May 9, 2022
As a board, we have been working on several initiatives to make the Foundation a better asset for the GNOME Project. We’re working on a number of threads in parallel, so I wanted to explain the “big picture” a bit more to try and connect together things like the new ED search and the bylaw changes.
We’re all here to see free and open source software succeed and thrive, so that people can be be truly empowered with agency over their technology, rather than being passive consumers. We want to bring GNOME to as many people as possible so that they have computing devices that they can inspect, trust, share and learn from.
In previous years we’ve tried to boost the relevance of GNOME (or technologies such as GTK) or solicit donations from businesses and individuals with existing engagement in FOSS ideology and technology. The problem with this approach is that we’re mostly addressing people and organisations who are already supporting or contributing FOSS in some way. To truly scale our impact, we need to look to the outside world, build better awareness of GNOME outside of our current user base, and find opportunities to secure funding to invest back into the GNOME project.
The Foundation supports the GNOME project with infrastructure, arranging conferences, sponsoring hackfests and travel, design work, legal support, managing sponsorships, advisory board, being the fiscal sponsor of GNOME, GTK, Flathub… and we will keep doing all of these things. What we’re talking about here are additional ways for the Foundation to support the GNOME project – we want to go beyond these activities, and invest into GNOME to grow its adoption amongst people who need it. This has a cost, and that means in parallel with these initiatives, we need to find partners to fund this work.
Neil has previously talked about themes such as education, advocacy, privacy, but we’ve not previously translated these into clear specific initiatives that we would establish in addition to the Foundation’s existing work. This is all a work in progress and we welcome any feedback from the community about refining these ideas, but here are the current strategic initiatives the board is working on. We’ve been thinking about growing our community by encouraging and retaining diverse contributors, and addressing evolving computing needs which aren’t currently well served on the desktop.
Initiative 1. Welcoming newcomers. The community is already spending a lot of time welcoming newcomers and teaching them the best practices. Those activities are as time consuming as they are important, but currently a handful of individuals are running initiatives such as GSoC, Outreachy and outreach to Universities. These activities help bring diverse individuals and perspectives into the community, and helps them develop skills and experience of collaborating to create Open Source projects. We want to make those efforts more sustainable by finding sponsors for these activities. With funding, we can hire people to dedicate their time to operating these programs, including paid mentors and creating materials to support newcomers in future, such as developer documentation, examples and tutorials. This is the initiative that needs to be refined the most before we can turn it into something real.
Initiative 2: Diverse and sustainable Linux app ecosystem. I spoke at the Linux App Summit about the work that GNOME and Endless has been supporting in Flathub, but this is an example of something which has a great overlap between commercial, technical and mission-based advantages. The key goal here is to improve the financial sustainability of participating in our community, which in turn has an impact on the diversity of who we can expect to afford to enter and remain in our community. We believe the existence of this is critically important for individual developers and contributors to unlock earning potential from our ecosystem, through donations or app sales. In turn, a healthy app ecosystem also improves the usefulness of the Linux desktop as a whole for potential users. We believe that we can build a case for commercial vendors in the space to join an advisory board alongside with GNOME, KDE, etc to input into the governance and contribute to the costs of growing Flathub.
Initiative 3: Local-first applications for the GNOME desktop. This is what Thib has been starting to discuss on Discourse, in this thread. There are many different threats to free access to computing and information in today’s world. The GNOME desktop and apps need to give users convenient and reliable access to technology which works similarly to the tools they already use everyday, but keeps them and their data safe from surveillance, censorship, filtering or just being completely cut off from the Internet. We believe that we can seek both philanthropic and grant funding for this work. It will make GNOME a more appealing and comprehensive offering for the many people who want to protect their privacy.
The idea is that these initiatives all sit on the boundary between the GNOME community and the outside world. If the Foundation can grow and deliver these kinds of projects, we are reaching to new people, new contributors and new funding. These contributions and investments back into GNOME represent a true “win-win” for the newcomers and our existing community.
(Originally posted to GNOME Discourse, please feel free to join the discussion there.)
February 16, 2022
Earlier this week, Neil McGovern announced that he is due to be stepping down as the Executive Director as the GNOME Foundation later this year. As the President of the board and Neil’s effective manager together with the Executive Committee, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on his achievements in the past 5 years and explain a little about what the next steps would be.
Since joining in 2017, Neil has overseen a productive period of growth and maturity for the Foundation, increasing our influence both within the GNOME project and the wider Free and Open Source Software community. Here’s a few highlights of what he’s achieved together with the Foundation team and the community:
- Improved public perception of GNOME as a desktop and GTK as a development platform, helping to align interests between key contributors and wider ecosystem stakeholders and establishing an ongoing collaboration with KDE around the Linux App Summit.
- Worked with the board to improve the maturity of the board itself and allow it to work at a more strategic level, instigating staggered two-year terms for directors providing much-needed stability, and established the Executive and Finance committees to handle specific topics and the Governance committees to take a longer-term look at the board’s composition and capabilities.
- Arranged 3 major grants to the Foundation totaling $2M and raised a further $250k through targeted fundraising initiatives.
- Grown the Foundation team to its largest ever size, investing in staff development, and established ongoing direct contributions to GNOME, GTK and Flathub by Foundation staff and contractors.
- Launched and incubated Flathub as an inclusive and sustainable ecosystem for Linux app developers to engage directly with their users, and delivered the Community Engagement Challenge to invest in the sustainability of our contributor base – the Foundation’s largest and most substantial programs outside of GNOME itself since Outreachy.
- Achieved a fantastic resolution for GNOME and the wider community, by negotiating a settlement which protects FOSS developers from patent enforcement by the Rothschild group of non-practicing entities.
- Stood for a diverse and inclusive Foundation, implementing a code of conduct for GNOME events and online spaces, establishing our first code of conduct committee and updating the bylaws to be gender-neutral.
- Established the GNOME Circle program together with the board, broadening the membership base of the foundation by welcoming app and library developers from the wider ecosystem.
Recognizing and appreciating the amazing progress that GNOME has made with Neil’s support, the search for a new Executive Director provides the opportunity for the Foundation board to set the agenda and next high-level goals we’d like to achieve together with our new Executive Director.
In terms of the desktop, applications, technology, design and development processes, whilst there are always improvements to be made, the board’s general feeling is that thanks to the work of our amazing community of contributors, GNOME is doing very well in terms of what we produce and publish. Recent desktop releases have looked great, highly polished and well-received, and the application ecosystem is growing and improving through new developers and applications bringing great energy at the moment. From here, our largest opportunity in terms of growing the community and our user base is being able to articulate the benefits of what we’ve produced to a wider public audience, and deliver impact which allows us to secure and grow new and sustainable sources of funding.
For individuals, we are able to offer an exceedingly high quality desktop experience and a broad range of powerful applications which are affordable to all, backed by a nonprofit which can be trusted to look after your data, digital security and your best interests as an individual. From the perspective of being a public charity in the US, we also have the opportunity to establish programs that draw upon our community, technology and products to deliver impact such as developing employable skills, incubating new Open Source contributors, learning to program and more.
For our next Executive Director, we will be looking for an individual with existing experience in that nonprofit landscape, ideally with prior experience establishing and raising funds for programs that deliver impact through technology, and appreciation for the values that bring people to Free, Open Source and other Open Culture organizations. Working closely with the existing members, contributors, volunteers and whole GNOME community, and managing our relationships with the Advisory Board and other key partners, we hope to find a candidate that can build public awareness and help people learn about, use and benefit from what GNOME has built over the past two decades.
Neil has agreed to stay in his position for a 6 month transition period, during which he will support the board in our search for a new Executive Director and support a smooth hand-over. Over the coming weeks we will publish the job description for the new ED, and establish a search committee who will be responsible for sourcing and interviewing candidates to make a recommendation to the board for Neil’s successor – a hard act to follow!
I’m confident the community will join me and the board in personally thanking Neil for his 5 years of dedicated service in support of GNOME and the Foundation. Should you have any queries regarding the process, or offers of assistance in the coming hiring process, please don’t hesitate to join the discussion or reach out directly to the board.
June 1, 2021
As the President of the GNOME Foundation Board of Directors, I’m really pleased to see the number and breadth of candidates we have for this year’s election. Thank you to everyone who has submitted their candidacy and volunteered their time to support the Foundation. Allan has recently blogged about how the board has been evolving, and I wanted to follow that post by talking about where the GNOME Foundation is in terms of its strategy. This may be helpful as people consider which candidates might bring the best skills to shape the Foundation’s next steps.
Around three years ago, the Foundation received a number of generous donations, and Rosanna (Director of Operations) gave a presentation at GUADEC about her and Neil’s (Executive Director, essentially the CEO of the Foundation) plans to use these funds to transform the Foundation. We would grow our activities, increasing the pace of events, outreach, development and infrastructure that supported the GNOME project and the wider desktop ecosystem – and, crucially, would grow our funding to match this increased level of activity.
I think it’s fair to say that half of this has been a great success – we’ve got a larger staff team than GNOME has ever had before. We’ve widened the GNOME software ecosystem to include related apps and projects under the GNOME Circle banner, we’ve helped get GTK 4 out of the door, run a wider-reaching program in the Community Engagement Challenge, and consistently supported better infrastructure for both GNOME and the Linux app community in Flathub.
Aside from another grant from Endless (note: my employer), our fundraising hasn’t caught up with this pace of activities. As a result, the Board recently approved a budget for this financial year which will spend more funds from our reserves than we expect to raise in income. Due to our reserves policy, this is essentially the last time we can do this: over the next 6-12 months we need to either raise more money, or start spending less.
For clarity – the Foundation is fit and well from a financial perspective – we have a very healthy bank balance, and a very conservative “12 month run rate” reserve policy to handle fluctuations in income. If we do have to slow down some of our activities, we will return to a “steady state” where our regular individual donations and corporate contributions can support a smaller staff team that supports the events and infrastructure we’ve come to rely on.
However, this isn’t what the Board wants to do – the previous and current boards were unanimous in their support of the idea that we should be ambitious: try to do more in the world and bring the benefits of GNOME to more people. We want to take our message of trusted, affordable and accessible computing to the wider world.
Typically, a lot of the activities of the Foundation have been very inwards-facing – supporting and engaging with either the existing GNOME or Open Source communities. This is a very restricted audience in terms of fundraising – many corporate actors in our community already support GNOME hugely in terms of both financial and in-kind contributions, and many OSS users are already supporters either through volunteer contributions or donating to those nonprofits that they feel are most relevant and important to them.
To raise funds from new sources, the Foundation needs to take the message and ideals of GNOME and Open Source software to new, wider audiences that we can help. We’ve been developing themes such as affordability, privacy/trust and education as promising areas for new programs that broaden our impact. The goal is to find projects and funding that allow us to both invest in the GNOME community and find new ways for FOSS to benefit people who aren’t already in our community.
Bringing it back to the election, I’d like to make clear that I see this – reaching the outside world, and finding funding to support that – as the main priority and responsibility of the Board for the next term. GNOME Foundation elections are a slightly unusual process that “filters” our board nominees by being existing Foundation members, which means that candidates already work inside our community when they stand for election. If you’re a candidate and are already active in the community – THANK YOU – you’re doing great work, keep doing it! That said, you don’t need to be a Director to achieve things within our community or gain the support of the Foundation: being a community leader is already a fantastic and important role.
The Foundation really needs support from the Board to make a success of the next 12-18 months. We need to understand our financial situation and the trade-offs we have to make, and help to define the strategy with the Executive Director so that we can launch some new programs that will broaden our impact – and funding – for the future. As people cast their votes, I’d like people to think about what kind of skills – building partnerships, commercial background, familiarity with finances, experience in nonprofit / impact spaces, etc – will help the Board make the Foundation as successful as it can be during the next term.
January 22, 2021
How our for-profit company became a nonprofit, to better tackle the digital divide.
Originally posted on the Endless OS Foundation blog.
An 8-year journey to a nonprofit
On the 1st of April 2020, our for-profit Endless Mobile officially became a nonprofit as the Endless OS Foundation. Our launch as a nonprofit just as the global pandemic took hold was, predictably, hardly noticed, but for us the timing was incredible: as the world collectively asked “What can we do to help others in need?”, we framed our mission statement and launched our .org with the same very important question in mind. Endless always had a social impact mission at its heart, and the challenges related to students, families, and communities falling further into the digital divide during COVID-19 brought new urgency and purpose to our team’s decision to officially step in the social welfare space.
On April 1st 2020, our for-profit Endless Mobile officially became a nonprofit as the Endless OS Foundation, focused on the #DigitalDivide.
Our updated status was a long time coming: we began our transformation to a nonprofit organization in late 2019 with the realization that the true charter and passions of our team would be greatly accelerated without the constraints of for-profit goals, investors and sales strategies standing in the way of our mission of digital access and equity for all.
But for 8 years we made a go of it commercially, headquartered in Silicon Valley and framing ourselves as a tech startup with access to the venture capital and partnerships on our doorstep. We believed that a successful commercial channel would be the most efficient way to scale the impact of bringing computer devices and access to communities in need. We still believe this – we’ve just learned through our experience that we don’t have the funding to enter the computer and OS marketplace head-on. With the social impact goal first, and the hope of any revenue a secondary goal, we have had many successes in those 8 years bridging the digital divide throughout the world, from Brazil, to Kenya, and the USA. We’ve learned a huge amount which will go on to inform our strategy as a nonprofit.
Endless always had a social impact mission at its heart. COVID-19 brought new urgency and purpose to our team’s decision to officially step in the social welfare space.
Our unique perspective
One thing we learned as a for-profit is that the OS and technology we’ve built has some unique properties which are hugely impactful as a working solution to digital equity barriers. And our experience deploying in the field around the world for 8 years has left us uniquely informed via many iterations and incremental improvements.
With this knowledge in-hand, we’ve been refining our strategy throughout 2020 and now starting to focus on what it really means to become an effective nonprofit and make that impact. In many ways it is liberating to abandon the goals and constraints of being a for-profit entity, and in other ways it’s been a challenging journey for me and the team to adjust our way of thinking and let these for-profit notions and models go. Previously we exclusively built and sold a product that defined our success; and any impact we achieved was a secondary consequence of that success and seen through that lens. Now our success is defined purely in terms of social impact, and through our actions, those positive impacts can be made with or without our “product”. That means that we may develop and introduce technology to solve a problem, but it is equally as valid to find another organization’s existing offering and design a way to increase that positive impact and scale.
We develop technology to solve access equity issues, but it’s equally as valid to find another organization’s offering and partner in a way that increases their positive impact.
The analogy to Free and Open Source Software is very strong – while Endless has always used and contributed to a wide variety of FOSS projects, we’ve also had a tension where we’ve been trying to hold some pieces back and capture value – such as our own application or content ecosystem, our own hardware platform – necessarily making us competitors to other organisations even though they were hoping to achieve the same things as us. As a nonprofit we can let these ideas go and just pick the best partners and technologies to help the people we’re trying to reach.
Digital equity … 4 barriers we need to overcome
In future, our decisions around which projects to build or engage with will revolve around 4 barriers to digital equity, and how our Endless OS, Endless projects, or our partners’ offerings can help to solve them. We define these 4 equity barriers as: barriers to devices, barriers to connectivity, barriers to literacy in terms of your ability to use the technology, and barriers to engagement in terms of whether using the system is rewarding and worthwhile.
We define the 4 digital equity barriers we exist to impact as:
1. barriers to devices
2. barriers to connectivity
3. barriers to literacy
4. barriers to engagement
It doesn’t matter who makes the solutions that break these barriers; what matters is how we assist in enabling people to use technology to gain access to the education and opportunities these barriers block. Our goal therefore is to simply ensure that solutions exist – building them ourselves and with partners such as the FOSS community and other nonprofits – proving them with real-world deployments, and sharing our results as widely as possible to allow for better adoption globally.
If we define our goal purely in terms of whether people are using Endless OS, we are effectively restricting the reach and scale of our solutions to the audience we can reach directly with Endless OS downloads, installs and propagation. Conversely, partnerships that scale impact are a win-win-win for us, our partners, and the communities we all serve.
Our Endless engineering roots and capabilities feed our unique ability to build and deploy all of our solutions, and the practical experience of deploying them gives us evidence and credibility as we advocate for their use. Either activity would be weaker without the other.
Our engineering roots and capabilities feed our unique ability to build and deploy digital divide solutions.
Our partners in various engineering communities will have already seen our change in approach. Particularly, with GNOME we are working hard to invest in upstream and reconcile the long-standing differences between our experience and GNOME. If successful, many more people can benefit from our work than just users of Endless OS. We’re working with Learning Equality on Kolibri to build a better app experience for Linux desktop users and bring content publishers into our ecosystem for the first time, and we’ve also taken our very own Hack, the immersive and fun destination for kids learning to code, released it for non-Endless systems on Flathub, and made it fully open-source.
What’s next for our OS?
What then is in store for the future of Endless OS, the place where we have invested so much time and planning through years of iterations? For the immediate future, we need the capacity to deploy everything we’ve built – all at once, to our partners. We built an OS that we feel is very unique and valuable, containing a number of world-firsts: first production OS shipped with OSTree, first Flatpak-only desktop, built-in support for updating OS and apps from USBs, while still providing a great deal of reliability and convenience for deployments in offline and educational-safe environments with great apps and content loaded on every system.
However, we need to find a way to deliver this Linux-based experience in a more efficient way, and we’d love to talk if you have ideas about how we can do this, perhaps as partners. Can the idea of “Endless OS” evolve to become a spec that is provided by different platforms in the future, maybe remixes of Debian, Fedora, openSUSE or Ubuntu?
Build, Validate, Advocate
Beyond the OS, the Endless OS Foundation has identified multiple programs to help underserved communities, and in each case we are adopting our “build, validate, advocate” strategy. This approach underpins all of our projects: can we build the technology (or assist in the making), will a community in-need validate it by adoption, and can we inspire others by telling the story and advocating for its wider use?
We are adopting a “build, validate, advocate” strategy.
1. build the technology (or assist in the making)
2. validate by community adoption
3. advocate for its wider use
As examples, we have just launched the Endless Key (link) as an offline solution for students during the COVID-19 at-home distance learning challenges. This project is also establishing a first-ever partnership of well-known online educational brands to reach an underserved offline audience with valuable learning resources. We are developing a pay-as-you-go platform and new partnerships that will allow families to own laptops via micro-payments that are built directly into the operating system, even if they cannot qualify for standard retail financing. And during the pandemic, we’ve partnered with Teach For America to focus on very practical digital equity needs in the USA’s urban and rural communities.
One part of the world-wide digital divide solution
We are one solution provider for the complex matrix of issues known collectively as the #DigitalDivide, and these issues will not disappear after the pandemic. Digital equity was an issue long before COVID-19, and we are not so naive to think it can be solved by any single institution, or by the time the pandemic recedes. It will take time and a coalition of partnerships to win. We are in for the long-haul and we are always looking for partners, especially now as we are finding our feet in the nonprofit world. We’d love to hear from you, so please feel free to reach out to me – I’m ramcq on IRC, RocketChat, Twitter, LinkedIn or firstname.lastname@example.org.
August 12, 2019
Over the past 2 years Flathub has evolved from a wild idea at a hackfest to a community of app developers and publishers making over 600 apps available to end-users on dozens of Linux-based OSes. We couldn’t have gotten anything off the ground without the support of the 20 or so generous souls who backed our initial fundraising, and to make the service a reality since then we’ve relied on on the contributions of dozens of individuals and organisations such as Codethink, Endless, GNOME, KDE and Red Hat. But for our day to day operations, we depend on the continuous support and generosity of a few companies who provide the services and resources that Flathub uses 24/7 to build and deliver all of these apps. This post is about saying thank you to those companies!
Running the infrastructure
Mythic Beasts is a UK-based “no-nonsense” hosting provider who provide managed and un-managed co-location, dedicated servers, VPS and shared hosting. They are also conveniently based in Cambridge where I live, and very nice people to have a coffee or beer with, particularly if you enjoy talking about IPv6 and how many web services you can run on a rack full of Raspberry Pis. The “heart” of Flathub is a physical machine donated by them which originally ran everything in separate VMs – buildbot, frontend, repo master – and they have subsequently increased their donation with several VMs hosted elsewhere within their network. We also benefit from huge amounts of free bandwidth, backup/storage, monitoring, management and their expertise and advice at scaling up the service.
Starting with everything running on one box in 2017 we quickly ran into scaling bottlenecks as traffic started to pick up. With Mythic’s advice and a healthy donation of 100s of GB / month more of bandwidth, we set up two caching frontend servers running in virtual machines in two different London data centres to cache the commonly-accessed objects, shift the load away from the master server, and take advantage of the physical redundancy offered by the Mythic network.
As load increased and we brought a CDN online to bring the content closer to the user, we also moved the Buildbot (and it’s associated Postgres database) to a VM hosted at Mythic in order to offload as much IO bandwidth from the repo server, to keep up sustained HTTP throughput during update operations. This helped significantly but we are in discussions with them about a yet larger box with a mixture of disks and SSDs to handle the concurrent read and write load that we need.
Even after all of these changes, we keep the repo master on one, big, physical machine with directly attached storage because repo update and delta computations are hugely IO intensive operations, and our OSTree repos contain over 9 million inodes which get accessed randomly during this process. We also have a physical HSM (a YubiKey) which stores the GPG repo signing key for Flathub, and it’s really hard to plug a USB key into a cloud instance, and know where it is and that it’s physically secure.
Building the apps
Our first build workers were under Alex’s desk, in Christian’s garage, and a VM donated by Scaleway for our first year. We still have several ARM workers donated by Codethink, but at the start of 2018 it became pretty clear within a few months that we were not going to keep up with the growing pace of builds without some more serious iron behind the Buildbot. We also wanted to be able to offer PR and test builds, beta builds, etc — all of which multiplies the workload significantly.
Thanks to an introduction by the most excellent Jorge Castro and the approval and support of the Linux Foundation’s CNCF Infrastructure Lab, we were able to get access to an “all expenses paid” account at Packet. Packet is a “bare metal” cloud provider — like AWS except you get entire boxes and dedicated switch ports etc to yourself – at a handful of main datacenters around the world with a full range of server, storage and networking equipment, and a larger number of edge facilities for distribution/processing closer to the users. They have an API and a magical provisioning system which means that at the click of a button or one method call you can bring up all manner of machines, configure networking and storage, etc. Packet is clearly a service built by engineers for engineers – they are smart, easy to get hold of on e-mail and chat, share their roadmap publicly and set priorities based on user feedback.
We currently have 4 Huge Boxes (2 Intel, 2 ARM) from Packet which do the majority of the heavy lifting when it comes to building everything that is uploaded, and also use a few other machines there for auxiliary tasks such as caching source downloads and receiving our streamed logs from the CDN. We also used their flexibility to temporarily set up a whole separate test infrastructure (a repo, buildbot, worker and frontend on one box) while we were prototyping recent changes to the Buildbot.
A special thanks to Ed Vielmetti at Packet who has patiently supported our requests for lots of 32-bit compatible ARM machines, and for his support of other Linux desktop projects such as GNOME and the Freedesktop SDK who also benefit hugely from Packet’s resources for build and CI.
Delivering the data
Even with two redundant / load-balancing front end servers and huge amounts of bandwidth, OSTree repos have so many files that if those servers are too far away from the end users, the latency and round trips cause a serious problem with throughput. In the end you can’t distribute something like Flathub from a single physical location – you need to get closer to the users. Fortunately the OSTree repo format is very efficient to distribute via a CDN, as almost all files in the repository are immutable.
After a very speedy response to a plea for help on Twitter, Fastly – one of the world’s leading CDNs – generously agreed to donate free use of their CDN service to support Flathub. All traffic to the dl.flathub.org domain is served through the CDN, and automatically gets cached at dozens of points of presence around the world. Their service is frankly really really cool – the configuration and stats are reallly powerful, unlike any other CDN service I’ve used. Our configuration allows us to collect custom logs which we use to generate our Flathub stats, and to define edge logic in Varnish’s VCL which we use to allow larger files to stream to the end user while they are still being downloaded by the edge node, improving throughput. We also use their API to purge the summary file from their caches worldwide each time the repository updates, so that it can stay cached for longer between updates.
To get some feelings for how well this works, here are some statistics: The Flathub main repo is 929 GB, of which 73 GB are static deltas and 1.9 GB of screenshots. It contains 7280 refs for 640 apps (plus runtimes and extensions) over 4 architectures. Fastly is serving the dl.flathub.org domain fully cached, with a cache hit rate of ~98.7%. Averaging 9.8 million hits and 464 Gb downloaded per hour, Flathub uses between 1-2 Gbps sustained bandwidth depending on the time of day. Here are some nice graphs produced by the Fastly management UI (the numbers are per-hour over the last month):
To buy the scale of services and support that Flathub receives from our commercial sponsors would cost tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars a month. Flathub could not exist without Mythic Beasts, Packet and Fastly‘s support of the free and open source Linux desktop. Thank you!
October 19, 2018
This week, the GNOME Foundation Board of Directors met at the Collabora office in Cambridge, UK, for the second annual Foundation Hackfest. We were also joined by the Executive Director, Neil McGovern, and Director of Operations, Rosanna Yuen. This event was started by last year’s board and is a great opportunity for the newly-elected board to set out goals for the coming year and get some uninterrupted hacking done on policies, documents, etc. While it’s fresh in our mind, we wanted to tell you about some of the things we have been working on this week and what the community can hope to see in the coming months.
On Wednesday we set out to define the overall goals of the Foundation, so we could focus our activities for the coming years, ensuring that we were working on the right priorities. Neil helped to facilitate the discussion using the Charting Impact process. With that input, we went back to the purpose of the Foundation and mapped that to ten and five year goals, making sure that our current strategies and activities would be consistent with reaching those end points. This is turning out to be a very detailed and time-consuming process. We have made a great start, and hope to have something we can share for comments and input soon. The high level 10-year goals we identified boiled down to:
- Sustainable project and foundation
- Wider awareness and mindshare – being a thought leader
- Increased user base
As we looked at the charter and bylaws, we identified a long-standing issue which we need to solve — there is currently no formal process to cover the “scope” of the Foundation in terms of which software we support with our resources. There is the release team, but that is only a subset of the software we support. We have some examples such as GIMP which “have always been here”, but at present there is no clear process to apply or be included in the Foundation. We need a clear list of projects that use resources such as CI, or have the right to use the GNOME trademark for the project. We have a couple of similar proposals from Allan Day and Carlos Soriano for how we could define and approve projects, and we are planning to work with them over the next couple of weeks to make one proposal for the board to review.
Thursday: Budget forecast
We started the second day with a review of the proposed forecast from Neil and Rosanna, because the Foundation’s financial year starts in October. We have policies in place to allow staff and committees to spend money against their budget without further approval being needed, which means that with no approved budget, it’s very hard for the Foundation to spend any money. The proposed budget was based off the previous year’s actual figures, with changes to reflect the increased staff headcount, increased spend on CI, increased staff travel costs, etc, and ensure after the year’s spending, we follow the reserves policy to keep enough cash to pay the foundation staff for a further year. We’re planning to go back and adjust a few things (internships, marketing, travel, etc) to make sure that we have the right resources for the goals we identified.
We had some “hacking time” in smaller groups to re-visit and clarify various policies, such as the conference and hackfest proposal/approval process, travel sponsorship process and look at ways to support internationalization (particularly to indigenous languages).
Friday: Foundation Planning
The Board started Friday with a board-only (no staff) meeting to make sure we were aligned on the goals that we were setting for the Executive Director during the coming year, informed by the Foundation goals we worked on earlier in the week. To avoid the “seven bosses” problem, there is one board member (myself) responsible for managing the ED’s priorities and performance. It’s important that I take advantage of the opportunity of the face to face meeting to check in with the Board about their feedback for the ED and things I should work together with Neil on over the coming months.
We also discussed a related topic, which is the length of the term that directors serve on the Foundation Board. With 7 staff members, the Foundation needs consistent goals and management from one year to the next, and the time demands on board members should be reduced from previous periods where the Foundation hasn’t had an Executive Director. We want to make sure that our “ten year goals” don’t change every year and undermine the strategies that we put in place and spend the Foundation resources on. We’re planning to change the Board election process so that each director has a two year term, so half of the board will be re-elected each year. This also prevents the situation where the majority of the Board is changed at the same election, losing continuity and institutional knowledge, and taking months for people to get back up to speed.
We finished the day with a formal board meeting to approve the budget, more hack time on various policies (and this blog!). Thanks to Collabora for use of their office space, food, and snacks – and thanks to my fellow Board members and the Foundation’s wonderful and growing staff team
October 15, 2018
Last week the Flatpak community woke to the “news” that we are making the world a less secure place and we need to rethink what we’re doing. Personally, I’m not sure this is a fair assessment of the situation. The “tl;dr” summary is: Flatpak confers many benefits besides the sandboxing, and even looking just at the sandboxing, improving app security is a huge problem space and so is a work in progress across multiple upstream projects. Much of what has been achieved so far already delivers incremental improvements in security, and we’re making solid progress on the wider app distribution and portability problem space.
Sandboxing, like security in general, isn’t a binary thing – you can’t just say because you have a sandbox, you have 100% security. Like having two locks on your front door, two front doors, or locks on your windows too, sensible security is about defense in depth. Each barrier that you implement precludes some invalid or possibly malicious behaviour. You hope that in total, all of these barriers would prevent anything bad, but you can never really guarantee this – it’s about multiplying together probabilities to get a smaller number. A computer which is switched off, in a locked faraday cage, with no connectivity, is perfectly secure – but it’s also perfectly useless because you cannot actually use it. Sandboxing is very much the same – whilst you could easily take systemd-nspawn, Docker or any other container technology of choice and 100% lock down a desktop app, you wouldn’t be able to interact with it at all.
Network services have incubated and driven most of the container usage on Linux up until now but they are fundamentally different to desktop applications. For services you can write a simple list of permissions like, “listen on this network port” and “save files over here” whereas desktop applications have a much larger number of touchpoints to the outside world which the user expects and requires for normal functionality. Just thinking off the top of my head you need to consider access to the filesystem, display server, input devices, notifications, IPC, accessibility, fonts, themes, configuration, audio playback and capture, video playback, screen sharing, GPU hardware, printing, app launching, removable media, and joysticks. Without making holes in the sandbox to allow access to these in to your app, it either wouldn’t work at all, or it wouldn’t work in the way that people have come to expect.
What Flatpak brings to this is understanding of the specific desktop app problem space – most of what I listed above is to a greater or lesser extent understood by Flatpak, or support is planned. The Flatpak sandbox is very configurable, allowing the application author to specify which of these resources they need access to. The Flatpak CLI asks the user about these during installation, and we provide the flatpak override command to allow the user to add or remove these sandbox escapes. Flatpak has introduced portals into the Linux desktop ecosystem, which we’re really pleased to be sharing with snap since earlier this year, to provide runtime access to resources outside the sandbox based on policy and user consent. For instance, document access, app launching, input methods and recursive sandboxing (“sandbox me harder”) have portals.
The starting security position on the desktop was quite terrible – anything in your session had basically complete access to everything belonging to your user, and many places to hide.
- Access to the X socket allows arbitrary input and output to any other app on your desktop, but without it, no app on an X desktop would work. Wayland fixes this, so Flatpak has a fallback setting to allow Wayland to be used if present, and the X socket to be shared if not.
- Unrestricted access to the PulseAudio socket allows you to reconfigure audio routing, capture microphone input, etc. To ensure user consent we need a portal to control this, where by default you can play audio back but device access needs consent and work is under way to create this portal.
- Access to the webcam device node means an app can capture video whenever it wants – solving this required a whole new project.
- Sandboxing access to configuration in dconf is a priority for the project right now, after the 1.0 release.
Even with these caveats, Flatpak brings a bunch of default sandboxing – IPC filtering, a new filesystem, process and UID namespace, seccomp filtering, an immutable /usr and /app – and each of these is already a barrier to certain attacks.
Looking at the specific concerns raised:
- Hopefully from the above it’s clear that sandboxing desktop apps isn’t just a switch we can flick overnight, but what we already have is far better than having nothing at all. It’s not the intention of Flatpak to somehow mislead people that sandboxed means somehow impervious to all known security issues and can access nothing whatsoever, but we do want to encourage the use of the new technology so that we can work together on driving adoption and making improvements together. The idea is that over time, as the portals are filled out to cover the majority of the interfaces described, and supported in the major widget sets / frameworks, the criteria for earning a nice “sandboxed” badge or submitting your app to Flathub will become stricter. Many of the apps that access --filesystem=home are because they use old widget sets like Gtk2+ and frameworks like Electron that don’t support portals (yet!). Contributions to improve portal integration into other frameworks and desktops are very welcome and as mentioned above will also improve integration and security in other systems that use portals, such as snap.
- As Alex has already blogged, the freedesktop.org 1.6 runtime was something we threw together because we needed something distro agnostic to actually be able to bootstrap the entire concept of Flatpak and runtimes. A confusing mishmash of Yocto with flatpak-builder, it’s thankfully nearing some form of retirement after a recent round of security fixes. The replacement freedesktop-sdk project has just released its first stable 18.08 release, and rather than “one or two people in their spare time because something like this needs to exist”, is backed by a team from Codethink and with support from the Flatpak, GNOME and KDE communities.
- I’m not sure how fixing and disclosing a security problem in a relatively immature pre-1.0 program (in June 2017, Flathub had less than 50 apps) is considered an ongoing problem from a security perspective. The wording in the release notes?
Zooming out a little bit, I think it’s worth also highlighting some of the other reasons why Flatpak exists at all – these are far bigger problems with the Linux desktop ecosystem than app security alone, and Flatpak brings a huge array of benefits to the table:
- Allowing apps to become agnostic of their underlying distribution. The reason that runtimes exist at all is so that apps can specify the ABI and dependencies that they need, and you can run it on whatever distro you want. Flatpak has had this from day one, and it’s been hugely reliable because the sandboxed /usr means the app can rely on getting whatever they need. This is the foundation on which everything else is built.
- Separating the release/update cadence of distributions from the apps. The flip side of this, which I think is huge for more conservative platforms like Debian or enterprise distributions which don’t want to break their ABIs, hardware support or other guarantees, is that you can still get new apps into users hands. Wider than this, I think it allows us huge new freedoms to move in a direction of reinventing the distro – once you start to pull the gnarly complexity of apps and their dependencies into sandboxes, your constraints are hugely reduced and you can slim down or radically rethink the host system underneath. At Endless OS, Flatpak literally changed the structure of our engineering team, and for the first time allowed us to develop and deliver our OS, SDK and apps in independent teams each with their own cadence.
- Disintermediating app developers from their users. Flathub now offers over 400 apps, and (at a rough count by Nick Richards over the summer) over half of them are directly maintained by or maintained in conjunction with the upstream developers. This is fantastic – we get the releases when they come out, the developers can choose the dependencies and configuration they need – and they get to deliver this same experience to everyone.
- Decentralised. Anyone can set up a Flatpak repo! We started our own at Flathub because there needs to be a center of gravity and a complete story to build out a user and developer base, but the idea is that anyone can use the same tools that we do, and publish whatever/wherever they want. GNOME uses GitLab CI to publish nightly Flatpak builds, KDE is setting up the same in their infrastructure, and Fedora is working on completely different infrastructure to build and deliver their packaged applications as Flatpaks.
- Easy to build. I’ve worked on Debian packages, RPMs, Yocto, etc and I can honestly say that flatpak-builder has done a very good job of making it really easy to put your app manifest together. Because the builds are sandboxed and each runtimes brings with it a consistent SDK environment, they are very reliably reproducible. It’s worth just calling this out because when you’re trying to attract developers to your platform or contributors to your app, hurdles like complex or fragile tools and build processes to learn and debug all add resistance and drag, and discourage contributions. GNOME Builder can take any flatpak’d app and build it for you automatically, ready to hack within minutes.
- Different ways to distribute apps. Using OSTree under the hood, Flatpak supports single-file app .bundles, pulling from OSTree repos and OCI registries, and at Endless we’ve been working on peer-to-peer distribution like USB sticks and LAN sharing.
Nobody is trying to claim that Flatpak solves all of the problems at once, or that what we have is anywhere near perfect or completely secure, but I think what we have is pretty damn cool (I just wish we’d had it 10 years ago!). Even just in the security space, the overall effort we need is huge, but this is a journey that we are happy to be embarking together with the whole Linux desktop community. Thanks for reading, trying it out, and lending us a hand.
July 29, 2017
At the Gtk+ hackfest in London earlier this year, we stole an afternoon from the toolkit folks (sorry!) to talk about Flatpak, and how we could establish a “critical mass” behind the Flatpak format. Bringing Linux container and sandboxing technology together with ostree, we’ve got a technology that solves real world distribution, technical and security problems that have arguably held back the Linux desktop space and frustrated ISVs and app developers for nearly 20 years. The problem we need to solve, like any ecosystem, is one of users and developers – without stuff you can easily get in Flatpak format, there won’t be many users, and without many users, we won’t have a strong or compelling incentive for developers to take their precious time to understand a new format and a new technology.
As Alex Larsson said in his GUADEC talk yesterday: Decentralisation is good. Flatpak is a tool that is totally agnostic of who is publishing the software and where it comes from. For software freedom, that’s an important thing because we want technology to empower users, rather than tell them what they can or can’t do. Unfortunately, decentralisation makes for a terrible user experience. At present, the Flatpak webpage has a manually curated list of links to 10s of places where you can find different Flatpaks and add them to your system. You can’t easily search and browse to find apps to try out – so it’s clear that if the current situation remains we’re not going to be able to get a critical mass of users and developers around Flatpak.
Enter Flathub. The idea is that by creating an obvious “center of gravity” for the Flatpak community to contribute and build their apps, users will have one place to go and find the best that the Linux app ecosystem has to offer. We can take care of the boring stuff like running a build service and empower Linux application developers to choose how and when their app gets out to their users. After the London hackfest we sketched out a minimum viable system – Github, Buildbot and a few workers – and got it going over the past few months, culminating in a mini-fundraiser to pay for the hosting of a production-ready setup. Thanks to the 20 individuals who supported our fundraiser, to Mythic Beasts who provided a server along with management, monitoring and heaps of bandwidth, and to Codethink and Scaleway who provide our ARM and Intel workers respectively.
We inherit our core principles from the Flatpak project – we want the Flatpak technology to succeed at alleviating the issues faced by app developers in targeting a diverse set of Linux platforms. None of this stops you from building and hosting your own Flatpak repos and we look forward to this being a wide and open playing field. We care about the success of the Linux desktop as a platform, so we are open to proprietary applications through Flatpak’s “extra data” feature where the client machine downloads 3rd party binaries. They are correctly labeled as such in the AppStream, so will only be shown if you or your OS has configured GNOME Software to show you apps with proprietary licenses, respecting the user’s preference.
The new infrastructure is up and running and I put it into production on Thursday. We rebuilt the whole repository on the new system over the course of the week, signing everything with our new 4096-bit key stored on a Yubikey smartcard USB key. We have 66 apps at the moment, although Alex is working on bringing in the GNOME apps at present – we hope those will be joined soon by the KDE apps, and Endless is planning to move over as many of our 3rd party Flatpaks as possible over the coming months.
So, thanks again to Alex and the whole Flatpak community, and the individuals and the companies who supported making this a reality. You can add the repository and get downloading right away. Welcome to Flathub! Go forth and flatten… 🙂
July 29, 2017
Like all good blog posts, this one starts with an apology about not blogging for ages – in my case it looks like it’s been about 7 years which is definitely a new personal best (perhaps the equally or more remarkable thing is that I have diligently kept WordPress running in the meantime). In that time, as you might expect, a few things have happened, like I met a wonderful woman and fell in love and we have two wonderful children. I also decided to part ways with my “first baby” and leave my role as CTO & co-founder of Collabora. This was obviously a very tough decision – it’s a fantastic team where I met and made many life-long friends, and they are still going strong and doing awesome things with Open Source. However, shortly after that, in February last year, I was lucky enough to land what is basically a dream job working at Endless Computers as the VP of Deployment.
As I’m sure most readers know, Endless is building an OS to bring personal computing to millions of new users across the world. It’s based on Free Software like GNOME, Debian, ostree and Flatpak, and the more successful Endless is, the more people who get access to education, technology and opportunity – and the more FOSS users and developers there will be in the world. But in my role, I get to help define the product, understand our users and how technology might help them, take Open Source out to new people, solve commercial problems to get Endless OS out into the world, manage a fantastic team and work with bright people, learn from great managers and mentors, and still find time to squash bugs, review and write more code than I used to. Like any startup, we have a lot to do and not enough time to do it, so although there aren’t quite enough days in the week, I’m really happy!
In any case, the main point of this blog post is that I’m at GUADEC in Manchester right now, and I’d like to blog about Flathub, but I thought it would be weird to just show up and say that after 7 years of silence without saying hello again. 🙂
May 21, 2010
As you all know by now, exciting moves from Google on the WebM project have lead to them open-sourcing On2’s VP8 codec to provide a freely available video codec for HTML5 content. Collabora Multimedia worked with Entropy Wave to add support to GStreamer for the new codec from day 1, and I was really happy yesterday to update my Debian system and get the support installed locally too. Thanks to our and Igalia’s fine work on GStreamer HTML5 support in WebKitGTK+, Gustavo Noronha found it worked out of the box with Epiphany too.
Predictably, the MPEG-LA aren’t too pleased with this, and are no doubt winding up their PR and industry allies at the moment, as well as this opening a new front on the Apple vs Google ongoing platform battle. But if your business model is collecting money through what is essentially a protection racket and spreading FUD about patent litigation, the VP8 license implicitly creating a zero-cost zero-revenue patent pool is not going to be good news for you (from the department of Google deleting your business model). The question is now whether the allure of Google’s content will win over against the legal chest pounding of the patent trolls, and whether they start flipping switches to make YouTube only serve up WebM content after a while.
Also in amazing and incredible news, Collabora’s Telepathy/GStreamer/GNOME/Debian/general R&D guru and staunch Web 2.0 holdout Sjoerd Simons has actually now got a blog after a mere 3 years of us suggesting it to him since he joined Collabora as an intern. He’s been hacking on some RTP payloader elements for VP8 so we can use it for video calling on the free desktop. All very exciting stuff, especially in conjunction with Muji (multi-user video calls over XMPP) support heading into Telepathy thanks to NLNet‘s ongoing support.
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