Trisquel is 42% Reproducible!

The absolute number may not be impressive, but what I hope is at least a useful contribution is that there actually is a number on how much of Trisquel is reproducible. Hopefully this will inspire others to help improve the actual metric.

tl;dr: go to reproduce-trisquel.

When I set about to understand how Trisquel worked, I identified a number of things that would improve my confidence in it. The lowest hanging fruit for me was to manually audit the package archive, and I wrote a tool called debdistdiff to automate this for me. That led me to think about apt archive transparency more in general. I have made some further work in that area (hint: apt-verify) that deserve its own blog post eventually. Most of apt archive transparency is futile if we don’t trust the intended packages that are in the archive. One way to measurable increase trust in the package are to provide reproducible builds of the packages, which should by now be an established best practice. Code review is still important, but since it will never provide positive guarantees we need other processes that can identify sub-optimal situations automatically. The way reproducible builds easily identify negative results is what I believe has driven much of its success: its results are tangible and measurable. The field of software engineering is in need of more such practices.

The design of my setup to build Trisquel reproducible are as follows.

  • The project debdistget is responsible for downloading Release/Packages files (which are the most relevant files from dists/) from apt archives, and works by commiting them into GitLab-hosted git-repositories. I maintain several such repositories for popular apt-archives, including for Trisquel and its upstream Ubuntu. GitLab invokes a schedule pipeline to do the downloading, and there is some race conditions here.
  • The project debdistdiff is used to produce the list of added and modified packages, which are the input to actually being able to know what packages to reproduce. It publishes human readable summary of difference for several distributions, including Trisquel vs Ubuntu. Early on I decided that rebuilding all of the upstream Ubuntu packages is out of scope for me: my personal trust in the official Debian/Ubuntu apt archives are greater than my trust of the added/modified packages in Trisquel.
  • The final project reproduce-trisquel puts the pieces together briefly as follows, everything being driven from its .gitlab-ci.yml file.
    • There is a (manually triggered) job generate-build-image to create a build image to speed up CI/CD runs, using a simple Dockerfile.
    • There is a (manually triggered) job generate-package-lists that uses debdistdiff to generate and store package lists and puts its output in lists/. The reason this is manually triggered right now is due to a race condition.
    • There is a (scheduled) job that does two things: from the package lists, the script builds a GitLab CI/CD instruction file ci-packages.yml that describes jobs for each package to build. The second part is that re-generate the project’s based on the build logs and diffoscope outputs that stored in the git repository.
    • Through the ci-packages.yml file, there is a large number of jobs that are dynamically defined, which currently are manually triggered to not overload the build servers. The script is invoked and attempts to rebuild a package, and stores build log and diffoscope output in the git project itself.

I did not expect to be able to use the GitLab shared runners to do the building, however they turned out to work quite well and I postponed setting up my own runner. There is a manually curated lists/disabled-aramo.txt with some packages that all required too much disk space or took over two hours to build. Today I finally took the time to setup a GitLab runner using podman running Trisquel aramo, and I expect to complete builds of the remaining packages soon — one of my Dell R630 server with 256GB RAM and dual 2680v4 CPUs should deliver sufficient performance.

Current limitations and ideas on further work (most are filed as project issues) include:

  • We don’t support *.buildinfo files. As far as I am aware, Trisquel does not publish them for their builds. Improving this would be a first step forward, anyone able to help? Compare For example, many packages differ only in their NT_GNU_BUILD_ID symbol inside the ELF binary, see example diffoscope output for libgpg-error. By poking around in I managed to discover that Trisquel built initramfs-utils in the randomized path /build/initramfs-tools-bzRLUp and hard-coding that path allowed me to reproduce that package. I expect the same to hold for many other packages. Unfortunately, this failure turned into success with that package moved the needle from 42% reproducibility to 43% however I didn’t let that stand in the way of a good headline.
  • The mechanism to download the Release/Package-files from dists/ is not fool-proof: we may not capture all ever published such files. While this is less of a concern for reproducibility, it is more of a concern for apt transparency. Still, having Trisquel provide a service similar to would help.
  • Having at least one other CPU architecture would be nice.
  • Due to lack of time and mental focus, handling incremental updates of new versions of packages is not yet working. This means we only ever build one version of a package, and never discover any newly published versions of the same package. Now that Trisquel aramo is released, the expected rate of new versions should be low, but still happens due to security or backports.
  • Porting this to test supposedly FSDG-compliant distributions such as PureOS and Gnuinos should be relatively easy. I’m also looking at Devuan because of Gnuinos.
  • The elephant in the room is how reproducible Ubuntu is in the first place.

Happy Easter Hacking!

Update 2023-04-17: The original project “reproduce-trisquel” that was announced here has been archived and replaced with two projects, one generic “debdistreproduce” and one with results for Trisquel: “reproduce/trisquel“.

Understanding Trisquel

Ever wondered how Trisquel and Ubuntu differs and what’s behind the curtain from a developer perspective? I have. Sharing what I’ve learnt will allow you to increase knowledge and trust in Trisquel too.

Trisquel GNU/Linux logo

The scripts to convert an Ubuntu archive into a Trisquel archive are available in the ubuntu-purge repository. The easy to read purge-focal script lists the packages to remove from Ubuntu 20.04 Focal when it is imported into Trisquel 10.0 Nabia. The purge-jammy script provides the same for Ubuntu 22.04 Jammy and (the not yet released) Trisquel 11.0 Aramo. The list of packages is interesting, and by researching the reasons for each exclusion you can learn a lot about different attitudes towards free software and understand the desire to improve matters. I wish there were a wiki-page that for each removed package summarized relevant links to earlier discussions. At the end of the script there is a bunch of packages that are removed for branding purposes that are less interesting to review.

Trisquel adds a couple of Trisquel-specific packages. The source code for these packages are in the trisquel-packages repository, with sub-directories for each release: see 10.0/ for Nabia and 11.0/ for Aramo. These packages appears to be mostly for branding purposes.

Trisquel modify a set of packages, and here is starts to get interesting. Probably the most important package to modify is to use GNU Linux-libre instead of Linux as the kernel. The scripts to modify packages are in the package-helpers repository. The relevant scripts are in the helpers/ sub-directory. There is a branch for each Trisquel release, see helpers/ for Nabia and helpers/ for Aramo. To see how Linux is replaced with Linux-libre you can read the make-linux script.

This covers the basic of approaching Trisquel from a developers perspective. As a user, I have identified some areas that need more work to improve trust in Trisquel:

  • Auditing the Trisquel archive to confirm that the intended changes covered above are the only changes that are published.
  • Rebuild all packages that were added or modified by Trisquel and publish diffoscope output comparing them to what’s in the Trisquel archive. The goal would be to have reproducible builds of all Trisquel-related packages.
  • Publish an audit log of the Trisquel archive to allow auditing of what packages are published. This boils down to trust of the OpenPGP key used to sign the Trisquel archive.
  • Trisquel archive mirror auditing to confirm that they are publishing only what comes from the official archive, and that they do so timely.

I hope to publish more about my work into these areas. Hopefully this will inspire similar efforts in related distributions like PureOS and the upstream distributions Ubuntu and Debian.

Happy hacking!

Trisquel 11 on NV41PZ: First impressions

My NovaCustom NV41PZ laptop arrived a couple of days ago, and today I had some time to install it. You may want to read about my purchasing decision process first. I expected a rough ride to get it to work, given the number of people claiming that modern laptops can’t run fully free operating systems. I first tried the Trisquel 10 live DVD and it booted fine including network, but the mouse trackpad did not work. Before investigating it, I noticed a forum thread about Trisquel 11 beta3 images, and being based on Ubuntu 22.04 LTS and has Linux-libre 5.15 it seemed better to start with more modern software. After installing through the live DVD successfully, I realized I didn’t like MATE but wanted to keep using GNOME. I reverted back to installing a minimal environment through the netinst image, and manually installed GNOME (apt-get install gnome) since I prefer that over MATE, together with a bunch of other packages. I’ve been running it for a couple of hours now, and here is a brief summary of the hardware components that works.

CPUAlder Lake Intel i7-1260P
Memory2x32GB Kingston DDR4 SODIMM 3200MHz
StorageSamsung 980 Pro 2TB NVME
BIOSDasharo Coreboot
GraphicsIntel Xe
Screen (internal)14″ 1920×1080
Screen (HDMI)Dell 27″ 2560×1440 and Ben-Q PD3220U 3840×1260 works fine
Screen (USB-C)Via Wavlink USB-C/HDMI port extender: Dell 27″ 2560×1440 and Ben-Q PD3220U 3840×1260
WebcamBuiltin 1MP Camera
MicrophoneIntel Alder Lake
KeyboardISO layout, all function keys working
MouseTrackpad, tap clicking and gestures
Ethernet RJ45Realtek RTL8111/8168/8411 with r8169 driver
Memory cardO2 Micro comes up as /dev/mmcblk0
Docking stationWavlink 4xUSB, 2xHDMI, DP, RJ45, …
ConnectivityUSB-A, USB-C
AudioIntel Alder Lake
Hardware components and status

So what’s not working? Unfortunately, NovaCustom does not offer any WiFi or Bluetooth module that is compatible with Trisquel, so the AX211 (1675x) Wifi/Bluetooth card in it is just dead weight. I imagine it would be possible to get the card to work if non-free firmware is loaded. I don’t need Bluetooth right now, and use the Technoetic N-150 USB WiFi dongle when I’m not connected to wired network.

Compared against my X201, the following factors have improved.

  • Faster – CPU benchmark suggests it is 8 times faster than my old i7-620M. While it feels snappier it is not a huge difference. While NVMe should improve SSD performance, benchmark wise the NVMe 980Pro only seems around 2-3 faster than the SATA-based 860 Evo. Going from 6GB to 64GB is 10 times more memory, which is useful for disk caching.
  • BIOS is free software.
  • EC firmware is free.
  • Operating system follows the FSDG.

I’m still unhappy about the following properties with both the NV41PZ and the X201.

  • CPU microcode is not available under free license.
  • Intel Mangement Engine is still present in the CPU.
  • No builtin WiFi/Bluetooth that works with free software.
  • Some other secondary processors (e.g., disk or screen) may be running non-free software but at least none requires non-free firmware.

Hopefully my next laptop will have improved on this further. I hope to be able to resolve the WiFi part by replacing the WiFi module, there appears to be options available but I have not tested them on this laptop yet. Does anyone know of a combined WiFi and Bluetooth M.2 module that would work on Trisquel?

While I haven’t put the laptop to heavy testing yet, everything that I would expect a laptop to be able to do seems to work fine. Including writing this blog post!

Towards pluggable GSS-API modules

GSS-API is a standardized framework that is used by applications to, primarily, support Kerberos V5 authentication. GSS-API is standardized by IETF and supported by protocols like SSH, SMTP, IMAP and HTTP, and implemented by software projects such as OpenSSH, Exim, Dovecot and Apache httpd (via mod_auth_gssapi). The implementations of Kerberos V5 and GSS-API that are packaged for common GNU/Linux distributions, such as Debian, include MIT Kerberos, Heimdal and (less popular) GNU Shishi/GSS.

When an application or library is packaged for a GNU/Linux distribution, a choice is made which GSS-API library to link with. I believe this leads to two problematic consequences: 1) it is difficult for end-users to chose between Kerberos implementation, and 2) dependency bloat for non-Kerberos users. Let’s discuss these separately.

  1. No system admin or end-user choice over the GSS-API/Kerberos implementation used

    There are differences in the bug/feature set of MIT Kerberos and that of Heimdal’s, and definitely that of GNU Shishi. This can lead to a situation where an application (say, Curl) is linked to MIT Kerberos, and someone discovers a Kerberos related problem that would have been working if Heimdal was used, or vice versa. Sometimes it is possible to locally rebuild a package using another set of dependencies. However doing so has a high maintenance cost to track security fixes in future releases. It is an unsatisfying solution for the distribution to flip flop between which library to link to, depending on which users complain the most. To resolve this, a package could be built in two variants: one for MIT Kerberos and one for Heimdal. Both can be shipped. This can help solve the problem, but the question of which variant to install by default leads to similar concerns, and will also eventually leads to dependency conflicts. Consider an application linked to libraries (possible in several steps) where one library only supports MIT Kerberos and one library only supports Heimdal.

    The fact remains that there will continue to be multiple Kerberos implementations. Distributions will continue to support them, and will be faced with the dilemma of which one to link to by default. Distributions and the people who package software will have little guidance on which implementation to chose from their upstream, since most upstream support both implementations. The result is that system administrators and end-users are not given a simple way to have flexibility about which implementation to use.
  2. Dependency bloat for non-Kerberos use-cases.

    Compared to the number of users of GNU/Linux systems out there, the number of Kerberos users on GNU/Linux systems is smaller. Here distributions face another dilemma. Should they enable GSS-API for all applications, to satisfy the Kerberos community, or should they be conservative with adding dependencies to reduce attacker surface for the non-Kerberos users? This is a dilemma with no clear answer, and one approach has been to ship two versions of a package: one with Kerberos support and one without. Another option here is for upstream to support loadable modules, for example Dovecot implement this and Debian ship with a separate ‘dovecot-gssapi’ package that extend the core Dovecot seamlessly. Few except some larger projects appear to be willing to carry that maintenance cost upstream, so most only support build-time linking of the GSS-API library.

    There are a number of real-world situations to consider, but perhaps the easiest one to understand for most GNU/Linux users is OpenSSH. The SSH protocol supports Kerberos via GSS-API, and OpenSSH implement this feature, and most GNU/Linux distributions ship a SSH client and SSH server linked to a GSS-API library. Someone made the choice of linking it to a GSS-API library, for the arguable smaller set of people interested in it, and also the choice which library to link to. Rebuilding OpenSSH locally without Kerberos support comes with a high maintenance cost. Many people will not need or use the Kerberos features of the SSH client or SSH server, and having it enabled by default comes with a security cost. Having a vulnerability in OpenSSH is critical for many systems, and therefor its dependencies are a reasonable concern. Wouldn’t it be nice if OpenSSH was built in a way that didn’t force you to install MIT Kerberos or Heimdal? While still making it easy for Kerberos users to use it, of course.

Hopefully I have made the problem statement clear above, and that I managed to convince you that the state of affairs is in need of improving. I learned of the problems from my personal experience with maintaining GNU SASL in Debian, and for many years I ignored this problem.

Let me introduce Libgssglue!

Matryoshka Dolls
Matryoshka Dolls – photo CC-4.0-BY-NC by PngAll

Libgssglue is a library written by Kevin W. Coffman based on historical GSS-API code, the initial release was in 2004 (using the name libgssapi) and the last release was in 2012. Libgssglue provides a minimal GSS-API library and header file, so that any application can link to it instead of directly to MIT Kerberos or Heimdal (or GNU GSS). The administrator or end-user can select during run-time which GSS-API library to use, through a global /etc/gssapi_mech.conf file or even a local GSSAPI_MECH_CONF environment variable. Libgssglue is written in C, has no external dependencies, and is BSD-style licensed. It was developed for the CITI NFSv4 project but libgssglue ended up not being used.

I have added support to build GNU SASL with libgssglue — the changes required were only ./ since GSS-API is a standardized framework. I have written a fairly involved CI/CD check that builds GNU SASL with MIT Kerberos, Heimdal, libgssglue and GNU GSS, sets ups a local Kerberos KDC and verify successful GSS-API and GS2-KRB5 authentications. The ‘gsasl’ command line tool connects to a local example SMTP server, also based on GNU SASL (linked to all variants of GSS-API libraries), and to a system-installed Dovecot IMAP server that use the MIT Kerberos GSS-API library. This is on Debian but I expect it to be easily adaptable to other GNU/Linux distributions. The check triggered some (expected) Shishi/GSS-related missing features, and triggered one problem related to authorization identities that may be a bug in GNU SASL. However, testing shows that it is possible to link GNU SASL with libgssglue and have it be operational with any choice of GSS-API library that is shipped with Debian. See GitLab CI/CD code and its CI/CD output.

This experiment worked so well that I contacted Kevin to learn that he didn’t have any future plans for the project. I have adopted libgssglue and put up a Libgssglue GitLab project page, and pushed out a libgssglue 0.5 release fixing only some minor build-related issues. There are still some missing newly introduced GSS-API interfaces that could be added, but I haven’t been able to find any critical issues with it. Amazing that an untouched 10 year old project works so well!

My current next steps are:

  • Release GNU SASL with support for Libgssglue and encourage its use in documentation.
  • Make GNU SASL link to Libgssglue in Debian, to avoid a hard dependency on MIT Kerberos, but still allowing a default out-of-the-box Kerberos experience with GNU SASL.
  • Maintain libgssglue upstream and implement self-checks, CI/CD testing, new GSS-API interfaces that have been defined, and generally fix bugs and improve the project. Help appreciated!
  • Maintain the libgssglue package in Debian.
  • Look into if there are applications in Debian that link to a GSS-API library that could instead be linked to libgssglue to allow flexibility for the end-user and reduce dependency bloat.

What do you think? Happy Hacking!

Laptop Buying Advice?

My current Lenovo X201 laptop has been with me for over four years. I’ve been looking at new laptop models over the years thinking that I should upgrade. Every time, after checking performance numbers, I’ve always reached the conclusion that it is not worth it. The most performant Intel Broadwell processor is the the Core i7 5600U and it is only about 1.5 times the performance of my current Intel Core i7 620M. Meanwhile disk performance has increased more rapidly, but changing the disk on a laptop is usually simple. Two years ago I upgraded to the Samsung 840 Pro 256GB disk, and this year I swapped that for the Samsung 850 Pro 1TB, and both have been good investments.

Recently my laptop usage patterns have changed slightly, and instead of carrying one laptop around, I have decided to aim for multiple semi-permanent laptops at different locations, coupled with a mobile device that right now is just my phone. The X201 will remain one of my normal work machines.

What remains is to decide on a new laptop, and there begins the fun. My requirements are relatively easy to summarize. The laptop will run a GNU/Linux distribution like Debian, so it has to work well with it. I’ve decided that my preferred CPU is the Intel Core i7 5600U. The screen size, keyboard and mouse is mostly irrelevant as I never work longer periods of time directly on the laptop. Even though the laptop will be semi-permanent, I know there will be times when I take it with me. Thus it has to be as lightweight as possible. If there would be significant advantages in going with a heavier laptop, I might reconsider this, but as far as I can see the only advantage with a heavier machine is bigger/better screen, keyboard (all of which I find irrelevant) and maximum memory capacity (which I would find useful, but not enough of an argument for me). The sub-1.5kg laptops with the 5600U CPU on the market that I have found are:

Lenovo X250 1.42kg 12.5″ 1366×768
Lenovo X1 Carbon (3rd gen) 1.34kg 14″ 2560×1440
Dell Latitude E7250 1.25kg 12.5″ 1366×768
Dell XPS 13 1.26kg 13.3″ 3200×1800
HP EliteBook Folio 1040 G2 1.49kg 14″ 1920×1080
HP EliteBook Revolve 810 G3 1.4kg 11.6″ 1366×768

I find it interesting that Lenovo, Dell and HP each have two models that meets my 5600U/sub-1.5kg criteria. Regarding screen, possibly there exists models with other screen resolutions. The XPS 13, HP 810 and X1 models I looked had touch screens, the others did not. As screen is not important to me, I didn’t evaluate this further.

I think all of them would suffice, and there are only subtle differences. All except the XPS 13 can be connected to peripherals using one cable, which I find convenient to avoid a cable mess. All of them have DisplayPort, but HP uses DisplayPort Standard and the rest uses miniDP. The E7250 and X1 have HDMI output. The X250 boosts a 15-pin VGA connector, none of the others have it — I’m not sure if that is a advantage or disadvantage these days. All of them have 2 USB v3.0 ports except the E7250 which has 3 ports. The HP 1040, XPS 13 and X1 Carbon do not have RJ45 Ethernet connectors, which is a significant disadvantage to me. Ironically, only the smallest one of these, the HP 810, can be memory upgraded to 12GB with the others being stuck at 8GB. HP and the E7250 supports NFC, although Debian support is not certain. The E7250 and X250 have a smartcard reader, and again, Debian support is not certain. The X1, X250 and 810 have a 3G/4G card.

Right now, I’m leaning towards rejecting the XPS 13, X1 and HP 1040 because of lack of RJ45 ethernet port. That leaves me with the E7250, X250 and the 810. Of these, the E7250 seems like the winner: lightest, 1 extra USB port, HDMI, NFC, SmartCard-reader. However, it has no 3G/4G-card and no memory upgrade options. Looking for compatibility problems, it seems you have to be careful to not end up with the “Dell Wireless” card and the E7250 appears to come in a docking and non-docking variant but I’m not sure what that means.

Are there other models I should consider? Other thoughts?