Xiden White Paper
1 Why You Should Care
2 Usage
3 On Security and Convenience
4 Handling Dependency Hell
5 Following Racket’s Pro-Competitive Example
6 Localization
7 Versioning
8 Conclusion
8.2

Xiden White Paper

Sage L. Gerard <sage at sagegerard dot com>

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

For all documentation, see Xiden Documentation.

1 Why You Should Care

One day, Windows will install those updates. It doesn’t matter what you are doing at the time, and you don’t know what Microsoft has planned for your poor computer next. That unknown affects computers spreading to our phones, cars, fridges, and washing machines.

If your device worked today, then you expect it to work tomorrow. A good update is therefore like a sunrise: It’s expected, it’s necessary, and it doesn’t surprise you. A bad software update breaks something you paid for, and you might not know how to fix it. While a failed update is nowhere near as bad as a failed sunrise, your plans are probably still ruined, and you might wish to avoid future updates.

Part of the problem is people like me, and I don’t say that to self-deprecate. It’s just that software teams choose tradeoffs that impact their users. How can we limit the impact of our biases, and minimize the chance of interruption for others when we start changing stuff? I don’t think versioning was that helpful of an answer.

It comes down to responsibility and control. If something I control impacts users and I cannot please everybody, then everybody should have a way to assert control over parts of distribution. A lot of release management nerds would gasp and cringe at the idea, and I’ll get to why. All I mean is that it helps when users have a way to take responsibility for themselves.

Most end-users are not technical, and there are still some powers that developers need to deliver software to them. That line blurs quite a bit, so we need a way to adapt to the complex social dynamics that mess with software distribution. I designed Xiden to help assemble and distribute its own alternatives, while preserving the end user’s right to understand and change those alternatives. For more on this, see Following Racket’s Pro-Competitive Example.

If you cannot understand what I’m on about, that’s fine. I’m a release management nerd and I care more than I should about boring things. I care because the results are not boring! We have a problem with strangers acting like whatever you’re doing can’t be more important than their update.

We have confirmation dialogs to collect consent, but consent and software have a weird relationship. We have dialogs that act like ”no” doesn’t really mean ”no.” Worse, when you say “yes”, things happen that you cannot easily audit. Updates either hide too much detail for informed consent, or show so much detail that you wouldn’t want to learn it all in the first place. And even if you had good reason to deny an update, you don’t have the access necessary to make your own changes. The end result is the same: You click “Yes” to keep moving, and whatever happens happens.

Most software teams are not trying to break your devices, but it’s easy for them to do so. This is where I have to get technical. Below is a list of situations I’ve encountered that lead to software distribution problems. Each scenario has second-, third-, and fourth- order effects on how people get through their day.

If you aren’t sure what some of these items mean, then ask the nearest person wearing a $ my other PC runs GNU/Linux tee. Follow your nose.

I don’t have time to explain the countless ways software distribution can go wrong, but I hope this list shows why there would be countless ways. There is no blueprint to solve every problem, and Xiden isn’t trying to be one. All you need to know is that a bunch of strangers can break your stuff, they won’t always know what they are doing. You’re involved in software distribution whether you like it or not, so it would be nice if you had something to shield you from the bad parts while keeping the good parts.

In this paper I explain how Xiden toes the lines that run through each of the listed situations. I don’t present any new ideas. I combine existing ideas into something predictable and self-evident, because that’s how a sunrise works.

2 Usage

Xiden creates directories, and links to those directories.

Installation, updates, rollbacks, or experimental versions boil down to directories and links. All users (human or machine) get software from Xiden in this way. You can use Xiden with any project written in any language, so long as it can resolve links. To uninstall software, delete the links you don’t want and tell Xiden to delete everything without any incoming links.

I’m hand-waving over a lot of code, because so much can go wrong that affects the user experience. That’s what gives us a lot to talk about in the following sections.

3 On Security and Convenience

Like anything else, Xiden can be targeted by nefarious actors. All software has something called an attack surface, which is basically a name for all of the ways evil can exploit and control a system. Xiden’s attack surface consists of its configuration, and the permissions of the user running it.

To mitigate the risks in this area, Xiden includes a zero-trust (think “Deny All”) launcher called xiden. No installations are possible with xiden’s default configuration. It takes effort to make it less safe to use, and it can in fact become harder to use as it evolves. You could argue that it is user-hostile in its relentlessly bureaucratic nature. It represents security-consciousness in its most extreme form for a high-level language.

So you run xiden do ++install-abbreviated ... to install some software. It fires back “Wait, hold on. What cryptographic hash functions do you trust? Server certificates? How big of a buffer should I use for data transfers? What is the largest download size you will tolerate? Can I run your shell? Can I run a shell? What public keys do you trust? Which implementation of SHA-224 were you thinking of using? Where are you going?”

Notice these are highly-specific questions that any release management nerd would ask. But most people would–allegedly–simplify this with a thousand fucking confirmation prompts. If we feel annoyed and interrupted by simple Yes/No questions, then there’s no way anyone other than a release management nerd would enjoy using the default launcher.

We’d be furious if our phones needed our input on every allowed contact and local infrastructure before making or taking calls. But here’s the twist: robo-callers cannot spam these phones the way they do now. Your obsessive ex can’t keep texting from different numbers. The difference is the magic of “Deny All.” IT professionals will always tell you a firewall should start life allowing nothing. Allowing too much means risking strangers messing with your stuff, and we don’t want to get stuck in an arms-race. So while it is annoying to use, xiden only installs software when the expectations of the user and the software provider are consistent. That has to be true to distribute software well.

As good as a safe launcher can be, we need a path to user-friendliness. For that, Xiden offers the xiden/launcher DSL to build custom launchers. Custom launchers are easier to use because they bake in all of the little annoying–yet important!–decisions that xiden insists you make. You don’t have to expose Xiden’s full interface for the 10% of functionality you and your users need, but users can be confident that the 10% is carefully considered.

Launchers control Xiden’s configuration as privileged code. Since the configuration is part of Xiden’s attack surface, launchers also need to be protected on the host. Even though it takes effort, it is still possible to set up commands that are exactly as offensive and careless as curl --insecure | sudo sh. While that’s a terrible idea for production systems, we have to allow for that because we cannot anticipate every intended use case.

You can distribute custom launchers using xiden, the default launcher. Assuming enough care, a specialist would use xiden to distribute a more convenient alternative to their communities. Because the alternative bakes in surgical decisions, the end-user does not have to know about the protections that apply to them. But, they can always look at the launcher, adjust it themselves, and repeat the process. After all, their consent matters not just on the matter of software being installed on their devices, but in the way that it happens.

4 Handling Dependency Hell

Like Guix, Xiden uses functional programming principles. Any dependency is viewed as an argument to a pure function that builds dependent software.

This model helps Xiden detect circular dependencies and limit data duplication, even in side-by-side installations of many different versions of the same software.

Some examples of dependency hell have no easy answer. Conflicting identities, diamond dependencies, availability of vulnerable software, and generative bindings from functionally-equivalent programs can thwart even the most robust systems. Most developers make judgement calls to get past these problems, and then warn users not to do certain things. Xiden lets users choose and change their own reaction to these challenges, because as I said before, I want to preserve the user’s ability to choose their own tradeoffs.

For example, Xiden allows users to decide what names are canonical in the event of a conflict. If two programmers claim the name john.doe and try to distribute software under all the same names, an end user may still distinguish the John Does’ contributions locally. If you get several apps that verify data integrity using 'sha-256, 'Sha256, and 'SHA256, you can tell Xiden which name is canonical and to treat the rest as aliases.

Most other forms of dependency hell are addressed using privileged overriding features like current-package-editor. Because an entire software package is just an argument to a function, you can swap it out or tinker with it before it makes any impact on your system.

Overridding is powerful because

In brief, where Xiden cannot outright solve dependency hell, it is designed to allow surgical responses such that a user is never blocked. And if you get tired of solving those problems over and over again, just start from a launcher with your favored solutions.

5 Following Racket’s Pro-Competitive Example

Xiden is written in Racket. Racket is a programming language, and Xiden 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 Xiden can make you your own App Store.

Xiden is therefore not designed to anticipate human needs, because that’s a mistake. It’s the kind of thinking that leads to tools that expect humans to accomodate them. If a tool fails to anticipate what users want, it can’t read your mind and reprogram itself. I don’t think tools get opinions, and I don’t think it’s wise to assume that Xiden will be the final answer on a domain this tricky. That’s why I designed Xiden to be like Racket in this space: To facilitate rapid creation and prototyping of its own alternatives.

Oddly enough, I think Racket’s own package managers failed to translate the Racket experience to this space. PLaneT and raco pkg made too many assumptions about how people will work with them. My personal motivation to make Xiden came from attempting to reconcile my soaring expectations of Racket with the inflexibility of its package managers. I cannot critique Racket’s package manangers on subjective grounds, but I also could not easily use something else without giving up a lot of features in Racket’s ecosystem. I feel like there has to be a middle ground here, and it involves separating the subjective parts of software distribution from the objective parts.

If you believe there are too many launchers like Steam, GOG, and the App Store, then I understand. But Xiden is built on the assumption that those platforms are going to keep proliferating, and that we should have more that are completely beholden to what a user expects from it. Xiden is free software, so that when Xiden launchers proliferate on your system, you have say over how they all work, even in the strange and wonderful situations I itemized earlier.

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

xiden/l10n translates Xiden’s machine-readable messages to human language. All Xiden output is represented as a value, which can be read entirely back by the Racket reader.

(call-with-output-file* "log.txt"
  (lambda (to-file) (writeln xiden-log to-file)))

The log file may appear in a locale-specific language when viewed using xiden show log, assuming translated strings are available.

At the time of this writing, Xiden only includes American English. However, a custom launcher may use your own translations via format-message.

7 Versioning

Xiden defines a versioning scheme with editions and revisions. It’s easy to know why you’d want the latest revision of a small-business edition, so the versioning scheme doubles as discovery information for a target audience.

Each edition has its own number line for revisions. A revision’s name maps to exactly one number on the line. This way, Xiden supports queries that capture revision intervals with inclusive and exclusive bounds. example.com:http-client:draft:beta:production:ie means “The draft edition of the http-client package made by example.com, from the beta revision up to but NOT including the production revision.”

While verbose, this scheme allows a developer to rewrite code for a new audience without necessarily affecting a brand. Users also benefit because if they want backwards-compatibility, they may track an edition created under that premise.

Xiden understands that version numbers are subjective, so you can override how they are interpreted when prudent. For example, if a set of versions identify software known to be insecure, you can dynamically replace those versions in the same way one would redirect a user from one web page to other.

Users that prefer other schemes may use them in a custom launcher. You may use Semantic Versioning, dates, or no scheme at all.

8 Conclusion

In this paper I explained why you should worry about software distribution, and explained how Xiden can protect you from strangers that keep breaking your stuff.

I also explained that Xiden can be used to build and distribute its own competition, as free software. This creates much more favorable social situations that allow any user to strike their own balance between security, convenience, control, and responsibility.

Because software distribution is a difficult problem with subjective solutions, we need a tool that accepts this reality and helps people navigate it quickly. That’s how Racket helped people become more accepting of variety in programming languages, because you never felt like you were losing control when you switched between Racket-powered languages. I believe that Xiden can bring that same experience to frustrated users who need options.

If you are interested in trying that for yourself, then read Xiden Guide to set up Xiden and write a prototype for your own app store.