Using LetsEncrypt on Amazon Linux

sslapexFor a number of years now I’ve been using LetsEncrypt to provide free SSL certificates for the Apex applications I provide. These certificates last for 90 days and are renewed automatically by a simple script on my server.

By the way – if you’re not already using https for your public-facing Apex applications, you should, okay – even if your site doesn’t have data entry.

Each LetsEncrypt certificate can cover multiple subdomains. They don’t currently support wildcard domains (e.g. * but they are planning to add this next year (2018).

To install LetsEncrypt I ran the following on my Amazon Linux instance (note – this is my web server, not my database server):

cd /opt
git clone
cd letsencrypt
./letsencrypt-auto -v --debug

(when prompted at the last step I typed “c” to cancel the subsequent steps)

It wasn’t easy at first because I got a number of errors which I’d google (or search the community forum) and eventually find reasonable answers. I’ve had to reinstall a number of times, as the OS is patched regularly and certbot is updated from time to time.

I use Apache to provide about a dozen virtual hosts and therefore the automated installation option didn’t work for me. Instead, I’ve got lines like these in each VirtualHost:

<VirtualHost *:443>
 SSLEngine on
 SSLCertificateFile "/etc/letsencrypt/live/"
 SSLCertificateKeyFile "/etc/letsencrypt/live/"
 SSLCertificateChainFile "/etc/letsencrypt/live/"

To register a certificate I used the following command as root (all one line):

certonly --webroot -w /var/www/html

This generates all the keys and certificates and stores them locally. No private keys ever leave the server. This command is using SAN to combine multiple subdomains in one certificate. I run this command again separately for each domain.

To renew all my certificates I run the following command as root:

/opt/letsencrypt/letsencrypt-auto renew -n --no-self-upgrade
service httpd restart

This will automatically skip any certificates that are not yet due to expire. I’ve put the above script in a file which is run by cron on a monthly basis.

0 20 1 * * /path-to-script/

To get usage info on the options:

/opt/letsencrypt/letsencrypt-auto --help

Since it’s free, one cannot expect support from LetsEncrypt directly if there are issues; however, there is an active LetsEncrypt support community which can be helpful at times.

But it’s certainly made a big difference to my bottom line, and provided a bit of peace-of-mind to my users.


Compiling views: when the FORCE fails you

Darth-Vader-selfieThe order in which your deployment scripts create views is important. This is a fact that I was reminded of when I had to fix a minor issue in the deployment of version #2 of my application recently.

Normally, you can just generate a create or replace force view script for all your views and just run it in each environment, then recompile your schema after they’re finished – and everything’s fine. However, if views depend on other views, you can run into a logical problem if you don’t create them in the order of dependency.

Software Release 1.0

create table t (id number, name varchar2(100));
create or replace force view tv_base as
select t.*, 'hello' as stat from t;
create or replace force view tv_alpha as
select t.* from tv_base t;

desc tv_alpha;
Name Null Type
---- ---- -------------
ID        NUMBER
NAME      VARCHAR2(100)
STAT      CHAR(5)

Here we have our first version of the schema, with a table and two views based on it. Let’s say that the tv_base includes some derived expressions, and tv_alpha is intended to do some joins on other tables for more detailed reporting.

Software Release 1.1

alter table t add (phone varchar2(10));
create or replace force view tv_alpha as
select t.* from tv_base t;
create or replace force view tv_base as
select t.*, 'hello' as stat from t;

Now, in the second release of the software, we added a new column to the table, and duly recompiled the views. In the development environment the view recompilation may happen multiple times (because other changes are being made to the views as well) – and nothing’s wrong. Everything works as expected.

However, when we run the deployment scripts in the Test environment, the “run all views” script has been run just once; and due to the way it was generated, the views are created in alphabetical order – so tv_alpha was recreated first, followed by tv_base. Now, when we describe the view, we see that it’s missing the new column:

desc tv_alpha;
Name Null Type
---- ---- -------------
ID        NUMBER
NAME      VARCHAR2(100)
STAT      CHAR(5)

Whoops. What’s happened, of course, is that when tv_alpha was recompiled, tv_base still hadn’t been recompiled and so it didn’t have the new column in it yet. Oracle internally defines views with SELECT * expanded to list all the columns. The view won’t gain the new column until we REPLACE the view with a new one using SELECT *. By that time, it’s too late for tv_alpha – it had already been compiled, successfully, so it doesn’t see the new column.

Lesson Learnt

What should we learn from this? Be wary of SELECT * in your views. Don’t get me wrong: they are very handy, especially during initial development of your application; but they can surprise you if not handled carefully and I would suggest it’s good practice to expand those SELECT *‘s into a discrete list of columns.

Some people would go so far as to completely outlaw SELECT *, and even views-on-views, for reasons such as the above. I’m not so dogmatic, because in my view there are some good reasons to use them in some situations.

Show greyscale icon as red

I have an editable tabular form using Apex’s old greyscale edit link icons:


The users complained that they currently have to click each link to drill down to the detail records to find and fix any errors; they wanted the screen to indicate which detail records were already fine and which ones needed attention.

Since screen real-estate is limited here, I wanted to indicate the problems by showing a red edit link instead of the default greyscale one; since this application is using an old theme I didn’t feel like converting it to use Font Awesome (not yet, at least) and neither did I want to create a whole new image and upload it. Instead, I tried a CSS trick to convert the greyscale image to a red shade.

I used this informative post to work out what I needed:

WARNING: Unfortunately this trick does NOT work in IE (tested in IE11). Blast.

Firstly, I added a column to the underlying query that determines if the error needs to be indicated or not:

select ...,
       case when {error condition}
       then 'btnerr' end as year1_err
from mytable...

I set the new column type to Hidden Column.

The link column is rendered using a Link-type column, with Link Text set to:

<img src="#IMAGE_PREFIX#e2.gif" alt="">

I changed this to:

<img src="#IMAGE_PREFIX#e2.gif" alt="" class="#YEAR1_ERR#">

What this does is if there is an error for a particular record, the class "btnerr" is added to the img tag. Rows with no error will simply have class="" which does nothing.

Now, to make the greyscale image show up as red, I need to add an SVG filter to the HTML Header in the page:

<svg style="display:none"><defs>
  <filter id="redshader">
    <feColorMatrix type="matrix"
      values="0.7 0.7 0.7 0 0
              0.2 0.2 0.2 0 0
              0.2 0.2 0.2 0 0
              0   0   0   1 0"/>

I made up the values for the R G B lines with some trial and error. The filter is applied to the buttons with the btnerr class with this CSS in the Inline CSS property of the page:

img.btnerr {filter:url(#redshader);}

The result is quite effective:


But, as I noted earlier, this solution does not work in IE, so that’s a big fail.

NOTE: if this application was using the Universal Theme I would simply apply a simple font color style to the icon since it would be using a font instead of an image icon.

A nice Descending Index Range Scan

I’ve been aware of some of the ways that Oracle database optimises index accesses for queries, but I’m also aware that you have to test each critical query to ensure that the expected optimisations are taking effect.

I had this simple query, the requirement of which is to get the “previous status” for a record from a journal table. Since the journal table records all inserts, updates and deletes, and this query is called immediately after an update, to get the previous status we need to query the journal for the record most recently prior to the most recent record. Since the “version_id” column is incremented for each update, we can use that as the sort order.

select status_code
from (select rownum rn, status_code
      from   xxtim_requests$jn jn
      where  jn.trq_id = :trq_id
      order by version_id desc)
where rn = 2;

The xxtim_requests$jn table has an ordinary index on (trq_id, version_id). This query is embedded in some PL/SQL with an INTO clause – so it will only fetch one record (plus a 2nd fetch to detect TOO_MANY_ROWS which we know won’t happen).

The table is relatively small (in dev it only has 6K records, and production data volumes are expected to grow very slowly) but regardless, I was pleased to find that (at least, in Oracle 12.1) it uses a nice optimisation so that it not only uses the index, it is choosing to use a Descending scan on it – which means it avoids a SORT operation, and should very quickly return the 2nd record that we desire.


It looks quite similar in effect to the “COUNT STOPKEY” optimisation you can see on “ROWNUM=1” queries. If this was a much larger table and this query needed to be faster or was being run more frequently, I’d probably consider appending status_code to the index in order to avoid the table access. In this case, however, I don’t think it’s necessary.

IRs with Subscriptions that might not work

If you have an Interactive Report with the Subscription feature enabled, users can “subscribe” to the report, getting a daily email with the results of the report. Unfortunately, however, this feature doesn’t work as expected if it relies on session state – e.g. if the query uses bind variables based on page items to filter the records. In this case, the subscription will run the query with a default session state – Apex doesn’t remember what the page item values were when the user subscribed to the report.

This is a query I used to quickly pick out all the Interactive Reports that have the Subscription feature enabled but which might rely on session state to work – i.e. it relies on items submitted from the page, refers to a bind variable or to a system context:

select workspace, application_id, application_name,
page_id, region_name, page_items_to_submit
from apex_application_page_ir
where show_notify = 'Yes'
and (page_items_to_submit is not null
or regexp_like(sql_query,':[A-Z]','i')
or regexp_like(sql_query,'SYS_CONTEXT','i')

For these reports, I reviewed them and where appropriate, turned off the Subscription feature. Note that this query is not perfect and might give some false positives and negatives.