Sandboxed Gnome apps

I guess by now most people have seen lennarts latest post on how to
build linux systems:

I don't necessarily agree to the use of btrfs[1] for the images, but
otherwise I think this is generally the right approach for desktop
apps. However, in order to actually be useful for desktop apps there
is a lot more work required. I've recently started looking at what
Gnome needs to do here, and wanted to start a discussion about this.

So, lets start with some definitons:

A "host" is a linux-based operating system that you wish to run an app
on. Hosts can be of many forms, but they are typically a normal linux
desktop distributions that meet some minimal requirements.

An "app" is a set of files (including binaries) + metadata, which are
designed to be combined with a particular runtime when executed. In
lennarts proposal this would be a btrfs volume, although for purposes
of the discussion here it could be done any way that lets the kernel
see the files. These files would be available somewhere in /opt when
the app is running. The metadata of the app specifies the exact
runtime version the app needs, and any requirements that are not in
the runtime must be bundled with the app.

A "runtime" is an environment that an app runs against. The runtime
provides a set of files that will appear as /usr when the app runs,
including things like libraries, executables and resources. Each
runtime gives a well defined set of guarantees on the files in the
runtime. For instance, a typical "stable" runtime would give very hard
ABI guarantees for libraries it contains, including things like .so
versions, build prefix, libexecdir, enabled configuration options,
etc. Its ok for a runtime to get minor changes like fixes security
issues or bugs, but in general it should be very conservative with

A runtime can also give guarantees about the behaviour of the host
system. For instance, a runtime that ships a client library that
expects to talk to a service imply that the corresponding service is
available in the user session, accessed via some form of IPC. It would
also guarante certain ABI stability of said IPC, keeping the service
backwards compatible with the client library for as long as the host
claims to be able to supply a given runtime. This is important as we
want to be able to keep old apps/runtimes working while upgrading the

So, what does Gnome need to provide here?

1. A platform definition

   This includes the set of libraries, supported IPC APIs, icons and
   other resources, etc. These would be the libraries that application
   developers can be allowed to rely on without bundling. We also need
   a very explicit definition of how to build them, so that anyone can
   rebuild the software and get a compatible build. For instance, if a
   distribution wants to ship its own build of the gnome platform (and
   they will probably want to) the platform definition should allow
   them to build and maintain a compatible version.

2. A reference implementation

   We need to ship a binary build of the platform that app developers
   can test against, and that anyone can download if their
   distribution doesn't already have it.

3. A SDK and other tooling

   There needs to be an easy way to build an application against the
   runtime. This means we need to ship a SDK with all the development
   stuff for the runtime (headers, symbols, debug info), as well as
   to make it easy to use those without risking any contamination from
   host. We also want to have tooling to make it easier to bundle
   as we don't want every app author to have to package everything from

4. IPC stability guarantees

   In theory we can put any kind of library in the runtime, as we rely
   on the global version of the runtime itself to keep applications
   running if API or ABI change. (Although we should of course try to
   minimize such breaks.) However, any kind of IPC mechanism we include
   in the runtime must have very strict backwards compatible

   Historically we have not done very well here. For instance, the GVfs
   dbus interfaces have generally been tightly coupled with the client
   libraries, such that you have to update both in lockstep. With an
   "app" based setup we have to take backwards compatibility much more  
   seriously, across the board. 

   This is not a code delivery, but rather a change in mentality that
   we as a project have to accept.
5. Sandboxing APIs

   In a sandboxed environment app code doesn't have access to most of
   the host system. However, apps still need some ways to securely
   access various services (like users files, hw, host services, etc).
   We need to define these APIs, and whatever security layer protects
   against their misuse. In practice this will require the definition of
   dbus APIs for a lot of operations that are currently done in-process.

   It will require a lot of work figuring out what applications need and
   how to securely provide it in a way that doesn't get in the way of
   the user. Alan has been doing some design work here which is a good 
   place to start:

   This is one of the core goals of this endevour, however it is not
   necessary the most important initially. Just having a way to
   package and run apps (insecurely) within a stable runtime is
   interesting in itself. This is particularly important as it lets us
   get towards the sandboxed model in steps, by building the current
   applications unchanged as "non-sandboxed apps" and then from there
   start making changes to the apps themselves to play well in a
   sandboxed environment.  Also it lets us kickstart work until the
   requirements for sandboxing are more ready (things like kdbus and
   wayland are really needed for secure sandboxing).

I've recently started looking at how 1-3 could be done. I've
experimented with openembedded which is a very nice way to do cross
compilation that also lets you create SDK. However, some of stuff, in
particular gobject-introspection is very tricky to do right when cross
compiling. I've now changed over to the mixed model that
gnome-continuos is using where openembedded is used to build a base
containing the build environment, and the rest is built in a chroot.

Hopefully I will have some initial cut of a runtime based on
gnome-continuos some time next week. This will give us a runtime, but
also a lot of stuff that can be used to make the SDK.

We need to start looking into exactly what the runtime should include
though. Obviously it should contain glib, gtk+ and the gnome platform,
but we also need to pick the lower level dependencies (glibc, X, etc)
as well as some level of standard unix tools.

For instance:
 * Do we ship a shell interpreter so that shell scripts work?
 * What standard unix tools do we ship? cp? ps? ship? awk? sed?
 * What about language runtimes? gjs? pyton2? python3? perl5?
 * Some of our development stack is of lower quality than the core
   platform. How much of it do we want to ship? On one hand we
   can put whatever in the runtime and have the runtime versioning
   protect against stability issues, on the other hand we'll may be
   giving application developers false hope wrt the quality and
   stability of some code, as well as setting us up for long-term
   maintainance and security fixes for all those libraries.
 * What about things like plugins like gstreamer? We'll ship some 
   in the runtime, and if the app needs a particular new one it can
   bundle it. But it would also be nice if the user can side-load
   things into a specific runtime. Maybe we need extra local layers on
   top of the runtime?

There are also lots of technical issues. For instance how do we ship
mesa and DRI drivers which have dependencies on the kernel part of the
driver? How do we support e.g. the nvidia drivers in this? Do we need
some kind of overlay for the runtime image for local hardware drivers?

Well, this was a lot of text from my side with nothing practicaly
useful yet. I think its good to get people started thinking about these
things though, and I'll keep people updated as I make progress actually
building something.

[1] I think using btrfs send/recieve to upgrade apps is a nice idea
but not really all that important. You need all sorts of contractions
to produce such a diff if the new version is built from scratch, and
its unlikely that a simple "tar up the changed files" approach (which
is much simpler) would generate a substantially larger diff.

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