Over the last few days I've been at the GNOME Developer Experience hackfest in Brussels, looking into xdg-app and how best to use it in Debian and Debian derivatives.

xdg-app is basically a way to run "non-core" software on Linux distributions, analogous to apps on Android and iOS. It doesn't replace distributions like Debian or packaging systems, but it adds a layer above them. It's mostly aimed towards third-party apps obtained from somewhere that isn't your distribution vendor, aiming to address a few long-standing problems in that space:

  • There's no single ABI that can be called "a standard Linux system" in the same way there would be for Windows or OS X or Android or whatever, apart from LSB which is rather limited. Testing that a third-party app "works on Linux", or even "works on stable Linux releases from 2015", involves a combinatorial explosion of different distributions, desktop environments and local configurations. Steam uses the Steam Runtime, a chroot environment closely resembling Ubuntu 12.04 LTS; other vendors tend to test on a vaguely recent Ubuntu LTS and leave it at that.

  • There's no widely-supported mechanism for installing third-party applications as an ordinary user. gog.com used to distribute Ubuntu- and Debian-compatible .deb files, but installing a .deb involves running arbitrary vendor-supplied scripts as root, which should worry anyone who wants any sort of privilege-separation. (They have now switched to executable self-extracting installers, which involve running arbitrary vendor-supplied scripts as an ordinary user... better, but not perfect.)

  • Relatedly, the third-party application itself runs with the user's full privileges: a malicious or security-buggy third-party application can do more or less anything, unless you either switch to a different uid to run third-party apps, or use a carefully-written, app-specific AppArmor profile or equivalent.

To address the first point, each application uses a specified "runtime", which is available as /usr inside its sandbox. This can be used to run application bundles with multiple, potentially incompatible sets of dependencies within the same desktop environment. A runtime can be updated within its branch - for instance, if an application uses the "GNOME 3.18" runtime (consisting of a basic Linux system, the GNOME 3.18 libraries, other related libraries like Mesa, and their recursive dependencies like libjpeg), it can expect to see minor-version updates from GNOME 3.18.x (including any security updates that might be necessary for the bundled libraries), but not a jump to GNOME 3.20.

To address the second issue, the plan is for application bundles to be available as a single file, containing metadata (such as the runtime to use), the app itself, and any dependencies that are not available in the runtime (which the app vendor is responsible for updating if necessary). However, the primary way to distribute and upgrade runtimes and applications is to package them as OSTree repositories, which provide a git-like content-addressed filesystem, with efficient updates using binary deltas. The resulting files are hard-linked into place.

To address the last point, application bundles run partially isolated from the wider system, using containerization techniques such as namespaces to prevent direct access to system resources. Resources from outside the sandbox can be accessed via "portal" services, which are responsible for access control; for example, the Documents portal (the only one, so far) displays an "Open" dialog outside the sandbox, then allows the application to access only the selected file.

xdg-app for Debian

One thing I've been doing at this hackfest is improving the existing Debian/Ubuntu packaging for xdg-app (and its dependencies ostree and libgsystem), aiming to get it into a state where I can upload it to Debian experimental. Because xdg-app aims to be a general freedesktop project, I'm currently intending to make it part of the "Utopia" packaging team alongside projects like D-Bus and polkit, but I'm open to suggestions if people want to co-maintain it elsewhere.

In the process of updating xdg-app, I sent various patches to Alex, mostly fixing build and test issues, which are in the new 0.4.8 release.

I'd appreciate co-maintainers and further testing for this stuff, particularly ostree: ostree is primarily a whole-OS deployment technology, which isn't a use-case that I've tested, and in particular ostree-grub2 probably doesn't work yet.

Source code:

Binaries (no trust path, so only use these if you have a test VM):

  • deb https://people.debian.org/~smcv/xdg-app xdg-app main

The "Hello, World" of xdg-apps

Another thing I set out to do here was to make a runtime and an app out of Debian packages. Most of the test applications in and around GNOME use the "freedesktop" or "GNOME" runtimes, which consist of a Yocto base system and lots of RPMs, are rebuilt from first principles on-demand, and are extensive and capable enough that they make it somewhat non-obvious what's in an app or a runtime.

So, here's a step-by-step route through xdg-app, first using typical GNOME instructions, but then using the simplest GUI app I could find - xvt, a small xterm clone. I'm using a Debian testing (stretch) x86_64 virtual machine for all this. xdg-app currently requires systemd-logind to put users and apps in cgroups, either with systemd as pid 1 (systemd-sysv) or systemd-shim and cgmanager; I used the default systemd-sysv. In principle it could work with plain cgmanager, but nobody has contributed that support yet.

Demonstrating an existing xdg-app

Debian's kernel is currently patched to be able to allow unprivileged users to create user namespaces, but make it runtime-configurable, because there have been various security issues in that feature, making it a security risk for a typical machine (and particularly a server). Hopefully unprivileged user namespaces will soon be secure enough that we can enable them by default, but for now, we have to do one of three things to let xdg-app use them:

  • enable unprivileged user namespaces via sysctl:

    sudo sysctl kernel.unprivileged_userns_clone=1
  • make xdg-app root-privileged (it will keep CAP_SYS_ADMIN and drop the rest):

    sudo dpkg-statoverride --update --add root root 04755 /usr/bin/xdg-app-helper
  • make xdg-app slightly less privileged:

    sudo setcap cap_sys_admin+ep /usr/bin/xdg-app-helper

First, we'll need a runtime. The standard xdg-app tutorial would tell you to download the "GNOME Platform" version 3.18. To do that, you'd add a remote, which is a bit like a git remote, and a bit like an apt repository:

$ wget http://sdk.gnome.org/keys/gnome-sdk.gpg
$ xdg-app remote-add --user --gpg-import=gnome-sdk.gpg gnome \

(I'm ignoring considerations like trust paths and security here, for brevity; in real life, you'd want to obtain the signing key via https and/or have a trust path to it, just like you would for a secure-apt signing key.)

You can list what's available in a remote:

$ xdg-app remote-ls --user gnome

The Platform runtimes are what we want here: they are collections of runtime libraries with which you can run an application. The Sdk runtimes add development tools, header files, etc. to be able to compile apps that will be compatible with the Platform.

For now, all we want is the GNOME 3.18 platform:

$ xdg-app install --user gnome org.gnome.Platform 3.18

Next, we can install an app that uses it, from Alex Larsson's nightly builds of a subset of GNOME. The server they're on doesn't have a great deal of bandwidth, so be nice :-)

$ wget
$ xdg-app remote-add --user --gpg-import=nightly.gpg nightly \
$ xdg-app install --user nightly org.mypaint.MypaintDevel

We now have one app, and the runtime it needs:

$ xdg-app list
$ xdg-app run org.mypaint.MypaintDevel
[you see a GUI window]

Digression: what's in a runtime?

Behind the scenes, xdg-app runtimes and apps are both OSTree trees. This means the ostree tool, from the package of the same name, can be used to inspect them.

$ sudo apt install ostree
$ ostree refs --repo ~/.local/share/xdg-app/repo

A "ref" has roughly the same meaning as in git: something like a branch or a tag. ostree can list the directory tree that it represents:

$ ostree ls --repo ~/.local/share/xdg-app/repo \
d00755 0 0      0 /
-00644 0 0    493 /metadata
d00755 0 0      0 /files
$ ostree ls --repo ~/.local/share/xdg-app/repo \
    runtime/org.gnome.Platform/x86_64/3.18 /files
d00755 0 0      0 /files
l00777 0 0      0 /files/local -> ../var/usrlocal
l00777 0 0      0 /files/sbin -> bin
d00755 0 0      0 /files/bin
d00755 0 0      0 /files/cache
d00755 0 0      0 /files/etc
d00755 0 0      0 /files/games
d00755 0 0      0 /files/include
d00755 0 0      0 /files/lib
d00755 0 0      0 /files/lib64
d00755 0 0      0 /files/libexec
d00755 0 0      0 /files/share
d00755 0 0      0 /files/src

You can see that /files in a runtime is basically a copy of /usr. This is not coincidental: the runtime's /files gets mounted at /usr inside the xdg-app container. There is also some metadata, which is in the ini-like syntax seen in .desktop files:

$ ostree cat --repo ~/.local/share/xdg-app/repo \
    runtime/org.gnome.Platform/x86_64/3.18 /metadata

[Extension org.freedesktop.Platform.GL]

[Extension org.freedesktop.Platform.Timezones]

[Extension org.gnome.Platform.Locale]


Looking at an app, the situation is fairly similar:

$ ostree ls --repo ~/.local/share/xdg-app/repo \
d00755 0 0      0 /
-00644 0 0    258 /metadata
d00755 0 0      0 /export
d00755 0 0      0 /files

This time, /files maps to what will become /app for the application, which was compiled with --prefix=/app:

$ ostree ls --repo ~/.local/share/xdg-app/repo \
    app/org.mypaint.MypaintDevel/x86_64/master /files
d00755 0 0      0 /files
-00644 0 0   4599 /files/manifest.json
d00755 0 0      0 /files/bin
d00755 0 0      0 /files/lib
d00755 0 0      0 /files/share

There is also a /export directory, which is made visible to the host system so that the contained app can appear as a "first-class citizen" in menus:

$ ostree ls --repo ~/.local/share/xdg-app/repo \
    app/org.mypaint.MypaintDevel/x86_64/master /export
d00755 0 0      0 /export
d00755 0 0      0 /export/share
user@debian:~$ ostree ls --repo ~/.local/share/xdg-app/repo \
    app/org.mypaint.MypaintDevel/x86_64/master /export/share
d00755 0 0      0 /export/share
d00755 0 0      0 /export/share/app-info
d00755 0 0      0 /export/share/applications
d00755 0 0      0 /export/share/icons
user@debian:~$ ostree ls --repo ~/.local/share/xdg-app/repo \
    app/org.mypaint.MypaintDevel/x86_64/master /export/share/applications
d00755 0 0      0 /export/share/applications
-00644 0 0    715 /export/share/applications/org.mypaint.MypaintDevel.desktop
$ ostree cat --repo ~/.local/share/xdg-app/repo \
    app/org.mypaint.MypaintDevel/x86_64/master \
[Desktop Entry]
Name=(Nightly) MyPaint
Exec=mypaint %f
Comment=Painting program for digital artists
GenericName=Raster Graphics Editor
GenericName[fr]=Éditeur d'Image Matricielle

Again, there's some metadata:

$ ostree cat --repo ~/.local/share/xdg-app/repo \
    app/org.mypaint.MypaintDevel/x86_64/master /metadata


[Extension org.mypaint.MypaintDevel.Debug]

Building a runtime, probably the wrong way

The way in which the reference/demo runtimes and containers are generated is... involved. As far as I can tell, there's a base OS built using Yocto, and the actual GNOME bits come from RPMs. However, we don't need to go that far to get a working runtime.

In preparing this runtime I'm probably completely ignoring some best-practices and tools - but it works, so it's good enough.

First we'll need a repository:

$ sudo install -d -o$(id -nu) /srv/xdg-apps
$ ostree init --repo /srv/xdg-apps

I'm just keeping this local for this demonstration, but you could rsync it to a web server's exported directory or something - a lot like a git repository, it's just a collection of files. We want everything in /usr because that's what xdg-app expects, hence usrmerge:

$ sudo mount -t tmpfs -o mode=0755 tmpfs /mnt
$ sudo debootstrap --arch=amd64 --include=libx11-6,usrmerge \
    --variant=minbase stretch /mnt
$ sudo mkdir /mnt/runtime
$ sudo mv /mnt/usr /mnt/runtime/files

This obviously has a lot of stuff in it that we don't need - most obviously init, apt and dpkg - but it's Good Enough™.

We will also need some metadata. This is sufficient:

$ sudo sh -c 'cat > /mnt/runtime/metadata'

That's a runtime. We can commit it to ostree, and generate xdg-app metadata:

$ ostree commit --repo /srv/xdg-apps \
    --branch runtime/org.debian.Debootstrap/x86_64/8.20160130 \
$ fakeroot ostree commit --repo /srv/xdg-apps \
    --branch runtime/org.debian.Debootstrap/x86_64/8.20160130
$ fakeroot xdg-app build-update-repo /srv/xdg-apps

(I'm not sure why ostree and xdg-app report "Operation not permitted" when we aren't root or fakeroot - feedback welcome.)

build-update-repo would presumably also be the right place to GPG-sign your repository, if you were doing that.

We can add that as another xdg-app remote:

$ xdg-app remote-add --user --no-gpg-verify local file:///srv/xdg-apps
$ xdg-app remote-ls --user local

Building an app, probably the wrong way

The right way to build an app is to build a "SDK" runtime - similar to that platform runtime, but with development files and tools - and recompile the app and any missing libraries with ./configure --prefix=/app && make && make install. I'm not going to do that, because simplicity is nice, and I'm reasonably sure xvt doesn't actually hard-code /usr into the binary:

$ install -d xvt-app/files/bin
$ sudo apt-get --download-only install xvt
$ dpkg-deb --fsys-tarfile /var/cache/apt/archives/xvt_2.1-20.1_amd64.deb \
    | tar -xvf - ./usr/bin/xvt
$ mv usr xvt-app/files

Again, we'll need metadata, and it's much simpler than the more production-quality GNOME nightly builds:

$ cat > xvt-app/metadata

$ fakeroot ostree commit --repo /srv/xdg-apps \
    --branch app/org.debian.packages.xvt/x86_64/2.1-20.1 xvt-app
$ fakeroot xdg-app build-update-repo /srv/xdg-apps
Updating appstream branch
No appstream data for runtime/org.debian.Debootstrap/x86_64/8.20160130
No appstream data for app/org.debian.packages.xvt/x86_64/2.1-20.1
Updating summary
$ xdg-app remote-ls --user local

The obligatory screenshot

OK, good, now we can install it:

$ xdg-app install --user local org.debian.Debootstrap 8.20160130
$ xdg-app install --user local org.debian.packages.xvt 2.1-20.1
$ xdg-app run --branch=2.1-20.1 org.debian.packages.xvt

xvt in a container

and you can play around with the shell in the xvt and see what you can and can't do in the container.

I'm sure there were better ways to do most of this, but I think there's value in having such a simplistic demo to go alongside the various GNOMEish apps.


Thanks to all those!