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)
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
This is the kind of work that gets done while waiting for the build machines to attempt to reproducibly build PureOS. Unfortunately, the results is that a meager 16% of the 765 added/modifed packages are reproducible by me. There is some infrastructure work to be done to improve things: we should use sbuild for example. The build infrastructure should produce signed statements for each package it builds: One statement saying that it attempted to reproducible build a particular binary package (thus generated some build logs and diffoscope-output for auditing), and one statements saying that it actually was able to reproduce a package. Verifying such claims during apt-get install or possibly dpkg -i is a logical next step.
There is some code cleanups and release work to be done now. Which distribution will be the first apt-based distribution that includes native support for Sigstore? Let’s see.
Sigstore is not the only relevant transparency log around, and I’ve been trying to learn a bit about Sigsum to be able to support it as well. The more improved confidence about system security, the merrier!
Do you want your apt-get update to only ever use files whose hash checksum have been recorded in the globally immutable tamper-resistance ledger rekor provided by the Sigstore project? Well I thought you’d never ask, but now you can, thanks to my new projects apt-verify and apt-sigstore. I have not done proper stable releases yet, so this is work in progress. To try it out, adapt to the modern era of running random stuff from the Internet as root, and run the following commands. Use a container or virtual machine if you have trust issues.
If the stars are aligned (and the puppet projects’ of debdistget and debdistcanary have ran their GitLab CI/CD pipeline recently enough) you will see a successful output from apt-get update and your syslog will contain debug logs showing the entries from the rekor log for the release index files that you downloaded. See sample outputs in the README.
If you get tired of it, disabling is easy:
chmod -x /etc/apt/verify.d/apt-rekor
Our project currently supports Trisquel GNU/Linux 10 (nabia) & 11 (aramo), PureOS 10 (byzantium), Gnuinos chimaera, Ubuntu 20.04 (focal) & 22.04 (jammy), Debian 10 (buster) & 11 (bullseye), and Devuan GNU+Linux 4.0 (chimaera). Others can be supported to, please open an issue about it, although my focus is on FSDG-compliant distributions and their upstreams.
Due to the design of things, and some current limitations, Ubuntu is the least stable since they push out new signed InRelease files frequently (mostly due to their use of Phased-Update-Percentage) and debdistget and debdistcanary CI/CD runs have a hard time keeping up. If you have insight on how to improve this, please comment me in the issue tracking the race condition.
There are limitations of what additional safety a rekor-based solution actually provides, but I expect that to improve as I get a cosign-based approach up and running. Currently apt-rekor mostly make targeted attacks less deniable. With a cosign-based approach, we could design things such that your machine only downloads updates when they have been publicly archived in an immutable fashion, or submitted for validation by a third-party such as my reproducible build setup for Trisquel GNU/Linux aramo.