Denxi White Paper
1 Why You Should Care About Software Distribution
2 Intended Experience
3 On Security and Convenience
4 Handling Dependency Hell
5 Following Racket’s Pro-Competitive Example
6 Localization
7 Versioning
8 Handling Names
9 Conclusion
10 Addendum:   Scenarios
8.2

Denxi White Paper

Sage L. Gerard <sage at sagegerard dot com>

This paper covers software distribution problems, and how Denxi handles them.

For all documentation, see Denxi Documentation.

1 Why You Should Care About Software Distribution

Software distribution is a nasty problem domain that affects every user regardless of technical skill. Even laypersons will find themselves unable to start their cars after a bad update.

Addendum: Scenarios shows that there are so many ways software distribution can go wrong. I believe that a better approach is a free, open source, self-hosting model. The model must adapt to the subjective and contextual expectations of how it should install, update, or upgrade any program. The only way to do that is to let users replace its entry point, and invest heavily in flexible, cohesive libraries.

I wrote Denxi initially as a reaction to limitations of raco pkg, but it grew more aspirational. Denxi is now a reaction to any program that acts like a middleman to deliver content to you, especially itself (Following Racket’s Pro-Competitive Example). Take Steam and YouTube. These are dramatically different platforms, but they are both middlemen that ship and recieve data in a way that protects their owner’s interests while gratifying your appetite. You have limited control over how these platforms behave on your devices, because you aren’t in the supply chain. My goal is to give you control by making these middlemen easier to replace.

2 Intended Experience

When you create a symbolic link—or a shortcut on Windows—you normally point the link to a target location that already has a file, directory, or link.

ln -s ~/scanner scanner

ln -s ~/scribble scribble

ln -s ~/watch watch

All of the above targets must exist if we want the links to work, but the targets could contain anything. The point of dependency management is to correctly reproduce the targets you meant.

This code block shows my-denxi, a hypothetical launcher. The behavior of the command is roughly equivalent to the ln commands in the commented lines. The key difference is that Denxi transactions is atomic, deterministic, and full of safety checks. The similarity is that they defer the decision of what to link. This is necessary because a user installing software has functional expectations, but we don’t know how they would be met at the time the user types the command. We still need to discuss network conditions, security threats, data integrity, naming conflicts, dependency hell, and many other details that thwart simple plans.

# ln -s "$(semver scanner@8.4.x)" scanner

# ln -s "$(github racket/scribble)" scribble

# ln -s "$(urn watch:latest)" watch

 

 

./my-denxi do +d scanner scanner@8.4.x \

              +d github racket/scribble \

              +d watch watch:latest

Installation, updates, and rollbacks come down to making more links. Reproducing dependencies means running the same transaction. Once you finish using Denxi, you can write code as if resolved dependencies are normal local files. To uninstall software, delete the links you don’t want and tell Denxi to delete everything without any incoming links.

Denxi can manage dependencies for projects written in any language that follows symbolic links when resolving modules or including files in-place.

3 On Security and Convenience

Denxi includes a zero-trust (meaning “Deny All by default”) launcher called denxi. No installations are possible with denxi’s default configuration. It takes a complicated command line to allow exact conditions for a transaction. In fact, denxi will become harder to use over time. It is user-hostile because it represents security-consciousness in its most extreme form for a high-level language. This is useful for generating more convenient interfaces later, because most concepts in Denxi can be reified as values in memory.

If you tell Denxi to trust integrity checks that use MD5, then it will. You should restrict the OS-level permissions of any process using Denxi, but the zero-trust defaults make it harder to accidentally open vulnerabilities.

The denxi/launcher DSL builds custom launchers that represent the line between security and convenience. Custom launchers are easier to use because they bake in all of the little annoying—yet important!—decisions that a zero-trust launcher requires. This protects users from many confirmation prompts while protecting their boundaries. You don’t have to expose Denxi’s full interface for the 10% of functionality you and your users need, but users can be confident that the 10% is carefully considered.

You can create confidence and organize communities by sharing custom launchers using denxi. The custom launcher bakes in surgical decisions and presents a convenient interface, and denxi provides an unambiguous channel through which others can audit how that launcher is distributed.

Since a Denxi launcher is just text, an end user can edit it themselves and repeat the whole process. Since every launcher can represent a communual consensus or an individual preference, each user can control their level of interaction with untrusted and formerly trusted people.

4 Handling Dependency Hell

Denxi detects circular dependencies and limits data duplication, even in side-by-side installations of many different versions of the same software. Denxi lets users and launchers choose their own reaction to more difficult forms of dependency hell. For example, you can replace

5 Following Racket’s Pro-Competitive Example

Denxi is written in Racket. Racket is a programming language, and Denxi is a software distribution tool. Both are able to adapt in interesting ways because they are what they easily create. Racket can make you your own programming language, and Denxi can make you your own middlemen.

Denxi does not anticipate your needs because that would be a mistake. If a tool fails to anticipate what you want, it can’t read your mind and reprogram itself. That’s why I designed Denxi to be like Racket, in the sense it helps you create and prototype alternatives to Denxi itself.

I believe Racket’s package managers failed to translate the Racket experience to software distribution as a domain. PLaneT and raco pkg made many assumptions about how people will work with them, which forces the surrounding community to work according to those assumptions. My personal motivation to make Denxi came from attempting to reconcile my soaring expectations of Racket with the invariants of its package management system. I cannot critique Racket’s package manangers on subjective grounds, but I also could not stop using them without giving up access to most of Racket’s ecosystem. There has to be a middle ground where you can change how you get dependencies without isolating yourself from any community’s content. This will involve separating the subjective parts of software distribution from the objective parts.

Denxi is built on the assumption that tools like it are going to keep proliferating, and that we should have more that are completely beholden to what a user expects from it. Denxi is free software, so that when Denxi launchers proliferate on your system, you have say over how they all work, even in the strange and wonderful situations I itemized in Addendum: Scenarios.

Supporting experimentation and competition in this way is good for end users, and as On Security and Convenience explains, it’s a victory for informed consent.

6 Localization

You can’t share work effectively without a way to cross language barriers. To aid translation, Denxi’s output is a readable list of messages that one can think of as a human language-independent document. denxi/l10n translates these documents to reports in a specific human language. If you store unlocalized messages in a file, denxi show log will present the file in the user’s chosen language.

At the time of this writing, Denxi only includes English as it’s used in the United States. However, a custom launcher may use your own translations via format-message.

7 Versioning

Denxi versions software using editions and revisions. Each edition has its own number line for revisions. Revisions may have names that each map to exactly one number on an edition’s number line. An edition represents work for a target audience, and revisions model change with respect to that audience.

Versions are subjective, so you can override how they are interpreted when prudent. If a set of versions identify software known to be insecure, the you can dynamically replace the software used by one version with an acceptable variant. If two names conflict, you can decide which is canonical. See Handling Names for more information.

The scheme allows a developer to rewrite code for a new audience without affecting brand expectations. Users benefit because versions contain discovery information, making it easier to decide what content is relevant for them.

8 Handling Names

Names are given for subjective reasons, so Denxi recognizes no naming authority. Any launcher can decide what names are canonical, and what canonical names mean in a context-sensitive way.

For example, the SHA-1 cryptographic hash function has many implementations and aliases. One may refer to SHA-1 using strings like "sha1", "SHA-1", "SHA1", or "SHA_1". Additionally, not all implementatons are created equal in the eyes of an InfoSec expert. You can tell Denxi to see exactly one of the aforementioned names as canonical, and bind that name to an implementation you trust. The rest may be defined as aliases for the canonical name.

The same applies to the names of parties and packages. If you encounter two packages called uri, you may designate one as canonical or install them side-by-side. This is powerful because it means naming conflicts only happen when a user allows them to happen.

For another example, if you find a CSS package called css that is incomplete and unmaintained, and another CSS package called better-css that is more deserving of the plain css name, you can assign the shorter name to the better implementation.

9 Conclusion

In this paper I explained why you should worry about software distribution, and how Denxi gives you options when you inevitably want to control updates in a more nuanced way.

I also explained that Denxi can be used to build and distribute its own competition as free software. Any user may form a community around an individual launcher, or fork a community’s launcher without sacrificing the content it fetches. This model preserves free association between people.

If you are interested in trying that for yourself, then read Denxi Guide.

10 Addendum: Scenarios

I’ve encountered scenarios that have second-, third-, and fourth- order effects on my teams and clients. If you don’t know what some of these items mean, that’s fine. This section indirectly summarizes problems Denxi can solve, and my background.