GoboLinux redefining filesystem hierarchy

Konstantinos Foutzopoulos

The traditional Unix filesystem hierarchy is a bit complicated. As it was explained in the first section of my post on it, /opt is used for software to be contained in a single tree rather having their files spread through the system. This concept of each program gets its own directory tree is taken to extreme by GoboLinux distro. More generally it reorganizes root to a new, hopefully more logical way.


The root structure in GoboLinux is the following.

/Data System and program resources
/Mount Mount points
/Programs Every program; no exceptions
/System System files
/Users User home directories

First of all, there’s a common misconception that descriptive directory names are for user friendliness. The actual reason is to not conflict with Unix namespace. The capitalized descriptive names originated from NeXT that also had to make its own directories coexist with Unix ones. Using the regular directory tree with different semantics can be confusing. This happens in AtheOS, where /usr behaves like /opt. The influencial Unix-derived Plan 9 also does this, or better say Unix itself did it. In Plan 9 /usr behaves like /home. This is actually similar to early Unix versions, where /usr was holding user home directories.

Having every program in /Programs means that someone can explore what is installed in their system just by doing ls /Programs. This can be thought as a database-less package management system with the directory structure itself organizing the system. As a consequence of this system, package management can take place using common Unix file tools. Specifically it’s simpler to create and share binary packages. Having this structure means that packages can be created just by compressing its directory. They can removed just by removing the directory.

Each entry in /Programs contains all files for that program, stored in a versioned subdirectory. The subdirectory mirrors /usr hierarchy of traditional systems for the specific program. The versioned tree makes it simple to maintain simultaneously multiple versions for each program.

For each file category, there is a directory under /System/Index grouping files from each application as links. Those directories are the traditional Unix ones found in /usr and specifically bin, include, lib, lib64 -> lib, libexec, sbin -> bin, and share. It can kinda be though as /usr/local.

In its initial presentation the directory was /System/Links, and the directories were Executables, Libraries, Headers, Shared and Manuals. The migration to the new hierarchy happened in version 015. The reason was issues with packaging.

Legacy applications continue to work thanks to symlink mapping of traditional paths into their GoboLinux counterparts. Those paths are hidden when listing root but application can still read and write to them. This is made possible by using GoboHide an icotls-based interface, actually a kernel extension meaning no kernel modifications are required. The gobohide is the userspace tool that talks with kernel. To show all hidden directories gobohide -l can be used.

The mapping can then be seen with

$ gobohide -l / | while read dir; do ls -l $dir; done

For reference in latest (v017) version this is

/bin -> /System/Index/bin
/boot -> /System/Kernel/Boot
/config -> /System/Kernel/Config
/dev -> /System/Kernel/Devices
/etc -> /System/Settings
/lib -> /System/Index/lib
/lib64 -> /System/Index/lib64
/media -> /Mount/Media
/mnt -> /Mount
/proc -> /System/Kernel/Status
/root -> /Users/root
/run -> /Data/Variable/run
/sbin -> /System/Index/sbin
/srv -> /Data
/sys -> /System/Kernel/Objects
/tmp -> /Data/Variable/tmp
/var -> /Data/Variable

There’s also /usr with the following directories and files in it.

./bin -> /System/Index/bin
./include -> /System/Index/include
./lib -> /System/Index/lib
./lib64 -> /System/Index/lib64
./local -> /usr
./man -> /System/Index/share/man
./sbin -> /System/Index/sbin
./share -> /System/Index/share
./X11R6 -> /usr

The arguments gobohide -h/-u can be used to hide and undhide a directory respectively. A useful example is mapping /home to /Users and /root to /Users/root.

# mkdir -p /Users/root
# ln -s /Users /home
# gobohide -h /home
# ln -s /Users/root /root
# gobohide -h /root

Then doing ls -l will show the same structure as that in first section, but you can do ls -l /home and cd /home just fine.


The design of /Data/Compile is also interesting, referred as the poor-man’s portage because of its minimalistic design. The Compile and the Recipes tree are designed around the universality of source distribution and use of common build tools. The Recipes are declarative files that describe what the compilation process is like rather imperative scripts.

The recipes files are hosted on GitHub @gobolinux/Recipes. The tree structure is similar to /Programs that is directories for every program and subdirectories for every version. The tree can be downloaded locally (doing swallow clone) for easy usage doing

git clone --depth=1 https://github.com/gobolinux/Recipes /Data/Compile/Recipes

That said this isn’t required for software installation. Compile will download a recipe when a compilation is requested. Doing Compile $pkg will perform a case-insensitive search for a recipe named $pkg. A particular version may be chosen instead doing Compile $pkg $vers.

Let’s see closer how recipes work. For example, the Recipe for file/5.39 (found in the directory ./File/5.39) is

TODO: Make PR to @gobolinux/Recipes


There’s also a Resources directory holding metadata. This directory is eventually copied to the /Programs subdirectory of the program. The files in are the following along with their contents.




Glibc 2.24
LibSeccomp 2.3.2
ZLib 1.2.3


ZLib 1.2.3


[Name] file
[Summary] File type identification utility
[License] BSD License (original)
[Description] File attempts to classify files depending on their contents and prints a description if a match is found.
[Homepage] https://darwinsys.com/file

Then the program can be installed with Compile file or for that version specifically with Compile file 5.39. Extra options can be passed ad hoc as flag in Compile command. This makes it a bit like build tool-agnostic make. When the package’s files and directories have been created and populated, Compile will then create the necessary links in the /System/Index.

In my opinion this model though very simple (less complexity is good) leads to some redundancy. For example the Description file will be copied unchanged between versions. Also the others files will remain mostly the same between versions with only version changes.

Concepts in other systems

GoboLinux is influenced and draws inspiration from others systems that build a different system on top of Unix based. Examples of such systems are NeXT, BeOS, and AtheOS. That said, GoboLinux isn’t a clone of any of those systems.

NeXT was already mentioned to be the originator of the top hierarchy naming. The well-known macOS (formerly OS X) is NeXT’s ancestor and traces of that heritage are still present in it. One of those is the hierarchy. Specifically, macOS has both its own user friendly as well as standard Unix directories that are hidden in Finder (macOS file manager). The standard macOS hierarchy (sans the Unix directories) is the following.

/Applications Installed applications
/Library App-specific resources
/Network Network-accessible resources
/System System/Apple-provided resources
/Users User home directories
/Volumes Mount points

The Unix specific directories are utilized by the system’s BSD layer. Those are actual directories rather symlinks as in GoboLinux case. It can be thought as macOS splitting its filesystem to directories originating from its NeXT and BSD heritage.

Interestingly, the Compile concept of setting a build style (not sure if GoboLinux was an inspiration) is used in Void Linux which also hosts its templates on GitHub @void-linux/void-packages. For comparison the template for file in Void Linux is (own simpler version for demo; modified from original in upstream)

short_desc="File type identification utility"

The declarative approach and symlink population of specified directories is also central to Nix (and Guix) package manager. Basically, NixOS is perhaps the most popular distro with alien filesystem. In addition, Nix also hosts its nixpkgs tree on GitHub @NixOS/nixpkgs. For comparison the default.nix for file in Nix (own simpler version for demo; modified from original in upstream)

{ lib, stdenv, fetchurl, zlib }:
stdenv.mkDerivation rec {
  pkgname = "file";
  version = "5.39";
  src = fetchurl {
    url = "https://astron.com/pub/file/$file-${version}.tar.gz";
    sha256 = "f05d286a76d9556243d0cb05814929c2ecf3a5ba07963f8f70bfaaa70517fad1";
  buildInputs = [ zlib ];
  meta = with lib; {
    homepage = "https://darwinsys.com/file";
    description = "File type identification utility";
    license = licenses.bsd2;

Informatively, every installed package is installed in a /nix/store subdirectory which mirrors /usr of traditional systems. Then symlinks are made in ~/.nix-profile which is employed by a local user, or in /run/current-system/sw if system-wide. The central difference is that the file-system doesn’t function as a package manager. Rather usage of Nix is mandatory and a central point for reproducibility by not letting a system administrator modify any system files.

The filesystem as package manager model is also utilized by stali, which has, a described in another post, simplified (no secondary and tertiary hierarchy) form of traditional Unix filesystem. Specifically the entire rootfs is managed by git. Then upgrading is just

# cd /
# git pull

Alternatively to downgrade or checkout a specific release

# cd /
# git checkout 0.1


Alongside the /System/Links directory mentioned in the first secion, another thing lost from the distro’s initial times, is the rootless GoboLinux installation. It used to be possible to install GoboLinux inside a $HOME directory under another distro. That meant that someone could run GoboLinux applications as an unpriviledged user. The installation resulted in the creation of the directories ~/Programs, ~/System, and ~/.Settings.

GoboLinux has slow development and few users. As a final note, its experimental nature means more possibilities for security problems. Those are issues also mentioned in Bedrock, another experimental distro. An HN user has said that in a default Gobo installation there’re multiple ways to get root privileges from an unprivileged user.

If not for its interesting concepts, then it worths trying the live ISO for its cool cyberpunk-ish themed awesome. Awesome is well-known Lua-extensible window manager commonly used in tiling set up. The installation shows that awesome is an excellent floating window manager as well.