stateless Linux


The concepts partially encapsulating stateless Linux were introduced by Red Hat in 2004 and an early presentation that was done in 2006. The project did not catch on but its ideas have. It should be noted that this section isn’t Linux specific as those concepts actually apply to any operating system.

Consider a typical deployment. Some identical systems are installed on some machines. Over time those systems will move away from each other or else their state will diverge because of ad hoc mutations such as package upgrades and configuration changes. Those systems will then be distinct from each other. The stateless model proposed by Red Hat is image-based rather file-based and all systems run off identical images. When a new state is required a snapshot is taken and then the image is pushed to other machines. Based on that the paradigms of that design, meaning the components required for a machine to be deployed in a stateless matter, are

  • read-only system filesystem
  • temporary state
  • dynamical state determination, meaning system adapts to the machine
  • state stored centrally

This also captures what in modern terms is described as immutable deployment. Basically the first describes immutability and the others statelessness. But a stateless system should be replaceable everytime. As a consequence even if immutability isn’t required for statelessness, it makes sure it holds. This results in that, rather managing a system, it’s its metadata that is managed.

In order to drive state out of the system, configuration must be done automatically per hardware and configuration has to become part of the image. Having configuration detached from the system makes it easier to manage, there’re no untracked and stray files, no fragmentation of system components, and instantaneous no-downtime recovery in case a machine failure happens. Summarizing it is a clean model for system administration.

The benefits are enhanced security, easier management, and easier deployment of new machines. Though primarily targeting cloud and server infrastructure, it is useful for desktops as well.

Linux application

On Linux systems vector-supplied data is stored in /usr, variable data in /var, and configuration in /etc. According to systemd’s dev, stateful is the traditional system with machine-specific populated /etc, /usr, and /var. Systems without populated /var are called volatile. Stateless are those that startup without either /var or /etc. The definitions given by Lennart only consider configuration state and not installed software, which as mentioned in the previous section is also a problem.

Volatile systems are relatively straight-forward, and only that is required is reconstructing the required directory hierarchy in /var. Some software do that on their own, but some don’t. The systemd offers a way to setup at boot-time directories and files for software that don’t. Booting up without populated /etc isn’t that simple as in it are files essential for system operation.

A distro employing that stateless concept is Intel’s Clear Linux. This is realized by providing a system that functions without user configuration and any user-maintained configuration is easily removable. To accomplish this the filesystem hierarchy is separated between user-owned areas and system-owned areas. Software in Clear Linux provides default configuration under the system-owned /usr and specifically in /usr/share/defaults which function as template. For configuration to be modified the template has to be copied in /etc. As result a factory reset can be performed by simply recursively removing /var and /etc.

Though this fixes the problem of configuration state, installed software remains mutable. Then, there’s a problem of how configuration will be maintained. A solution comes from the domain of software deployment. Though tools automating manual practices in software deployment have been created, the issues aren’t addressed in a disciplined way and they aren’t doing anything about the statefulness of systems. That is those tools allow specifying the desired state but only in initial state. The requested state means a setup is available but not that is the system’s total setup. Nix, first described in Dolstra’s thesis, was created to address the issue of software deployment by eliminating problems arising due to system state. The Nix system is made of a functional language, a package manager, and a build manager.

NixOS is a distribution based on Nix. Its configuration is done centrally and represents a Nix recipe. When a rebuild of the system is requested the expressions within that recipe are evaluated, and a new “image”, called derivation, gets build marking a new generation. The system can then switch to this new image. Specifically, the packages required and their assets are installed in a read-only store under /nix and some directories are populated with symlinks to files resulting from the evaluation.

On boot it is made sure that the filesystem matches the specified setup. Basically the only directories actually required are /nix and /boot. That said, even if NixOS has a stateless declarative configuration, it isn’t immutable. Ad hoc mutations can still take place outside /nix such as configuration in /etc though Nix actually allows making any file in any system directory. A post by Graham shows how to setup NixOS for immutability.

Other recent approaches are inspired by containers popularized by Docker. The creation of a container is done by applying imperative actions on an initial image with well-known state, and the resulting image is immutable by design. Those images are layered on one upon another to get the desired state. It should be noted that this model is close to the one initially proposed by Red Hat. Darch applies that approach on a host system. Meaning that it is installed atop a base distro and because of its container approach allows using software meant for other distros by utilizing the relevant images. This bears some similarity to Bedrock with an immutable twist. Installation instructions for VM can be found on developer’s blog. Red Hat is working on Silverblue, a Fedora-based project with similar approach, replacing packages with system images. It builds atop few technologies, most prominent libostree and Flatpak.

Though less clean, flexible, and powerful approach than Nix, it is also simpler, not requiring learning a domain-specific language and instead continue using an already known toolset, that of the host distro. On the issue of domain-specific language, GNU Guix is a Nix-like system replacing Nix language with Guile, a Scheme dialect and GNU’s project programming and extension language. Guix System is the Guix-based distribution akin to NixOS.