Zeroconf Branch Sharing with Bazaar

Bazaar logoAt Canonical, one of the approaches taken to accelerate development is to hold coding sprints (otherwise known as hackathons, hackfests or similar). Certain things get done a lot quicker face to face compared to mailing lists, IRC or VoIP.

When collaborating with someone at one of these sprints the usual way to let others look at my work would be to commit the changes so that they could be pulled or merged by others. With legacy version control systems like CVS or Subversion, this would generally result in me uploading all my changes to a server in another country only for them to be downloaded back to the sprint location by others.

In contrast, with a modern VCS like Bazaar we should be able to avoid this since the full history of the branch is available locally – enough information to let others pull or merge the changes. That said, we’ve often ended up using a server on the internet to exchange changes despite this. This is the same work flow we use when working from home, so I guess the pain of switching to a new work flow outweighs the potential productivity gains.

The Solution

Bazaar makes it easy to run a read only server locally:

bzr serve [--directory=DIR]

However, there is still the issue of others finding the branch. They’d need to know the IP address assigned to my computer at the sprint, and the path to the branch on the server. Ideally they’d just need to know the name of the my branch. As it happens, we’ve got the technology to fix this.

Avahi logoAvahi makes it trivial to advertise and browse for services on the local network without having to worry about what IP addresses have been assigned or what people name their computer. So the solution is to hook Avahi and Bazaar together. This was fairly easy due to Avahi’s DBus interface and the dbus-python bindings.

The result is my bzr-avahi plugin. You can either download tarballs or install the latest version directly with from Bazaar:

bzr branch lp:bzr-avahi ~/.bazaar/plugins/avahi

To use the plugin, you must have at least version 1.1 of Bazaar, the Python bindings for DBus and Avahi, and a working Avahi setup. Once the plugin is installed, it hooks into the standard “bzr serve” command to do the following:

  • scan the directory being served for branches that the user has asked to advertise.
  • ask Avahi to advertise said branches

You can ask to advertise a branch using the new “bzr advertise” command:

bzr advertise [BRANCH-NAME]

If no name is specified, the branch’s nickname is used. The advertise command sends a signal over the session bus to tell any running servers about the change, so there is no need to restart “bzr serve” to see the change.

At this point, the advertised branches should be visible with a service browser like avahi-discover, so that’s half the problem solved. From the client side two things are provided: a special redirecting transport and a command to list all advertised branches on the local network.

The transport allows you to access the branch by its advertised name with most Bazaar commands. For example, merging a branch is as simple as:

$ bzr merge local:BRANCH-NAME
local:BRANCH-NAME is redirected to bzr://hostname.local:4155/path/to/branch
All changes applied successfully.

If you want to get a list of all advertised branches on the network, the “bzr browse” command will print out a list of branch names and the URLs they translate to.

I believe using these tools together should offer a low enough overhead for direct sharing of branches at sprints that people would actually bother using it. It should be quite useful at the next sprint I go to.

ZeroConf support for Bazaar

When at conferences and sprints, I often want to see what someone else is working on, or to let other people see what I am working on. Usually we end up pushing up to a shared server and using that as a way to exchange branches. However, this can be quite frustrating when competing for outside bandwidth when at a conference.

It is possible to share the branch from a local web server, but that still means you need to work out the addressing issues.

To make things easier, I wrote a simple Bazaar/Avahi plugin. It provides a command “bzr share“, which does the following:

  • Scan the directory for any Bazaar branches it contains.
  • Start up the Bazaar server to listen on a TCP port and share the given directory.
  • Advertise each of the branches via mDNS using Avahi. They are shared using the branch nickname.

For the client side, the plugin implements a “bzr browse” command that will list the Bazaar branches being advertised on the local network (the name and the bzr:// URL). Using the two commands together, it is trivial to share branches locally or find what branches people are sharing.

I am not completely satisfied with how things work, and have a few ideas for how to improve things:

  1. Provide a dummy transport that lets people pull from branches by their advertised service name. This would essentially just redirect from scheme://$SERVICE/ to bzr://$HOST:$PORT/$PATH.
  2. Maybe provide more control over the names the branches get advertised with. Perhaps this isn’t so important though.
  3. Make “bzr share” start and stop advertising branches as they get added/removed, and handle branch nicknames changing (at this point, it is pretty much blue sky though).
  4. Perhaps some form of access control. I’m not sure how easy this is within the smart server protocol, but it should be possible to query the user over whether to accept a connection or not.

It will be interesting to see how well this works at the next sprint or conference.

Avahi on Breezy followup

So after I posted some instructions for setting up Avahi on Breezy, a fair number of people at UBZ did so. For most people this worked fine, but it seems that a few people’s systems started spewing a lot of network traffic.

It turns out that the problem was actually caused by the zeroconf package (which I did not suggest installing) rather than Avahi. The zeroconf package is not needed for service discovery or .local name lookup, so if you are at UBZ you should remove the package or suffer the wrath of Elmo.

Avahi on Breezy

During conferences, it is often useful to be able to connect to connect to other people’s machines (e.g. for collaborative editing sessions with Gobby). This is a place where mDNS hostname resolution can come in handy, so you don’t need to remember IP addresses.

This is quite easy to set up on Breezy:

  • Install the avahi-daemon, avahi-utils and libnss-mdns packages from universe.
  • Restart dbus in order for the new system bus security policies to take effect with “sudo invoke-rc.d dbus restart“.
  • Start avahi-daemon with “sudo invoke-rc.d avahi-daemon start“.
  • Edit /etc/nsswitch.conf, and add “mdns” to the end of the “hosts:” line.

Now your hostname should be advertised to the local network, and you can connect to other hosts by name (of the form hostname.local). You can also get a list of the currently advertised hosts and services with the avahi-discover program.

While the hostname advertising is useful in itself, it should get a lot more useful in Dapper, as more programs are built with mDNS support.