Linux Upskill Challenge: Setting up on Google Cloud Platform

This September1, I’m going to participate in the Linux Upskill Challenge. I read about it a little on Hacker News yesterday, and it looks like it aligns really well with my goals of working as an SRE.

The challenge starts tomorrow, so today is “Day 0” of 20: getting set up. It’s possible that I may create new posts related to this challenge - even though the content is listed publicly on Github at all times - but we’ll see at the end of this month.

Day 0 asks you to set up a Virtual Private Server (VPS). I chose to use Google Cloud Platform2 for my VPS, because I still have credits left from this summer.

Creating the Virtual Machine

This setup tutorial assumes that you have a GCP account and access to a terminal (e.g. through WSL, or just being on a Unix system).

I used the gcloud CLI to create my VPS. This requires a few things:

  • You have the gcloud SDK (which includes gcloud CLI) installed
  • You have the gcloud SDK configured with your account, with a default region, zone, and project
    • A list of zones and regions can be found by running gcloud compute zones list.
  • The gcloud compute API is enabled for your project

Once you have those, you should be good to run this command in your terminal, taking extra care to replace [ZONE] with your chosen gcloud zone:

gcloud compute instances create upskill-host \
--zone=[ZONE] \
--machine-type=e2-micro \
--tags=http-server \
--image=ubuntu-2004-focal-v20200902 \
--image-project=ubuntu-os-cloud \
--boot-disk-size=10GB \
--boot-disk-type=pd-standard \

Some notes on the command itself:

  • upskill-host is what I decided to call my instance. Feel free to customize!
  • Zone is unchangeable once you’ve made the instance. Good thing you already picked out your perfect zone!
  • Our machine-type is e2-micro: This is a single vCPU with 1 GB of memory, and is exactly the same size as AWS’s t2.micro (which the challenge advises you to use).
  • The tag is a network tag; you’ll see why we need it in the next step.
  • The image is our OS type: here, we use Ubuntu 20.04 which pulls from the Ubuntu OS cloud. The challenge advises Ubuntu 18.04 or 20.04.
  • Our boot disk is 10GB on a persistent disk, which is the default configuration. I also specified my boot disk device name, but I’m not sure if that is necessary.

Note: gcloud may issue a warning that because our disk is under 200GB, we may suffer in I/O performance. Feel free to ignore it.

Once gcloud has finished creating the instance, it will output a table with the instance name, zone, machine type, internal/external IPs, and status. The status should say RUNNING - meaning your machine is ready to use!

Configuring the Network

We need to run two more commands before accessing it for the first time, though. By default, GCP disallows all incoming HTTP and HTTPS traffic (this makes sense normally). We want to allow this, though, as we want to practice with a vulnerable server.

To do that, we can run two commands to create new firewall rules, default-allow-http and default-allow-https to allow inbound traffic for HTTP and HTTPS.

gcloud compute firewall-rules create default-allow-http \
--direction=INGRESS --priority=1000 --network=default \
--action=ALLOW --rules=tcp:80 --source-ranges= \

gcloud compute firewall-rules create default-allow-https \
--direction=INGRESS --priority=1000 --network=default \
--action=ALLOW --rules=tcp:443 --source-ranges= \

Some notes on the command:

  • The INGRESS direction means that this is inbound traffic. Other people can attack us, but we can’t send any data anywhere for now.
  • The default priority when creating a firewall rule is 1000. However, this number goes from 0 to 65535, and the lower it is, the higher priority it is.
  • We are using a default network because this instance is not registered in a Virtual Private Cloud (VPC).
  • The rules we use are tcp:80 and tcp:443. These are the default ports used for HTTP and HTTPS, respectively.
  • The source-ranges is a single address, As a source, this basically means “any IPv4 address”.
  • The list of target-tags is just http-server - the tag we set when we first created this instance.

Once you have the firewall rules set, you should get some output with the name, network, direction, priority, allow/deny ports. The last column reads DISABLED, and it should be false. Yay - now your server is vulnerable!

Logging in for the first time

Now we have to make sure your access is okay. Login to the instance by using:

gcloud compute ssh upskill-host

Or substituting upskill-host with your instance name of choice. If you get a few lines of output like:

Updating project ssh metadata...⠼
Updating project ssh metadata...done.
Waiting for SSH key to propagate.
Warning: Permanently added 'REDACTED' (ECDSA) to the list of known hosts.

That’s your SSH connection setting up. You’ll know you’ve successfully logged into the instance when it says Welcome to Ubuntu 18.04.5 LTS followed by some system information, followed by a regular terminal prompt.

At the prompt, we’re going to test this by updating and upgrading a few packages:

sudo apt update
sudo apt upgrade

apt is the package manager on Ubuntu/Debian. update pulls the latest versions of your packages from their sources, while upgrade actually updates them. You may need to press “Y” to advance through the upgrade.

Note: we run these commands as sudo, or the superuser. This is because updating the package database requires higher privileges than our “regular” user.

Once those are complete - we’re ready to go! See you on Day 1.

  1. Yes, I know I was working on Linux from Scratch at the end of August, but my boot issues have been very draining - I think this will be a good distraction. ↩︎

  2. The challenge offers instructions for AWS and DigitalOcean, and I know AWS/Azure both have free/student tiers available, making them good options as well. ↩︎