Traditionally, GNOME has been defined —and seen— as a project aiming to produce a desktop environment made of Free Software. Maybe you have read (or heard) the term “GNOME OS” lately, which started to pop out here and there a while ago, but still it may sound a lot like vaporware... far from that, it is being shaped up in this very moment, and GNOME 3 is just the tip of the iceberg.
But isn't making an entire operating system a lot more of work than just caring about the user experience? Yes. Kinda. Depends on how one does it. Fortunately there are a number of components already available: for example nobody has to take care about writing a kernel or the base graphics infrastructure—but adopting them instead, assembling a minimal host system on top of which the rest of the GNOME platform can be run and developed. Add some grease —a process to install the system—, some polish —a process to upgrade it— and some duct tape —a developer story— and then the thing will be ready to crank it up. This is precisely what OSTree is about.
A while ago Colin Walters started to implement Hacktree, later renamed to OSTree, with the aim to cover the inner guts of system deployment —installation, upgrades— and development. The basic idea is to have multiple, complete, bootable file system trees, with the possibility of chosing among them at boot time and versioning the contents in a repository. Roughly, operations then are carried away this way:
- A new system installation consists in cloning a remote repository and checking out a tree that contains the latest release of the system.
- An upgrade consists in pulling contents from the remote repository, checking out a new tree and rebooting into it. Note that the old tree can be kept around and be used as fallback when something fails in the new one.
If the above sounds a bit like the Git version control system, it is because OSTree draws quite some inspiration and ideas from it.
As a nice consequence of allowing multiple file system trees, developers automatically get some extras for free:
- They may want to check out a tree containing additional aids targeted to them and use it for development.
- It would be possible to ensure that all developers work on top of the same set of platform components.
- Also, a developer may chose to check out a particular revision of the system tree, to ease reproduce bugs in a controlled environment.
Making a mark in the world
Some of us at Igalia think that OSTree has a very good potential to become an integral part of a GNOME system in a not-so-far future, so why not helping out to try to make that happen a bit earlier? It is not ready for prime time yet, hence the investment we are doing devoting hacking time in OSTree. Expect more posts about it later on ;-)