to write some generic Linux kernel GTP tunneling code. GTP is the GPRS Tunneling Protocol, a protocol between core network elements in GPRS networks, later extended to be used in UMTS and even LTE networks.

GTP is split in a control plane for management and the user plane carrying the actual user IP traffic of a mobile subscriber. So if you're reading this blog via a cellular interent connection, your data is carried in GTP-U within the cellular core network.

To me as a former Linux kernel networking developer, the user plane of GTP (GTP-U) had always belonged into kernel space. It is a tunneling protocol not too different from many other tunneling protocols that already exist (GRE, IPIP, L2TP, PPP, ...) and for the user plane, all it does is basically add a header in one direction and remove the header in the other direction. User data, particularly in networks with many subscribers and/or high bandwidth use.

Also, unlike many other telecom / cellular protocols, GTP is an IP-only protocol with no E1, Frame Relay or ATM legacy. It also has nothing to do with SS7, nor does it use ASN.1 syntax and/or some exotic encoding rules. In summary, it is nothing like any other GSM/3GPP protocol, and looks much more of what you're used from the IETF/Internet world.

Unfortunately I didn't get very far with my code back in 2012, but luckily Pablo Neira (one of my colleagues from netfilter/iptables days) picked it up and brought it along. However, for some time it has been stalled until recently it was thankfully picked up by Andreas Schultz and now receives some attention and discussion, with the clear intention to finish + submit it for mainline inclusion.

The code is now kept in a git repository at

Thanks to Pablo and Andreas for picking this up, let's hope this is the last coding sprint before it goes mainline and gets actually used in production.

Germany's excessive additional requirements for VAT-free intra-EU shipments


At my company sysmocom we are operating a small web-shop providing small tools and accessories for people interested in mobile research. This includes programmable SIM cards, SIM card protocol tracers, adapter cables, duplexers for cellular systems, GPS disciplined clock units, and other things we consider useful to people in and around the various Osmocom projects.

We of course ship domestic, inside the EU and world-wide. And that's where the trouble starts, at least since 2014.

What are VAT-free intra-EU shipments?

As many readers of this blog (at least the European ones) know, inside the EU there is a system by which intra-EU sales between businesses in EU member countries are performed without charging VAT.

This is the result of different countries having different amount of VAT, and the fact that a business can always deduct the VAT it spends on its purchases from the VAT it has to charge on its sales. In order to avoid having to file VAT return statements in each of the countries of your suppliers, the suppliers simply ship their goods without charging VAT in the first place.

In order to have checks and balances, both the supplier and the recipient have to file declarations to their tax authorities, indicating the sales volume and the EU VAT ID of the respective business partners.

So far so good. This concept was reasonably simple to implement and it makes the life easier for all involved businesses, so everyone participates in this scheme.

Of course there always have been some obstacles, particularly here in Germany. For example, you are legally required to confirm the EU-VAT-ID of the buyer before issuing a VAT-free invoice. This confirmation request can be done online

However, the Germany tax authorities invented something unbelievable: A Web-API for confirmation of EU-VAT-IDs that has opening hours. Despite this having rightfully been at the center of ridicule by the German internet community for many years, it still remains in place. So there are certain times of the day where you cannot verify EU-VAT-IDs, and thus cannot sell products VAT-free ;)

But even with that one has gotten used to live.


Now in recent years (since January 1st, 2014) , the German authorities came up with the concept of the Gelangensbescheinigung. To the German reader, this newly invented word already sounds ugly enough. Literal translation is difficult, as it sounds really clumsy. Think of something like a reaching-its-destination-certificate

So now it is no longer sufficient to simply verify the EU-VAT-ID of the buyer, issue the invoice and ship the goods, but you also have to produce such a Gelangensbescheinigung for each and every VAT-free intra-EU shipment. This document needs to include

  • the name and address of the recipient
  • the quantity and designation of the goods sold
  • the place and month when the goods were received
  • the date of when the document was signed
  • the signature of the recipient (not required in case of an e-mail where the e-mail headers show that the messages was transmitted from a server under control of the recipient)

How can you produce such a statement? Well, in the ideal / legal / formal case, you provide a form to your buyer, which he then signs and certifies that he has received the goods in the destination country.

First of all, I find if offensive that I have to ask my customers to make such declarations in the first place. And then even if I accept this and go ahead with it, it is my legal responsibility to ensure that he actually fills this in.

What if the customer doesn't want to fill it in or forgets about it?

Then I as the seller am liable to pay 19% VAT on the purchase he made, despite me never having charged those 19%.

So not only do I have to generate such forms and send them with my goods, but I also need a business process of checking for their return, reminding the customers that their form has not yet been returned, and in the end they can simply not return it and I loose money. Great.

Track+Trace / Courier Services

Now there are some alternate ways in which a Gelangensbescheinigung can be generated. For example by a track+trace protocol of the delivery company. However, the requirements to this track+trace protocol are so high, that at least when I checked in late 2013, the track and trace protocol of UPS did not fulfill the requirements. For example, a track+trace protocol usually doesn't show the quantity and designation of goods. Why would it? UPS just moves a package from A to B, and there is no customs involved that would require to know what's in the package.

Postal Packages

Now let's say you'd like to send your goods by postal service. For low-priced non-urgent goods, that's actually what you generally want to do, as everything else is simply way too expensive compared to the value of the goods.

However, this is only permitted, if the postal service you use produces you with a receipt of having accepted your package, containing the following mandatory information:

  • name and address of the entity issuing the receipt
  • name and address of the sender
  • name and address of the recipient
  • quantity and type of goods
  • date of having receive the goods

Now I don't know how this works in other countries, but in Germany you will not be able to get such a receipt form the postal office.

In fact I inquired several times with the legal department of Deutsche Post, up to the point of sending a registered letter (by Deutsche Post) to Deutsche Post. They have never responded to any of those letters!

So we have the German tax authorities claiming yes, of course you can still do intra-EU shipments to other countries by postal services, you just need to provide a receipt, but then at the same time they ask for a receipt indicating details that no postal receipt would ever show.

Particularly a postal receipt would never confirm what kind of goods you are sending. How would the postal service know? You hand them a package, and they transfer it. It is - rightfully - none of their business what its content may be. So how can you ask them to confirm that certain goods were received for transport ?!?


So in summary:

Since January 1st, 2014, we now have German tax regulations in force that make VAT free intra-EU shipments extremely difficult to impossible

  • The type of receipt they require from postal services is not provided by Deutsche Post, thereby making it impossible to use Deutsche Post for VAT free intra-EU shipments
  • The type of track+trace protocol issued by UPS does not fulfill the requirements, making it impossible to use them for VAT-free intra-EU shipments
  • The only other option is to get an actual receipt from the customer. If that customer doesn't want to provide this, the German seller is liable to pay the 19% German VAT, despite never having charged that to his customer


To me, the conclusion of all of this can only be one:

German tax authorities do not want German sellers to sell VAT-free goods to businesses in other EU countries. They are actively trying to undermine the VAT principles of the EU. And nobody seem to complain about it or even realize there is a problem.

What a brave new world we live in.

small tools: rtl8168-eeprom

Some time ago I wrote a small Linux command line utility that can be used to (re)program the Ethernet (MAC) address stored in the EEPROM attached to an RTL8168 Ethernet chip.

This is for example useful if you are a system integrator that has its own IEEE OUI range and you would like to put your own MAC address in devices that contain the said Realtek etherent chips (already pre-programmed with some other MAC address).

The source code can be obtaned from:

small tools: gpsdate

In 2013 I wrote a small Linux program that can be usded to set the system clock based on the clock received from a GPS receiver (via gpsd), particularly when a system is first booted. It is similar in purpose to ntpdate, but of course obtains time not from ntp but from the GPS receiver.

This is particularly useful for RTC-less systems without network connectivity, which come up with a completely wrong system clock that needs to be properly set as soon as th GPS receiver finally has acquired a signal.

I asked the ntp hackers if they were interested in merging it into the official code base, and their response was (summarized) that with a then-future release of ntpd this would no longer be needed. So the gpsdate program remains an external utility.

So in case anyone else might find the tool interesting: The source code can be obtained from

Deutsche Bank / unstable interfaces

Deutsche Bank is a large, international bank. They offer services world-wide and are undoubtedly proud of their massive corporate IT department.

Yet, at the same time, they fail to get the most fundamental principles of user/customer-visible interfaces wrong: Don't change them. If you need to change them, manage the change carefully.

In many software projects, keeping the API or other interface stable is paramount. Think of the Linux kernel, where breaking a userspace-visible interface is not permitted. The reasons are simple: If you break that interface, _everyone_ using that interface will need to change their implementation, and will have to synchronize that with the change on the other side of the interface.

The internet online banking system of Deutsche Bank in Germany permits the upload of transactions by their customers in a CSV file format.

And guess what? They change the file format from one day to the other.

  • without informing their users in advance, giving them time to adopt their implementations of that interface
  • without documenting the exact nature of the change
  • adding new fields to the CSV in the middle of the line, rather than at the end of the line, to make sure things break even more

Now if you're running a business and depend on automatizing your payments using the interface provided by Deutsche Bank, this means that you fail to pay your suppliers in time, you hastily drop/delay other (paid!) work that you have to do in order to try to figure out what exactly Deutsche Bank decided to change completely unannounced, from one day to the other.

If at all, I would have expected this from a hobbyist kind of project. But seriously, from one of the worlds' leading banks? An interface that is probably used by thousands and thousands of users? WTF?!?

The VMware GPL case

My absence from blogging meant that I didn't really publicly comment on the continued GPL violations by VMware, and the 2015 legal case that well-known kernel developer Christoph Hellwig has brought forward against VMware.

The most recent update by the Software Freedom Conservancy on the VMware GPL case can be found at

In case anyone ever doubted: I of course join the ranks of the long list of Linux developers and other stakeholders that consider VMware's behavior completely unacceptable, if not outrageous.

For many years they have been linking modified Linux kernel device drivers and entire kernel subsystems into their proprietary vmkernel software (part of ESXi). As an excuse, they have added a thin shim layer under GPLv2 which they call vmklinux. And to make all of this work, they had to add lots of vmklinux specific API to the proprietary vmkernel. All the code runs as one program, in one address space, in the same thread of execution. So basically, it is at the level of the closest possible form of integration between two pieces of code: Function calls within the same thread/process.

In order to make all this work, they had to modify their vmkernel, implement vmklinux and also heavily modify the code they took from Linux in the first place. So the drivers are not usable with mainline linux anymore, and vmklinux is not usable without vmkernel either.

If all the above is not a clear indication that multiple pieces of code form one work/program (and subsequently must be licensed under GNU GPLv2), what should ever be considered that?

To me, it is probably one of the strongest cases one can find about the question of derivative works and the GPL(v2). Of course, all my ramblings have no significance in a court, and the judge may rule based on reports of questionable technical experts. But I'm convinced if the court was well-informed and understood the actual situation here, it would have to rule in favor of Christoph Hellwig and the GPL.

What I really don't get is why VMware puts up the strongest possible defense one can imagine. Not only did they not back down in lengthy out-of-court negotiations with the Software Freedom Conservancy, but also do they defend themselves strongly against the claims in court.

In my many years of doing GPL enforcement, I've rarely seen such a dedication and strong opposition. This shows the true nature of VMware as a malicious, unfair entity that gives a damn sh*t about other peoples' copyright, the Free Software community and its code of conduct as a whole, and the Linux kernel developers in particular.

So let's hope they waste a lot of money in their legal defense, get a sufficient amount of negative PR out of this to the point of tainting their image, and finally obtain a ruling upholding the GPL.

All the best to Christoph and the Conservancy in fighting this fight. For those readers that want to help their cause, I believe they are looking for more supporter donations.

What I've been busy with

Those who don't know me personally and/or stay in touch more closely might be wondering what on earth happened to Harald in the last >= 1 year?

The answer would be long, but I can summarize it to I disappeared into sysmocom. You know, the company that Holger and I founded four years ago, in order to commercially support OpenBSC and related projects, and to build products around it.

In recent years, the team has been growing to the point where in 2015 we had suddenly 9 employees and a handful of freelancers working for us.

But then, that's still a small company, and based on the projects we're involved, that team has to cover a variety of topics (next to the actual GSM/GPRS related work), including

  • mechanical engineering (enclosure design)
  • all types of electrical engineering
    • AC/electrical wiring/fusing on DIN rails
    • AC/DC and isolated DC/DC power supplies (based on modules)
    • digital design
    • analog design
    • RF design
  • prototype manufacturing and testing
  • software development
    • bare-iron bootloader/os/application on Cortex-M0
    • NuttX on Cortex-M3
    • OpenAT applications on Sierra Wireless
    • custom flavors of Linux on several different ARM architectures (TI DaVinci, TI Sitara)
    • drivers for various peripherals including Ethernet Switches, PoE PSE controller
    • lots of system-level software for management, maintenance, control

I've been involved in literally all of those topics, with most of my time spent on the electronics side than on the software side. And if software, the more on the bootloader/RTOS side, than on applications.

So what did we actually build? It's unfortunately still not possible to disclose fully at this point, but it was all related to marine communications technology. GSM being one part of it, but only one of many in the overall picture.

Given the quite challenging breadth/width of the tasks at hand and problem to solve, I'm actually surprised how much we could achieve with such a small team in a limited amount of time. But then, there's virtually no time left, which meant no work, no blogging, no progress on the various Osmocom Erlang projects for core network protocols, and last but not least no Taiwan holidays this year.

ately I see light at the end of the tunnel, and there is again a bit ore time to get back to old habits, and thus I

  • resurrected this blog from the dead
  • resurrected various project homepages that have disappeared
  • started some more work on actual telecom stuff (osmo-iuh, for example)
  • restarted the Osmocom Berlin Meeting

Weblog + homepage online again

On October 31st, 2014, I had reeboote my main server for a kernel upgrade, and could not mount the LUKS crypto volume ever again. While the techincal cause for this remains a mystery until today (it has spawned some conspiracy theories), I finally took some time to recover some bits and pieces from elsewhere. I didn't want this situation to drag on for more than a year...

Rather than bringing online the old content using sub-optimal and clumsy tools to generate static content (web sites generated by docbook-xml, blog by blosxom), I decided to give it a fresh start and try nikola, a more modern and actively maintained tool to generate static web pages and blogs.

The blog is now available at (a redirect from the old /weblog is in place, for those who keep broken links for more than 12 months). The RSS feed URLs are different from before, but there are again per-category feeds so people (and planets) can subscribe to the respective category they're interested in.

And yes, I do plan to blog again more regularly, to make this place not just an archive of a decade of blogging, but a place that is alive and thrives with new content.

My personal web site is available at while my (similarly re-vamped) freelancing business web site is also available again at

I still need to decide what to do about the old site. It still has its old manual web 1.0 structure from the late 1990ies.

I've also re-surrected and as well as (old content). Next in line is, which I also intend to convert to nikola for maintenance reasons.

Problems with OpenVPN on high-latency satellite links

So far I never had a need to look in detail how the OpenVPN protocol actually looks on the wire. It seems like not many people had that much of a close look, as the wireshark plugin is fairly recent (from 2012 I think) while OpenVPN is around for ten more years than that. If I was an OpenVPN developer, the wireshark plugin would be the first thing I'd write to help debugging and development. At least that's what I've been doing from OpenPCD to SIMtrace and through the various GSM and other protocols I encounter...

The reason for my current investigation is some quite strange and yet-unexplained problems when running OpenVPN on high-latency satellite links. I'm not talking about high-bandwidth VSAT or systems with dedicated / guaranteed bandwidth. The links I'm seeing often have RTT (as seen by ICMP echo) of 2 seconds, sometimes even 5. This is of course not only the satellite link, but includes queuing on the ground, possibly the space segment and of course the terminal, including (possibly) access arbitration.

What struck me _very_ odd is that OpenVPN is sending tons of UDP messages with ridiculously small size during the TLS handshake when bringing up the tunnel. Further investigation shows that they actually internally configure a MTU of '0' for the link, which seems to be capped at 100 bytes control payload, plus HMAC and OpenVPN header resulting in 124 to 138 bytes UDP payload.

Now you have to consider that the server certificate (possibly including even a CA certificate) can be quite large, plus all the gazillions of TLS handshaking options in ServerHello, the first message from server to client. This means that OpenVPN transmits that ServerHello in something like 40 to 60 fragments of 100 bytes each! And each of the fragments will have to be acknowledged by the remote end, leading 80 to 120 UDP/IP packets _only_ for the delivery of the TLS ServerHello.

Then you start reviewing the hundreds of OpenVPN configuration options, many of them related to MTU, MSS, fragmentation, etc. There is none for that insanely small default of 100 bytes for control packets during hand-shake. I even read through the related source code, only to find that indeed this behavior seems hard-coded. Some time later I had written a patch to add this option, thanks to Free Software. It seems to work on client and server and brings the ClientHello down to much smaller 4-6 messages.

The fun continues when you see that the timeout for re-transmitting fragments that have not been ACKed yet is 2 seconds. At my satellite RTT times this of course leads to lots of unneeded re-transmissions, simply because the ACK hasn't made its way back to the sender of the original message yet. Luckily there's a configuration option for that.

After the patch and changing that option, the protocol trace looks much more sane. However, I still have problems establishing a tunnel in a number of cases. For some odd reason, the last fragment of the ServerHello is not acknowledged by the client, no matter whether patched or unpatched OpenVPN is being used. I get acknowledgements always only up to fragment N-1 after having transmitted N. That last fragment is then re-transmitted by the server with exponential back-off, and finally some 60 seconds later the server gives up as the TLS handshake didn't finish within that time. Extending the TLS handshake timeout to 120 seconds also doesn't help.

I'm not quite sure why something like 39 out of 39 fragments all get delivered reliably and acknowledged, but always the last fragment (40) doesn't make it to the remote side. That's certainly not random packet loss, but a very deterministic one. Let's see if I can still manage to find out what that might be...

Attending HITCON and COSCUP in Taipei

It is my pleasure to attend the HITCON 2013 and COSCUP 2013 conferences in July/August this year. They are both in Taipei. HITCON is a hacker/security event, while COSCUP is a pure Free/Open Source Software conference.

At both events I will be speaking at the growing list of GSM related tools that are available these days, like OpenBSC, OsmcoomBB, SIMtrace, OsmoSGSN, OsmoBTS, OsmoSDR, etc. As they are both FOSS projects and useful in a security context, this fits well within the scope of both events.

Given that I'm going to be back to Taiwan, I'm looking very much forward to meeting old friends and former colleagues from my Openmoko days in Taipei. God, do I miss those days. While terribly stressful, they still are the most exciting days of my career so far.

And yes, I'm also going to use the opportunity for a continuation of my motorbike riding in this beautiful country.

Rest In Peace, Atul Chitnis

Today, very sad news has reached me: Atul Chitnis has passed away. Most people outside of India will most likely not recognize the name: He has been instrumental in pioneering the BBS community in India, and the founder and leader of the Linux Bangalore and later conferences, held annually in Bangalore.

I myself first met Atul about ten years ago, and had the honor of being invited to speak at many of the conferences he was involved in. Besides that professional connection, we became friends. The warmth and affection with which I was accepted by him and his family during my many trips to Bangalore is without comparison. I was treated and accepted like a family member, despite just being this random free software hacker from Germany who is always way too busy to return the amount of kindness.

Despite the 17 year age difference, there was a connection between the two of us. Not just the mutual respect for each others' work, but something else. It might have been partially due to his German roots. It might have been the similarities in our journey through technology. We both started out in the BBS community with analog modems, we both started to write DOS software in the past, before turning to Linux. We both became heavily involved in mobile technology around the same time: He during his work at Geodesic, I working for Openmoko. Only in recent years his indulgence in Apple products was slightly irritating ;)

Only five weeks ago I had visited Atul. Given the state of his health, it was clear that this might very well be the last time that we meet each other. I'm sad that this now actually turned out to become the thruth. It would have been great to meet again at the end of the year (the typical schedule).

My heartfelt condolences to his family. Particularly to his wonderful wife Shubha, his daughther Anjali, his mother and brother. [who I'm only not calling by their name in this post as they deserve some privacy and their Identities is not listed on Atuls wikipedia page].

Atul was 51 years old. Way too young to die. Yet, he has managed to created a legacy that will extend long beyond his life. He profoundly influenced generations of technology enthusiasts in India and beyond.

Hardware outage affectiong,,

As usual, murphy's law dictates that problems will occur at the worst possible moment. One of my servers in the data center died on March 20, and it was the machine which hosts the majority of the free software projects that I've created or am involved in. From to OpenPCD and OpenEZX to and virtually all sites and services.

Recovery was slow as there is no hot spare and none of my other machines in the data center have backplanes for the old SCA-80 hard disks that are in use by that particular machine. So we had to send the disks to Berlin, wait until I'm back there, and then manually rsync everything over to a different box in the data center.

To my big surprise, not many complaints reached me (and yes, my personal and/or business e-mail was not affected in any way)

Recovery is complete now, and I'm looking forward to things getting back to normal soon.

OsmoDevCon 2013 preparation update

OsmoDevCon 2013 is getting closer every day, and I'm very much looking forward to meet the fellow developers of the various Osmcoom sub-projects. Organization-wise, the catering has now been sorted out, and Holger has managed to get a test license for two ARFCN from the regulatory body without any trouble.

This means that we're more or less all set. The key needs to be picked up from IN-Berlin, and we need to bring some extra extension cords, ethernet switch, power cords and other gear, but that's really only very minor tasks.

There's not as much formal schedule as we used to have last year, which is good as I hope it means we can focus on getting actual work done, as opposed to spending most of the time updating one another about our respective work and progress.

Update on what I've been doing

For the better part of a year, this blog has failed to provide you with a lot of updates what I've been doing. This is somewhat relate to a shift from doing freelance work on mainline / FOSS projects like the Linux kernel.

In April 2011, Holger and I started a new company here in Berlin (sysmocom - systems for mobile communications GmbH). This company, among other things, attempts to provide products and services surrounding the various mobile communications related FOSS projects, particularly OpenBSC, OsmoSGSN, OpenGGSN, but also OsmocomBB, and now also OsmoBTS + OsmoPCU, two integral components of our own BTS product called sysmoBTS.

Aside from the usual software development, this entails a variety of other tasks, technical and non-technical. First of all, I did more electrical engineering than I did in the years since Openmoko. And even there, I was only leading the hardware architecture, and didn't actually have to capture schematics or route PCBs myself. So now there are some general-purpose and some customer-specific circuits that had to be done. I really enjoy that work, sometimes even more than software development. Particularly the early/initial design phase can be quite exciting. Selecting components, figuring out how to interconnect them, whether you can fit all of them together in the given amount of GPIOs and other resource of your main CPU, etc. But then even the hand-soldering the first couple of boards is fun, too.

Of all the things I so far had least exposure to is casing and mechanical issues. Luckily we have a contractor working on that for us, but still there are all kinds of issues that can go wrong, where unpopulated PCB footprints can suddenly make contact with a case, or all kinds of issues related to manufacturing tolerances. Another topic is packaging. After all, you want the products to end up in the hands of the customer in a neat, proper and form-fitting package.

On the other hand, there is a lot of administrative work. Sourcing components can sometimes be a PITA, particularly if even distributors like Digikey conspire against you and don't even carry those low quantities of a component that we need for our 100-board low quantity runs. EMC and other measurements for CE approval are a fun topic, too. I've never been involved personally in those, and it has been an interesting venture. Luckily, at least for sysmoBTS, things are looking quite promising now. Customs paperwork, Import/Export related buerocracy (both in Germany as well as other countries) always have new surprises, despite me having experience in dealing with customs for more than 10 years now.

Also significant amount of time is spent on evaluating suppliers and their products, e.g. items like SIM/USIM cards, cavity duplexers, antennas, cables, adapters, power amplifiers and other RF related accessories for our products.

The thing that really caught me off-guard are the German laws on inventory accounting. Basically there is no threshold for low-quantity goods, so as a company on capital (GmbH/AG) you have to account for each and every fscking SMD resistor or capacitor. And then you don't only have to count all those parts, but also put a value at them. Depending on the type of item, you have to use either the purchasing price, or the current market price if you were to buy it again, or the price you expect to sell the item for. Furthermore, the trade law requirements on inventory accounting are different than the tax laws, not often with contradictory aims ;)

In the end it seems the best possible strategy is to put a lot of the low-value inventory into the garbage bin before the end of the financial year, as the value of the product (e.g. 130 SMD resistors in 0402 worth fractions of cents) is so much lower than the cost of counting it. Now that's of course an environmental sin, especially if you consider lots and lots of small and medium-sized companies ending up at that conclusion :(

So all in all, this should give you somewhat of an explanation why there might have been less activity on this blog about exciting technical things. On the one hand, they might relate to customer related projects which are of confidential nature. On the other hand, they might simply be boring things like dealing with transport damage of cavity duplexers from china, or with FedEx billing customs/import fees to the wrong address...

Overall I still have the feeling that I was writing a decent amount of code in 2012 - although there can never be enough :) Most of it was probably either related to OsmoBTS, OpenBSC/OsmoNITB or the various Erlang SS7/TCAP/MAP related projects. The list of more community-oriented projects with long TODO lists is growing, though. I'd like to work on SIMtrace MITM / card emulation support, the CC32RS512 based smartcard OS, libosmosim (there's a first branch in libosmocore.git). Let's hope I can find a bit more time for that kind of stuff this year. You should never give up hope, they say ;)

Talk Idea: How to write code to make later enforcement easy

During FOSDEM 2013, I spoke with some fellow Free Software developers about how my knowledge on copyright and specifically legal aspects of software copyright has influenced the way how I write code, and particularly how I design architecture of programs.

This made me realize that this would probably make a quite interesting talk at Free Software conferences: How to architect and write code in order to make later [GPL] enforcement easy.

Of course there are all the general and mostly well-known rules like keeping track of who owns which part of the copyright, having proper copyright claims and license headers, etc.

But I'm more thinking in the sense of: How do I write code in a way to make sure people extending it in some way with their own code will be forced to create a derivative work. If that is the case, they will have absolutely no choice but to also license that under GPL.

This is particularly important in the case of GPL licensed libraries. The common understanding in the community is that writing an executable program against a GPL licensed library will constitute a derivative work and thus the main program must be licensed under the GPL, if it is ever distributed.

However, in reality there is of course no precedent, and in some particular cases, the legal framework, depending on the jurisdiction, might come to different conclusions if it ever ended up in court. The claim of a 'derivative work' would be particularly weak if the main program is only using a set of standard function calls whose function declarations are the same in many versions of the GPL licensed library you link against. So let's assume there was a GPL licensed standard C library for stuff like open(), close(), printf() and the like. I think it would be very difficult to argue in court that a program written against those functions and linked against such a library would constitute a derivative work of the library. As in fact, there are many other implementations providing the exact same interface, under different licenses, and the API was not even drafted by the author of the GPL licensed implementation.

So I think there are some things that an author of an (intentionally) GPL licensed library can do while writing the code, which will later help him to establish that an executable program is a derived work.

The same is true to some extent for executable programs, too. I very intentionally did not introduce a plug-in interface for BTS drivers in OpenBSC, even though while technically it would have been possible. I _want_ somebody who adds code for a different BTS to touch the main code of the program instead of just writing an external plugin. The mere fact that he has to edit the main program in order to add a new BTS driver indicates that he is creating a derivative work.

So I'll probably try to submit a talk on this topic to some upcoming conference[s]. If you think this is an interesting topic and want me to talk about it at a FOSS related event, please feel free to send me an e-mail.

Back from FOSDEM 2013

As (almost) every year, I attended the annual incarnation of FOSDEM. It is undoubtedly (one of?) the most remarkable events about Free Software in existence. No registration, no fees, 24 tracks in parallel, an estimated 5000 number of attendees. I also like that it brings together people from so many different communities, not _just_ the Linux or Gnome or KDE or Telephony or Legal people, but a good mixture of everything.

I have to congratulate the organizers, who manage to pull this off, year after year again. And as opposed to many other events, they do so quietly and without much recognition, I feel. I'd also like to thank the many volunteers working tirelessly before, at and after the event. Last, but not least, I'd like to thank the local university (ULB Solbosch) hosting the event.

What made me truly sad though, is the amount of littering that surprisingly many of the attendees did. This was particularly visible in the Cafeteria. Imagine an event run by volunteers, who put in a lot of time and effort. Imagine an event where food and drinks are sold by volunteers at such low prices that there can barely be any profit at all. And then imagine people eating there and leaving all their rubbish around, as if they were in some kind of restaurant where they are being served and where somebody is cleaning up after them. It really makes me feel very bitter to see this. Don't people realize that those very volunteers who are creating the event will then have to put in _their_ spare time just because those who just enjoyed their coffee or lunch didn't have the extra 30 seconds of bringing their trash to the trashcan? I feel ashamed for members of our community who behave this way. Please think next time before acting and show your respect to the people behind FOSDEM.

Why I hate phone calls so much

The fact that I have more than 20 missed phone calls on my land line telephone after only half a day has passed triggers me to write this blog post.

It is simply impossible to get any productive work done if there are synchronous interruptions. If I'm doing any even remotely complex task such as analyzing code, designing electronics or whatever else, then the interruption of the flow of thoughts, and the context switch to whatever the phone call might be about is costing me an insurmountable amount of my productive efficiency. I doubt that I am the only one having that feeling / experience.

So why on earth does everybody think they are entitled to interrupt my work at any given point in time they desire? Why do they think whatever issue they have rectifies an immediate interruption in what I am doing? To me, an unscheduled phone call almost always feels like an insult. It is a severe intrusion into my work-flow, and has a very high cost to me in terms of loss of productivity.

Sure, there are exceptional absolute emergencies (like, a medical emergency of a family member). But just about anything else can be put in an e-mail, which I can respond to at a time of my choosing, i.e. at a time I am not deeply buried into some other task that requires expensive context switching and the associated loss of productivity. And yes, a response might be the same day, some days later, or even a week or more later. There are literally hundreds of mails of dozens of people that need to be responded to. I can never even remotely answer all of them in a timely manner, even if I'm working 12-14 hours a day up to 7 days a week.

Right now I'm doing the only reasonable thing that is left: Switch off all phones. And to anyone out there intending to contact me: Please think twice before calling me on the phone. Almost anything can be put in an e-mail. And if you really want to have a phone call, please request a scheduled phone call in an e-mail containing a very detailed agenda and explanation of the topic.

Strain of bad luck

From roughly September to December 2012 I seem to have had a quite unusual strain of bad luck and set-backs. I don't want to go into the details here, as most of the issues are of quite private nature.

This has kept me quite distracted from a lot of my other activity. Projects like the various Osmocom sub-projects, are in desperate need of attention, and I have severely neglected my responsibilities in the Chaos Computer Club Berlin e.V. :(

I don't even want to talk about actual paid work, where customers also had to put up with repeated schedule slips and lack of availability.

I let down friends and colleagues at a number of occasions, as I was unable to keep up with anything that remotely resembles my typical work schedule.

Last but not least, I regrettably have also not felt much of an urge to write many blog posts here.

My sincere hope and expectation is that things are going to improve quickly in 2013. At least most of issues from the last half year have been resolved. Now I need to work through a considerable back-log of work and find more time for my volunteer projects in the FOSS and hacker worlds. However, this will need some time and I would like to ask for some patience. I do intend to be up to speed with things just like before.

In this spirit, I am looking forward to a productive and exciting 2013. Happy hacking und Viel Spass am Gerät

29C3. The end of an era?

When I first heard that the annual CCC congress was moved to Hamburg, my immediate reaction was: Fine, but I wouldn't want to be involved in it. For the last 15 years I've been attending the CCC congress every year, in most years as a speaker, and in many years in some (small) contributing role, first in the team doing the video recordings, and in the last couple of years setting up a GSM network. Contributing to an event is easy if your home/lab is within 20minutes, so if you need another strange cable/adapter/tool/whatever, you can just go and grab it. Doing that at an event that's multiple hours of driving away, in a new/unknown venue is an entirely different story. I have more than enough stress already with (paid) work and the various FOSS projects that I'm leading or involved in.

I have no interest in "just" attending the event. That never was a primary reason for me. In all those years, I've probably attended an average of one talk each year. The event for me was about being able to contribute something actively.

Now, months after those thoughts and my decision not to attend, there is a schedule for the 29C3 available. And to say the least, I am shocked. The entire event seems to have turned into a SIGINT, rather than an xxC3. Lots of talks on politics and society, and lots of German talks.

The debate on implications of technology on society, culture, politics, etc. is an important debate, there is no doubt. And so far I always had the feeling that the xxC3 had a pretty good balance between hard-core technical talks and those non-technical talks. But if I look at the schedule this year, it really looks like an incarnation of the SIGINT conference. With too many German talks you are scaring off the international community. And with focussing on non technical topics, you scare away the die-hard technical hackers. So why move to a larger venue, if you at the same time seem to limit the scope of the event?

Meanwhile I have heard of a number of friends and colleagues who seem to share this view. A number of people who have attended in previous years are not interested in attending this year due to the issues mentioned above.

It's sad to see, but I somehow have the feeling that 29C3 might be the end of an era. The end of a highly successful series of events with exceptionally strong technical talks. To me, xxC3 has always been unique and special. No other event would ever compare to it. Who will fill the gap for the die-hard technical topics? I am feeling quite sad, up to the point that I want to start mourning about "the good old times".

I'm not writing this to put blame on anyone. It just reflects my personal and highly subjective view. Let's see what people will say after 29C3 has actually happened. Let's see how successful it is in terms of number of attendees, and in terms of feedback from participants. I'd like to explicitly thank the many organizers and volunteers (a lot of whom I know in person) for putting up their time and energy to make 29C3 happen.

Inside a cavity duplexer

In many cellular systems (GSM or otherwise) there is a frequency duplex between the uplink and downlink frequency band. If you use a single antenna to serve a BTS, then somehow you need to split the frequency band between the Rx and Tx side by means of a Duplexer.

The most common technology for this is the so-called Cavity Duplexer. I've used those devices (and seen them in use) for a long time, but never really opened one so far. The problem is that they are finely tuned, and each mechanical change can severely impact performance. As I had to repair a broken SMA socket on one of them recently, I took the chance to take a picture

In the first picture you can see the bottom side. This consists of a milled aluminum block, with a series of circular cavities. The Tx output of the BTS is connected to the SMA socket on the bottom right, the antenna to the SMA socket on the top side, and the Rx port to the SMA socket on the bottom left of the picture:

The small cylindrical objects in the center of the cavities are not milled from the same part, but they are separate pieces mounted by screws from the bottom of the unit.

The second picture shows the top section of the duplexer:

You can see a ~ 4mm aluminum plate with lots of (now empty) holes which are for the ~ 117 screws with which the top plate is screwed against the bottom part shown in the first picture.

The important part, however, are the screws that you can see sticking out of the top part. Those are used for tuning and present "obstacles" in the path of the waves as they pass through the cavities.

The big miracle for me is not that there are some resonances which build up a filter, but that you can actually transfer as much as 100W of RF power from the Tx input through to the antenna output.

Short report on the first Osmocom User Group meeting in Bavaria

It's already one week in the past, but I'm only now finding some time to report on the first Osmocom User Group meeting in Bavaria.

All-in-all, there were 6 people attending, some people already known in the community, but also two completely new faces, which is great.

Dieter gave us a tour of his large BTS equipment, including a Nokia Ultrasite and an Ericsson RBS 2206. We had an introduction round where the participants could get to know each other a bit. Finally, we spoke about a variety of topics, from OsmocomBB to SIMtrace, SIM/SAT/STK security, the CC32RS512 and of course OpenBSC and the sysmoBTS.

On the day after the meeting I also had the pleasure of attempting to get the RBS2206 working with OpenBSC. Unfortunately there was no success, but still a number of bugs in the OM2000 / RBS2000 code in OpenBSC that had been found and fixed.

I'd like to thank Dieter Spaar for organizing and hosting the event, taking care of the Bavarian sausage + cheese platter for lunch.

I did not create rtl-sdr / librtlsdr

In recent weeks, the number of private e-mails I receive about rtl-sdr has increased significantly. This is odd for at least two reasons:

First, I didn't create rtl-sdr and was not involved in its creation with the tiny exception of writing an e4k tuner driver for osmo-sdr, which was then used in a variety of rtl-sdr software.

Second, you should never contact the (presumed) software author in a private e-mail, but use the respective project mailing list. There is a community of developers, contributors and users out there, and it is a waste of everyone's time if you communicate by 1:1 private e-mail rather than enlightening the mailing list.