Nutanix NPX Architecture Guide How-To (Part 1)

A couple of months ago I successfully defended my Nutanix Platform Expert (NPX) certification and became number 14 in the world to obtain the certification. You can read all about that journey here. As part of the NPX certification process you submit a documentation package which should cover all of the areas in the NPX blueprint. This package will consist of multiple documents, but it's entirely up to the author on how to organize and present the content called out in the blueprint. This post is part 1 of a 2 part series, covering how my NPX architecture guide was organized. 

There is no "NPX" document template or "magical" format that will guarantee acceptance of your work, and enable you to do the in-person live defense. So please don't just copy this outline as-is, throw in a few sentences under each topic, and think you are good to go. Just use these two posts as inspiration for your NPX submission, and help ensure you cover all blueprint areas. 

Straight from the NPX Design Review blueprint your documentation package must include the following content, or the submission will be rejected:

  • A current state and operational readiness assessment
  • A web-scale migration and transition plan
  • Documentation of specific business requirements driving the solution design
  • Documentation of assumptions that impacted the solution design
  • Documentation of the design constraints that impacted the design and delivery of the solution
  • Documentation describing risks identified in the design and delivery of the solution and how those risks were remediated
  • A solution architecture including conceptual/logical and physical design with appropriate diagrams and descriptions of all functional components of the solution
  • An implementation plan
  • An installation guide
  • A test and validation plan
  • Documentation of operational procedures

And also directly from the NPX blueprint, the following categories will be judged:

Conceptual/Logical Design Elements

  • Scalability
  • Resiliency
  • Performance
  • Manageability and control plane architecture
  • Data protection and recoverability
  • Compliance and security
  • Virtual machine design logical design
  • Virtual network design
  • Third-party solution integration

Physical Design Elements

  • Resource sizing
  • Storage infrastructure
  • Platform selection
  • Networking infrastructure
  • Virtual machine physical design
  • Management component design
  • Datacenter infrastructure (Environmental and power)

As you can see, the NPX blueprint covers a lot of ground. Although page content is NOT specified, and longer is NOT always better, typical submissions can exceed 200 total pages (spread across multiple documents).

Where to Start

One of the first tasks when you are starting down the NPX path is to plan out your documentation, and decide what NPX blueprint content will be in what documentation. Again, there's no hard and fast rule here. And as an "X" (expert) level architect, you should have a good idea how to do this. Logical organization is KEY to allowing the NPX panelists to quickly and properly evaluate your documentation. If it's hard to find the blueprint areas for scoring purposes, you are not doing yourself any favors. Make it dead easy find each and every required documentation criteria. 

For my joint submission with my NPX partner Bruno Sousa, we decided on the following physical documents (in no particular order):

  • Completed NPX application PDF form
  • Resume
  • DevOps essay
  • Architecture Design Guide
  • Implementation Plan
  • Installation Guide
  • Operational Vertification
  • Operations Guide

In this blog post I will focus on the Architecture Design Guide, as that is where the majority of the content lives. That's not to discount all of the other docs, but time wise, I found myself spending the most on the Architecture Guide.

NPX Architecture Guide

As can see from the NPX blueprint, you are required to have conceptual, logical and physical elements to many design areas (virtual machines, networking, etc.). A natural progression from conceptual, logical and physical in your documentation makes following your thought process easy. As you will see from my documentation outline, for most areas I made specific headings called "Conceptual Design", "Logical Design" and "Physical Design". That makes it super obvious that 1) You've covered the areas in the NPX blueprint 2) You know the difference between each 3) Allows the reader to logically follow your thought process. A simple but key tip. I've seen more than one NPX submission that made it very difficult to follow the author's thought process.

With all of that being said, now let's dive into the actual outline of my NPX Architecture Guide so you can see how it was organized. Again, this is not the magical outline, and you can diverge from this to suit your style and design. This is just how Bruno and I organized the document.

The major sections in our architecture guide are:

  1. Overview
  2. Current State and Operational Assessment
  3. Design Overview
  4. Nutanix Capacity and Sizing
  5. Nutanix Cluster Design
  6. Host Design
  7. Network Design
  8. Storage Design
  9. Security and Compliance
  10. Management Components
  11. Virtual Machine Design
  12. Data Protection and Recoverability
  13. Datacenter Infrastructure
  14. Third-Party Integration

The remainder of this blog post will touch on highlights from each area, and have screenshots of the actual outline from our submission.

1.0 Overview

NPX Overview

The overview is a very brief 3-4 page description of the entire solution, at a 30,000 foot level. Why was this project needed? What are the roles and responsibilities of all parties involved (hint: use a RACI chart)? What was the customer project sign off process?

2.0 Current State and Operational Assessment


NPX current state and operational assessment

If you are in a brownfield environment and are doing any type of upgrades, migration, etc. you will need a current state and operational assessment section. As you can see from the outline above, it needs to be very comprehensive. For example, I included the following:

  • Performance baseline (storage, compute) - Charts, graphs, and IOPS/bandwidth measurements
  • Full VM inventory (OSes, largest VM, high performance VM metrics, etc.)
  • Full operational readiness assessment
  • Gap analysis

Giving the reader a good picture of the current state environment is key, as the remainder of the document will build upon this foundation. Capturing performance metrics is key, so that you know how to properly size the new environment, and then validate the new environment can support the projected workload.

3.0 Design Overview

NPX design overview

The design overview is massively important, as this section captures requirements, constraints, assumptions, risks, and design decisions. And it also has 10,000 foot conceptual, logical and physical diagrams of the proposed solution. 

Each requirement, constraint, assumption, risk and design decision should have a unique reference number, which will be used throughout your entire documentation package. Tip: If you have requirement R10 (for example) in the table, but don't reference it anywhere in your doc package, that's a big problem. Validate each and every item that has a unique identifier is used at least once elsewhere.

The screenshot below is a small sample of what my requirements table looked like. The number of requirements will vary greatly from design to design. In my case I had 22, but you may have dozens more if the solution is complex. 

I have seen candidates break out 'technical requirements' (TR) and 'business requirements' (BR) into separate tables. That's certainly a valid approach, and makes perfect sense. I combined all of mine in one table. 

NPX requirements

For your risks table, it's not adequate to just list the risk. You must also have a mitigation for each and every risk. 

4.0 Nutanix Sizing and Capacity

NPX sizing and capacity planning

As previously covered, you can see here that I used specific headings of "Conceptual Design", "Logical Design" and "Physical Design" for the sizing and capacity section. This forces you to think and present logically your solution. 

For each logical sizing unit (compute, memory, storage) I had a table similar to the following, which clearly shows my assumptions and how I arrived at the logical sizing unit. This logical sizing unit is then used later for the physical sizing of the cluster. 

NPX server virtualization CPU logical sizing

5.0 Nutanix Cluster Design

NPX Nutanix cluster design

I'll get tired of saying this, but for the Nutanix Cluster Design I also followed the conceptual, logical and physical flow. Key areas to cover here are scalability and resiliency, in addition to all of the physical components. 

6.0 Host Design

NPX host design

Host design covers the compute design plus the hypervisor of your choice. And again, I used the progression of conceptual, logical, and physical to enable the reader to understand my thought process. 

7.0 Network Design

NPX network design

The networking section is pretty self explanatory. You need to have sufficient depth here that you convey your "X" level knowledge of networking. For example, are you using ECMP? Why or why not? Where in the network is routing taking place? What routing protocol? Are you using leaf/spine or a 3-tier design? Microsegmentation? Any SDN solutions? LACP? NIC teaming? NIOC? How many network ports does your solution require? How many free ports are there for future expansion? How would the network scale out as more nodes are added? What's your network security look like? 

Networking is often a weak point for architects, so if that is your situation, I suggest seeking out experts to help with your design. For example, do you know any CCIEs? Or is there a networking best practices author within your organization? If you just brush over key network details in your documentation, don't be surprised if during your defense you get quizzed more. So be prepared! 

8.0 Storage Design

NPX storage design

Just like networking, the storage section is pretty straight forward. Conceptual, logical and physical headings make another appearance. Be sure to cover all Nutanix storage details here, such as compression, dedupe, EC-X, data locality, shadow clones (if used), RF-level, etc. 

Summary

As you can see from the first eight sections of the NPX Architecture Guide, there are a ton of details that you need to cover. It took me over 96 pages to cover these eight sections in what I thought was sufficient "X"-level detail. In Part 2 of this series, I will cover sections 9 - 14, and give you more tips about what I included in each section.

My Journey to Nutanix Platform Expert (NPX) #014

Almost four years ago to the month my career took a major turn. I just successfully passed the VMware VCDX datacenter virtualization certification, to become #125 in the world. You can read about my VCP5 to VCDX journey in 180 days here. And the following week I joined this somewhat little known and scrappy startup, called Nutanix.

Back then HCI (Hyperconvered infrastructure) was a new fangled technology that many, many were quite skeptical of. Was it enterprise ready? Was it good for anything more than VDI? Could it run SQL, Oracle, Exchange? Can it compete toe-to-toe with vBlock? Would Nutanix go belly up or be acquired? Betting my career on HCI was risky in 2014, but it's paid off in more ways than I could ever imagine.

Having the VCDX certification under my belt really prepared me well for dual role at Nutanix as both a Solutions Architect in engineering and a consulting Architect in our sales organization. As a solutions architect I wrote a number of published customer facing Nutanix Best Practice Guides, such as SQL, Veeam, Lync, Microsoft DFS, and others. And as a field Consulting Architect I worked with dozens of customers over the years in projects of all sizes and shapes. Both roles helped refine my enterprise IT architecture skills, and hands-on with our own products including AHV (Nutanix's hypervisor).

NPX (Nutanix Platform Expert)

Just about a year into my career at Nutanix in March 2015, Nutanix announced the NPX certification. You can read my blog post about it here. I was honored to be part of the team that helped develop NPX and came up with the criteria for what it means to be NPX. The bar that was set was even higher than other defense based certifications, such as VCDX. Why? You have to know two hypervisors at the "X" level as well as demonstrating enterprise grade IT architect skills. Our MQC (minimally qualified candidate) bar is high, and the first time pass rate is far from 100%.

Now you may wonder why it's now 2018, three years after NPX 'went live' and I am just now defending. Well to be frank, having dual roles in Nutanix for over 3 years left little to zero time in my life to do blogging or spend the hundreds and hundreds of hours it takes to prepare for the NPX. For my VCDX I estimated I spent over 1,000 hours of preparation and 250+ pages of documentation. So I knew NPX would be even harder.

I am a competitive person, and I also like proving to myself that I can be on a similar footing as my colleagues which I have immense respect for. They were getting their NPX's and they kept badgering me to get mine. Plus, I want be the best customer facing consultant that I can be, and I knew doing NPX would take my VCDX skills to an even higher level. I also very recently shifted roles a bit within Nutanix to focus on our largest global accounts. The job description for that role requires NPX-level skills. Immense pressure was building on me to successfully defend NPX.

The NPX Design

In early 2017 I decided to start putting time into my NPX preparation. NPX requires a real-world design that you've done, so I thought there's no better choice than taking my UCS/HP 3PAR VCDX design and migrate it a Nutanix based solution. So I dredged up all my VCDX documentation from 3 years ago, and read it over. I was shocked to remember how complex 3-tier solutions are, and in particular the SAN/RAID/LUN configuration.

Going through my VCDX design I was ripping out page after page of complexity. LUNs? Gone. SAN? Gone. Fibre Channel switches? Gone. Boot-from-SAN? Gone. Cisco service profiles? Gone. You get the idea. And the best part about it? The actual environment that my VCDX was based on, I was actively involved in the account to migrate them to almost entirely Nutanix. So my NPX had a dual purpose of both defending, and transforming a real Nutanix customer from 3-tier to Nutanix simplicity. Win-Win!

NPX Preparation

For anyone starting down the NPX path, the freely available NPX Blueprint is your Bible. It has all the topics you need to cover to properly submit and successfully defend for NPX. To get a copy, email npx@nutanix.com. It is absolutely critical that you follow the Blueprint to the letter and cover everything, including all of the required documents. Although all of the documents are important, to me the Architecture Guide is where you will spend the majority of your time. My VCDX Architecture guide was 185 pages, and my NPX version was 134 pages. That's nearly 50 pages less, nearly all due to removing complexity, while covering more topics for the same ​environment.

After you get all of your documentation in order, next comes submission time. The NPX application is quite detailed and requires things such a resume, 3 professional references, a web-scale essay, plus all of the documents you've spent probably 6-9 months working on. After submission your documentation is scored, and if it scores high enough, you are then invited to an in-person defense. Submission time is roughly 3 weeks prior to the published defense dates.

If accepted, now is time to start working on your PowerPoint slide deck for your defense. You will use this slide deck to walk the panelists through your 90 minute defense, where you will be asked questions about your design, alternatives, and why you did what you did.

Pro Tip: Take all the blueprint topics and create one slide for each topic. Fill each slide with what you think are the top items to cover. Even if you don't verbally cover all bullets on the slide, have the content there so the panelists can ask questions.  I had approximately 23 content slides in my presentation, plus a number of indexed backup slides. 

I've included my TOC for my NPX deck below. This is not a magical slide...it's all directly from the blueprint. This is just one way to do it...do what feels right to you. 

​Now that your slide deck is ready, you need to mock mock mock! Don't use a potted plant to talk to...use social media and your contacts to find other NPXs or people working on their NPX. Do a webex, Zoom, etc. Practice practice! Heck, if your design is based on vSphere, hit up VCDXs.

But don't forget to mock the troubleshooting and design scenarios. Those two areas are also key for scoring, and just don't wing it during your defense. Aim for multiple mocks for each of the three areas: defense, troubleshooting, design scenario.

My personal goal was to get through the slide presentation, uninterrupted, in 30 minutes. That leaves 60 minutes for panelists to ask questions. YMMV, but I'd advise not going much longer or you jeopardize your scoring chances.

​Dooms (I mean Defense) Day

​By now you should be comfortable with your design, mocked each of the three major sections of the defense, and probably didn't sleep too well the night before. But be rested! Also if you are traveling across time zones, try to arrive a couple of days early to help adjust. You don't want to be a jetlag zombie during your defense.

When you step into the defense room, for those that have done your VCDX, everything will look familiar. Three panelists, moderator, whiteboard, and a projector. The moderator will give you the rules of the road, then you start your presentation. Panelists can interrupt at any time during your presentation to ask questions. Questions are not bad! In fact, they are asked to help improve your score and make sure you know your design. After the 90 minutes you get a 15 minute break. 

Next up is the 30 minute troubleshooting scenario. You will be shown a few slides, then the timer will start. The panelists are looking for a methodical approach to solving the problem, not a scattershot process of asking random questions or throwing out guesses to the root cause. The goal is not to solve the problem, but show how you would solve it. Curve balls can be thrown if you get close to the 'real' answer. At the end of 30 minutes you get a 5 minute break.

Finally, is the 60 minute design scenario. Just like the VCDX, you are shown slides for a particular fictitious customer. The panelists then act as the customer, and you ask them questions about requirements, constraints, assumptions, and risks. You then start down the design path answering questions as you go. And before you know it, the 60 minutes are up!

Now that you are totally mentally drained, now is the waiting game. Thankfully, you won't have to wait long. My results came in about 90 minutes after I was done. I was on the London underground, which has quite spotty cell service. I got the results via Slack and email, but then cell coverage dropped for a few tube stops. So I couldn't tell anyone I had passed! LOL I did shed a couple tears of joy and a couple of passengers were looking at me oddly. 

​Final Thoughts

​Is the whole process worth it? Yes! Even if you don't successfully defend, just the entire learning process makes you a better enterprise architect. Passing is just icing on the cake. Just like VCDX, the first attempt pass rate is fairly low, so don't be discouraged if you don't do it the first time around. Think of it as a chance to make yourself even better and really kick butt the next time! ​

I want to give a huge shout out to my NPX partner in crime, Bruno Sousa. We collaborated on the entire design, and split up the documentation work. His insight and knowledge was impeccable.

As a side note, pair/group submissions are allowed, but each contributor will defend individually.

I also want to thank the numerous people that supported mock sessions, document reviews, and pushing to keep my head down and being a success to become NPX #014.

Resetting lost ESXi root password with Nutanix

The other day I was at a customer for a fresh installation of Nutanix using vSphere 6.5. And for whatever reason, when they were resetting the ESXi root password to their default, it was fat fingered. When they went to add the hosts to vCenter, they couldn’t add them since the password was wrong. So what to do? If this was a non-Nutanix environment, the only supported ESXi method of resetting a lost password is re-imaging the server. But, Nutanix has a CVM running on each node that is configured with SSH keys to access the ESXi host. We can use a private IP address and the embedded SSH keys to successfully reset.

The full process to reset a lost ESXi root password on Nutanix is:

1. ssh into the CVM on the host that has the lost ESXi root password, using the Nutanix account name.

2. Enter: ssh root@192.168.5.1

3. ESXi console: passwd root

4. If the account is locked out: pam_tally2 –user root –reset

If you then run the add host wizard in vCenter and your password doesn’t work, try rebooting the ESXi host. This procedure saved us from re-phoenixing the ESXi host.

Nutanix Veeam Backup & Replication v9.5 U3 BPG Update

I’m proud to announce that the Nutanix Veeam Backup & Replication v9.5 guide has now been updated with U3 details. Specifically, in U3 there’s a new registry key “EnableSameHostDirectNFSMode” that is now active for vSphere customers using DirectNFS. In Nutanix environments if you are using DirectNFS, you should configure this key with a value of “2”. See the updated guide here, for the full registry path and explanation. Do take note that this key is only active since U3, so if you are on prior Veeam Backup & Replication v9.5 builds, update to at least U3.

Update: Fixed link to the new guide, which can be found here. Or, if you are a Nutanix customer, the direct link to our support site here.

Now running on Kinsta WordPress Hosting

Yesterday I moved this blog over to Kinsta WordPress hosting. Kinsta is a premium WordPress provider that utilizes Google Cloud Platform containers. You shouldn’t see any changes to the blog. But if you see anything missing or links broken, please let me know…..via contact form, twitter, or leaving a comment. I also moved from MaxCDN over to KeyCDN for all static content. That’s an under the hood change which should be 100% transparent.

If you are in the market for a premium WordPress experience, I highly recommend Kinsta. I did extensive research, trials, and digging to find the best platform. Several other providers I tried just didn’t cut it and performance was terrible. Kinsta checked the boxes for all of my requirements and comes in less expensive than my previous provider (WPEngine).

Top WordPress Plugins You Should Use Pt. 2

In Part 1 of this series, Top WordPress Plugins you should use, I covered the first batch of what I think are useful plugins. This post is the second and last installment covering plugins that I use and might help you out. Of course each WordPress site is unique, and may not benefit from all the plugins. 

​Top WordPress Plugins

​1. OneSignal Push Notifications - You know how some sites ask you if you want push notifications in your browser for updates? Well this is a plugin that can do that for you. This is becoming more popular, and instantly lets your readers know when you have a new post. It is very customizable and easy to configure. 

​2. Print, PDF & Email by PrintFriendly - You know when you find that blog post you need to print? Well if you just use a browser's print function the result can be less than pretty. This plugin removes the excess 'junk' like sidebars and many ads so the printed result is nice and clean. You can also print directly to PDF, or send the blog post in a nicely formatted email. 

​3. Really Simple SSL Pro -  Want to enable SSL on your site, check for mixed content, conifigure HSTS, then this plugin is for you. There's a basic free version, then a Pro version with even more features. The author is extremely helpful and responsive, should you have any questions. Highly recommended. 

​4. Schema Pro - Schema Pro is a plugin by the same company that created the Astra theme and other WordPress plugins. It helps your SEO by enabling search engines to better consume your content. They have a number of schema available, such as review, article, product, recipe, etc. Installation and configuration is super simple. 

​5. Simple Social Icons - There are a bazillion social media plugins, but this one is clean, simple, and free. It allows you to add low-key social icons to your site. Many, many options which are highly configurable.

​6. Social Login - If you want to enable social media logins for your WordPress comments or your WordPress admin login, this is the plugin for you. I first tried another plugin, and it was slow, buggy, and just very poorly written. This one, on the other hand, is easy to configure and adds minimal bloat to your pages. it supports nearly 30 social logins (e.g. Amazon, Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc.)

​7. Social Media Widget - Social Media Widget lets you add social media icons on your site so that readers can easily follow you on various platforms. Quite configurable and easy to use. Free. 

​8. Social Warfare (Pro) - Social Warfare Pro is an amazing plugin that adds icons to let your readers share your content via Twitter, LinkedIn, and many other platforms. The bar can float over your page, or be configured in a number of other ways. Top-notch technical support, and I'm very impressed. Top pick! 

​9. Thrive Architect - Thrive Architect is a visual editor for WordPress that lets you construct visually rich content with drag and drop ease. I'm using this right now to write this blog post. I recommend it for blog posts over Beaver Builder or Elementor Pro. If you want a page builder for constructing a new site, I recommend Elementor Pro. Thrive is very flexible and has a lot of modules.

​10. Updraft Plus - Everyone needs a WordPress backup and restore plugin. Even if your hosting service does backups, you still want an 'off site' copy in case your provider goes belly up, gets hacked, or suffers a catastrophic data loss. This plugin also can migrate your WP site to another hoster with just a few clicks. Highly recommended, and connects to a number of cloud providers such as DropBox, OneDrive, Google Drive, Amazon S3, etc. 

​11. WP Retina 2x Pro - Today many devices have ultra-high DPI screens, or so called "retina" screens. This is particularly true on phones, tablets, and those lucky enough to have 4K screens. This plugin makes sure high res images are served on those devices. Easy to use and configure.

​12. WP Rocket - An amazing top-rated plugin to speed up page loads on your WordPress site and also performs deep page caching. Minifies CSS and JS, as well as many other functions. Significantly improves GTMetrix, Pingtom, and other page testing results. Well worth the money. 

​13. Yoast SEO - Last but not least, is Yoast SEO. It's a must-have plugin for optimize your SEO and improving your ranking in search results. Free and Pro versions available. 

Using SSL on WordPress? Not All Hosting is the Same

Introduction

I'm a huge fan of WordPress, and I've had this blog hosted on WordPress for many years. Given my security background, I always try and make my site as secure as possible, while not breaking functionality. One important feature, both for SEO and security is SSL. All you need a SSL certificate, right? Nope! And that's the basis of this post.

Not all SSL Configurations are the Same

Under the hood of SSL are a number of configuration options that you are probably not even aware of. Most of these relate to the supported protocols and cipher suites that can be negotiated with your site. These are generally web server back-end settings. A lot of SSL protocols and cipher suites have not lasted the test of time and are deemed flat out insecure or weak. For example, RC4, is pathetically insecure and should never be used. 

Most quality WordPress hosting companies provide free SSL certificates. So many people think it's just a single click (or even automated) to get your site secure with SSL. Not so! Your hosting company configured which protocols and cipher suites are available. And if your hoster isn't security conscious they can leave your website vulnerable and degrade your site's security. Never for a second think just because you have a SSL certificate that you are secure! 

How to test your SSL

Fortunately, it's dead easy even for a non-techie to test the SSL security of your site. All you need to do is go over to SSL labs and run a test against your domain. After a couple of minutes it will give your site a letter grade, and a lot of tech details about what it found. For example, on my WP Engine hosted WordPress sites I have an A+ rating. With a shared hosting plan with another company I got a poor B score with numerous security warnings. Take a minute and check your site now so you can see a full report.

The "A+" SSL Lab Report

First let me start with a site that passes with flying colors, this blog site. As you can see in the graphic below, it scores an A+ and also uses HSTS. HSTS is a super-strict form of TLS/SSL that you can read more about how to configure in a blog post I wrote here. This test result is from my current provider, WP Engine, using their managed WordPress offering. It's not cheap by any means, but frankly you get what you pay for with hosting, in most cases. 

As you scroll down the report you also get a list of protocols and cipher suites that your site supports. Looking at the report below, you see that none of the cipher suites are tagged as insecure or weak. That is good! Looks exactly like what we want it to. Thank you WP Engine! 

The "B" SSL Lab Report

Recently I got an economical (entry level, shared plan) WordPress hosting account with InMotion hosting, just for experimentation purposes. I could try out new tools, check out another hoster's performance, and see if there was any compelling reason to consider a future move away from WP Engine to something less expensive. 

I stood up a new domain, got their free SSL certificate, and then ran a SSL Lab report scan. I was horrified to see the results. Overall it got a "B" which may not sound bad, but digging into the details really made me uneasy. And I had to contact their tech support, but more about that later in this post.

Looking into the details of the "B" grade you can see that RC4 is supported (very, very insecure) and that forward secrecy is not supported. But let's dig deeper into the cipher suites to see what's going on.

Right off the bat you can see three cipher suites are enabled that use RC4. Really bad! And another three cipher suites are labled 'weak'. Also not good, but not as bad as 'insecure'. Clearly, this is significantly worse than the WP Engine scan. 

Fixing the Issues

Because the protocols and cipher suites are back-end configuration settings, I contacted InMotion tech support to see what they could do. And there was bad news, and good news. Firstly, for the shared plan I was using NOTHING could be done. As the TLS/SSL configuration is set across numerous customers. However, if one went with their VPS plans, individual sites can be configured per customer requirements. If I was on a VPS plan, then the hoster would take care of all the configuration. You should then re-test, and see if the security holes were plugged. An A+ rating is not to hard and doesn't require techie level skills. 

Summary

Even if you have an SSL certificate on your site, that does NOT mean you are optimally configured. Your hoster could be using very insecure settings, but you'd never know without testing it. So if you have never tested your website's SSL, do it immediately. You may be shocked with what is lurking in the results. On the flip side, most of the work is done by your hosting service so you don't need to know what files to configure. I'd just send them a screenshot of the 'bad' results and tell them to fix it. 

You also need to be conscious of which plan you are using with a provider, and how that impacts security. For example, my shared plan with InMotion doesn't allow them to tweak the SSL security whereas their VPS plan would. Whether you want to spend the additional money for VPS (or find another provider that's more secure by default), that's your call. 

Knowledge is power, and knowing where your site's SSL stands is important. It's up to you whether you want to fix it and get an A+ rating or not. If you are running any type of security sensitive transactions like payments or storing personal information, I'd urge you to configure your site for an A+ SSL labs rating. 

Top WordPress Plugins You Should Use Pt. 1

I've been running a WordPress blog for over 4 years, and recently started a 'back end'  plugin refresh cycle. I'm also working on new WordPress site for my photography outlet, and did a lot of research into the best-of WordPress plugins. Most of the plugins I'll cover are fairly generic and could work on a variety of sites (blog, ecommerce, etc.). Some plugins are free, freemium (free basic version plus a Pro version), or outright premium. I encourage you to look at and review each plugin to see if it fills a hole in your WordPress site.

1. Ajax Search Pro - This is an amazing WordPress search plugin that literally has hundreds of logically organized customization options. You can configure multiple search 'engines' all with totally unique settings. This lets you have different search experiences on different areas of your site. It's hard to do this plugin justice with the almost infinite configuration controls you have. Try out the search feature on this blog to get a tiny glimpse of what it can do.

ajax search pro

2. All in one favicon -  This adds Favicons to your site (little icons in the address bar of your browser). It's a simple plugin that lets you upload ICO, GIF, PNG and apple touch icons in a couple of clicks. Great for branding!

3. Anti-Spam by Clean talk - This is an amazing plugin that stops 99% of the spam hitting your site via contact forms, comments, contact emails, orders, WooCommerce, etc. I've found it much better than Akismet. You can read my full review here

anti-spam by cleantalk

4. Astra (Pro) Theme - I'm using this for my new photography site, and hopefully this spring convert this blog over as well. It's an amazingly customizable and responsive WordPress theme. It also works seamlessly with page builders such as Elementor and Beaver Builder. There's also a free add-on called Astra Hooks, which let's you "hook" into various elements of the Astra theme via the customizer. 

astra pro theme

5. Child Theme Configurator - This lets you easily create a child theme from your parent theme. Using a child theme is always advisable, so that customizations you make to the theme stay around even if the software vendor updates the parent theme. Great for use with Astra! 

child theme configurator

6. Customizer Export/Import - This plugin allows you to export and import your theme customizer settings, right within the customizer. Great for building a new site, so you can try out various options and roll-back/forward as needed until you get things just right. 

7. Imagify - WordPress page load times are critical, and Imagify will strategically and automatically compress images that you upload to your WordPress site. It's a paid service, and for bloggers, I recommend the "semi hidden" single purchase quota plan vs. their monthly or yearly plans. It's fully automated, and even compresses all thumbnails that your theme creates on the back-end. It can also do bulk compression, great for using it the first time. A 500MB one time plan runs $5.99.

imagify

8. iThemes Security (Pro) - A spectacularly well designed security plugin that has a number of modules, including two factor authentication, malware scanning, and a lot more. I just upgraded to the Pro version, and really enjoy the added modules such as 2FA. Highly recommended, and WPEngine friendly (they disallow many 'security' plugins due to poor performance).  

ithemes security pro

9. iThemes Sync - As a companion to iThemes security, this is a SaaS offering which lets you manage one or more WordPress sites and the iTheme security settings. It supports SSO, meaning once you authenticate to the iThemes Sync portal, you can immediately pop into your WordPress management console. Supports 2FA, and free up to 10 managed sites. What I really like about this, even for a single site, is the ability for it to notify you when ANY updates are available (plugins, theme, WordPress core, etc.). I have it configured for a nightly email if updates are available. You can have it auto-update your site if you wish.

ithemes sync

10. Microthemer - Ever wanted to tweak your WordPress theme? Change a color here, spacing there, widget header colors, etc.? Well normally you'd need to be a CSS expert (which I am not). This tool provides a visual way to select objects/areas on your live site, modify dozens of properties, and then either 1) automatically apply them to your site in the background or 2) Export the CSS so you can put it in the theme customizer or other file. I found it very helpful in changing the look of Astra Pro to better suite my tastes. 

microthemer

Summary

As you can see, there are a number of WordPress plugins that are applicable to a wide variety of sites. This list doesn't cover all the plugins I use, but which I feel are some of the most useful. Some are free, others are freemium and others are paid. I didn't want this post to get too long, so coming up will be a Part 2, covering another batch of plugins that I really like. 

VMware Tools 10.2.0 Released

Hot off the press is a new version of VMware tools, 10.2.0. This has a number of bug fixes, and an updated OS support list. For security geeks, VMware tools finally supports ASLR (Address Space Layout Randomization). There’s also a Windows 10 fall creator’s (1709) fix tucked in there as well. You can find the full release notes here.

One cool feature of this release, is a VIB for vSphere 5.5, 6.0 and 6.5. This lets you update the ‘baked in’ tools of the ESXi hypervisor. This VIB can be pushed via VMware Update Manager (VUM).

Direct downloads are available here.

Windows 10 Credential Guard and VMware Workstation 14

Microsoft has been very busy adding new security features to Windows 10. It seems that each release gets something new, or existing features are enhanced. For enterprises, one of the great new-ish features is Windows Defender Credential Guard. What is Credential Guard? It uses VBS (virtualization based security) to help mitigate pass-the-hash or pass-the-ticket attacks. I wrote a how-to blog article many years ago on how one can ‘root’ your Windows 7 PC and ultimately compromise your whole network including domain controllers. It was scary easy. Windows 8 was supposed to make it harder, but Windows 10 with fall creator’s update (1709) has really raised the bar.

But until the release of VMware Workstation 14, you couldn’t easily test these new features in a virtual environment. However, Workstation 14 has explicitly added support for VBS in hardware v14, and the UEFI firmware supports secure boot. This now allows one to test Windows Defender Credential Guard. The whole process is fairly easy. But a few requirements must be met: 1) VMware Workstation 14 (or later) 2) Windows 10 Enterprise edition (no home/pro) 1709 (Fall Creator’s update) 3) Physical host that is modern enough to support virtualization extensions.

Workstation 14 Credential Guard Configuration

Let’s get started with configuring the VM hardware on Workstation 14 to appropriately support VBS and secure boot.  I’ll assume you are familiar with Workstation basics. VM size just for basic testing can be 1 vCPU and 2GB of RAM.

  1. Create a new virtual machine using the custom (advanced) wizard.
  2. Select hardware compatibility: Workstation 14.x
  3. Select ‘I will install the operating system later’
  4. Select ‘Microsoft Windows 10 x64’ guest operating system
  5. Select a VM name and location that you desire
  6. Select UEFI and secure boot firmware type
  7. Choose your processors/core that you desire
  8. Choose the memory configuration you desire
  9. Choose the network connection type you desire
  10. Leave the SCSI controller type and virtual disk type
  11. Create a new virtual disk
  12. Allocate sufficient storage and split as needed
  13. Chose a disk file name that you desire
  14. Click Finish
  15. Edit the VM settings and click on the Options tab
  16. Click on Advanced and check the box next to Enable VBS

Now that your VM hardware is properly configured, next, install Windows 10 Enterprise Edition 1709. I won’t go through that process, as there’s nothing special to do until it’s fully installed and you have a desktop. Once you have a desktop, come back to this post and resume the configuration. Be sure to grab the latest VMware tools, which has updates for Windows 10 Fall creator’s update, here.

Windows 10 Credential Guard Configuration

1. Press the Windows key and type system information.
2. Scroll down on the summary page and look at Virtualization-based security. It should show not enabled.
3. Press the Windows key and type features.
4. Scroll down to Hyper-V, Hyper-V Platform, and check Hyper-V Hypervisor.

5. Wait for the feature to be added, but do NOT reboot.
6. Open gpedit.msc. Navigate to Computer Configuration, Administrative Templates, System, Device Guard.
7. Enable the Turn on Virtualization Based Security policy.
8. Select the options below, or enable UEFI lock for a production environment to prevent remote manipulation of these settings. You can also turn on the UEFI memory attributes table if you wish.

9. Close gpedit and do a gpupdate /force from the command line.
10. Restart the VM. Open System Information and on the summary page scroll down to the very bottom. Verify virtualization-based security is running.

Summary

As you can see from this post, enabling Windows Defender Credential Guard is pretty easy. Workstation 14 supports it out of the box. VBS is a new feature of Hardware Version 14, which vSphere 6.5 does not support. So any support for VBS would come in a future vSphere update. Workstation often foreshadows upcoming vSphere features, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see it in the next version.