The problem with self-contained 'application bundle' style packaging

August 10, 2014

In a comment on my entry on FreeBSD vs Linux for me, Matt Campell asked (quoting me in an earlier comment):

I also fundamentally disagree with an approach of distributing applications as giant self contained bundles.

Why? Mac OS X, iOS, and Android all use self-contained app bundles, and so do the smarter third-party developers on Windows. It's a proven approach for packaged applications.

To answer this I need to add an important bit of context that may not have been clear in my initial comment and certainly isn't here in this extract: I was talking about PC-BSD in specific and in general the idea that the OS provider would distribute their packages this way.

Let's start with a question. Suppose that you start with a competently done .deb or RPM of Firefox and then convert it into one of these 'application bundles' instead. What's the difference between the contents of the two packagings of Firefox? Clearly it is that some of Firefox's dependencies are going to be included in the application bundle, not just Firefox itself. So what dependencies are included, or to put it another way, how far down the library stack do you go? GTK and FreeType? SQLite? The C++ ABI support libraries? The core C library?

The first problem with including some or all of these dependencies is that they are shared ones; plenty of other packages use them too. If you include separate copies in every package that uses them, you're going to have a lot of duplicate copies floating around your system (both on disk and in memory). I know disk and RAM are both theoretically cheap these days, but yes this still matters. In addition, packaging copies of things like GTK runs into problems with stuff that was designed to be shared, like themes.

(A sufficiently clever system can get around the duplication issue, but it has to be really clever behind the backs of these apparently self contained application bundles. Really clever systems are complex and often fragile.)

The bigger problem is that the capabilities enabled by bundling dependencies will in practice essentially never be used for packages supported by the OS vendor. Sure, in theory you could ship a different minor version of GTK or FreeType with Firefox than with Thunderbird, but in practice no sane release engineering team or security team will let things go out the door that way because if they do they're on the hook for supporting and patching both minor versions. In practice every OS-built application bundle will use exactly the same minor version of GTK, FreeType, the C++ ABI support libraries, SQLite, and so on. And if a dependency has to get patched because of one application, expect new revisions of all applications.

(In fact pretty much every source of variation in dependencies is a bad idea at the OS vendor level. Different compile options for different applications? Custom per-application patches? No, no, no, because all of them drive up the support load.)

So why is this approach so popular in Mac OS X, iOS, Windows, and so on? Because it's not being used by the OS vendor. Creators of individual applications have a completely different perspective, since they're only on the hook to support their own application. If all you support is Firefox, there is no extra cost to you if Thunderbird or Liferea is using a different GTK minor version because updating it is not your responsibility. In fact having your own version of GTK is an advantage because you can't have support costs imposed on you because someone else decided to update GTK.

Written on 10 August 2014.
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Last modified: Sun Aug 10 23:32:03 2014
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