Developer Hackfest status

Today is the third day of the Gnome Developer Experience hackfest. The first day I was in the platform group where we looked at the core gtk+ platform and whats missing from it. We ended up with a pretty large list of items, but we picked a few of them and started on a few of them. More details in cosimocs blog post.

Yesterday we finally had all the people interested in the application deployment and sandboxing story here, so we started looking at that. I’ve historically had a lot of interest in this area with previous experiments like glick, glick2, and bundler, so this is my main interest this hackfest. We have some initial plans for how to approach this.

There are two fundamental, but interrelated problems in this area. One is the deployment of the application (how to create an application, bundle it, “install” it, set up its execution environment and start it) and the second is sandboxing (protecting the user session against the app).


For deplyoment we’re considering a bundling model where the app ships the binary and some subset of the libraries it needs, plus a manifest that describes what the kind of system ABIs that the app requires. These are very course grained, unlike the traditional per-library dependencies, and would be on the level of i.e.

  • bare: Just the kernel ABI
  • system: libc, libm, and a few core libs
  • gnome-platform-1.0: The full gnome upstream defined set of “stable supported ABIs”

There is a scale here where apps (like games) can chose to bundle more dependencies, and expect more stability over time, but it will not be very integrated, while on the other hand more integrated desktop apps which will be tied to specific versions of some desktop platform.

What is important here is that once an app specifies a particular profile we guarantee that this is all that the app ever sees, i.e. we support isolation of the app runtime environment vs the distribution environment that the user is running. This is done by containers and namespaces where we mount only the system files and application files into the app namespace.

With this kind of isolation we guarantee two things, first of all there will never be any accidental leaks of dependencies. If your app depends on anything not in the supported platform it will just not run and the developer will immediately notice. Secondly, any incompatible changes in system libraries are handled and the app will still get a copy of the older versions when it runs.

One nice thing about this setup is that the application runtime environment will look like a minimal but standard linux install with the app and its dependencies in the standard prefixes like /usr/lib, etc. This means that when creating an application one can very easily reuse existing .deb or .rpm files by just extracting these and putting in the application bundle. Of course, it also will require a higher level of binary compatibility guarantees than what we have previously handled for modules the platform profiles provide. For instance, internal IPC protocols the platform libraries use absolutely have to be backwards compatible.


The sandbox model goes hand-in-hand with the isolation model of app deployment, in the sense that whatever the app should not be able to do it will not even see. So, for a fully sandboxed app we will not even mount in the users home directory in the app namespace, rather than not having access rights to it. (We will of course also offer applications with unlimited sandboxes so that existing apps can run.)

In order to talk with the sandboxes app we need a IPC model that handles the domain transition between the namespaces. This implies the kernel being involved, so we have been looking (again) at getting some form of dbus routing support into the kernel. Hopefully this will work out this time.

Unfortunately we also need IPC for the Xserver, which is very hard to secure. We’ve decided to just just ignore this for now however, as it turns out Wayland is a very good fit for this, since it naturally isolates the clients.

We also talked about implementing something similar to the Intents system in android as a way to allow sandboxed applications to communicate without necessarily knowing about each other. This essentially becomes a DBus service which keeps a registry of which apps implements the various interfaces we want to support (e.g. file picking, get-a-photo, share photo) and actually proxies the messages for these to the right destination. We had a long discussion about the name for these and came up with the name “Portals”, reflecting the domain-transition that these calls represent.

We’re continuing to discuss the details of the different parts and hopefully we can start implement parts of this soon. After the hackfest we will continue discussions on the gnome-os mailing list.