Grafts, continued

Guix includes a mechanism called grafts that allows us to provide users with security updates in a timely fashion, even for core packages deep down in the dependency graph. Most users value the benefits of grafts, but newcomers were also unavoidably struck by what turned out to be the undesirable side effect of our graft implementation on user experience. This had been a well-known problem for a while, but 1.1.0 finally addressed these issues.

This article recaps how grafts are implemented, what problems that caused, and how we solved it. It’s a deep dive into core Guix, and I hope it’ll be insightful to all and intriguing to the functional programming geeks among us!

What’s this “graft” thing anyway?

Grafts were introduced in the early days of Guix to address probably the main practical shortcomings of functional software deployment. In a nutshell, functional deployment as implemented by Nix and Guix means that, when a package changes, everything that depends on it must be rebuilt (or re-downloaded). To deploy a security fix in the C library or in Bash, you would thus need to rebuild everything. Even with a huge build farm, that can significantly delay the deployment of fixes; users would find themselves either rebuilding things locally or, at best, re-downloading binaries of everything.

To address this, Guix developers can instead specify a replacement in a package definition. If we have a bug-fix for, say, libc, developers would (1) define a package for the fixed libc, and (2) add a replacement field in the original libc package pointing to that fixed package. The effect is that only the bug-fix libc needs to be built. When building a package, the bug-fix libc is automatically grafted onto that package, such that the resulting package refers to the bug-fix libc. See the manual for more.

When “lowering” a high-level package definition to a low-level derivation, Guix traverses the package dependency graph and identifies a set of potentially applicable grafts. Why “potentially applicable”? Consider this scenario: assume perl has a replacement; coreutils has a dependency on perl, but it’s a build-time dependency: coreutils does not depend on perl at run time. Thus, coreutils can be used as is, there is no need to graft it.

But how do we know whether a dependency is a built-time-only dependency? The native-inputs field of a package usually lists build-time dependencies, but it’s more of a hint. Ultimately, the set of run-time dependencies, which we call the references, is the subset of the build-time dependencies that the garbage collector (GC) in the build daemon finds in the build result—Section 5.5.1 of Eelco Dolstra’s PhD thesis describes how the GC scans for references. In our example, we first have to actually build coreutils before we can tell whether it depends on perl at run time.

Guix arranges to graft only when necessary. In this example, guix build coreutils would return the same as guix build coreutils --no-grafts. Conversely, since inkscape has a run-time dependency on perl, guix build inkscape returns a derivation that grafts the perl replacement onto the original inkscape build result, the one returned by guix build inkscape --no-grafts. The (simplified) dependency graph of the derivation for the grafted inkscape looks like this:

Dependency graph of the graft derivation of Inkscape.

Grafts are a form of what Build Systems à la Carte by Mokhov et al. (a good read!) refers to as dynamic dependencies: grafting depends on intermediate build results.

Still here? With the background in place, let’s look at the problems that arose.

Grafts, the user interface, and performance

Conceptually, to decide whether to graft a package, we examine the references of the build result of the ungrafted package. However, we usually want guix install & co. to first display an overall build plan, especially when invoked with --dry-run:

$ guix install inkscape
The following package will be installed:
   inkscape 1.0

71.3 MB will be downloaded:

To accommodate that, the pre-1.1.0 implementation of grafts did the following: when substitutes were enabled, it would get the list of references of ungrafted packages from substitutes; only when substitutes for an ungrafted package are missing would it first try to build that package. Thus, when substitutes are available, guix install and similar commands would be able to display the build plan upfront. However, when a packages had no substitutes, you’d see Guix start building it without saying a word about the build plan, which was arguably confusing.

But it’s worse than that. Grafting is per-package, so every time you would lower a package to a derivation, you would need to answer the question “does this specific package have substitutes, and if so, should it be grafted?” The end result was poor resource usage and terrible user interface feedback. For every package that is a graft candidate, the user would see that infamous line:

updating substitutes from ''...

The problem was particularly acute when building whole systems with guix system because there would typically be a large number of such packages. Furthermore, each of these lines would correspond to (roughly) a single HTTP GET request on a fresh TLS connection. That can be slow… and annoying. Perhaps to some users this updating substitutes stuttering was the proof of the developers’ incompetence and perhaps, truth be told, to some of us developers it was a small price to pay for the sophistication of grafts.

For users who disable substitutes and build everything locally, the situation wasn’t much better: all the packages candidate for grafting would be built one by one, thereby missing parallelization opportunities as specified by --max-jobs.

Gathering dynamic dependencies

To address this, all these individual dynamic dependencies need to be gathered somehow instead of being treated one by one. Conceptually, we would like to, roughly, do a first pass lowering packages to derivations as if grafting was disabled, build all these derivations, and then do a second pass to determine which packages in the graph need to be grafted and to compute the relevant grafting derivation. That would address the performance issue: we’d now have as much parallelism as possible, so we wouldn’t query substitutes or build packages one by one. If we reify that second pass to the user interface code, it also addresses the user interface issue by allowing it to display, possibly, two build plans: the “ungrafted” one followed by the grafted one.

The problem is that our API is inherently serial: the package-derivation function takes one package, lowers it, and returns its derivation:

(use-modules (guix)
             (gnu packages base)
             (gnu packages inkscape))

(define s (open-connection))

(package-derivation s coreutils)
 #<derivation /gnu/store/rpfdbax1py483m9ydhvp73s7dgmn6xh4-coreutils-8.31.drv => /gnu/store/jkj7wxybgcpdamkl6fz7wwbb1ak5wxvk-coreutils-8.31-debug /gnu/store/zibwkb5xavnv6z3gzknfqjsxb9b0izh0-coreutils-8.31 7f6c92e3a000>

(package-derivation s coreutils #:graft? #f)
 #<derivation /gnu/store/rpfdbax1py483m9ydhvp73s7dgmn6xh4-coreutils-8.31.drv => /gnu/store/jkj7wxybgcpdamkl6fz7wwbb1ak5wxvk-coreutils-8.31-debug /gnu/store/zibwkb5xavnv6z3gzknfqjsxb9b0izh0-coreutils-8.31 7f6c92e3a000>

(package-derivation s inkscape)
 #<derivation /gnu/store/jzm2zsq8m0rj8wdsmikc0p2ik0cprrcf-inkscape-0.92.4.drv => /gnu/store/clj8rjnsip8a35hyd9nf4l65w7ahn0gs-inkscape-0.92.4 7f6c9c15b730>

(package-derivation s inkscape #:graft? #f)
 #<derivation /gnu/store/psd31x1fq0v2g594z217mh56xzg21dym-inkscape-0.92.4.drv => /gnu/store/zz28ckjwfxwkx3gsm8sc452kmvfiky6y-inkscape-0.92.4 7f6c90ad4f50>

Lowering includes dealing with grafts, and that’s why we ended up with one-by-one inefficiencies. An option would be to make all the API “plural”: have package-derivation and its friends accept a list of packages instead of a single one. That would be a huge amount of work and the end result would be unpleasant to use: it’s easier to reason one-by-one.

The solution implemented in 1.1.0 instead starts from this observation: the call graph of package-derivation mirrors the package graph. Thus, we could gather dynamic dependencies using monad trickery or using “control effects”. We went for the latter, which didn’t have the “contamination” problem of monads and led to simpler code.

The starting point is that, by definition, code with dynamic dependencies necessarily calls build-derivations. Taking advantage of delimited continuations in Guile, build-derivations is instrumented to abort to a “build handler” prompt when it’s called. The build handler receives the list of derivations to build along with a continuation to invoke to resume the aborted computation and start building things. User interface code can install a build handler that displays what’s going to be built:

(with-build-handler (lambda (continue store things mode)
                      (show-what-to-build store things)
                      (continue #t))

To implement dry runs, simply omit the call to continue and nothing will be built. (This is a slightly simplified artist view, see build-notifier for the real thing.)

Now, we need to take advantage of this mechanism to gather the individual build-derivations calls so we can later emit a single build-derivations call for all the gathered derivations. The goal is to effectively gather all the calls for ungrafted packages, build them all at once, and then resume graft computation.

To achieve that, we write a build handler that, when invoked, returns an <unresolved> object that captures what to build and the continuation. In addition, we provide a primitive to introduce parallelism such that, if a dynamic dependency is encountered, we keep going and attempt to compute as much as possible without resolving that dynamic dependency. These are build-accumulator and map/accumulate-builds. map/accumulate-builds is like map, except that it accumulates and gathers build-derivations request.

By using map/accumulate-builds instead of map in a few key places, we obtain a good approximation of what we wanted, as illustrated in this run:

$ guix install zile-on-guile vim-full
The following packages will be installed:
   zile-on-guile 2.4.14-0.fd09781
   vim-full      8.2.0411

9.4 MB will be downloaded:
downloading from
 vim-full-8.2.0411  8.9MiB                 7.6MiB/s 00:01 [##################] 100.0%

downloading from
 zile-on-guile-2.4.14-0.fd09781  140KiB    1.8MiB/s 00:00 [##################] 100.0%

The following derivation will be built:
The following graft will be made:
applying 8 grafts for /gnu/store/4n6dmg6iwjg0adpcvqygr9wgsnclswss-vim-full-8.2.0411.drv...
building /gnu/store/d9xms78917w67xq71pqsx5x9s6dmq6d7-profile.drv...

What we see above is first a build plan that downloads binaries for the two ungrafted packages, followed by a build plan for one grafting derivations: we have successfully preserved parallelism.

The solution resembles the suspending scheduler discussed in the à la Carte paper, though decomposition is not as principled as what the paper describes. It remains an approximation and not the optimal way to deal with dynamic dependencies. There are still situations where that shows, but overall, it’s a significant improvement. Unlike other solutions prototyped before, this one has the advantage of being orthogonal and simple: less than 100 new lines of code, and even about 30 lines removed from the graft implementation. That alone contributes a lot to the author’s satisfaction. :-)

Interlude: a scatter/gather pattern?

In the end, we’re just gathering all the build-derivations calls, turning them into a single call, and finally calling all the original site continuations with the result. The same kind of issue shows up when dealing with sequences of remote procedure calls (RPCs) and HTTP requests, and it seems there’s a more general pattern lurking here. Consider code like this:

(map (lambda (thing)
       (http-get (thing->url thing)))

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could somehow capture all the http-get calls, turn them into a series of pipelined GET requests, and resume the continuations with their result?

I haven’t found a standard functional pattern to address this and would welcome ideas!

Dynamic dependencies of all shapes

We have seen how Guix deals with dynamic dependencies. Nix supports a similar but limited form of dynamic dependencies through the import primitive of the Nix language, which can take the result of a derivation build; it does not attempt to gather the resulting buildPaths calls.

If we take a step back, we can see that Nix and Guix actually support other forms of dynamic dependencies. For example, it’s possible to write derivations whose result is a function of the reference graph of another derivation’s build result. This is achieved in Guix by passing the #:references-graphs argument of gexp->derivation, which leads the build daemon to include the reference graph in the build environment.

Another form of dynamic dependency is derivation-building derivations or recursive derivations, which were recently implemented in Nix. It supports another form of dynamic dependency where the build process of a derivation can itself create and build derivations (these are moldable tasks in scheduling parlance). It’s a great feature because in a nutshell, it allows Nix to be used not only to compose packages, but also at a finer grain as part of a package build process.

Guix supports yet another form of dynamic dependencies. The newfangled guix deploy tool works by evaluating g-expressions (gexps) remotely. For example, before actually deploying an operating system, it first runs code on the remote node to perform sanity checks: checking whether the declared file system UUIDs or labels are valid, checking whether additional kernel modules should be added to the initial RAM disk, and so forth. To do that, remote-eval first builds a derivation that produces a Scheme program, deploys it along with all its dependencies on that target machine, runs it, and retrieves the result. This form of dynamic dependency also benefits from the gathering machinery discussed above.


This is a long article on what may look like a fine point of Guix design and implementation, but there’s much to say about it! Grafts are key to the use of functional deployment in production because they enable quick security updates, and it’s a lot better if they don’t harm the user experience.

The pre-1.1.0 implementation of grafts had a negative impact on the user interface and on performance, which was due to the sequential handling of grafts, one package at a time. In 1.1.0 we addressed it by using delimited continuations to gather dynamic dependencies such as grafts, perform builds in bulk, and resume each derivation computation.

As it turned out, the implementation of dynamic dependencies raises lots of interesting design and implementation issues, and it’s probably not the end of the road!

About GNU Guix

GNU Guix is a transactional package manager and an advanced distribution of the GNU system that respects user freedom. Guix can be used on top of any system running the kernel Linux, or it can be used as a standalone operating system distribution for i686, x86_64, ARMv7, and AArch64 machines.

In addition to standard package management features, Guix supports transactional upgrades and roll-backs, unprivileged package management, per-user profiles, and garbage collection. When used as a standalone GNU/Linux distribution, Guix offers a declarative, stateless approach to operating system configuration management. Guix is highly customizable and hackable through Guile programming interfaces and extensions to the Scheme language.

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