Reproducible and minimal source-only tarballs

With the release of Libntlm version 1.8 the release tarball can be reproduced on several distributions. We also publish a signed minimal source-only tarball, produced by git-archive which is the same format used by Savannah, Codeberg, GitLab, GitHub and others. Reproducibility of both tarballs are tested continuously for regressions on GitLab through a CI/CD pipeline. If that wasn’t enough to excite you, the Debian packages of Libntlm are now built from the reproducible minimal source-only tarball. The resulting binaries are hopefully reproducible on several architectures.

What does that even mean? Why should you care? How you can do the same for your project? What are the open issues? Read on, dear reader…

This article describes my practical experiments with reproducible release artifacts, following up on my earlier thoughts that lead to discussion on Fosstodon and a patch by Janneke Nieuwenhuizen to make Guix tarballs reproducible that inspired me to some practical work.

Let’s look at how a maintainer release some software, and how a user can reproduce the released artifacts from the source code. Libntlm provides a shared library written in C and uses GNU Make, GNU Autoconf, GNU Automake, GNU Libtool and gnulib for build management, but these ideas should apply to most project and build system. The following illustrate the steps a maintainer would take to prepare a release:

git clone https://gitlab.com/gsasl/libntlm.git
cd libntlm
git checkout v1.8
./bootstrap
./configure
make distcheck
gpg -b libntlm-1.8.tar.gz

The generated files libntlm-1.8.tar.gz and libntlm-1.8.tar.gz.sig are published, and users download and use them. This is how the GNU project have been doing releases since the late 1980’s. That is a testament to how successful this pattern has been! These tarballs contain source code and some generated files, typically shell scripts generated by autoconf, makefile templates generated by automake, documentation in formats like Info, HTML, or PDF. Rarely do they contain binary object code, but historically that happened.

The XZUtils incident illustrate that tarballs with files that are not included in the git archive offer an opportunity to disguise malicious backdoors. I blogged earlier how to mitigate this risk by using signed minimal source-only tarballs.

The risk of hiding malware is not the only motivation to publish signed minimal source-only tarballs. With pre-generated content in tarballs, there is a risk that GNU/Linux distributions such as Trisquel, Guix, Debian/Ubuntu or Fedora ship generated files coming from the tarball into the binary *.deb or *.rpm package file. Typically the person packaging the upstream project never realized that some installed artifacts was not re-built through a typical autoconf -fi && ./configure && make install sequence, and never wrote the code to rebuild everything. This can also happen if the build rules are written but are buggy, shipping the old artifact. When a security problem is found, this can lead to time-consuming situations, as it may be that patching the relevant source code and rebuilding the package is not sufficient: the vulnerable generated object from the tarball would be shipped into the binary package instead of a rebuilt artifact. For architecture-specific binaries this rarely happens, since object code is usually not included in tarballs — although for 10+ years I shipped the binary Java JAR file in the GNU Libidn release tarball, until I stopped shipping it. For interpreted languages and especially for generated content such as HTML, PDF, shell scripts this happens more than you would like.

Publishing minimal source-only tarballs enable easier auditing of a project’s code, to avoid the need to read through all generated files looking for malicious content. I have taken care to generate the source-only minimal tarball using git-archive. This is the same format that GitLab, GitHub etc offer for the automated download links on git tags. The minimal source-only tarballs can thus serve as a way to audit GitLab and GitHub download material! Consider if/when hosting sites like GitLab or GitHub has a security incident that cause generated tarballs to include a backdoor that is not present in the git repository. If people rely on the tag download artifact without verifying the maintainer PGP signature using GnuPG, this can lead to similar backdoor scenarios that we had for XZUtils but originated with the hosting provider instead of the release manager. This is even more concerning, since this attack can be mounted for some selected IP address that you want to target and not on everyone, thereby making it harder to discover.

With all that discussion and rationale out of the way, let’s return to the release process. I have added another step here:

make srcdist
gpg -b libntlm-1.8-src.tar.gz

Now the release is ready. I publish these four files in the Libntlm’s Savannah Download area, but they can be uploaded to a GitLab/GitHub release area as well. These are the SHA256 checksums I got after building the tarballs on my Trisquel 11 aramo laptop:

91de864224913b9493c7a6cec2890e6eded3610d34c3d983132823de348ec2ca  libntlm-1.8-src.tar.gz
ce6569a47a21173ba69c990965f73eb82d9a093eb871f935ab64ee13df47fda1  libntlm-1.8.tar.gz

So how can you reproduce my artifacts? Here is how to reproduce them in a Ubuntu 22.04 container:

podman run -it --rm ubuntu:22.04
apt-get update
apt-get install -y --no-install-recommends autoconf automake libtool make git ca-certificates
git clone https://gitlab.com/gsasl/libntlm.git
cd libntlm
git checkout v1.8
./bootstrap
./configure
make dist srcdist
sha256sum libntlm-*.tar.gz

You should see the exact same SHA256 checksum values. Hooray!

This works because Trisquel 11 and Ubuntu 22.04 uses the same version of git, autoconf, automake, and libtool. These tools do not guarantee the same output content for all versions, similar to how GNU GCC does not generate the same binary output for all versions. So there is still some delicate version pairing needed.

Ideally, the artifacts should be possible to reproduce from the release artifacts themselves, and not only directly from git. It is possible to reproduce the full tarball in a AlmaLinux 8 container – replace almalinux:8 with rockylinux:8 if you prefer RockyLinux:

podman run -it --rm almalinux:8
dnf update -y
dnf install -y make wget gcc
wget https://download.savannah.nongnu.org/releases/libntlm/libntlm-1.8.tar.gz
tar xfa libntlm-1.8.tar.gz
cd libntlm-1.8
./configure
make dist
sha256sum libntlm-1.8.tar.gz

The source-only minimal tarball can be regenerated on Debian 11:

podman run -it --rm debian:11
apt-get update
apt-get install -y --no-install-recommends make git ca-certificates
git clone https://gitlab.com/gsasl/libntlm.git
cd libntlm
git checkout v1.8
make -f cfg.mk srcdist
sha256sum libntlm-1.8-src.tar.gz 

As the Magnus Opus or chef-d’œuvre, let’s recreate the full tarball directly from the minimal source-only tarball on Trisquel 11 – replace docker.io/kpengboy/trisquel:11.0 with ubuntu:22.04 if you prefer.

podman run -it --rm docker.io/kpengboy/trisquel:11.0
apt-get update
apt-get install -y --no-install-recommends autoconf automake libtool make wget git ca-certificates
wget https://download.savannah.nongnu.org/releases/libntlm/libntlm-1.8-src.tar.gz
tar xfa libntlm-1.8-src.tar.gz
cd libntlm-v1.8
./bootstrap
./configure
make dist
sha256sum libntlm-1.8.tar.gz

Yay! You should now have great confidence in that the release artifacts correspond to what’s in version control and also to what the maintainer intended to release. Your remaining job is to audit the source code for vulnerabilities, including the source code of the dependencies used in the build. You no longer have to worry about auditing the release artifacts.

I find it somewhat amusing that the build infrastructure for Libntlm is now in a significantly better place than the code itself. Libntlm is written in old C style with plenty of string manipulation and uses broken cryptographic algorithms such as MD4 and single-DES. Remember folks: solving supply chain security issues has no bearing on what kind of code you eventually run. A clean gun can still shoot you in the foot.

Side note on naming: GitLab exports tarballs with pathnames libntlm-v1.8/ (i.e.., PROJECT-TAG/) and I’ve adopted the same pathnames, which means my libntlm-1.8-src.tar.gz tarballs are bit-by-bit identical to GitLab’s exports and you can verify this with tools like diffoscope. GitLab name the tarball libntlm-v1.8.tar.gz (i.e., PROJECT-TAG.ARCHIVE) which I find too similar to the libntlm-1.8.tar.gz that we also publish. GitHub uses the same git archive style, but unfortunately they have logic that removes the ‘v’ in the pathname so you will get a tarball with pathname libntlm-1.8/ instead of libntlm-v1.8/ that GitLab and I use. The content of the tarball is bit-by-bit identical, but the pathname and archive differs. Codeberg (running Forgejo) uses another approach: the tarball is called libntlm-v1.8.tar.gz (after the tag) just like GitLab, but the pathname inside the archive is libntlm/, otherwise the produced archive is bit-by-bit identical including timestamps. Savannah’s CGIT interface uses archive name libntlm-1.8.tar.gz with pathname libntlm-1.8/, but otherwise file content is identical. Savannah’s GitWeb interface provides snapshot links that are named after the git commit (e.g., libntlm-a812c2ca.tar.gz with libntlm-a812c2ca/) and I cannot find any tag-based download links at all. Overall, we are so close to get SHA256 checksum to match, but fail on pathname within the archive. I’ve chosen to be compatible with GitLab regarding the content of tarballs but not on archive naming. From a simplicity point of view, it would be nice if everyone used PROJECT-TAG.ARCHIVE for the archive filename and PROJECT-TAG/ for the pathname within the archive. This aspect will probably need more discussion.

Side note on git archive output: It seems different versions of git archive produce different results for the same repository. The version of git in Debian 11, Trisquel 11 and Ubuntu 22.04 behave the same. The version of git in Debian 12, AlmaLinux/RockyLinux 8/9, Alpine, ArchLinux, macOS homebrew, and upcoming Ubuntu 24.04 behave in another way. Hopefully this will not change that often, but this would invalidate reproducibility of these tarballs in the future, forcing you to use an old git release to reproduce the source-only tarball. Alas, GitLab and most other sites appears to be using modern git so the download tarballs from them would not match my tarballs – even though the content would.

Side note on ChangeLog: ChangeLog files were traditionally manually curated files with version history for a package. In recent years, several projects moved to dynamically generate them from git history (using tools like git2cl or gitlog-to-changelog). This has consequences for reproducibility of tarballs: you need to have the entire git history available! The gitlog-to-changelog tool also output different outputs depending on the time zone of the person using it, which arguable is a simple bug that can be fixed. However this entire approach is incompatible with rebuilding the full tarball from the minimal source-only tarball. It seems Libntlm’s ChangeLog file died on the surgery table here.

So how would a distribution build these minimal source-only tarballs? I happen to help on the libntlm package in Debian. It has historically used the generated tarballs as the source code to build from. This means that code coming from gnulib is vendored in the tarball. When a security problem is discovered in gnulib code, the security team needs to patch all packages that include that vendored code and rebuild them, instead of merely patching the gnulib package and rebuild all packages that rely on that particular code. To change this, the Debian libntlm package needs to Build-Depends on Debian’s gnulib package. But there was one problem: similar to most projects that use gnulib, Libntlm depend on a particular git commit of gnulib, and Debian only ship one commit. There is no coordination about which commit to use. I have adopted gnulib in Debian, and add a git bundle to the *_all.deb binary package so that projects that rely on gnulib can pick whatever commit they need. This allow an no-network GNULIB_URL and GNULIB_REVISION approach when running Libntlm’s ./bootstrap with the Debian gnulib package installed. Otherwise libntlm would pick up whatever latest version of gnulib that Debian happened to have in the gnulib package, which is not what the Libntlm maintainer intended to be used, and can lead to all sorts of version mismatches (and consequently security problems) over time. Libntlm in Debian is developed and tested on Salsa and there is continuous integration testing of it as well, thanks to the Salsa CI team.

Side note on git bundles: unfortunately there appears to be no reproducible way to export a git repository into one or more files. So one unfortunate consequence of all this work is that the gnulib *.orig.tar.gz tarball in Debian is not reproducible any more. I have tried to get Git bundles to be reproducible but I never got it to work — see my notes in gnulib’s debian/README.source on this aspect. Of course, source tarball reproducibility has nothing to do with binary reproducibility of gnulib in Debian itself, fortunately.

One open question is how to deal with the increased build dependencies that is triggered by this approach. Some people are surprised by this but I don’t see how to get around it: if you depend on source code for tools in another package to build your package, it is a bad idea to hide that dependency. We’ve done it for a long time through vendored code in non-minimal tarballs. Libntlm isn’t the most critical project from a bootstrapping perspective, so adding git and gnulib as Build-Depends to it will probably be fine. However, consider if this pattern was used for other packages that uses gnulib such as coreutils, gzip, tar, bison etc (all are using gnulib) then they would all Build-Depends on git and gnulib. Cross-building those packages for a new architecture will therefor require git on that architecture first, which gets circular quick. The dependency on gnulib is real so I don’t see that going away, and gnulib is a Architecture:all package. However, the dependency on git is merely a consequence of how the Debian gnulib package chose to make all gnulib git commits available to projects: through a git bundle. There are other ways to do this that doesn’t require the git tool to extract the necessary files, but none that I found practical — ideas welcome!

Finally some brief notes on how this was implementated. Enabling bootstrappable source-only minimal tarballs via gnulib’s ./bootstrap is achieved by using the GNULIB_REVISION mechanism, locking down the gnulib commit used. I have always disliked git submodules because they add extra steps and has complicated interaction with CI/CD. The reason why I gave up git submodules now is because the particular commit to use is not recorded in the git archive output when git submodules is used. So the particular gnulib commit has to be mentioned explicitly in some source code that goes into the git archive tarball. Colin Watson added the GNULIB_REVISION approach to ./bootstrap back in 2018, and now it no longer made sense to continue to use a gnulib git submodule. One alternative is to use ./bootstrap with --gnulib-srcdir or --gnulib-refdir if there is some practical problem with the GNULIB_URL towards a git bundle the GNULIB_REVISION in bootstrap.conf.

The srcdist make rule is simple:

git archive --prefix=libntlm-v1.8/ -o libntlm-v1.8.tar.gz HEAD

Making the make dist generated tarball reproducible can be more complicated, however for Libntlm it was sufficient to make sure the modification times of all files were set deterministically to the timestamp of the last commit in the git repository. Interestingly there seems to be a couple of different ways to accomplish this, Guix doesn’t support minimal source-only tarballs but rely on a .tarball-timestamp file inside the tarball. Paul Eggert explained what TZDB is using some time ago. The approach I’m using now is fairly similar to the one I suggested over a year ago. If there are problems because all files in the tarball now use the same modification time, there is a solution by Bruno Haible that could be implemented.

Doing continous testing of all this is critical to make sure things don’t regress. Libntlm’s pipeline definition now produce the generated libntlm-*.tar.gz tarballs and a checksum as a build artifact. Then I added the 000-reproducability job which compares the checksums and fails on mismatches. You can read its delicate output in the job for the v1.8 release. Right now we insists that builds on Trisquel 11 match Ubuntu 22.04, that PureOS 10 builds match Debian 11 builds, that AlmaLinux 8 builds match RockyLinux 8 builds, and AlmaLinux 9 builds match RockyLinux 9 builds. As you can see in pipeline job output, not all platforms lead to the same tarballs, but hopefully this state can be improved over time. There is also partial reproducibility, where the full tarball is reproducible across two distributions but not the minimal tarball, or vice versa.

If this way of working plays out well, I hope to implement it in other projects too.

What do you think? Happy Hacking!

Towards reproducible minimal source code tarballs? On *-src.tar.gz

While the work to analyze the xz backdoor is in progress, several ideas have been suggested to improve the software supply chain ecosystem. Some of those ideas are good, some of the ideas are at best irrelevant and harmless, and some suggestions are plain bad. I’d like to attempt to formalize two ideas, which have been discussed before, but the context in which they can be appreciated have not been as clear as it is today.

  1. Reproducible tarballs. The idea is that published source tarballs should be possible to reproduce independently somehow, and that this should be continuously tested and verified — preferrably as part of the upstream project continuous integration system (e.g., GitHub action or GitLab pipeline). While nominally this looks easy to achieve, there are some complex matters in this, for example: what timestamps to use for files in the tarball? I’ve brought up this aspect before.
  2. Minimal source tarballs without generated vendor files. Most GNU Autoconf/Automake-based tarballs pre-generated files which are important for bootstrapping on exotic systems that does not have the required dependencies. For the bootstrapping story to succeed, this approach is important to support. However it has become clear that this practice raise significant costs and risks. Most modern GNU/Linux distributions have all the required dependencies and actually prefers to re-build everything from source code. These pre-generated extra files introduce uncertainty to that process.

My strawman proposal to improve things is to define new tarball format *-src.tar.gz with at least the following properties:

  1. The tarball should allow users to build the project, which is the entire purpose of all this. This means that at least all source code for the project has to be included.
  2. The tarballs should be signed, for example with PGP or minisign.
  3. The tarball should be possible to reproduce bit-by-bit by a third party using upstream’s version controlled sources and a pointer to which revision was used (e.g., git tag or git commit).
  4. The tarball should not require an Internet connection to download things.
    • Corollary: every external dependency either has to be explicitly documented as such (e.g., gcc and GnuTLS), or included in the tarball.
    • Observation: This means including all *.po gettext translations which are normally downloaded when building from version controlled sources.
  5. The tarball should contain everything required to build the project from source using as much externally released versioned tooling as possible. This is the “minimal” property lacking today.
    • Corollary: This means including a vendored copy of OpenSSL or libz is not acceptable: link to them as external projects.
    • Open question: How about non-released external tooling such as gnulib or autoconf archive macros? This is a bit more delicate: most distributions either just package one current version of gnulib or autoconf archive, not previous versions. While this could change, and distributions could package the gnulib git repository (up to some current version) and the autoconf archive git repository — and packages were set up to extract the version they need (gnulib’s ./bootstrap already supports this via the –gnulib-refdir parameter), this is not normally in place.
    • Suggested Corollary: The tarball should contain content from git submodule’s such as gnulib and the necessary Autoconf archive M4 macros required by the project.
  6. Similar to how the GNU project specify the ./configure interface we need a documented interface for how to bootstrap the project. I suggest to use the already well established idiom of running ./bootstrap to set up the package to later be able to be built via ./configure. Of course, some projects are not using the autotool ./configure interface and will not follow this aspect either, but like most build systems that compete with autotools have instructions on how to build the project, they should document similar interfaces for bootstrapping the source tarball to allow building.

If tarballs that achieve the above goals were available from popular upstream projects, distributions could more easily use them instead of current tarballs that include pre-generated content. The advantage would be that the build process is not tainted by “unnecessary” files. We need to develop tools for maintainers to create these tarballs, similar to make dist that generate today’s foo-1.2.3.tar.gz files.

I think one common argument against this approach will be: Why bother with all that, and just use git-archive outputs? Or avoid the entire tarball approach and move directly towards version controlled check outs and referring to upstream releases as git URL and commit tag or id. My counter-argument is that this optimize for packagers’ benefits at the cost of upstream maintainers: most upstream maintainers do not want to store gettext *.po translations in their source code repository. A compromise between the needs of maintainers and packagers is useful, so this *-src.tar.gz tarball approach is the indirection we need to solve that.

What do you think?

Trisquel on ppc64el: Talos II

The release notes for Trisquel 11.0 “Aramo” mention support for POWER and ARM architectures, however the download area only contains links for x86, and forum posts suggest there is a lack of instructions how to run Trisquel on non-x86.

Since the release of Trisquel 11 I have been busy migrating x86 machines from Debian to Trisquel. One would think that I would be finished after this time period, but re-installing and migrating machines is really time consuming, especially if you allow yourself to be distracted every time you notice something that Really Ought to be improved. Rabbit holes all the way down. One of my production machines is running Debian 11 “bullseye” on a Talos II Lite machine from Raptor Computing Systems, and migrating the virtual machines running on that host (including the VM that serves this blog) to a x86 machine running Trisquel felt unsatisfying to me. I want to migrate my computing towards hardware that harmonize with FSF’s Respects Your Freedom and not away from it. Here I had to chose between using the non-free software present in newer Debian or the non-free software implied by most x86 systems: not an easy chose. So I have ignored the dilemma for some time. After all, the machine was running Debian 11 “bullseye”, which was released before Debian started to require use of non-free software. With the end-of-life date for bullseye approaching, it seems that this isn’t a sustainable choice.

There is a report open about providing ppc64el ISOs that was created by Jason Self shortly after the release, but for many months nothing happened. About a month ago, Luis Guzmán mentioned an initial ISO build and I started testing it. The setup has worked well for a month, and with this post I want to contribute instructions how to get it up and running since this is still missing.

The setup of my soon-to-be new production machine:

  • Talos II Lite
  • POWER9 18-core v2 CPU
  • Inter-Tech 4U-4410 rack case with ASPOWER power supply
  • 8x32GB DDR4-2666 ECC RDIMM
  • HighPoint SSD7505 (the Rocket 1504 or 1204 would be a more cost-effective choice, but I re-used a component I had laying around)
  • PERC H700 aka LSI MegaRAID 2108 SAS/SATA (also found laying around)
  • 2x1TB NVMe
  • 3x18TB disks

According to the notes in issue 14 the ISO image is available at https://builds.trisquel.org/debian-installer-images/ and the following commands download, integrity check and write it to a USB stick:

wget -q https://builds.trisquel.org/debian-installer-images/debian-installer-images_20210731+deb11u8+11.0trisquel14_ppc64el.tar.gz
tar xfa debian-installer-images_20210731+deb11u8+11.0trisquel14_ppc64el.tar.gz ./installer-ppc64el/20210731+deb11u8+11/images/netboot/mini.iso
echo '6df8f45fbc0e7a5fadf039e9de7fa2dc57a4d466e95d65f2eabeec80577631b7  ./installer-ppc64el/20210731+deb11u8+11/images/netboot/mini.iso' | sha256sum -c
sudo wipefs -a /dev/sdX
sudo dd if=./installer-ppc64el/20210731+deb11u8+11/images/netboot/mini.iso of=/dev/sdX conv=sync status=progress

Sadly, no hash checksums or OpenPGP signatures are published.

Power off your device, insert the USB stick, and power it up, and you see a Petitboot menu offering to boot from the USB stick. For some reason, the "Expert Install" was the default in the menu, and instead I select "Default Install" for the regular experience. For this post, I will ignore BMC/IPMI, as interacting with it is not necessary. Make sure to not connect the BMC/IPMI ethernet port unless you are willing to enter that dungeon. The VGA console works fine with a normal USB keyboard, and you can chose to use only the second enP4p1s0f1 network card in the network card selection menu.

If you are familiar with Debian netinst ISO’s, the installation is straight-forward. I complicate the setup by partitioning two RAID1 partitions on the two NVMe sticks, one RAID1 for a 75GB ext4 root filesystem (discard,noatime) and one RAID1 for a 900GB LVM volume group for virtual machines, and two 20GB swap partitions on each of the NVMe sticks (to silence a warning about lack of swap, I’m not sure swap is still a good idea?). The 3x18TB disks use DM-integrity with RAID1 however the installer does not support DM-integrity so I had to create it after the installation.

There are two additional matters worth mentioning:

  • Selecting the apt mirror does not have the list of well-known Trisquel mirrors which the x86 installer offers. Instead I have to input the archive mirror manually, and fortunately the archive.trisquel.org hostname and path values are available as defaults, so I just press enter and fix this after the installation has finished. You may want to have the hostname/path of your local mirror handy, to speed things up.
  • The installer asks me which kernel to use, which the x86 installer does not do. I believe older Trisquel/Ubuntu installers asked this question, but that it was gone in aramo on x86. I select the default “linux-image-generic” which gives me a predictable 5.15 Linux-libre kernel, although you may want to chose “linux-image-generic-hwe-11.0” for a more recent 6.2 Linux-libre kernel. Maybe this is intentional debinst-behaviour for non-x86 platforms?

I have re-installed the machine a couple of times, and have now finished installing the production setup. I haven’t ran into any serious issues, and the system has been stable. Time to wrap up, and celebrate that I now run an operating system aligned with the Free System Distribution Guidelines on hardware that aligns with Respects Your Freedom — Happy Hacking indeed!

Coping with non-free software in Debian

A personal reflection on how I moved from my Debian home to find two new homes with Trisquel and Guix for my own ethical computing, and while doing so settled my dilemma about further Debian contributions.

Debian‘s contributions to the free software community has been tremendous. Debian was one of the early distributions in the 1990’s that combined the GNU tools (compiler, linker, shell, editor, and a set of Unix tools) with the Linux kernel and published a free software operating system. Back then there were little guidance on how to publish free software binaries, let alone entire operating systems. There was a lack of established community processes and conflict resolution mechanisms, and lack of guiding principles to motivate the work. The community building efforts that came about in parallel with the technical work has resulted in a steady flow of releases over the years.

From the work of Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation (FSF) during the 1980’s and early 1990’s, there was at the time already an established definition of free software. Inspired by free software definition, and a belief that a social contract helps to build a community and resolve conflicts, Debian’s social contract (DSC) with the free software community was published in 1997. The DSC included the Debian Free Software Guidelines (DFSG), which directly led to the Open Source Definition.

Slackware 3.5" disks
One of my earlier Slackware install disk sets, kept for nostalgic reasons.

I was introduced to GNU/Linux through Slackware in the early 1990’s (oh boy those nights calculating XFree86 modeline’s and debugging sendmail.cf) and primarily used RedHat Linux during ca 1995-2003. I switched to Debian during the Woody release cycles, when the original RedHat Linux was abandoned and Fedora launched. It was Debian’s explicit community processes and infrastructure that attracted me. The slow nature of community processes also kept me using RedHat for so long: centralized and dogmatic decision processes often produce quick and effective outcomes, and in my opinion RedHat Linux was technically better than Debian ca 1995-2003. However the RedHat model was not sustainable, and resulted in the RedHat vs Fedora split. Debian catched up, and reached technical stability once its community processes had been grounded. I started participating in the Debian community around late 2006.

My interpretation of Debian’s social contract is that Debian should be a distribution of works licensed 100% under a free license. The Debian community has always been inclusive towards non-free software, creating the contrib/non-free section and permitting use of the bug tracker to help resolve issues with non-free works. This is all explained in the social contract. There has always been a clear boundary between free and non-free work, and there has been a commitment that the Debian system itself would be 100% free.

The concern that RedHat Linux was not 100% free software was not critical to me at the time: I primarily (and happily) ran GNU tools on Solaris, IRIX, AIX, OS/2, Windows etc. Running GNU tools on RedHat Linux was an improvement, and I hadn’t realized it was possible to get rid of all non-free software on my own primary machine. Debian realized that goal for me. I’ve been a believer in that model ever since. I can use Solaris, macOS, Android etc knowing that I have the option of using a 100% free Debian.

While the inclusive approach towards non-free software invite and deserve criticism (some argue that being inclusive to non-inclusive behavior is a bad idea), I believe that Debian’s approach was a successful survival technique: by being inclusive to – and a compromise between – free and non-free communities, Debian has been able to stay relevant and contribute to both environments. If Debian had not served and contributed to the free community, I believe free software people would have stopped contributing. If Debian had rejected non-free works completely, I don’t think the successful Ubuntu distribution would have been based on Debian.

I wrote the majority of the text above back in September 2022, intending to post it as a way to argue for my proposal to maintain the status quo within Debian. I didn’t post it because I felt I was saying the obvious, and that the obvious do not need to be repeated, and the rest of the post was just me going down memory lane.

The Debian project has been a sustainable producer of a 100% free OS up until Debian 11 bullseye. In the resolution on non-free firmware the community decided to leave the model that had resulted in a 100% free Debian for so long. The goal of Debian is no longer to publish a 100% free operating system, instead this was added: “The Debian official media may include firmware”. Indeed the Debian 12 bookworm release has confirmed that this would not only be an optional possibility. The Debian community could have published a 100% free Debian, in parallel with the non-free Debian, and still be consistent with their newly adopted policy, but chose not to. The result is that Debian’s policies are not consistent with their actions. It doesn’t make sense to claim that Debian is 100% free when the Debian installer contains non-free software. Actions speaks louder than words, so I’m left reading the policies as well-intended prose that is no longer used for guidance, but for the peace of mind for people living in ivory towers. And to attract funding, I suppose.

So how to deal with this, on a personal level? I did not have an answer to that back in October 2022 after the vote. It wasn’t clear to me that I would ever want to contribute to Debian under the new social contract that promoted non-free software. I went on vacation from any Debian work. Meanwhile Debian 12 bookworm was released, confirming my fears. I kept coming back to this text, and my only take-away was that it would be unethical for me to use Debian on my machines. Letting actions speak for themselves, I switched to PureOS on my main laptop during October, barely noticing any difference since it is based on Debian 11 bullseye. Back in December, I bought a new laptop and tried Trisquel and Guix on it, as they promise a migration path towards ppc64el that PureOS do not.

While I pondered how to approach my modest Debian contributions, I set out to learn Trisquel and gained trust in it. I migrated one Debian machine after another to Trisquel, and started to use Guix on others. Migration was easy because Trisquel is based on Ubuntu which is based on Debian. Using Guix has its challenges, but I enjoy its coherant documented environment. All of my essential self-hosted servers (VM hosts, DNS, e-mail, WWW, Nextcloud, CI/CD builders, backup etc) uses Trisquel or Guix now. I’ve migrated many GitLab CI/CD rules to use Trisquel instead of Debian, to have a more ethical computing base for software development and deployment. I wish there were official Guix docker images around.

Time has passed, and when I now think about any Debian contributions, I’m a little less muddled by my disappointment of the exclusion of a 100% free Debian. I realize that today I can use Debian in the same way that I use macOS, Android, RHEL or Ubuntu. And what prevents me from contributing to free software on those platforms? So I will make the occasional Debian contribution again, knowing that it will also indirectly improve Trisquel. To avoid having to install Debian, I need a development environment in Trisquel that allows me to build Debian packages. I have found a recipe for doing this:

# System commands:
sudo apt-get install debhelper git-buildpackage debian-archive-keyring
sudo wget -O /usr/share/debootstrap/scripts/debian-common https://sources.debian.org/data/main/d/debootstrap/1.0.128%2Bnmu2/scripts/debian-common
sudo wget -O /usr/share/debootstrap/scripts/sid https://sources.debian.org/data/main/d/debootstrap/1.0.128%2Bnmu2/scripts/sid
# Run once to create build image:
DIST=sid git-pbuilder create --mirror http://deb.debian.org/debian/ --debootstrapopts "--exclude=usr-is-merged" --basepath /var/cache/pbuilder/base-sid.cow
# Run in a directory with debian/ to build a package:
gbp buildpackage --git-pbuilder --git-dist=sid

How to sustainably deliver a 100% free software binary distributions seems like an open question, and the challenges are not all that different compared to the 1990’s or early 2000’s. I’m hoping Debian will come back to provide a 100% free platform, but my fear is that Debian will compromise even further on the free software ideals rather than the opposite. With similar arguments that were used to add the non-free firmware, Debian could compromise the free software spirit of the Linux boot process (e.g., non-free boot images signed by Debian) and media handling (e.g., web browsers and DRM), as Debian have already done with appstore-like functionality for non-free software (Python pip). To learn about other freedom issues in Debian packaging, browsing Trisquel’s helper scripts may enlight you.

Debian’s setback and the recent setback for RHEL-derived distributions are sad, and it will be a challenge for these communities to find internally consistent coherency going forward. I wish them the best of luck, as Debian and RHEL are important for the wider free software eco-system. Let’s see how the community around Trisquel, Guix and the other FSDG-distributions evolve in the future.

The situation for free software today appears better than it was years ago regardless of Debian and RHEL’s setbacks though, which is important to remember! I don’t recall being able install a 100% free OS on a modern laptop and modern server as easily as I am able to do today.

Happy Hacking!

Addendum 22 July 2023: The original title of this post was Coping with non-free Debian, and there was a thread about it that included feedback on the title. I do agree that my initial title was confrontational, and I’ve changed it to the more specific Coping with non-free software in Debian. I do appreciate all the fine free software that goes into Debian, and hope that this will continue and improve, although I have doubts given the opinions expressed by the majority of developers. For the philosophically inclined, it is interesting to think about what it means to say that a compilation of software is freely licensed. At what point does a compilation of software deserve the labels free vs non-free? Windows probably contains some software that is published as free software, let’s say Windows is 1% free. Apple authors a lot of free software (as a tangent, Apple probably produce more free software than what Debian as an organization produces), and let’s say macOS contains 20% free software. Solaris (or some still maintained derivative like OpenIndiana) is mostly freely licensed these days, isn’t it? Let’s say it is 80% free. Ubuntu and RHEL pushes that closer to let’s say 95% free software. Debian used to be 100% but is now slightly less at maybe 99%. Trisquel and Guix are at 100%. At what point is it reasonable to call a compilation free? Does Debian deserve to be called freely licensed? Does macOS? Is it even possible to use these labels for compilations in any meaningful way? All numbers just taken from thin air. It isn’t even clear how this can be measured (binary bytes? lines of code? CPU cycles? etc). The caveat about license review mistakes applies. I ignore Debian’s own claims that Debian is 100% free software, which I believe is inconsistent and no longer true under any reasonable objective analysis. It was not true before the firmware vote since Debian ships with non-free blobs in the Linux kernel for example.

How To Trust A Machine

Let’s reflect on some of my recent work that started with understanding Trisquel GNU/Linux, improving transparency into apt-archives, working on reproducible builds of Trisquel, strengthening verification of apt-archives with Sigstore, and finally thinking about security device threat models. A theme in all this is improving methods to have trust in machines, or generally any external entity. While I believe that everything starts by trusting something, usually something familiar and well-known, we need to deal with misuse of that trust that leads to failure to deliver what is desired and expected from the trusted entity. How can an entity behave to invite trust? Let’s argue for some properties that can be quantitatively measured, with a focus on computer software and hardware:

  • Deterministic Behavior – given a set of circumstances, it should behave the same.
  • Verifiability and Transparency – the method (the source code) should be accessible for understanding (compare scientific method) and its binaries verifiable, i.e., it should be possible to verify that the entity actually follows the intended deterministic method (implying efforts like reproducible builds and bootstrappable builds).
  • Accountable – the entity should behave the same for everyone, and deviation should be possible prove in a way that is hard to deny, implying efforts such as Certificate Transparency and more generic checksum logs like Sigstore and Sigsum.
  • Liberating – the tools and documentation should be available as free software to enable you to replace the trusted entity if so desired. An entity that wants to restrict you from being able to replace the trusted entity is vulnerable to corruption and may stop acting trustworthy. This point of view reinforces that open source misses the point; it has become too common to use trademark laws to restrict re-use of open source software (e.g., firefox, chrome, rust).

Essentially, this boils down to: Trust, Verify and Hold Accountable. To put this dogma in perspective, it helps to understand that this approach may be harmful to human relationships (which could explain the social awkwardness of hackers), but it remains useful as a method to improve the design of computer systems, and a useful method to evaluate safety of computer systems. When a system fails some of the criteria above, we know we have more work to do to improve it.

How far have we come on this journey? Through earlier efforts, we are in a fairly good situation. Richard Stallman through GNU/FSF made us aware of the importance of free software, the Reproducible/Bootstrappable build projects made us aware of the importance of verifiability, and Certificate Transparency highlighted the need for accountable signature logs leading to efforts like Sigstore for software. None of these efforts would have seen the light of day unless people wrote free software and packaged them into distributions that we can use, and built hardware that we can run it on. While there certainly exists more work to be done on the software side, with the recent amazing full-source build of Guix based on a 357-byte hand-written seed, I believe that we are closing that loop on the software engineering side.

So what remains? Some inspiration for further work:

  • Accountable binary software distribution remains unresolved in practice, although we have some software components around (e.g., apt-sigstore and guix git authenticate). What is missing is using them for verification by default and/or to improve the signature process to use trustworthy hardware devices, and committing the signatures to transparency logs.
  • Trustworthy hardware to run trustworthy software on remains a challenge, and we owe FSF’s Respect Your Freedom credit for raising awareness of this. Many modern devices requires non-free software to work which fails most of the criteria above and are thus inherently untrustworthy.
  • Verifying rebuilds of currently published binaries on trustworthy hardware is unresolved.
  • Completing a full-source rebuild from a small seed on trustworthy hardware remains, preferably on a platform wildly different than X86 such as Raptor’s Talos II.
  • We need improved security hardware devices and improved established practices on how to use them. For example, while Gnuk on the FST enable a trustworthy software and hardware solution, the best process for using it that I can think of generate the cryptographic keys on a more complex device. Efforts like Tillitis are inspiring here.

Onwards and upwards, happy hacking!

Update 2023-05-03: Added the “Liberating” property regarding free software, instead of having it be part of the “Verifiability and Transparency”.