Virtual Environments: Servers

There are three predefined virtual environments in the Vagrantfile:

  1. Development
  2. Staging
  3. Production

This document explains the purpose of, and how to get started working with, each one.


If you plan to alter the configuration of any of these machines, make sure to review the Testing: Configuration Tests documentation.


If you have errors with mounting shared folders in the Vagrant guest machine, you should look at GitHub #1381.


If you see test failures due to Too many levels of symbolic links and you are using VirtualBox, try restarting VirtualBox.


This VM is intended for rapid development on the SecureDrop web application. It syncs the top level of the SecureDrop repo to the /vagrant directory on the VM, which means you can use your favorite editor on your host machine to edit the code. This machine has no security hardening or monitoring.


This is the default VM, so you don’t need to specify the development machine name when running commands like vagrant up and vagrant ssh. Of course, you can specify the name if you want to.

To get started working with the development environment:

vagrant up
vagrant ssh
cd /vagrant/securedrop
./ run         # run development servers
./ reset       # resets the state of the development instance
./ add-admin   # create a user to use when logging in to the Journalist Interface
pytest -v tests/        # run the unit and functional tests

SecureDrop consists of two separate web applications (the Source Interface and the Journalist Interface) that run concurrently. In the Development environment they are configured to detect code changes and automatically reload whenever a file is saved. They are made available on your host machine by forwarding the following ports:


A compromise between the development and production environments. This configuration can be thought of as identical to the production environment, with a few exceptions:

  • The Debian packages are built from your local copy of the code, instead of installing the current stable release packages from
  • The production environment only allows SSH over an Authenticated Tor Hidden Service (ATHS), but the staging environment allows direct SSH access so it’s more ergonomic for developers to interact with the system during debugging.
  • The Postfix service is disabled, so OSSEC alerts will not be sent via email.

This is a convenient environment to test how changes work across the full stack.

You should first bring up the VM required for building the app code Debian packages on the staging machines:

make build-debs
vagrant up /staging/
vagrant ssh app-staging
sudo su
cd /var/www/securedrop
./ add-admin
pytest -v tests/

To rebuild the local packages for the app code:

make build-debs

The Debian packages will be rebuilt from the current state of your local git repository and then installed on the staging servers.


If you are using Mac OS X and you run into errors from Ansible such as OSError: [Errno 24] Too many open files, you may need to increase the maximum number of open files. Some guides online suggest a procedure to do this that involves booting to recovery mode and turning off System Integrity Protection (csrutil disable). However this is a critical security feature and should not be disabled. Instead follow this procedure to increase the file limit.

Set /Library/LaunchDaemons/limit.maxfiles.plist to the following:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<!DOCTYPE plist PUBLIC "-//Apple//DTD PLIST 1.0//EN" "">
  <plist version="1.0">

The plist file should be owned by root:wheel:

sudo chown root:wheel /Library/LaunchDaemons/limit.maxfiles.plist

This will increase the maximum open file limits system wide on Mac OS X (last tested on 10.11.6).

The web interfaces and SSH are available over Tor. A copy of the the Onion URLs for Source and Journalist Interfaces, as well as SSH access, are written to the Vagrant host’s install_files/ansible-base directory, named:

  • app-source-ths
  • app-journalist-aths
  • app-ssh-aths

For working on OSSEC monitoring rules with most system hardening active, update the OSSEC-related configuration in install_files/ansible-base/staging-specific.yml so you receive the OSSEC alert emails.

A copy of the the Onion URL for SSH access to the Monitor Server is written to the Vagrant host’s install_files/ansible-base directory, named:

  • mon-ssh-aths

Direct SSH access is available via Vagrant for staging hosts, so you can use vagrant ssh app-staging and vagrant ssh mon-staging to start an interactive session on either server.


This is a production installation with all of the system hardening active, but virtualized, rather than running on hardware. You will need to configure prod-like secrets, or export ANSIBLE_ARGS="--skip-tags validate" to skip the tasks that prevent the prod playbook from running with Vagrant-specific info.

You can provision production VMs from an Admin Workstation (most realistic), or from your host. Instructions for both follow.

Install from an Admin Workstation VM

In SecureDrop, admin tasks are performed from a Tails Admin Workstation. You should configure a Tails VM in order to install the SecureDrop production VMs by following the instructions in the Virtualizing Tails guide.

Once you’re prepared the Admin Workstation, you can start each VM:

vagrant up --no-provision /prod/

At this point you should be able to SSH into both app-prod and mon-prod. From here you can follow the server configuration instructions to test connectivity and prepare the servers. These instructions will have you generate SSH keys and use ssh-copy-id to transfer the key onto the servers.


If you have trouble SSHing to the servers from Ansible, remember to remove any old ATHS files in install_files/ansible-base.

Now from your Admin workstation:

cd ~/Persistent/securedrop
./securedrop-admin setup
./securedrop-admin sdconfig
./securedrop-admin install


The sudo password for the app-prod and mon-prod servers is by default vagrant.

After install you can configure your Admin Workstation to SSH into each VM via:

./securedrop-admin tailsconfig

Install from Host OS

If you are not virtualizing Tails, you can manually modify site-specific, and then provision the machines. You should set the following options in site-specific:

ssh_users: "vagrant"
monitor_ip: ""
monitor_hostname: "mon-prod"
app_hostname: "app-prod"
app_ip: ""

Note that you will also need to generate Submission and OSSEC PGP public keys, and provide email credentials to send emails to. Refer to this document on configuring prod-like secrets for more details on those steps.

To create the prod servers, run:

vagrant up /prod/
vagrant ssh app-prod
sudo su
cd /var/www/securedrop/
./ add-admin

A copy of the the Onion URLs for Source and Journalist Interfaces, as well as SSH access, are written to the Vagrant host’s install_files/ansible-base directory, named:

  • app-source-ths
  • app-journalist-aths
  • app-ssh-aths
  • mon-ssh-aths

SSH Access

Direct SSH access is not available in the prod environment. You will need to log in over Tor after initial provisioning. See Connecting to VMs via SSH over Tor for more info.