What are the goals of Project Byzantium?

The goal of Byzantium is to develop and maintain a distribution of Linux  which can run from removable media (such as a CD-ROM, DVD-ROM, or USB storage device) without needing to be installed.  This distribution of Linux will include a graphical desktop, a control panel application which configures and manipulates services running on the Byzantium node, and mesh routing software which allows the creation of an entirely separate wireless Internet, functionally indistinguishable from a wireless access point of the sort that you’d find in a coffee shop or at home.

The Byzantium mesh network is theoretically uncensorable because it operates in a peer-to-peer fashion and avoids the existing infrastructure of the Net; any computer with a wireless network interface can become a part of the Byzantium mesh. Moreover, every Byzantium node comes with a number of collaboration and communication applications pre-installed, configured, and optimized for use by mobile clients (such as smartphones and MP3 players), from a web chat application to a collaborative word processor.

We will also write an ebook and translate it into different languages which explains how Byzantium works in a manner which is easy to understand, how to set up Byzantium nodes without our distribution of Linux, how to protect yourself if you’re running a node, and how to solve some of the thornier non-software problems (such as bridging meshes over distances longer than the unaugmented maximum range of 802.11a/b/g/n).  While it would be great if we could include a FabFi kit in every .iso image it’s kind of hard to zip up an improvised antenna and cable set sitting on a workbench, so the best we can do is include and attribute the plans so you can build one yourself (at least until general purpose nanoassembly is perfected and we can include free/libre greyprints for one).

Why is the project called Byzantium?

Byzantium takes its name from the fact that we’re aiming for Byzantine fault tolerance, which is a fancy way of saying that arbitrary members of the network can and will get fouled up in arbitrary and surprising ways.  Not only could nodes crash for whatever reason, but they could run out of power, a critical USB device could be disconnected, the environment might interfere with wireless broadcasts, a node could overheat, a single process could die, or any number of other things.

We aim to mitigate those risks by making it simple and quick to build a large mesh in a short period of time, so that if a few nodes do happen to go dark there will be plenty left over to take over for it (and the dead nodes can be brought back online quickly).  Also, if a single process dies it can be easily restarted (or migrated to another node).

What is a mesh network?

A mesh network is a network in which some of the nodes route traffic for other nodes in addition to making services available and acting as clients in the network.  In traditional wired or wireless networks every node has a default gateway though which it sends all traffic not destined for adjacent nodes on the local network.  If that default gateway goes down the local network is isolated.  In a mesh network every node on the local network can potentially act as a gateway for all other nodes within broadcast range.

Under the hood of a mesh there is no default gateway, there are only neighboring routers (you can call them gateways if you like but this is technically inaccurate) that will relay traffic.  Also, due to the sheer number of routers in a mesh you don’t have to worry about your active connections dropping  just because you walked three blocks away and your smartphone decided that another two or three mesh nodes were its preferred (“default”) “gateways”; this is called mobile IP.

To put it another way, because every PC with a wireless NIC running Byzantium Linux is effectively a router, you don’t have to go out and buy specialized equipment to set up a mesh.  You just have to boot off of a USB key or CD (yes, CD-ROM – we’re shooting for tiny here) and off  you go.

Aren’t meshes notoriously unreliable/inefficient/noisy/unworkable?  Or, “Why aren’t you using the FooMesh routing protocol?”

Early mesh networks weren’t very good.  The first experiments with mesh networking used dedicated hardware (and companies still build single-purpose modules that cost way too much money for most people to want to experiment with, let alone deploy). Some older protocols are notoriously inefficient, so this has unfortunately tarred all of them with the same brush.  Also, older mesh routing protocols do not attempt to avoid routing loops that can bring a mesh to a screeching halt.

Newer mesh routing protocols (like the one Byzantium uses) learned from these mistakes and seek to not repeat them.  A little research on mesh routing protocols will produce a lot of documentation and working, deployed code that proves that these problems have been resolved.  Case in point, Battlemesh.  At this moment in time, Byzantium supports one mesh protocol, OLSR.  Rather than quote their documentation verbatim I encourage you to take a look at the projects’ introductory documentation and see for yourselves why we chose it.

As for other potential problems with mesh networking, we are hard at work finding and developing ways to mitigate as many of these problems as much as possible.

What exactly is in a Byzantium node?

A Byzantium node is any Wi-Fi-enabled computer either running Byzantium Linux or has installed software that gives it compatible functionality. At the very least, a Byzantium node has the capacity to distribute network configuration information to wireless clients with DHCP and participate in a network as a router.  Byzantium nodes are capable of making services available to the mesh they are a part of but it is not expected that everyone will set up a wiki, microblog, or chat server.

What is Byzantium built with?

Byzantium is being built on top of Porteus Linux, an ultra-lightweight distribution of Linux built using Linux Live.  Porteus aims for Slackware compatibility in most respects (including construction and interconversion of packages).  To give you an idea of how small Porteus Linux is, the .iso image for v2.0 weighs in around 230 MB.  Porteus Linux can be run entirely from a disk or it can be installed to removable media (like a USB key or MP3 player), so Byzantium Linux can be as well.

If Byzantium is a live distribution of Linux, how can I use the mesh?  I don’t know anything about Linux, I just have an iPhone!

While it’s great if you boot Byzantium and set up a mesh node you don’t have to.  One of our design goals was to make it possible for anyone walking down the street with a smartphone to get on the mesh and use it.

Byzantium nodes, as far as your smartphone, netbook, or laptop are concerned, may as well be wireless access points at a coffee shop, home, or the airport.

To be a mesh node your PC must run Byzantium Linux.

To be a mesh client — that is, to use a mesh to communicate — your device needs to be able to enter ad-hoc network mode. All laptops and PCs are capable of entering ad-hoc mode. Many mobile devices (smartphones, tablets, MP3 players) are capable of entering ad-hoc mode as well. Ad-hoc mode may require you to install extra software on your mobile device, usually for the purpose of wireless tethering.

You can also attach a conventional wireless router to a Byzantium node and serve web applications to wireless client devices. The clients need not be in ad-hoc mode. They can connect to the Byzantium node through the router as if they were connecting to any ordinary Wi-Fi access point.

How do I know what’s running on a Byzantium node?

When you first click through on a Byzantium node, you will be redirected to a web page which last links to all of the services running on that node.

If there is no central DNS, how do you tell users what’s out there?

We use Avahi to announce services on the mesh.  Other mesh nodes pick up the announcements and add them as links on their frontpages.  Other configuration information (like gateways and DNSes) are announced on the mesh as well.

How do you plan to provide services to users?

In either of our use cases, access to the global Net would be limited at best, likely unavailable.  This means that many of the organizational tools that people use today (like Twitter and Facebook) could not be reached by users to exchange information.

To remedy this, every Byzantium node will include a pre-installed, pre-configured web application that will fill in for one of those online services. For example, it For example, we include Groundstation to fill in for Twitter; Etherpad-Lite as a networked note-taking application, an as-yet-undecided lightweight social networking package for Facebook, and others. The Byzantium website will include a list of supplied applications.

If this is a live distribution, can I save my configuration someplace so I don’t have to re-do it when I reboot?

Yes.  Porteus Linux (and thus Byzantium) are fully capable of storing data generated while the node is running so that the next time the node is booted it can pick up where it left off (including configuration information and any databases created earlier).  Porteus already has a utility to create the persistent datastore on removable media (encrypted if you prefer, and if you have reason to fear for your safety or freedom we strongly recommend that you use it) which we will interface with the control panel along with step-by-step instructions.

Can you provide access to the Internet from a Byzantium mesh?

The short answer is yes.

The longer answer is yes, if a Byzantium node has an active connection to the Internet, and if the ISP is not blocking or filtering traffic of  some kind.  The mesh routing protocols used with Byzantium were chosen for a number of reasons, among them the capability to detect usable  connections to the global net and act as gateways (the default routers I mentioned earlier).  A feature to activate this functionality will be added to the control panel in subsequent releases.

We are also researching the possibility of routing traffic destined for the global Net through Tor.   While this is doable, it may not be a good idea for reasons of latency, plus it will probably break the mobile IP functionality of the  mesh (meaning that whatever sessions you have running will break, possibly compromising your anonymity in the process).

Can’t an attacker set up their own Byantium node?

Absolutely.  An attacker can also set up their own wireless access point at your corner coffee shop, their own Tor exit node, and can plug into a switch at your telco’s central office and monitor traffic.  They can (and have) forced ISPs to install surveillance and censorship equipment at key locations in the network infrastructure as well.  We can’t stop them from doing that (if we could, we would stop people from doing Bad Things, bring peace to the world, end injustice, and make every  backspace and delete key on every keyboard vanish).

Byzantium was designed primarily for people using wireless devices to get online – that means smartphones, the odd MP3 player, and laptop computers or netbooks.  That also means that, if it comes down to it, taking cover if you need to is possible.  You can get onto a Byzantium mesh from inside a house, a rooftop, inside a vehicle (possibly with some difficulty due to all the metal), a store, or anywhere else you could reasonably duck out of sight for a few minutes.

Direction finding of wireless devices is time-consuming, easy to spot and requires a certain amount of skill on the part of the attacker.  Wi-Fi is fairly common in developed areas; in some locations there is so much wireless activity that it can be a nuisance.  One person staring intently at their cellphone isn’t that different from another unless you’re looking over their shoulder or roughing up everyone within visual  range.  If there is anyone nearby monitoring wireless traffic with readily available software, unless you are the only source of traffic in the area and in view of the observers it would be reasonably easy to blend into the crowd so  long as you do not give away information that could uniquely identify you (such as your name or a precise location).

Operational security cannot be ignored if you’re using a Byzantium mesh.

Do you need help developing or testing Byzantium?

Absolutely!  There are only a few of us working on Byzantium right now.  We need:

  • Developers to write code that runs under the hood of a Byzantium node, such as shell scripts supporting other functions.
  • People who can help us translate the control panel and documentation into languages other than English.  i18n experience would be a plus.  At a minimum we need Arabic, Farsi, and Chinese.
  • People to port and test existing Slackware packages and build new modules for Porteus Linux.
  • People to configure and package web applications for inclusion in Byzantium.
  • Alpha and beta testers!  We need to know what works, what doesn’t, and what needs to be reworked.

See the Contribute page for a guide to getting started.

Why haven’t you published yet?

A few people have remarked that we have published no whitepapers and presented at no academic conferences since the inception of Project Byzantium.  We’re not inventing new technologies, we’re assembling technologies that have been around for years that no one else has pulled together into a coherent, easy to use system.  In many cases, some of  this software has never been packaged by maintainers of Linux  distributions.  The code we’re writing is for the user interface, to make it fast and easy to use by non-hackers.

We’ve read the academic papers and watched recordings of the conferences, which is how we selected the technologies Byzantium is built around. There is no need to reinvent the wheel (at least, not right now) when the hard work has already been done, it’s just waiting to be used.  If nothing else, Project Byzantium obviates the need to track down and pull together software from all around the Net in a hurry, a scramble which may not be possible if the Net is locked down or goes offline entirely.  Byzantium is pre-configured with sane and reasonably secure defaults for everything, defaults that we’ve put through their paces time and again because we use it ourselves.

Why don’t you want everybody to run Byzantium Linux?

Experience in the field has shown that having too many mesh nodes in too small a space (like a room) is not a good idea.  All of the mesh nodes are on the same wifi channel (radio frequency), and too high a population of mesh nodes will result in the nodes jamming each other.  It has been our experience that, under ideal conditions there should be at most one or two mesh nodes per floor of a building.  So, we appreciate your enthusiasm but putting too many mesh nodes too close together is a bad idea.  Space them out and cover as much ground as possible.

This document is published under a Creative Commons By Attribution / Noncommercial / Share Alike v3.0 License. (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0/)