My Matrix (mis)adventures

Matrix is probably the largest federated network in production (Mastadon might be close). I run an instance at and I absolutely love it. It was also the project that got me into the whole decentralization thing. I loved the idea that I could run a server that can play along with a bunch of other servers that are run by different parties and they would all somehow magically work!


Deployment was fairly straight forward, the project's README files were sufficiently detailed but after about six months of running the server, my instance broke! The federation was no longer working. I could still chat with people that are on my own server but I could interact with rooms on other servers or even on

The initial error massages were vague. The client complained that it had hit some JSON related error. So I went to look for solutions on the project's issue tracker. There was an open issue that said that when the person started doing IPv6 DNS lookups, their instance broke. This was also the time when my ISP moved us to IPv6 lookups so I figured that was what was causing problems. At this time, I wasn't really using matrix that much so it didn't bother me. I figured, eventually, massive project such as matrix might roll out a patch. Several weeks and several updates later, the issue still persisted. So I tried my hands at it once again.


See, decentralization is complicated. Some matrix dev on Hackernews remarked that building a decentralized system is six times harder than building a centralized system. The bug that I was experiencing, wasn't really a bug. I misdiagnosed it to be one in the first place. I use Let's encrypt for TLS and their certs are valid for a maximum of three months. So when I hit that "bug", I was through two cycles and was beginning the third. Synapse, the matrix homeserver variant that I run, listens on two ports: one for regular client-server interactions and the other for federation. The client-server port is proxied by an Nginx instance so all TLS stuff is delegated by the Nginx instance. The federation port, however, is directly exposed and all TLS stuff is handled by Synapse itself. That means Synapse is configured to read and do TLS stuff with the TLS certs. That means, my stupid self has two copies of the same TLS cert at two places. Now you could quickly see how stupid this is and the problems that it could cause. During the third cycle, I didn't refresh Synapse's copy of the certs. It was using stale certs. TLS is mandatory for federation in matrix. So naturally, my federation was broken!

Lessons learned

  • I am stupid
  • Maintain sysadmin notes to record all quirks of the systems that you administer
  • Build simpler services: The more the number of levers to pull on, the more likely someone is going to screw up. The second port for federation feels necessary. It is a HTTP endpoint so I don't see why it needs to be separated. It could've simply be scoped differently. That way, the maintenance and deployment complexity can be significantly reduced. In this case, firewall rules can become simpler and the federation stuff will be handled by the Nginx instance itself.

But seriously, I should have maintained notes. Three months without federation over a stupid error is nuts.