Listaller: Back to the future!

Listaller-Logo (with text)It is time for another report on Listaller, the cross-distro 3rd-party package installer, which is now in development for – depending how you count – 5-6 years. This will become a longer post, so you might grab some coffee or tea 😉

The original idea

The Listaller project was initially started with the goal to make application deployment on Linux distributions as simple as possible, by providing a unified package installation format and tools which make building apps for multiple distributions easier and deployment of updates simple. The key ideas were:

  • Seamless integration of all installation steps into the system – users shouldn’t care about the origin of their application, they just handle all installed apps with the same tool and update all apps with the same interface they use for updating the system.
  • Out-of-the-boy sandboxing for all 3rd-party apps
  • Easy signing and key-validation for Listaller packages
  • Simple creation of updates for developers
  • Resource-sharing: It should always be clear which application uses which library, duplicates should be avoided. The distribution-provided software should take priority, since it is often well-maintained and receives security updates.

The current state

The current release of Listaller handles all of this with a plugin for PackageKit, the cross-distro package-management abstraction layer. It hooks into PackageKit and reads information passing through to the native distributor backend, and if it encounters Listaller software, it handles it appropriately. It can also inject update information. This results in all Listaller software being shown in any PackageKit frontends, and people can work with it just like if the packages were native packages. Listaller package installations are controlled by a machine policy, so the administrator can decide that e.g. only packages from a trusted source (= GPG signature in trusted database) can be installed. Dependencies can be pulled from the distributor’s repositories, or optionally from external sources, like the PyPI.

This sounds good on paper, but the current implementation has various problems.

The issues

The current Listaller approach has some problems. The biggest one lies in the future: Soon, there will be no PackageKit plugins anymore! PackageKit 1.0 will remove support for them, because they appear to be a major source for crashes, even the in-tree plugins cause problems. Also, the PackageKit service itself is currently being trimmed of unneeded features and less-used code. These changes in PackageKit are great and needed for the project (and I support these efforts), but they cause a pretty huge problem for Listaller: The project relies on the PackageKit plugin – if used without it, you loose the system-integration part, which is one of the key concepts of Listaller, and a primary goal.

But this issue is not the only one. There are more. One huge problem for Listaller is dependency-solving: It needs to know where to get software from in case it isn’t installed already. And that has to be done in a cross-distributional way. This is an incredibly complex task, and Listaller contains lots of workarounds for various quirks. It contains so much hacks for distro-specific stuff, that it became really hard to understand. The Listaller dependency model also became very complex, because it tried to handle many corner-cases. This is bad, of course. But the workarounds weren’t added for fun, but because it was assumed to be easier than to fixing the root cause, which would have required collaboration between distributors and some changes on the stack, which seemed unlikely to happen at the time the code was written.

The systemd effort

Also a thing which affects Listaller, is the latest push from the systemd team to allow cross-distro 3rd-party installations to happen. I definitively recommend reading the linked blogpost from Lennart, if you have some spare time! The identified problems are the same as for Listaller, but the solution they propose is completely different, and about three orders of magnitude more invasive than whatever the Listaller project had in mind (I make these numbers up, so don’t ask!). There are also a few issues I see with Lennarts approach, I will probably go into detail about that in another blogpost (e.g. it requires multiple copies of a library lying around, where one version might have a security vulnerability, and another one doesn’t – it’s hard to ensure everything is up to date and secure that way, even if you have a top-notch sandbox). I have great respect for the systemd crew and especially Lennart, and I hope them to succeed with their efforts. However, I also think Listaller can achieve a similar things with a less-invasive solution, at least for the 3rd-party app-installations (Listaller is one of the partial-fix solutions with strict focus, so not a direct competitor to the holistic systemd approach. Both solutions could happily live together.)

A step into the future

Some might have guessed it already: There are some bigger changes coming to Listaller! The most important one is that there will be no Listaller anymore, at least not in its old form.

Since the current code relies heavily on the PackageKit plugin, and contains some ugly workarounds, it doesn’t make much sense to continue working on it.

Instead, I started the Listaller.NEXT project, which is a rewrite of Listaller in C. There are a some goals for the rewrite:

  • No stupid hacks and workarounds: We will not add any workaround. If there is a problem, we will fix it at its source, even if that might be more invasive.
  • Trimmed down project: The new incarnation of Listaller will only support installations of statically linked software at the beginning. We will start with a very small, robust core, and then add more features (like dependency-solving) gradually, but only if they are useful. There will be no feature-creep like in the previous version.
  • Faster development cycle: Releases will happen much faster, not only two or three times a year
  • Integration: Since there is no PackageKit plugin anymore, but integration is still one of Listaller’s key concepts, we will integrate Listaller into downstream tools, ranging from Apper to GNOME-Software. Richard Hughes will help with the integration and user interfaces, so Listaller applications get displayed properly.
  • AppStream-first: AppStream is the ultimate tool for Listaller to detect dependencies. With the 0.6 release, the Listaller component-concept was merged into it, which makes it a very powerful and non-hackish solution for dependency-detection. We will advance the use of its metadata, and probably use it exclusively, which would restrict Listaller to only work properly on distributions which ship AppStream metadata.
  • No desktop-only focus: The previous Listaller was focused only on desktop GUI apps. The new version will be developed with a much larger target audience in mind, including server deployments (“Can I use it to deploy my server app” is one very frequently asked questions about Listaller – with the new version, the answer is yes)
  • We will continue to improve the static-linking and cross-distro development toolchain (libuild, with ligcc, lig++ and binreloc), to make building portable apps easier.

I made a last release of the 0.5.x series of Listaller, to work with PackageKit 0.9.x – the future lies in the C port.

If you are using Listaller (and I know of people who do, for example some deploy statically-linked stuff on internal test-setups with it), stay tuned. The packaging format will stay mostly compatible with the current version, so you will not see many changes there (the plan is to freeze it very soon, so no backwards-incompatible changes are made anymore). The o.5.x series will receive critical bugfixes if necessary.

Help needed!

As always, there is help needed! Writing C is not that difficult 😉 But user feedback is welcome as well, in case you have an idea. The new code will be hosted on Github in the new listaller-next branch (currently not that much to find there). Long-term, we will completely migrate away from Launchpad.

You can expect more blogposts about the Listaller concepts and progress in the next months (as soon as I am done with some AppStream-related things, which take priority).

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