More on Differential Reproducible Builds: Devuan is 46% reproducible!

Building on my work to rebuild Trisquel GNU/Linux 11.0 aramo, it felt simple to generalize the tooling to any two apt-repository pairs and I’ve created debdistreproduce as a template-project for doing this through the infrastructure of GitLab CI/CD and meanwhile even set up my own gitlab-runner on spare hardware. I’ve brought over reproduce/trisquel to using debdistreproduce as well, and archived the old reproduce-trisquel project.

After fixing some quirks, building Devuan GNU+Linux 4.0 Chimaera was fairly quick since they do not modify that many packages, and I’m now able to reproduce 46% of the packages that Devuan Chimaera add/modify on amd64. I have more work in progress here (hint: reproduce/pureos), but PureOS is considerably larger than both Trisquel and Devuan together. I’m not sure how interested Devuan or PureOS are in reproducible builds though.

Reflecting on this work made me realize that while the natural thing to do here was to differentiate two different apt-based distributions, I have realized the same way I did for debdistdiff that it would also be interesting to compare, say, Debian bookworm from Debian unstable, especially now that they should be fairly close together. My tooling should support that too. However, to really provide any benefit from the more complete existing reproducible testing of Debian, some further benefit from doing that would be useful and I can’t articulate one right now.

One ultimate goal with my effort is to improve trust in apt-repositories, and combining transparency-style protection a’la apt-sigstore with third-party validated reproducible builds may indeed be one such use-case that would benefit the wider community of apt-repositories. Imagine having your system not install any package unless it can verify it against a third-party reproducible build organization that commits their results in a tamper-proof transparency ledger. But I’m now on repeat here, so will stop.

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!