Why platform specific package systems exist and won’t go away

A while back mdz blogged about challenges facing Ubuntu and other Linux distributions. He raises the point that runtime libraries for Python / Ruby etc have a unique set of issues because they tend to have their own packaging systems. Merely a month later he attended Debconf 2010 where a presentation was given on the issues that Java packages have on Dpkg based systems. Since then the conversation seems to have dried up. I’ve been reminded of it recently in discussions within Canonical looking at how we deploy web services.

Matt suggested some ways forward, including:

  • Decouple applications from the core
  • Treat data as a service (rather than packages) – get data live from the web rather than going web -> distro-package -> user machines.
  • Simplify integration between packaging systems (including non-packaged things)

I think its time we revisit and expand on those points. Nothing much has changed in how Ubuntu or other distributions approach integration with other packaging systems… but the world has kept evolving. Internet access is growing ever more ubiquitous, more platforms are building packaging systems – clojure, scala, node.js, to name but three, and a substantial and ever growing number of products expect to operate in a hybrid fashion with an evolving web service plus a local client which is kept up to date via package updates. Twitter, Facebook and Google Plus are three such products. Android has demonstrated a large scale app store on top of Linux, with its own custom packaging format.

In order to expand them, we need some background context on the use cases that these different packaging systems need to support.

Platforms such as antivirus scanners, node.js, Python, Clojure and so forth care a great deal about getting their software out to their users. They care about making it extremely easy to get the latest and greatest versions of their libraries. I say this because the evidence is all around us: every successful development community / product has built a targeted package management system which layers on top of Windows, and Mac OSX, and *nux. The only rational explanation I can come up for this behaviour is that the lower level operating system package management tools don’t deliver what they need. E.g. this isn’t as shallow as wanting a packaging system written in their own language, which would be easy to write off as parochialism rather than a thoughtful solution to their problems.

In general packaging systems provide a language for shipping source or binary form, from one or more repositories, to users machines. They may support replications, and they may support multiple operating systems. They generally end up as graph traversal engines, pulling in dependencies of various sorts – you can see the DOAP specification for an attempt at generic modelling of this. One problem that turns up rapidly when dealing with Linux distribution package managers is that the versions upstream packages have, and the versions a package has in e.g. Debian, differ. They differ because at some stage, someone will need to do a new package for the distribution when no upstream change has been made. This might be to apply a local patch, or it might be to correct a defect caused by a broken build server. Whatever the cause, there is a many to one relationship between the package versions that end users see via dpkg / rpm etc, and those that upstream ship. It is a near certainty that once this happens to a library package, that comparing package versions across different distribution packages becomes hard. You cannot reliably infer whether a given package version is sufficient as a dependency or not, when comparing binary packages between Red Hat and Debian. Or Debian and Ubuntu. The result of this is that even when the software (e.g. rpm) is available on multiple distributions (say Ubuntu and RHEL), or even on multiple operating systems (say Ubuntu and Windows), that many packages will /have/ to be targeted specifically to build and execute properly. (Obviously, compilation has to proceed separately for different architectures, its more the depedency metadata that says ‘and build with version X of dependency Y’ that has to be customised).

The result of this is that there is to the best of my knowledge no distribution of binary packages that targets Debian/Ubuntu and RHEL and Suse and Windows and Mac OS X, although there are vibrant communities building distributions of and for each in isolation. Some of the ports systems come close, but they are still focused on delivering to a small number of platforms. There’s nothing that gives 99% coverage of users. And that means that to reach all their users, they have to write or adopt a new system. For any platform X, there is a strong pressure to have the platform be maintainable by folk that primarily work with X itself, or with the language that X is written in. Consider Python – there is strong pressure to use C, or Python, and nothing else, for any tools – that is somewhat parochial, but also just good engineering – reducing variables and making the system more likely to be well maintained. The closest system I know of – Steam – is just now porting to Ubuntu (and perhaps Linux in general), and has reached its massive popularity by focusing entirely on applications for Windows, with Mac OSX a recent addition.

Systems like pypi which have multi platform eggs do target the wide range of platforms I listed above, but they do so both narrowly and haphazardly: whether a binary or source package is available for a given platform is up to the maintainer of the package, and the packages themselves are dealing with a very narrow subset of the platforms complexity: Python provides compilation logic, they don’t create generic C libraries with stable ABI’s for use by other programs, they don’t have turing complete scripts for dealing with configuration file management and so forth. Anti virus updaters similarly narrow the problem they deal with, and add constraints on latency- updates of anti virus signatures are time sensitive when a new rapidly spreading threat is detected.

A minor point, but it adds to the friction of considering a single packaging tool for all needs is the different use cases of low level package management tools like dpkg or rpm vs the use cases that e.g. pypi has. A primary use case for packages on pypi is for them to be used by people that are not machine administrators. They don’t have root, and don’t want it. Contrast that with dpkg or rpm where the primary use case (to date) is the installation of system wide libraries and tools. Things like man page installation don’t make any sense for non-system-wide package systems, whereas they are a primary feature for e.g. dpkg.

In short, the per-platform/language tools are (generally):

  1. Written in languages that are familiar to the consumers of the tools.
  2. Targeted at use on top of existing platforms, by non-privileged users, and where temporary breakage is fine.
  3. Intended to get the software packaged in them onto widely disparate operating systems.
  4. Very narrow – they make huge assumptions about how things can fit together, which their specific language/toolchain permits, and don’t generalise beyond that.
  5. Don’t provide for security updates in any specific form: that is left up to folk that ship individual things within the manager.

operating system package managers:

  1. Are written in languages which are very easy to bootstrap onto an architecture, and to deploy onto bare metal (as part of installation).
  2. Designed for delivering system components, and to avoid be able to upgrade the toolchain itself safely.
  3. Originally built to install onto one operating system, ports to other operating systems are usually fragile and only adopted in niche.
  4. Are hugely broad – they install data, scripts, binaries, and need to know about late binding, system caches etc for every binary and runtime format the operating system supports
  5. Make special provision to allow security updates to be installed in a low latency fashion, without requiring anything consuming the package that is updated to change [but usually force-uninstalling anything that is super-tightly coupled to a library version].

Anti virus package managers:

  1. Exist to update daemons that run with system wide escalated privileges, or even file system layer drivers.
  2. Update datasets in realtime.
  3. Without permitting updates that are produced by third parties.

Given that, lets look at the routes Matt suggested…

Decoupling applications from the core as a strategy makes an assumption – that the core and applications are partitionable. If they are not, then applications and the core will share common elements that need to be updated together. Consider, for instance,  a Python application. If you run with a system installed Python, and it is built without zlib for some reason, but the Python application requires zlib, you have a problem. A classic example of this problem is facing Ubuntu today, with all the system provided tools moving to Python 3, but vast swathes of Python applications still being unported to Python 3 at all. Currently, the Python packaging system – virtualenv/buildout + distribute – don’t provide a way to install the Python runtime itself, but will happily install their own components for everything up the stack from the runtime. Ubuntu makes extensive use of Python for its own tools, so the system Python has a lot of packages installed which buildout etc cannot ignore – this often leads to issues with e.g. buildout, when the bootstrap environment has (say) zope.interfaces, but its then not accessible from the built-out environment that disables the standard sys.path (to achieve more robust separation). If we want to pursue decoupling, whether we build a new package manager or use e.g. virtualenv (or gem or npm or …), we’ll need to be aware of this issue – and perhaps offer, for an extended time, a dedicated no-frills, no-distro-packages install, to avoid it, and to allow an extended supported period for application authors without committing to a massive, distro sponsored porting effort. While its tempting to say we should install pip/npm/lein/maven and other external package systems, this is actually risky: they often evolve sufficiently fast that Ubuntu will be delivering an old, incompatible version of the tool to users well before Ubuntu goes out of support, or even befor the next release of Ubuntu.

Treating data as a service. All the cases I’ve seen so far of applications grabbing datasets from the web have depended on web infrastructure for validating the dataset. E.g. SSL certificates, or SSL + content checksums. Basically, small self-rolled distribution systems. I’m likely ignorant of details here, and I depend on you, dear reader, to edumacate me. There is potential value in having data repackaged, when our packaging system has behind-firewall support, and the adhoc system that (for instance) a virus scanner system has does not. In this case, I specifically mean the problem of updated a machine which has no internet access, not even via a proxy. The challenge I see it is again the cross platform issue: The vendor will be supporting Ubuntu + Debian + RHEL + Suse, and from their perspective its probably cheaper to roll their own solution than to directly support dpkg + rpm + whatever Apple offer + Windows – the skills to roll an adhoc distribution tool are more common than the skills to integrate closely with dpkg or rpm…

What about creating a set of interfaces for talking to dpkg / rpm / the system packagers on Windows and Mac OSX ? Here I think there is some promise, but it needs – as Matt said – careful thought. PackageKit isn’t sufficient, at least today.

There are, I think, two specific cases to cater to:

  1. The anti-virus / fresh data set case.
  2. The egg/gem/npm/ specific case.

For the egg/gem/npm case, we would need to support a pretty large set of common functionality, on Windows/Mac OSX / *nux (because otherwise upstream won’t adopt what we create: losing 90% of their users (windows) or 5% (mac) isn’t going to be well accepted :) . We’d need to support multiple installations (because of mutually incompatible dependencies between applications), and we’d need to support multiple language bindings in some fashion – some approachable fashion where the upstream will feel capable of fixing and tweaking what we offer. We’re going to need to support offline updates, replication, local builds, local repositories, and various signing strategies – to match the various tradeoffs made by the upstream tools.

For the anti-virus / fresh data case, we’d need to support a similar set of operating systems, though I strongly suspect that there would be more tolerance for limited support – in that most things in that space either have very platform specific code, or they are just a large-scale form of the egg/gem/npm problem, which also wants easy updates.

What next?

We should validate this discussion with at least two or three upstreams. Find out whats missing – I suspect a lot – and whats wrong – I hope not much :). Then we’ll be in a position to decide if there is a tractable, widespread solution *possible*.

Separately, we should stop fighting with upstreams that have their own packaging systems. They are satisfying different use cases than our core distro packaging systems are designed to solve. We should stop mindlessly repackaging things from e.g. eggs to debs, unless we need that specific thing as part of the transitive runtime or buildtime dependencies for the distribution itself. In particular, if us folk that build system packaging tools adopt and use the upstream application packaging tools, we can learn in a deep way the (real) advantages they have, and become more able to reason about how to unify the various engineering efforts going into them – and perhaps even eventually satisfy them using dpkg/rpm on our machines.