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Bedrock, the end of distro-hopping

During the initiation of a new user in the Linux world someone installs their first distro, that’s a Linux-based operating system with some pre-installed software. What will usually happen is a short time of distro-hopping where the user will switch between distros frequently and try a variety of them. If ideological reasons (for example free-only software) are not considered, what should become quickly apparent is that Linux distros differ mainly in

  • pre-configured desktop environment or window manager
  • package manager
  • init manager
  • release cycle (fixed vs rolling)

The first isn’t of much importance since theoretically you can use every DE and WM in any distro. I say theoretically because there can be exceptions, environments that are difficult to package and aren’t found everywhere (e.g. Unity 7). But the next are what characterize most distros.

Enter Bedrock

Bedrock started on 2009, first internal release occurred 2011 and first public release on 2012. It is a meta distro that allows users to mix-and-match components from other which are typically incompatible. These components are integrated into a cohesive system. This solves the problem of packages existing in one distro but not in another. An example is running Debian stable with packages available in Arch. This allows having updated packages without making a FrankenDebian or running sid. Basically it is a distro-hopping stopper; you can have any environment, access to any package manager, any init system, and the release cycle you desire.

Itself is a collection of tools to glue those other components. The system’s files and processes are organized into units called strata which can be thought as selectively dented chroots. Then crossfs, a FUSE-based filesystem, makes resources available across stratum boundaries. Finally there is etcfs which redirects /etc file accesses as required by the calling process.

Installation is based on its meta identity. That is you cannot format and install Bedrock. Rather an installed distro is converted in-place into Bedrock. Arch, Void, Debian, Ubuntu, and Gentoo, are the base distros with highest community usage, no known issues, fetch support, and an active maintainer. Therefore a simple way to get Bedrock is installing Debian with netinst and then running the installation script.

The script corresponding to architecture should be taken from userland releases file. Then it has to be run as root with the --hijack flag. Hijacking moves the previous install files elsewhere, installs Bedrock to root, and adds the previous install as new stratum. The following script combines all the steps.

#!/bin/sh
vers=0.7
arch=`uname -a | awk '{print $(NF-1)}'`
link="https://raw.githubusercontent.com/bedrocklinux/bedrocklinux-userland/$vers/releases"
last=`wget -O - $link | grep $arch | head -1`
wget $last
sh ./`echo $last | awk -F '{print $NF}'` --hijack

Rebooting an init selection menu should appear. On first look everything appears the same. Probably you could even forget you installed Bedrock. But, that isn’t what is happening. After logging run the following for an interactive version of the basic usage tutorial.

$ brl tutorial basics

For quick reference, a mini-tutorial will follow. The distro manager is the brl command. You can get components from another distro using the fetch argument. For example

# brl fetch arch

The Arch’s package manager pacman will then become available. Packages can be installed like on Arch. For example to install hello, just do

# pacman -S hello

Rather manually using each package manager, pmm is provided which can be considered a meta-package manager. It can mimic the interface of package managers from supported distros (pacman, xbps, apt, portage, etc). By default it mimics the interface of hijacked distro.

The stratum from which the comamnd will be run is figured out from context. Bedrock can be configured to ensure a stratum always provides a given command. This is called pinning, and is done by editing the central configuration file found in /bedrock/etc/bedrock.conf. Ad hoc can be done with

$ strat $stratum $command

If it isn’t pinned the local one will be utilized. If it is neither pinned or locally available, the first instance of command in available strata will be used. Commands may be restricted to the stratum they come from with

$ strat -r $stratum $command

A stratum can be in disk but not be integrated. This is done by disabling it.

# brl disable arch

It can of course be re-enabled anytime.

# brl enable arch

After disabling it can be removed with

# brl remove arch

Removing before disabling can be done with the -d argument. The stratum providing the init cannot be removed until reboot and another is chosen. The hijacked stratum can be removed but the bootloader to be updated it has to be installed on another.

Making a stratum from an unsupported distro is done by getting distro’s root, copying the root to /bedrock/strata/$name preserving permissions and symbolic links, registering with brl show $name, and finally enabling with brl enable $name.

Before the /bedrock directory got introduced, it used the directories /opt for Bedrock files and /var/chroot to host the strata. There’re plans for the layout to change again in the next version.

Besides the flexibility provides, some unique features also arise. Distro-upgrades can be done live with almost no downtime and breaks from distro-upgrades aren’t a problem.

Closing up, general issues are complexity, greater attack surface, unsolvable incompatibilities (see page on v0.7), small community, duplicated files resulting in disk overhead, and a runtime overhead resulting in a slight performance loss. Most of the peromance loss originates from existence of etcfs mount per stratum, though this applies only in /etc operations. But overall Bedrock appears good for day-to-day usage.

It also worths checking the (old) founder’s AMA on Reddit.