March 7, 2023
Flathub in 2023
It’s been quite a few months since the most recent updates about Flathub last year. We’ve been busy behind the scenes, so I’d like to share what we’ve been up to at Flathub and why—and what’s coming up from us this year. I want to focus on:
- Where Flathub is today as a strong ecosystem with 2,000 apps
- Our progress on evolving Flathub from a build service to an app store
- The economic barrier to growing the ecosystem, and its consequences
- What’s next to overcome our challenges with focused initiatives
Flathub is going strong: we offer 2,000 apps from over 1,500 collaborators on GitHub. We’re averaging 700,000 app downloads a day, with 898 million HTTP requests totalling 88.3 TB served by our CDN each day (thank you Fastly!). Flatpak has, in my opinion, solved the largest technical issue which has held back the mainstream growth and acceptance of Linux on the desktop (or other personal computing devices) for the past 25 years: namely, the difficulty for app developers to publish their work in a way that makes it easy for people to discover, download (or sideload, for people in challenging connectivity environments), install and use. Flathub builds on that to help users discover the work of app developers and helps that work reach users in a timely manner.
Initial results of this disintermediation are promising: even with its modest size so far, Flathub has hundreds of apps that I have never, ever heard of before—and that’s even considering I’ve been working in the Linux desktop space for nearly 20 years and spent many of those staring at the contents of dselect (showing my age a little) or GNOME Software, attending conferences, and reading blog posts, news articles, and forums. I am also heartened to see that many of our OS distributor partners have recognised that this model is hugely complementary and additive to the indispensable work they are doing to bring the Linux desktop to end users, and that “having more apps available to your users” is a value-add allowing you to focus on your core offering and not a zero-sum game that should motivate infighting.
Getting Flathub into its current state has been a long ongoing process. Here’s what we’ve been up to behind the scenes:
Last year, we concluded our first engagement with Codethink to build features into the Flathub web app to move from a build service to an app store. That includes accounts for users and developers, payment processing via Stripe, and the ability for developers to manage upload tokens for the apps they control. In parallel, James Westman has been working on app verification and the corresponding features in flat-manager to ensure app metadata accurately reflects verification and pricing, and to provide authentication for paying users for app downloads when the developer enables it. Only verified developers will be able to make direct uploads or access payment settings for their apps.
So far, the GNOME Foundation has acted as an incubator and legal host for Flathub even though it’s not purely a GNOME product or initiative. Distributing software to end users along with processing and forwarding payments and donations also has a different legal profile in terms of risk exposure and nonprofit compliance than the current activities of the GNOME Foundation. Consequently, we plan to establish an independent legal entity to own and operate Flathub which reduces risk for the GNOME Foundation, better reflects the independent and cross-desktop interests of Flathub, and provides flexibility in the future should we need to change the structure.
We’re currently in the process of reviewing legal advice to ensure we have the right structure in place before moving forward.
As Flathub is something we want to set outside of the existing Linux desktop and distribution space—and ensure we represent and serve the widest community of Linux users and developers—we’ve been working on a governance model that ensures that there is transparency and trust in who is making decisions, and why. We have set up a working group with myself and Martín Abente Lahaye from GNOME, Aleix Pol Gonzalez, Neofytos Kolokotronis, and Timothée Ravier from KDE, and Jorge Castro flying the flag for the Flathub community. Thanks also to Neil McGovern and Nick Richards who were also more involved in the process earlier on.
We don’t want to get held up here creating something complex with memberships and elections, so at first we’re going to come up with a simple/balanced way to appoint people into a board that makes key decisions about Flathub and iterate from there.
We have received one grant for 2023 of $100K from Endless Network which will go towards the infrastructure, legal, and operations costs of running Flathub and setting up the structure described above. (Full disclosure: Endless Network is the umbrella organisation which also funds my employer, Endless OS Foundation.) I am hoping to grow the available funding to $250K for this year in order to cover the next round of development on the software, prepare for higher operations costs (e.g., accounting gets more complex), and bring in a second full-time staff member in addition to Bartłomiej Piotrowski to handle enquiries, reviews, documentation, and partner outreach.
We’re currently in discussions with NLnet about funding further software development, but have been unfortunately turned down for a grant from the Plaintext Group for this year; this Schmidt Futures project around OSS sustainability is not currently issuing grants in 2023. However, we continue to work on other funding opportunities.
My personal hypothesis is that our largest remaining barrier to Linux desktop scale and impact is economic. On competing platforms—mobile or desktop—a developer can offer their work for sale via an app store or direct download with payment or subscription within hours of making a release. While we have taken the “time to first download” time down from months to days with Flathub, as a community we continue to have a challenging relationship with money. Some creators are lucky enough to have a full-time job within the FLOSS space, while a few “superstar” developers are able to nurture some level of financial support by investing time in building a following through streaming, Patreon, Kickstarter, or similar. However, a large proportion of us have to make do with the main payback from our labours being a stream of bug reports on GitHub interspersed with occasional conciliatory beers at FOSDEM (other beverages and events are available).
The first and most obvious consequence is that if there is no financial payback for participating in developing apps for the free and open source desktop, we will lose many people in the process—despite the amazing achievements of those who have brought us to where we are today. As a result, we’ll have far fewer developers and apps. If we can’t offer access to a growing base of users or the opportunity to offer something of monetary value to them, the reward in terms of adoption and possible payment will be very small. Developers would be forgiven for taking their time and attention elsewhere. With fewer apps, our platform has less to entice and retain prospective users.
The second consequence is that this also represents a significant hurdle for diverse and inclusive participation. We essentially require that somebody is in a position of privilege and comfort that they have internet, power, time, and income—not to mention childcare, etc.—to spare so that they can take part. If that’s not the case for somebody, we are leaving them shut out from our community before they even have a chance to start. My belief is that free and open source software represents a better way for people to access computing, and there are billions of people in the world we should hope to reach with our work. But if the mechanism for participation ensures their voices and needs are never represented in our community of creators, we are significantly less likely to understand and meet those needs.
While these are my thoughts, you’ll notice a strong theme to this year will be leading a consultation process to ensure that we are including, understanding and reflecting the needs of our different communities—app creators, OS distributors and Linux users—as I don’t believe that our initiative will be successful without ensuring mutual benefit and shared success. Ultimately, no matter how beautiful, performant, or featureful the latest versions of the Plasma or GNOME desktops are, or how slick the newly rewritten installer is from your favourite distribution, all of the projects making up the Linux desktop ecosystem are subdividing between ourselves an absolutely tiny market share of the global market of personal computers. To make a bigger mark on the world, as a community, we need to get out more.
After identifying our major barriers to overcome, we’ve planned a number of focused initiatives and restructuring this year:
We’re working on deploying the work we have been doing over the past year, starting first with launching the new Flathub web experience as well as the rebrand that Jakub has been talking about on his blog. This also will finally launch the verification features so we can distinguish those apps which are uploaded by their developers.
In parallel, we’ll also be able to turn on the Flatpak repo subsets that enable users to select only verified and/or FLOSS apps in the Flatpak CLI or their desktop’s app center UI.
We would like to make sure that the voices of app creators, OS distributors, and Linux users are reflected in our plans for 2023 and beyond. We will be launching this in the form of Flathub Focus Groups at the Linux App Summit in Brno in May 2023, followed up with surveys and other opportunities for online participation. We see our role as interconnecting communities and want to be sure that we remain transparent and accountable to those we are seeking to empower with our work.
Whilst we are being bold and ambitious with what we are trying to create for the Linux desktop community, we also want to make sure we provide the right forums to listen to the FLOSS community and prioritise our work accordingly.
As we build the Flathub organisation up in 2023, we’re also planning to expand its governance by creating an Advisory Board. We will establish an ongoing forum with different stakeholders around Flathub: OS vendors, hardware integrators, app developers and user representatives to help us create the Flathub that supports and promotes our mutually shared interests in a strong and healthy Linux desktop community.
Direct app uploads are close to ready, and they enable exciting stuff like allowing Electron apps to be built outside of flatpak-builder, or driving automatic Flathub uploads from GitHub actions or GitLab CI flows; however, we need to think a little about how we encourage these to be used. Even with its frustrations, our current Buildbot ensures that the build logs and source versions of each app on Flathub are captured, and that the apps are built on all supported architectures. (Is 2023 when we add RISC-V? Reach out if you’d like to help!). If we hand upload tokens out to any developer, even if the majority of apps are open source, we will go from this relatively structured situation to something a lot more unstructured—and we fear many apps will be available on only 64-bit Intel/AMD machines.
My sketch here is that we need to establish some best practices around how to integrate Flathub uploads into popular CI systems, encouraging best practices so that we promote the properties of transparency and reproducibility that we don’t want to lose. If anyone is a CI wizard and would like to work with us as a thought partner about how we can achieve this—make it more flexible where and how build tasks can be hosted, but not lose these cross-platform and inspectability properties—we’d love to hear from you.
Donations and Payments
Once the work around legal and governance reaches a decent point, we will be in the position to move ahead with our Stripe setup and switch on the third big new feature in the Flathub web app. At present, we have already implemented support for one-off payments either as donations or a required purchase. We would like to go further than that, in line with what we were describing earlier about helping developers sustainably work on apps for our ecosystem: we would also like to enable developers to offer subscriptions. This will allow us to create a relationship between users and creators that funds ongoing work rather than what we already have.
For Flathub to succeed, we need to make sure that as we grow, we continue to be a platform that can give users confidence in the quality and security of the apps we offer. To that end, we are planning to set up infrastructure to help ensure developers are shipping the best products they possibly can to users. For example, we’d like to set up automated linting and security scanning on the Flathub back-end to help developers avoid bad practices, unnecessary sandbox permissions, outdated dependencies, etc. and to keep users informed and as secure as possible.
Fundraising is a forever task—as is running such a big and growing service. We hope that one day, we can cover our costs through some modest fees built into our payments—but until we reach that point, we’re going to be seeking a combination of grant funding and sponsorship to keep our roadmap moving. Our hope is very much that we can encourage different organisations that buy into our vision and will benefit from Flathub to help us support it and ensure we can deliver on our goals. If you have any suggestions of who might like to support Flathub, we would be very appreciative if you could reach out and get us in touch.
Finally, Thank You!
Thanks to you all for reading this far and supporting the work of Flathub, and also to our major sponsors and donors without whom Flathub could not exist: GNOME Foundation, KDE e.V., Mythic Beasts, Endless Network, Fastly, and Equinix Metal via the CNCF Community Cluster. Thanks also to the tireless work of the Freedesktop SDK community to give us the runtime platform most Flatpaks depend on, particularly Seppo Yli-Olli, Codethink and others.
I wanted to also give my personal thanks to a handful of dedicated people who keep Flathub working as a service and as a community: Bartłomiej Piotrowski is keeping the infrastructure working essentially single-handedly (in his spare time from keeping everything running at GNOME); Kolja Lampe and Bart built the new web app and backend API for Flathub which all of the new functionality has been built on, and Filippe LeMarchand maintains the checker bot which helps keeps all of the Flatpaks up to date.
And finally, all of the submissions to Flathub are reviewed to ensure quality, consistency and security by a small dedicated team of reviewers, with a huge amount of work from Hubert Figuière and Bart to keep the submissions flowing. Thanks to everyone—named or unnamed—for building this vision of the future of the Linux desktop together with us.
(originally posted to Flathub Discourse, head there if you have any questions or comments)
November 2, 2022
Many thanks & good luck to Neil McGovern
As President of the GNOME Foundation, I wanted to post a quick note to pass on the thanks from the Board, the Foundation staff team and membership to our outgoing Executive Director, Neil McGovern. I had the pleasure of passing on GNOME’s thanks in person at the Casa Bariachi this summer at GUADEC in Guadelajara, at the most exellent mariachi celebration of GNOME’s 25th Anniversary. 🤠 Kindly they stopped the music and handed me the microphone for the whole place, although I think many of the other guests celebrating their own birthdays were less excited about Neil’s tenure as Executive Director and the Free and Open Source desktop in general. 🤣
Neil’s 6-month handover period came to an end last month and he handed over the reins to myself and Thibault Martin on the Executive Committee, and Director of Operations Rosanna Yuen has stepped up to act as Chief of Staff and interface between the Board and the staff team for the time being. Our recruitment is ongoing for a new Executive Director although the search is a little behind schedule (mostly down to me!), and we’re hugely grateful to a few volunteers who have joined our search committee to help us source, screen and interview applicants.
I have really enjoyed working closely with Neil in my time on the GNOME board, and we are hugely grateful for his contributions and achievements over the past 5 years which I posted about earlier in the year. Neil is this month starting a new role as the Executive Director of Ruby Central. Our very best wishes from the GNOME community and good luck with your new role. See you soon!
(also posted to Discourse if you wish to add any thanks or comments of your own)
May 9, 2022
Evolving a strategy for 2022 and beyond
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
Forward the Foundation
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
Next steps for the GNOME Foundation
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.
August 12, 2019
Flathub, brought to you by…
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 15, 2018
Flatpaks, sandboxes and security
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.
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.
October 14, 2009
Boston GNOME Summit 2009
I spent this weekend in Boston for the annual GNOME summit. I really enjoyed it this year, although there were fewer attendees than previously it felt very focussed and productive. There’s some cool stuff going on, and it’s always great to catch up with all of the usual free software suspects in Boston. Some highlights from the weekend:
- Corridor session with David Zeuthen, Ryan Lortie, Matthias Clasen and later joined by me and Will Thompson from Collabora, discussed a lot of the issues of integrating D-Bus into Glib and I think achieved a pretty good consensus about how GVariant and GDBus should fit together and start getting the pieces merged. Really looking forwards to it, GVariant looks mad ninja.
- Some nice discussions about Gtk+ 3.0 roadmap, although I’m still worried that the sealing/accessor work will take so much developer time there won’t be that much time to make the improvements its supposed to enable. Theming was mentioned but what else should there be? Also spotted Kristian Høgsberg, Cody Russell and Matthias again talking about client-side decorations, presumably Wayland scheming… 🙂
- Nice session about messaging and other notifications in GNOME Shell. I really like the way the project is going, and hopefully we can join in and spend some time hooking Telepathy up here, although as a fallback to make the existing stuff (which doesn’t have specific code to hook in and make a UI), then it’d be nice if the shell could also be a frontend for the notify/indicate stuff which Ubuntu have been pushing in GNOME 2.x already.
- Had some good brainstorming about Telepathy integration in games and Tomboy sharing too, as well as some slightly less conclusive pondering about how to deliver metacontacts (ie, merging multiple sources such as IM, social networking and other address books) in GNOME. We need to sync up with what Moblin is doing here as it looks quite promising and should give us some components to re-use.
- Will, Sjoerd and I spent an hour or two around a blackboard working out how XMPP end-to-end TLS encryption might be exposed to clients in Telepathy, in order to work out how best we’d expose OTR too. It looks like we have a fairly workable proposal now which we’ll be explaining in due course, but it means at least we can give more useful advice to people who are interested in implementing it, or move forwards on implementing it ourselves.
I was really impressed by Jason Clinton and others’ summaries of the sessions, which I think are really valuable for the people who couldn’t make it to the summit. He asked me to take some notes about the first Telepathy session on Saturday evening while he was taking notes about the Outreach session. Rather than lumber him with my deranged scratchings from Tomboy, I’ll blog them separately.
July 9, 2009
Empathy / Telepathy BOF at GCDS
Flyby blog entry. Been an awesome week, hope people enjoyed the Collabora party last night. Getting to the GNOME Shell BOF this morning was a real struggle, but I really like the way its going. We’ve scheduled an Empathy BOF for Friday at 15:45 in room 2-4, hoping to talk with folks about improving the accounts UI, tracker/addressbook and GNOME Shell integration.
Aside from that, we’re planning to hack on Empathy for basically the whole day, looking at MC5 porting and UI polish, so there will be a big load of Collabora folks and friends somewhere. Will update when I know where.
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