Second impressions of Guix 1.4

While my first impression of Guix 1.4rc2 on NV41PZ was only days ago, the final Guix 1.4 release has happened. I thought I should give it a second try, although being at my summer house with no wired ethernet I realized this may be overly optimistic. However I am happy to say that a guided graphical installation on my new laptop went smooth without any problem. Practicing OS installations has a tendency to make problems disappear.

My WiFi issues last time was probably due to a user interface mistake on my part: you have to press a button to search for wireless networks before seeing them. I’m not sure why I missed this the first time, but maybe the reason was that I didn’t really expect WiFi to work on this laptop with one Intel-based WiFi card without firmware and a USB-based WiFi dongle. I haven’t went back to the rc2 image, but I strongly believe it wasn’t a problem with that image but my user mistake. Perhaps some more visual clues could be given that Guix found a usable WiFi interface, as this isn’t completely obvious now.

My main pet problem with the installation is the language menu. It contains a bazillion languages, and I want to find Swedish in it. However the list is half-sorted so it looks like it is alphabetized but paging through the list I didn’t find ‘svenska’, but did notice that the sorting restarts after a while. Eventually I find my language of chose, but a better search interface would be better. Typing ‘s’ to find it jumps around in the list. This may be a user interface misunderstanding on my part: I may be missing whatever great logic I’m sure there is to find my language in that menu.

I did a simple installation, enabling GNOME, Cups and OpenSSH. Given the experience with sharing /home with my Trisquel installation last time, I chose to not mount it this time, fixing this later on if I want to share files between OSes. Watching the installation proceed with downloading packages over this slow WiFi was meditative, and I couldn’t help but wonder what logic there was to the many steps where it says it is going to download X MB of software, downloads a set of packages, and then starts another iteration saying it is going to download Y MB and then downloads another set of packages. Maybe there is a package dependency tree being worked out while I watch.

After logging into GNOME I had to provide the WiFi password another time, it seems it wasn’t saved during installation, or I was too impatient to wait for WiFi to come up automatically. Using the GNOME WiFi selection menu worked fine. The webcam issue is still present, the image is distorted and it doesn’t happen in Trisquel. Other than that, everythings appear to work, but it has to be put through more testing.

Upgrading Guix after installation is still suffering from the same issue I noticed with the rc2 images, this time I managed to save the error message in case someone wants to provide an official fix or workaround. The initial guix pull command also takes forever, even on this speedy laptop, but after the initial run it is faster. Here are the error messages (pardon the Swedish):

jas@kaka ~$ sudo -i
...
root@kaka ~# guix pull
...
root@kaka ~# guix system reconfigure /etc/config.scm 
guix system: fel: aborting reconfiguration because commit 8e2f32cee982d42a79e53fc1e9aa7b8ff0514714 of channel 'guix' is not a descendant of 989a3916dc8967bcb7275f10452f89bc6c3389cc
tips: Use `--allow-downgrades' to force this downgrade.

root@kaka ~# 

I’ll avoid using –allow-downgrades this time to see if there is a better solution available.

Update: Problem resolved: my muscle memory typed sudo -i before writing the commands above. If I stick to the suggestedguix pull‘ (as user) followed by ‘sudo guix system reconfigure /etc/config.scm‘ everything works. I’ll leave this in case someone else runs into this problem.

I’m using the Evolution mail/calendar/contacts application, and it was not installed via GNOME so I had to manually install it using ‘guix package -i evolution‘. Following the guided setup worked remarkable well (it auto-detects all my email settings after giving it my email address), although at the end I get a surprising error message:

Puzzling error message from Evolution

If I didn’t know a bit about how Evolution works internally, I would have been stuck here – the solution is to install the evolution data server package. This should probably be a dependency from the main package? Fix it by ‘guix package -i evolution-data-server‘. It works directly, no need to even restart Evolution or go through the configuration dialog again. After this, I’m happily using email against my Dovecot server and contacts/calendars against my Nextcloud server via GNOME’s builtin Nextcloud connector which was straight-forward to setup.

Guix 1.4 on NV41PZ

On the shortlist of things to try on my new laptop has been Guix. I have been using Guix on my rsnapshot-based backup server since 2018, and experimented using it on a second laptop but never on my primary daily work machine. The main difference with Guix for me, compared to Debian (or Trisquel), is that Guix follows a rolling release model, even though they prepare stable versioned installation images once in a while. It seems the trend for operating system software releases is to either following a Long-Term-Support approach or adopt a rolling approach. Historically I have found that the rolling release approach, such as following Debian testing, has lead to unreliable systems, since little focus was given to system integration stability. This probably changed in the last 10 years or so, and today add-on systems like Homebrew on macOS gives me access to modern releases of free software easily. While I am likely to stay with LTS releases of GNU/Linux on many systems, the experience with rolling Guix (with unattended-upgrades from a cron job to pull in new code continously) on my backup servers has been smooth: no need for re-installation or debugging of installations for over four years!

I tried the Guix 1.4 rc2 installation image on top of my previous Trisquel 11 installation; following the guided Guix installation menus was simple. I installed using wired network, since the WiFi dongle I had did not automatically become available. I put the Guix system on a separate partition, that I left empty when I installed Trisquel, and mounted the same /home that I used for Trisquel. Everything booted fine, and while I had some issues doing guix pull followed by guix system reconfigure /etc/config.scm I eventually got it working by using --allow-downgrade once. I believe this was a symptom of using a release candidate installation image. Guix did not auto-detect Trisquel or set up a Grub boot menu for it, and I have been unable to come up with the right Guix bootloader magic to add a Trisquel boot item again. Fortunately, the EFI boot choser allows me to boot Trisquel again.

Guix 1.4 uses Linux-libre 6.0 which is newer than Trisquel 11’s Linux-libre 5.15. The WiFi dongle worked automatically once the system was installed. I will continue to tweak the default system configuration that was generated, it seems a standard GNOME installation does not include Evolution on Guix. Everything else I have tested works fine, including closing the lid and suspend and then resume, however the builtin webcam has a distorted image which does not happen on Trisquel. All in all, it seems the resulting system would be usable enough for me. I will be switching between Trisquel and Guix, but expect to spend most of time for daily work within Trisquel because it gives me the stable Debian-like environment that I’ve been used to for ~20 years. Sharing the same /home between Trisquel and Guix may have been a mistake: GNOME handles this badly, and the dock will only contain the lowest-common-denominator of available applications, with the rest removed permanently.

On language bindings & Relaunching Guile-GnuTLS

The Guile bindings for GnuTLS has been part of GnuTLS since spring 2007 when Ludovic Court├Ęs contributed it after some initial discussion. I have been looking into getting back to do GnuTLS coding, and during a recent GnuTLS meeting one topic was Guile bindings. It seemed like a fairly self-contained project to pick up on. It is interesting to re-read the old thread when this work was included: some of the concerns brought up there now have track record to be evaluated on. My opinion that the cost of introducing a new project per language binding today is smaller than the cost of maintaining language bindings as part of the core project. I believe the cost/benefit ratio has changed during the past 15 years: introducing a new project used to come with a significant cost but this is no longer the case, as tooling and processes for packaging have improved. I have had similar experience with Java, C# and Emacs Lisp bindings for GNU Libidn as well, where maintaining them centralized slow down the pace of updates. Andreas Metzler pointed to a similar conclusion reached by Russ Allbery.

There are many ways to separate a project into two projects; just copying the files into a new git repository would have been the simplest and was my original plan. However Ludo’ mentioned git-filter-branch in an email, and the idea of keeping all git history for some of the relevant files seemed worth pursuing to me. I quickly found git-filter-repo which appears to be the recommend approach, and experimenting with it I found a way to filter out the GnuTLS repo into a small git repository that Guile-GnuTLS could be based on. The commands I used were the following, if you want to reproduce things.

$ git clone https://gitlab.com/gnutls/gnutls.git guile-gnutls
$ cd guile-gnutls/
$ git checkout f5dcbdb46df52458e3756193c2a23bf558a3ecfd
$ git-filter-repo --path guile/ --path m4/guile.m4 --path doc/gnutls-guile.texi --path doc/extract-guile-c-doc.scm --path doc/cha-copying.texi --path doc/fdl-1.3.texi

I debated with myself back and forth whether to include some files that would be named the same in the new repository but would share little to no similar lines, for example configure.ac, Makefile.am not to mention README and NEWS. Initially I thought it would be nice to preserve the history for all lines that went into the new project, but this is a subjective judgement call. What brought me over to a more minimal approach was that the contributor history and attribution would be quite strange for the new repository: Should Guile-GnuTLS attribute the work of the thousands of commits to configure.ac which had nothing to do with Guile? Should the people who wrote that be mentioned as contributor of Guile-GnuTLS? I think not.

The next step was to get a reasonable GitLab CI/CD pipeline up, to make sure the project builds on some free GNU/Linux distributions like Trisquel and PureOS as well as the usual non-free distributions like Debian and Fedora to have coverage of dpkg and rpm based distributions. I included builds on Alpine and ArchLinux as well, because they tend to trigger other portability issues. I wish there were GNU Guix docker images available for easy testing on that platform as well. The GitLab CI/CD rules for a project like this are fairly simple.

To get things out of the door, I tagged the result as v3.7.9 and published a GitLab release page for Guile-GnuTLS that includes OpenPGP-signed source tarballs manually uploaded built on my laptop. The URLs for these tarballs are not very pleasant to work with, and discovering new releases automatically appears unreliable, but I don’t know of a better approach.

To finish this project, I have proposed a GnuTLS merge request to remove all Guile-related parts from the GnuTLS core.

Doing some GnuTLS-related work again felt nice, it was quite some time ago so thank you for giving me this opportunity. Thoughts or comments? Happy hacking!