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FUDCON + GNOME.Asia Beijing 2014

Thanks to the funding from FUDCON I had the chance to attend and keynote at the combined FUDCON Beijing 2014 and GNOME.Asia 2014 conference in Beijing, China.

My talk was about systemd's present and future, what we achieved and where we are going. In my talk I tried to explain a bit where we are coming from, and how we changed focus from being purely an init system, to more being a set of basic building blocks to build an OS from. Most of the talk I talked about where we still intend to take systemd, which areas we believe should be covered by systemd, and of course, also the always difficult question, on where to draw the line and what clearly is outside of the focus of systemd. The slides of my talk you find online. (No video recording I am aware of, sorry.)

The combined conferences were a lot of fun, and as usual, the best discussions I had in the hallway track, discussing Linux and systemd.

A number of pictures of the conference are now online. Enjoy!

After the conference I stayed for a few more days in Beijing, doing a bit of sightseeing. What a fantastic city! The food was amazing, we tried all kinds of fantastic stuff, from Peking duck, to Bullfrog Sechuan style. Yummy. And one of those days I am sure I will find the time to actually sort my photos and put them online, too.

I am really looking forward to the next FUDCON/GNOME.Asia!

Factory Reset, Stateless Systems, Reproducible Systems & Verifiable Systems

(Just a small heads-up: I don't blog as much as I used to, I nowadays update my Google+ page a lot more frequently. You might want to subscribe that if you are interested in more frequent technical updates on what we are working on.)

In the past weeks we have been working on a couple of features for systemd that enable a number of new usecases I'd like to shed some light on. Taking benefit of the /usr merge that a number of distributions have completed we want to bring runtime behaviour of Linux systems to the next level. With the /usr merge completed most static vendor-supplied OS data is found exclusively in /usr, only a few additional bits in /var and /etc are necessary to make a system boot. On this we can build to enable a couple of new features:

  1. A mechanism we call Factory Reset shall flush out /etc and /var, but keep the vendor-supplied /usr, bringing the system back into a well-defined, pristine vendor state with no local state or configuration. This functionality is useful across the board from servers, to desktops, to embedded devices.
  2. A Stateless System goes one step further: a system like this never stores /etc or /var on persistent storage, but always comes up with pristine vendor state. On systems like this every reboot acts as factor reset. This functionality is particularly useful for simple containers or systems that boot off the network or read-only media, and receive all configuration they need during runtime from vendor packages or protocols like DHCP or are capable of discovering their parameters automatically from the available hardware or periphery.
  3. Reproducible Systems multiply a vendor image into many containers or systems. Only local configuration or state is stored per-system, while the vendor operating system is pulled in from the same, immutable, shared snapshot. Each system hence has its private /etc and /var for receiving local configuration, however the OS tree in /usr is pulled in via bind mounts (in case of containers) or technologies like NFS (in case of physical systems), or btrfs snapshots from a golden master image. This is particular interesting for containers where the goal is to run thousands of container images from the same OS tree. However, it also has a number of other usecases, for example thin client systems, which can boot the same NFS share a number of times. Furthermore this mechanism is useful to implement very simple OS installers, that simply unserialize a /usr snapshot into a file system, install a boot loader, and reboot.
  4. Verifiable Systems are closely related to stateless systems: if the underlying storage technology can cryptographically ensure that the vendor-supplied OS is trusted and in a consistent state, then it must be made sure that /etc or /var are either included in the OS image, or simply unnecessary for booting.


A number of Linux-based operating systems have tried to implement some of the schemes described out above in one way or another. Particularly interesting are GNOME's OSTree, CoreOS and Google's Android and ChromeOS. They generally found different solutions for the specific problems you have when implementing schemes like this, sometimes taking shortcuts that keep only the specific case in mind, and cannot cover the general purpose. With systemd now being at the core of so many distributions and deeply involved in bringing up and maintaining the system we came to the conclusion that we should attempt to add generic support for setups like this to systemd itself, to open this up for the general purpose distributions to build on. We decided to focus on three kinds of systems:

  1. The stateful system, the traditional system as we know it with machine-specific /etc, /usr and /var, all properly populated.
  2. Startup without a populated /var, but with configured /etc. (We will call these volatile systems.)
  3. Startup without either /etc or /var. (We will call these stateless systems.)

A factory reset is just a special case of the latter two modes, where the system boots up without /var and /etc but the next boot is a normal stateful boot like like the first described mode. Note that a mode where /etc is flushed, but /var is not is nothing we intend to cover (why? well, the user ID question becomes much harder, see below, and we simply saw no usecase for it worth the trouble).


Booting up a system without a populated /var is relatively straight-forward. With a few lines of tmpfiles configuration it is possible to populate /var with its basic structure in a way that is sufficient to make a system boot cleanly. systemd version 214 and newer ship with support for this. Of course, support for this scheme in systemd is only a small part of the solution. While a lot of software reconstructs the directory hierarchy it needs in /var automatically, many software does not. In case like this it is necessary to ship a couple of additional tmpfiles lines that setup up at boot-time the necessary files or directories in /var to make the software operate, similar to what RPM or DEB packages would set up at installation time.

Booting up a system without a populated /etc is a more difficult task. In /etc we have a lot of configuration bits that are essential for the system to operate, for example and most importantly system user and group information in /etc/passwd and /etc/group. If the system boots up without /etc there must be a way to replicate the minimal information necessary in it, so that the system manages to boot up fully.

To make this even more complex, in order to support "offline" updates of /usr that are replicated into a number of systems possessing private /etc and /var there needs to be a way how these directories can be upgraded transparently when necessary, for example by recreating caches like /etc/ or adding missing system users to /etc/passwd on next reboot.

Starting with systemd 215 (yet unreleased, as I type this) we will ship with a number of features in systemd that make /etc-less boots functional:

  • A new tool systemd-sysusers as been added. It introduces a new drop-in directory /usr/lib/sysusers.d/. Minimal descriptions of necessary system users and groups can be placed there. Whenever the tool is invoked it will create these users in /etc/passwd and /etc/group should they be missing. It is only suitable for creating system users and groups, not for normal users. It will write to the files directly via the appropriate glibc APIs, which is the right thing to do for system users. (For normal users no such APIs exist, as the users might be stored centrally on LDAP or suchlike, and they are out of focus for our usecase.) The major benefit of this tool is that system user definition can happen offline: a package simply has to drop in a new file to register a user. This makes system user registration declarative instead of imperative -- which is the way how system users are traditionally created from RPM or DEB installation scripts. By being declarative it is easy to replicate the users on next boot to a number of system instances.

    To make this new tool interesting for packaging scripts we make it easy to alternatively invoke it during package installation time, thus being a good alternative to invocations of useradd -r and groupadd -r.

    Some OS designs use a static, fixed user/group list stored in /usr as primary database for users/groups, which fixed UID/GID mappings. While this works for specific systems, this cannot cover the general purpose. As the UID/GID range for system users/groups is very small (only containing 998 users and groups on most systems), the best has to be made from this space and only UIDs/GIDs necessary on the specific system should be allocated. This means allocation has to be dynamic and adjust to what is necessary.

    Also note that this tool has one very nice feature: in addition to fully dynamic, and fully static UID/GID assignment for the users to create, it supports reading UID/GID numbers off existing files in /usr, so that vendors can make use of setuid/setgid binaries owned by specific users.

  • We also added a default user definition list which creates the most basic users the system and systemd need. Of course, very likely downstream distributions might need to alter this default list, add new entries and possibly map specific users to particular numeric UIDs.
  • A new condition ConditionNeedsUpdate= has been added. With this mechanism it is possible to conditionalize execution of services depending on whether /usr is newer than /etc or /var. The idea is that various services that need to be added into the boot process on upgrades make use of this to not delay boot-ups on normal boots, but run as necessary should /usr have been update since the last boot. This is implemented based on the mtime timestamp of the /usr: if the OS has been updated the packaging software should touch the directory, thus informing all instances that an upgrade of /etc and /var might be necessary.
  • We added a number of service files, that make use of the new ConditionNeedsUpdate= switch, and run a couple of services after each update. Among them are the aforementiond systemd-sysusers tool, as well as services that rebuild the udev hardware database, the journal catalog database and the library cache in /etc/
  • If systemd detects an empty /etc at early boot it will now use the unit preset information to enable all services by default that the vendor or packager declared. It will then proceed booting.
  • We added a new tmpfiles snippet that is able to reconstruct the most basic structure of /etc if it is missing.
  • tmpfiles also gained the ability copy entire directory trees into place should they be missing. This is particularly useful for copying certain essential files or directories into /etc without which the system refuses to boot. Currently the most prominent candidates for this are /etc/pam.d and /etc/dbus-1. In the long run we hope that packages can be fixed so that they always work correctly without configuration in /etc. Depending on the software this means that they should come with compiled-in defaults that just work should their configuration file be missing, or that they should fall back to static vendor-supplied configuration in /usr that is used whenever /etc doesn't have any configuration. Both the PAM and the D-Bus case are probably candidates for the latter. Given that there are probably many cases like this we are working with a number of folks to introduce a new directory called /usr/share/etc (name is not settled yet) to major distributions, that always contain the full, original, vendor-supplied configuration of all packages. This is very useful here, so that there's an obvious place to copy the original configuration from, but it is also useful completely independently as this provides administrators with an easy place to diff their own configuration in /etc against to see what local changes are in place.
  • We added a new --tmpfs= switch to systemd-nspawn to make testing of systems with unpopulated /etc and /var easy. For example, to run a fully state-less container, use a command line like this:

    # system-nspawn -D /srv/mycontainer --read-only --tmpfs=/var --tmpfs=/etc -b

    This command line will invoke the container tree stored in /srv/mycontainer in a read-only way, but with a (writable) tmpfs mounted to /var and /etc. With a very recent git snapshot of systemd invoking a Fedora rawhide system should mostly work OK, modulo the D-Bus and PAM problems mentioned above. A later version of systemd-nspawn is likely to gain a high-level switch --mode={stateful|volatile|stateless} that sets combines this into simple switches reusing the vocabulary introduced earlier.

What's Next

Pulling this all together we are very close to making boots with empty /etc and /var on general purpose Linux operating systems a reality. Of course, while doing the groundwork in systemd gets us some distance, there's a lot of work left. Most importantly: the majority of Linux packages are simply incomptible with this scheme the way they are currently set up. They do not work without configuration in /etc or state directories in /var; they do not drop system user information in /usr/lib/sysusers.d. However, we believe it's our job to do the groundwork, and to start somewhere.

So what does this mean for the next steps? Of course, currently very little of this is available in any distribution (simply already because 215 isn't even released yet). However, this will hopefully change quickly. As soon as that is accomplished we can start working on making the other components of the OS work nicely in this scheme. If you are an upstream developer, please consider making your software work correctly if /etc and/or /var are not populated. This means:

  • When you need a state directory in /var and it is missing, create it first. If you cannot do that, because you dropped priviliges or suchlike, please consider dropping in a tmpfiles snippet that creates the directory with the right permissions early at boot, should it be missing.
  • When you need configuration files in /etc to work properly, consider changing your application to work nicely when these files are missing, and automatically fall back to either built-in defaults, or to static vendor-supplied configuration files shipped in /usr, so that administrators can override configuration in /etc but if they don't the default configuration counts.
  • When you need a system user or group, consider dropping in a file into /usr/lib/sysusers.d describing the users. (Currently documentation on this is minimal, we will provide more docs on this shortly.)

If you are a packager, you can also help on making this all work:

  • Ask upstream to implement what we describe above, possibly even preparing a patch for this.
  • If upstream will not make these changes, then consider dropping in tmpfiles snippets that copy the bare minimum of configuration files to make your software work from somewhere in /usr into /etc.
  • Consider moving from imperative useradd commands in packaging scripts, to declarative sysusers files. Ideally, this is shipped upstream too, but if that's not possible then simply adding this to packages should be good enough.

Of course, before moving to declarative system user definitions you should consult with your distribution whether their packaging policy even allows that. Currently, most distributions will not, so we have to work to get this changed first.

Anyway, so much about what we have been working on and where we want to take this.


Before we finish, let me stress again why we are doing all this:

  1. For end-user machines like desktops, tablets or mobile phones, we want a generic way to implement factory reset, which the user can make use of when the system is broken (saves you support costs), or when he wants to sell it and get rid of his private data, and renew that "fresh car smell".
  2. For embedded machines we want a generic way how to reset devices. We also want a way how every single boot can be identical to a factory reset, in a stateless system design.
  3. For all kinds of systems we want to centralize vendor data in /usr so that it can be strictly read-only, and fully cryptographically verified as one unit.
  4. We want to enable new kinds of OS installers that simply deserialize a vendor OS /usr snapshot into a new file system, install a boot loader and reboot, leaving all first-time configuration to the next boot.
  5. We want to enable new kinds of OS updaters that build on this, and manage a number of vendor OS /usr snapshots in verified states, and which can then update /etc and /var simply by rebooting into a newer version.
  6. We wanto to scale container setups naturally, by sharing a single golden master /usr tree with a large number of instances that simply maintain their own private /etc and /var for their private configuration and state, while still allowing clean updates of /usr.
  7. We want to make thin clients that share /usr across the network work by allowing stateless bootups. During all discussions on how /usr was to be organized this was fequently mentioned. A setup like this so far only worked in very specific cases, with this scheme we want to make this work in general case.

Of course, we have no illusions, just doing the groundwork for all of this in systemd doesn't make this all a real-life solution yet. Also, it's very unlikely that all of Fedora (or any other general purpose distribution) will support this scheme for all its packages soon, however, we are quite confident that the idea is convincing, that we need to start somewhere, and that getting the most core packages adapted to this shouldn't be out of reach.

Oh, and of course, the concepts behind this are really not new, we know that. However, what's new here is that we try to make them available in a general purpose OS core, instead of special purpose systems.

Anyway, let's get the ball rolling! Late's make stateless systems a reality!

And that's all I have for now. I am sure this leaves a lot of questions open. If you have any, join us on IRC on #systemd on freenode or comment on Google+.

Upcoming Events

You are invited to three events:

Christoph Wickert set up a Fedora 19 Release Party here in Berlin! Please join us on Tuesday, July 2nd.

We'll have another Berlin Open Source Meetup on Sunday, July 14th.

And finally, theres' going to be another systemd Hackfest, this time colocated with GUADEC, on Tuesday/Wednesday, August 6th/7th.

See you soon!

GNOME.Asia and LinuxCon Japan

Two weeks ago I attended GNOME.Asia/Seoul and LinuxCon Japan/Tokyo, thanks to sponsoring by the GNOME Foundation and the Linux Foundation. At GNOME.Asia I spoke about Sandboxed Applications for GNOME, and at LinuxCon Japan about the first three years of systemd. (I think at least the latter one was videotaped, and recordings might show up on the net eventually). I like to believe both talks went pretty well, and helped getting the message across to community what we are working on and what the roadmap for us is, and what we expect from the various projects, and especially GNOME. However, for me personally the hallway track was the most interesting part. The personal Q&A regarding our work on kdbus, cgroups, systemd and related projects where highly interesting. In fact, at both conferences we had something like impromptu hackfests on the topics of kdbus and cgroups, with some conferences attendees. I also enjoyed the opportunity to be on Karen's upcoming GNOME podcast, recorded in a session at Gyeongbokgung Palace in Seoul (what better place could there be for a podcast recording?).

I'd like to thank the GNOME and Linux foundations for sponsoring my attendance to these conferences. I'd especially like to thank the organizers of GNOME.Asia for their perfectly organized conference!

GNOME Travel Badge

It's Time Again!

My fellow Berliners! There's another Berlin Open Source Meetup scheduled for this Sunday! You are invited!

See you on Sunday!

What Are We Breaking Now?

End of February took place in Brno, Czech Republic. At the conference Kay Sievers, Harald Hoyer and I did two presentations about our work on systemd and about the systemd Journal. These talks were taped and the recordings are now available online.

First, here's our talk about What Are We Breaking Now?, in which we try to give an overview on what we are working on currently in the systemd context, and what we expect to do in the next few months. We cover Predictable Network Interface Names, the Boot Loader Spec, kdbus, the Apps framework, and more.

And then, I did my second talk about The systemd Journal, with a focus on how to practically make use of journalctl, as a day-to-day tool for administrators (these practical bits start around 28:40). The commands demoed here are all explained in an earlier blog story of mine.

Unfortunately, the audience questions are sometimes hard or impossible to understand from the videos, and sometimes the text on the slides is hard to read, but I still believe that the two talks are quite interesting.

systemd Hackfest!

Hey, you, systemd hacker, Fedora hacker! Listen up! This Thu/Fri is the systemd Hackfest in Brno/Czech Rep, right before! On thursday we'll talk about (and hack on) all things systemd. And the hackfest friday is going to be a Fedora Activity Day, so we'll have a focus on systemd integration into Fedora.

You are invited!

See you in Brno!

The Biggest Myths

Since we first proposed systemd for inclusion in the distributions it has been frequently discussed in many forums, mailing lists and conferences. In these discussions one can often hear certain myths about systemd, that are repeated over and over again, but certainly don't gain any truth by constant repetition. Let's take the time to debunk a few of them:

  1. Myth: systemd is monolithic.

    If you build systemd with all configuration options enabled you will build 69 individual binaries. These binaries all serve different tasks, and are neatly separated for a number of reasons. For example, we designed systemd with security in mind, hence most daemons run at minimal privileges (using kernel capabilities, for example) and are responsible for very specific tasks only, to minimize their security surface and impact. Also, systemd parallelizes the boot more than any prior solution. This parallization happens by running more processes in parallel. Thus it is essential that systemd is nicely split up into many binaries and thus processes. In fact, many of these binaries[1] are separated out so nicely, that they are very useful outside of systemd, too.

    A package involving 69 individual binaries can hardly be called monolithic. What is different from prior solutions however, is that we ship more components in a single tarball, and maintain them upstream in a single repository with a unified release cycle.

  2. Myth: systemd is about speed.

    Yes, systemd is fast (A pretty complete userspace boot-up in ~900ms, anyone?), but that's primarily just a side-effect of doing things right. In fact, we never really sat down and optimized the last tiny bit of performance out of systemd. Instead, we actually frequently knowingly picked the slightly slower code paths in order to keep the code more readable. This doesn't mean being fast was irrelevant for us, but reducing systemd to its speed is certainly quite a misconception, since that is certainly not anywhere near the top of our list of goals.

  3. Myth: systemd's fast boot-up is irrelevant for servers.

    That is just completely not true. Many administrators actually are keen on reduced downtimes during maintenance windows. In High Availability setups it's kinda nice if the failed machine comes back up really fast. In cloud setups with a large number of VMs or containers the price of slow boots multiplies with the number of instances. Spending minutes of CPU and IO on really slow boots of hundreds of VMs or containers reduces your system's density drastically, heck, it even costs you more energy. Slow boots can be quite financially expensive. Then, fast booting of containers allows you to implement a logic such as socket activated containers, allowing you to drastically increase the density of your cloud system.

    Of course, in many server setups boot-up is indeed irrelevant, but systemd is supposed to cover the whole range. And yes, I am aware that often it is the server firmware that costs the most time at boot-up, and the OS anyways fast compared to that, but well, systemd is still supposed to cover the whole range (see above...), and no, not all servers have such bad firmware, and certainly not VMs and containers, which are servers of a kind, too.[2]

  4. Myth: systemd is incompatible with shell scripts.

    This is entirely bogus. We just don't use them for the boot process, because we believe they aren't the best tool for that specific purpose, but that doesn't mean systemd was incompatible with them. You can easily run shell scripts as systemd services, heck, you can run scripts written in any language as systemd services, systemd doesn't care the slightest bit what's inside your executable. Moreover, we heavily use shell scripts for our own purposes, for installing, building, testing systemd. And you can stick your scripts in the early boot process, use them for normal services, you can run them at latest shutdown, there are practically no limits.

  5. Myth: systemd is difficult.

    This also is entire non-sense. A systemd platform is actually much simpler than traditional Linuxes because it unifies system objects and their dependencies as systemd units. The configuration file language is very simple, and redundant configuration files we got rid of. We provide uniform tools for much of the configuration of the system. The system is much less conglomerate than traditional Linuxes are. We also have pretty comprehensive documentation (all linked from the homepage) about pretty much every detail of systemd, and this not only covers admin/user-facing interfaces, but also developer APIs.

    systemd certainly comes with a learning curve. Everything does. However, we like to believe that it is actually simpler to understand systemd than a Shell-based boot for most people. Surprised we say that? Well, as it turns out, Shell is not a pretty language to learn, it's syntax is arcane and complex. systemd unit files are substantially easier to understand, they do not expose a programming language, but are simple and declarative by nature. That all said, if you are experienced in shell, then yes, adopting systemd will take a bit of learning.

    To make learning easy we tried hard to provide the maximum compatibility to previous solutions. But not only that, on many distributions you'll find that some of the traditional tools will now even tell you -- while executing what you are asking for -- how you could do it with the newer tools instead, in a possibly nicer way.

    Anyway, the take-away is probably that systemd is probably as simple as such a system can be, and that we try hard to make it easy to learn. But yes, if you know sysvinit then adopting systemd will require a bit learning, but quite frankly if you mastered sysvinit, then systemd should be easy for you.

  6. Myth: systemd is not modular.

    Not true at all. At compile time you have a number of configure switches to select what you want to build, and what not. And we document how you can select in even more detail what you need, going beyond our configure switches.

    This modularity is not totally unlike the one of the Linux kernel, where you can select many features individually at compile time. If the kernel is modular enough for you then systemd should be pretty close, too.

  7. Myth: systemd is only for desktops.

    That is certainly not true. With systemd we try to cover pretty much the same range as Linux itself does. While we care for desktop uses, we also care pretty much the same way for server uses, and embedded uses as well. You can bet that Red Hat wouldn't make it a core piece of RHEL7 if it wasn't the best option for managing services on servers.

    People from numerous companies work on systemd. Car manufactureres build it into cars, Red Hat uses it for a server operating system, and GNOME uses many of its interfaces for improving the desktop. You find it in toys, in space telescopes, and in wind turbines.

    Most features I most recently worked on are probably relevant primarily on servers, such as container support, resource management or the security features. We cover desktop systems pretty well already, and there are number of companies doing systemd development for embedded, some even offer consulting services in it.

  8. Myth: systemd was created as result of the NIH syndrome.

    This is not true. Before we began working on systemd we were pushing for Canonical's Upstart to be widely adopted (and Fedora/RHEL used it too for a while). However, we eventually came to the conclusion that its design was inherently flawed at its core (at least in our eyes: most fundamentally, it leaves dependency management to the admin/developer, instead of solving this hard problem in code), and if something's wrong in the core you better replace it, rather than fix it. This was hardly the only reason though, other things that came into play, such as the licensing/contribution agreement mess around it. NIH wasn't one of the reasons, though...[3]

  9. Myth: systemd is a project.

    Well, systemd is certainly hosted at fdo, but is little else but a repository for code and documentation. Pretty much any coder can request a repository there and dump his stuff there (as long as it's somewhat relevant for the infrastructure of free systems). There's no cabal involved, no "standardization" scheme, no project vetting, nothing. It's just a nice, free, reliable place to have your repository. In that regard it's a bit like SourceForge, github,, just not commercial and without over-the-top requirements, and hence a good place to keep our stuff.

    So yes, we host our stuff at fdo, but the implied assumption of this myth in that there was a group of people who meet and then agree on how the future free systems look like, is entirely bogus.

  10. Myth: systemd is not UNIX.

    There's certainly some truth in that. systemd's sources do not contain a single line of code originating from original UNIX. However, we derive inspiration from UNIX, and thus there's a ton of UNIX in systemd. For example, the UNIX idea of "everything is a file" finds reflection in that in systemd all services are exposed at runtime in a kernel file system, the cgroupfs. Then, one of the original features of UNIX was multi-seat support, based on built-in terminal support. Text terminals are hardly the state of the art how you interface with your computer these days however. With systemd we brought native multi-seat support back, but this time with full support for today's hardware, covering graphics, mice, audio, webcams and more, and all that fully automatic, hotplug-capable and without configuration. In fact the design of systemd as a suite of integrated tools that each have their individual purposes but when used together are more than just the sum of the parts, that's pretty much at the core of UNIX philosophy. Then, the way our project is handled (i.e. maintaining much of the core OS in a single git repository) is much closer to the BSD model (which is a true UNIX, unlike Linux) of doing things (where most of the core OS is kept in a single CVS/SVN repository) than things on Linux ever were.

    Ultimately, UNIX is something different for everybody. For us systemd maintainers it is something we derive inspiration from. For others it is a religion, and much like the other world religions there are different readings and understandings of it. Some define UNIX based on specific pieces of code heritage, others see it just as a set of ideas, others as a set of commands or APIs, and even others as a definition of behaviours. Of course, it is impossible to ever make all these people happy.

    Ultimately the question whether something is UNIX or not matters very little. Being technically excellent is hardly exclusive to UNIX. For us, UNIX is a major influence (heck, the biggest one), but we also have other influences. Hence in some areas systemd will be very UNIXy, and in others a little bit less.

  11. Myth: systemd is complex.

    There's certainly some truth in that. Modern computers are complex beasts, and the OS running on it will hence have to be complex too. However, systemd is certainly not more complex than prior implementations of the same components. Much rather, it's simpler, and has less redundancy (see above). Moreover, building a simple OS based on systemd will involve much fewer packages than a traditional Linux did. Fewer packages makes it easier to build your system, gets rid of interdependencies and of much of the different behaviour of every component involved.

  12. Myth: systemd is bloated.

    Well, bloated certainly has many different definitions. But in most definitions systemd is probably the opposite of bloat. Since systemd components share a common code base, they tend to share much more code for common code paths. Here's an example: in a traditional Linux setup, sysvinit, start-stop-daemon, inetd, cron, dbus, all implemented a scheme to execute processes with various configuration options in a certain, hopefully clean environment. On systemd the code paths for all of this, for the configuration parsing, as well as the actual execution is shared. This means less code, less place for mistakes, less memory and cache pressure, and is thus a very good thing. And as a side-effect you actually get a ton more functionality for it...

    As mentioned above, systemd is also pretty modular. You can choose at build time which components you need, and which you don't need. People can hence specifically choose the level of "bloat" they want.

    When you build systemd, it only requires three dependencies: glibc, libcap and dbus. That's it. It can make use of more dependencies, but these are entirely optional.

    So, yeah, whichever way you look at it, it's really not bloated.

  13. Myth: systemd being Linux-only is not nice to the BSDs.

    Completely wrong. The BSD folks are pretty much uninterested in systemd. If systemd was portable, this would change nothing, they still wouldn't adopt it. And the same is true for the other Unixes in the world. Solaris has SMF, BSD has their own "rc" system, and they always maintained it separately from Linux. The init system is very close to the core of the entire OS. And these other operating systems hence define themselves among other things by their core userspace. The assumption that they'd adopt our core userspace if we just made it portable, is completely without any foundation.

  14. Myth: systemd being Linux-only makes it impossible for Debian to adopt it as default.

    Debian supports non-Linux kernels in their distribution. systemd won't run on those. Is that a problem though, and should that hinder them to adopt system as default? Not really. The folks who ported Debian to these other kernels were willing to invest time in a massive porting effort, they set up test and build systems, and patched and built numerous packages for their goal. The maintainance of both a systemd unit file and a classic init script for the packaged services is a negligable amount of work compared to that, especially since those scripts more often than not exist already.

  15. Myth: systemd could be ported to other kernels if its maintainers just wanted to.

    That is simply not true. Porting systemd to other kernel is not feasible. We just use too many Linux-specific interfaces. For a few one might find replacements on other kernels, some features one might want to turn off, but for most this is nor really possible. Here's a small, very incomprehensive list: cgroups, fanotify, umount2(), /proc/self/mountinfo (including notification), /dev/swaps (same), udev, netlink, the structure of /sys, /proc/$PID/comm, /proc/$PID/cmdline, /proc/$PID/loginuid, /proc/$PID/stat, /proc/$PID/session, /proc/$PID/exe, /proc/$PID/fd, tmpfs, devtmpfs, capabilities, namespaces of all kinds, various prctl()s, numerous ioctls, the mount() system call and its semantics, selinux, audit, inotify, statfs, O_DIRECTORY, O_NOATIME, /proc/$PID/root, waitid(), SCM_CREDENTIALS, SCM_RIGHTS, mkostemp(), /dev/input, ...

    And no, if you look at this list and pick out the few where you can think of obvious counterparts on other kernels, then think again, and look at the others you didn't pick, and the complexity of replacing them.

  16. Myth: systemd is not portable for no reason.

    Non-sense! We use the Linux-specific functionality because we need it to implement what we want. Linux has so many features that UNIX/POSIX didn't have, and we want to empower the user with them. These features are incredibly useful, but only if they are actually exposed in a friendly way to the user, and that's what we do with systemd.

  17. Myth: systemd uses binary configuration files.

    No idea who came up with this crazy myth, but it's absolutely not true. systemd is configured pretty much exclusively via simple text files. A few settings you can also alter with the kernel command line and via environment variables. There's nothing binary in its configuration (not even XML). Just plain, simple, easy-to-read text files.

  18. Myth: systemd is a feature creep.

    Well, systemd certainly covers more ground that it used to. It's not just an init system anymore, but the basic userspace building block to build an OS from, but we carefully make sure to keep most of the features optional. You can turn a lot off at compile time, and even more at runtime. Thus you can choose freely how much feature creeping you want.

  19. Myth: systemd forces you to do something.

    systemd is not the mafia. It's Free Software, you can do with it whatever you want, and that includes not using it. That's pretty much the opposite of "forcing".

  20. Myth: systemd makes it impossible to run syslog.

    Not true, we carefully made sure when we introduced the journal that all data is also passed on to any syslog daemon running. In fact, if something changed, then only that syslog gets more complete data now than it got before, since we now cover early boot stuff as well as STDOUT/STDERR of any system service.

  21. Myth: systemd is incompatible.

    We try very hard to provide the best possible compatibility with sysvinit. In fact, the vast majority of init scripts should work just fine on systemd, unmodified. However, there actually are indeed a few incompatibilities, but we try to document these and explain what to do about them. Ultimately every system that is not actually sysvinit itself will have a certain amount of incompatibilities with it since it will not share the exect same code paths.

    It is our goal to ensure that differences between the various distributions are kept at a minimum. That means unit files usually work just fine on a different distribution than you wrote it on, which is a big improvement over classic init scripts which are very hard to write in a way that they run on multiple Linux distributions, due to numerous incompatibilities between them.

  22. Myth: systemd is not scriptable, because of its D-Bus use.

    Not true. Pretty much every single D-Bus interface systemd provides is also available in a command line tool, for example in systemctl, loginctl, timedatectl, hostnamectl, localectl and suchlike. You can easily call these tools from shell scripts, they open up pretty much the entire API from the command line with easy-to-use commands.

    That said, D-Bus actually has bindings for almost any scripting language this world knows. Even from the shell you can invoke arbitrary D-Bus methods with dbus-send or gdbus. If anything, this improves scriptability due to the good support of D-Bus in the various scripting languages.

  23. Myth: systemd requires you to use some arcane configuration tools instead of allowing you to edit your configuration files directly.

    Not true at all. We offer some configuration tools, and using them gets you a bit of additional functionality (for example, command line completion for all settings!), but there's no need at all to use them. You can always edit the files in question directly if you wish, and that's fully supported. Of course sometimes you need to explicitly reload configuration of some daemon after editing the configuration, but that's pretty much true for most UNIX services.

  24. Myth: systemd is unstable and buggy.

    Certainly not according to our data. We have been monitoring the Fedora bug tracker (and some others) closely for a long long time. The number of bugs is very low for such a central component of the OS, especially if you discount the numerous RFE bugs we track for the project. We are pretty good in keeping systemd out of the list of blocker bugs of the distribution. We have a relatively fast development cycle with mostly incremental changes to keep quality and stability high.

  25. Myth: systemd is not debuggable.

    False. Some people try to imply that the shell was a good debugger. Well, it isn't really. In systemd we provide you with actual debugging features instead. For example: interactive debugging, verbose tracing, the ability to mask any component during boot, and more. Also, we provide documentation for it.

    It's certainly well debuggable, we needed that for our own development work, after all. But we'll grant you one thing: it uses different debugging tools, we believe more appropriate ones for the purpose, though.

  26. Myth: systemd makes changes for the changes' sake.

    Very much untrue. We pretty much exclusively have technical reasons for the changes we make, and we explain them in the various pieces of documentation, wiki pages, blog articles, mailing list announcements. We try hard to avoid making incompatible changes, and if we do we try to document the why and how in detail. And if you wonder about something, just ask us!

  27. Myth: systemd is a Red-Hat-only project, is private property of some smart-ass developers, who use it to push their views to the world.

    Not true. Currently, there are 16 hackers with commit powers to the systemd git tree. Of these 16 only six are employed by Red Hat. The 10 others are folks from ArchLinux, from Debian, from Intel, even from Canonical, Mandriva, Pantheon and a number of community folks with full commit rights. And they frequently commit big stuff, major changes. Then, there are 374 individuals with patches in our tree, and they too came from a number of different companies and backgrounds, and many of those have way more than one patch in the tree. The discussions about where we want to take systemd are done in the open, on our IRC channel (#systemd on freenode, you are always weclome), on our mailing list, and on public hackfests (such as our next one in Brno, you are invited). We regularly attend various conferences, to collect feedback, to explain what we are doing and why, like few others do. We maintain blogs, engage in social networks (we actually have some pretty interesting content on Google+, and our Google+ Community is pretty alive, too.), and try really hard to explain the why and the how how we do things, and to listen to feedback and figure out where the current issues are (for example, from that feedback we compiled this lists of often heard myths about systemd...).

    What most systemd contributors probably share is a rough idea how a good OS should look like, and the desire to make it happen. However, by the very nature of the project being Open Source, and rooted in the community systemd is just what people want it to be, and if it's not what they want then they can drive the direction with patches and code, and if that's not feasible, then there are numerous other options to use, too, systemd is never exclusive.

    One goal of systemd is to unify the dispersed Linux landscape a bit. We try to get rid of many of the more pointless differences of the various distributions in various areas of the core OS. As part of that we sometimes adopt schemes that were previously used by only one of the distributions and push it to a level where it's the default of systemd, trying to gently push everybody towards the same set of basic configuration. This is never exclusive though, distributions can continue to deviate from that if they wish, however, if they end-up using the well-supported default their work becomes much easier and they might gain a feature or two. Now, as it turns out, more frequently than not we actually adopted schemes that where Debianisms, rather than Fedoraisms/Redhatisms as best supported scheme by systemd. For example, systems running systemd now generally store their hostname in /etc/hostname, something that used to be specific to Debian and now is used across distributions.

    One thing we'll grant you though, we sometimes can be smart-asses. We try to be prepared whenever we open our mouth, in order to be able to back-up with facts what we claim. That might make us appear as smart-asses.

    But in general, yes, some of the more influental contributors of systemd work for Red Hat, but they are in the minority, and systemd is a healthy, open community with different interests, different backgrounds, just unified by a few rough ideas where the trip should go, a community where code and its design counts, and certainly not company affiliation.

  28. Myth: systemd doesn't support /usr split from the root directory.

    Non-sense. Since its beginnings systemd supports the --with-rootprefix= option to its configure script which allows you to tell systemd to neatly split up the stuff needed for early boot and the stuff needed for later on. All this logic is fully present and we keep it up-to-date right there in systemd's build system.

    Of course, we still don't think that actually booting with /usr unavailable is a good idea, but we support this just fine in our build system. This won't fix the inherent problems of the scheme that you'll encounter all across the board, but you can't blame that on systemd, because in systemd we support this just fine.

  29. Myth: systemd doesn't allow your to replace its components.

    Not true, you can turn off and replace pretty much any part of systemd, with very few exceptions. And those exceptions (such as journald) generally allow you to run an alternative side by side to it, while cooperating nicely with it.

  30. Myth: systemd's use of D-Bus instead of sockets makes it intransparent.

    This claim is already contradictory in itself: D-Bus uses sockets as transport, too. Hence whenever D-Bus is used to send something around, a socket is used for that too. D-Bus is mostly a standardized serialization of messages to send over these sockets. If anything this makes it more transparent, since this serialization is well documented, understood and there are numerous tracing tools and language bindings for it. This is very much unlike the usual homegrown protocols the various classic UNIX daemons use to communicate locally.

Hmm, did I write I just wanted to debunk a "few" myths? Maybe these were more than just a few... Anyway, I hope I managed to clear up a couple of misconceptions. Thanks for your time.


[1] For example, systemd-detect-virt, systemd-tmpfiles, systemd-udevd are.

[2] Also, we are trying to do our little part on maybe making this better. By exposing boot-time performance of the firmware more prominently in systemd's boot output we hope to shame the firmware writers to clean up their stuff.

[3] And anyways, guess which project includes a library "libnih" -- Upstart or systemd?[4]

[4] Hint: it's not systemd!

systemd for Administrators, Part XX

This is no time for procrastination, here is already the twentieth installment of my ongoing series on systemd for Administrators:

Socket Activated Internet Services and OS Containers

Socket Activation is an important feature of systemd. When we first announced systemd we already tried to make the point how great socket activation is for increasing parallelization and robustness of socket services, but also for simplifying the dependency logic of the boot. In this episode I'd like to explain why socket activation is an important tool for drastically improving how many services and even containers you can run on a single system with the same resource usage. Or in other words, how you can drive up the density of customer sites on a system while spending less on new hardware.

Socket Activated Internet Services

First, let's take a step back. What was socket activation again? -- Basically, socket activation simply means that systemd sets up listening sockets (IP or otherwise) on behalf of your services (without these running yet), and then starts (activates) the services as soon as the first connection comes in. Depending on the technology the services might idle for a while after having processed the connection and possible follow-up connections before they exit on their own, so that systemd will again listen on the sockets and activate the services again the next time they are connected to. For the client it is not visible whether the service it is interested in is currently running or not. The service's IP socket stays continously connectable, no connection attempt ever fails, and all connects will be processed promptly.

A setup like this lowers resource usage: as services are only running when needed they only consume resources when required. Many internet sites and services can benefit from that. For example, web site hosters will have noticed that of the multitude of web sites that are on the Internet only a tiny fraction gets a continous stream of requests: the huge majority of web sites still needs to be available all the time but gets requests only very unfrequently. With a scheme like socket activation you take benefit of this. By hosting many of these sites on a single system like this and only activating their services as necessary allows a large degree of over-commit: you can run more sites on your system than the available resources actually allow. Of course, one shouldn't over-commit too much to avoid contention during peak times.

Socket activation like this is easy to use in systemd. Many modern Internet daemons already support socket activation out of the box (and for those which don't yet it's not hard to add). Together with systemd's instantiated units support it is easy to write a pair of service and socket templates that then may be instantiated multiple times, once for each site. Then, (optionally) make use of some of the security features of systemd to nicely isolate the customer's site's services from each other (think: each customer's service should only see the home directory of the customer, everybody else's directories should be invisible), and there you go: you now have a highly scalable and reliable server system, that serves a maximum of securely sandboxed services at a minimum of resources, and all nicely done with built-in technology of your OS.

This kind of setup is already in production use in a number of companies. For example, the great folks at Pantheon are running their scalable instant Drupal system on a setup that is similar to this. (In fact, Pantheon's David Strauss pioneered this scheme. David, you rock!)

Socket Activated OS Containers

All of the above can already be done with older versions of systemd. If you use a distribution that is based on systemd, you can right-away set up a system like the one explained above. But let's take this one step further. With systemd 197 (to be included in Fedora 19), we added support for socket activating not only individual services, but entire OS containers. And I really have to say it at this point: this is stuff I am really excited about. ;-)

Basically, with socket activated OS containers, the host's systemd instance will listen on a number of ports on behalf of a container, for example one for SSH, one for web and one for the database, and as soon as the first connection comes in, it will spawn the container this is intended for, and pass to it all three sockets. Inside of the container, another systemd is running and will accept the sockets and then distribute them further, to the services running inside the container using normal socket activation. The SSH, web and database services will only see the inside of the container, even though they have been activated by sockets that were originally created on the host! Again, to the clients this all is not visible. That an entire OS container is spawned, triggered by simple network connection is entirely transparent to the client side.[1]

The OS containers may contain (as the name suggests) a full operating system, that might even be a different distribution than is running on the host. For example, you could run your host on Fedora, but run a number of Debian containers inside of it. The OS containers will have their own systemd init system, their own SSH instances, their own process tree, and so on, but will share a number of other facilities (such as memory management) with the host.

For now, only systemd's own trivial container manager, systemd-nspawn has been updated to support this kind of socket activation. We hope that libvirt-lxc will soon gain similar functionality. At this point, let's see in more detail how such a setup is configured in systemd using nspawn:

First, please use a tool such as debootstrap or yum's --installroot to set up a container OS tree[2]. The details of that are a bit out-of-focus for this story, there's plenty of documentation around how to do this. Of course, make sure you have systemd v197 installed inside the container. For accessing the container from the command line, consider using systemd-nspawn itself. After you configured everything properly, try to boot it up from the command line with systemd-nspawn's -b switch.

Assuming you now have a working container that boots up fine, let's write a service file for it, to turn the container into a systemd service on the host you can start and stop. Let's create /etc/systemd/system/mycontainer.service on the host:

Description=My little container

ExecStart=/usr/bin/systemd-nspawn -jbD /srv/mycontainer 3

This service can already be started and stopped via systemctl start and systemctl stop. However, there's no nice way to actually get a shell prompt inside the container. So let's add SSH to it, and even more: let's configure SSH so that a connection to the container's SSH port will socket-activate the entire container. First, let's begin with telling the host that it shall now listen on the SSH port of the container. Let's create /etc/systemd/system/mycontainer.socket on the host:

Description=The SSH socket of my little container


If we start this unit with systemctl start on the host then it will listen on port 23, and as soon as a connection comes in it will activate our container service we defined above. We pick port 23 here, instead of the usual 22, as our host's SSH is already listening on that. nspawn virtualizes the process list and the file system tree, but does not actually virtualize the network stack, hence we just pick different ports for the host and the various containers here.

Of course, the system inside the container doesn't yet know what to do with the socket it gets passed due to socket activation. If you'd now try to connect to the port, the container would start-up but the incoming connection would be immediately closed since the container can't handle it yet. Let's fix that!

All that's necessary for that is teach SSH inside the container socket activation. For that let's simply write a pair of socket and service units for SSH. Let's create /etc/systemd/system/sshd.socket in the container:

Description=SSH Socket for Per-Connection Servers


Then, let's add the matching SSH service file /etc/systemd/system/sshd@.service in the container:

Description=SSH Per-Connection Server for %I

ExecStart=-/usr/sbin/sshd -i

Then, make sure to hook sshd.socket into the so that unit is started automatically when the container boots up:

ln -s /etc/systemd/system/sshd.socket /etc/systemd/system/

And that's it. If we now activate mycontainer.socket on the host, the host's systemd will bind the socket and we can connect to it. If we do this, the host's systemd will activate the container, and pass the socket in to it. The container's systemd will then take the socket, match it up with sshd.socket inside the container. As there's still our incoming connection queued on it, it will then immediately trigger an instance of sshd@.service, and we'll have our login.

And that's already everything there is to it. You can easily add additional sockets to listen on to mycontainer.socket. Everything listed therein will be passed to the container on activation, and will be matched up as good as possible with all socket units configured inside the container. Sockets that cannot be matched up will be closed, and sockets that aren't passed in but are configured for listening will be bound be the container's systemd instance.

So, let's take a step back again. What did we gain through all of this? Well, basically, we can now offer a number of full OS containers on a single host, and the containers can offer their services without running continously. The density of OS containers on the host can hence be increased drastically.

Of course, this only works for kernel-based virtualization, not for hardware virtualization. i.e. something like this can only be implemented on systems such as libvirt-lxc or nspawn, but not in qemu/kvm.

If you have a number of containers set up like this, here's one cool thing the journal allows you to do. If you pass -m to journalctl on the host, it will automatically discover the journals of all local containers and interleave them on display. Nifty, eh?

With systemd 197 you have everything to set up your own socket activated OS containers on-board. However, there are a couple of improvements we're likely to add soon: for example, right now even if all services inside the container exit on idle, the container still will stay around, and we really should make it exit on idle too, if all its services exited and no logins are around. As it turns out we already have much of the infrastructure for this around: we can reuse the auto-suspend functionality we added for laptops: detecting when a laptop is idle and suspending it then is a very similar problem to detecting when a container is idle and shutting it down then.

Anyway, this blog story is already way too long. I hope I haven't lost you half-way already with all this talk of virtualization, sockets, services, different OSes and stuff. I hope this blog story is a good starting point for setting up powerful highly scalable server systems. If you want to know more, consult the documentation and drop by our IRC channel. Thank you!


[1] And BTW, this is another reason why fast boot times the way systemd offers them are actually a really good thing on servers, too.

[2] To make it easy: you need a command line such as yum --releasever=19 --nogpg --installroot=/srv/mycontainer/ --disablerepo='*' --enablerepo=fedora install systemd passwd yum fedora-release vim-minimal to install Fedora, and debootstrap --arch=amd64 unstable /srv/mycontainer/ to install Debian. Also see the bottom of systemd-nspawn(1). Also note that auditing is currently broken for containers, and if enabled in the kernel will cause all kinds of errors in the container. Use audit=0 on the host's kernel command line to turn it off.

systemd for Administrators, Part XIX

Happy new year 2013! Here is now the nineteenth installment of my ongoing series on systemd for Administrators:

Detecting Virtualization

When we started working on systemd we had a closer look on what the various existing init scripts used on Linux where actually doing. Among other things we noticed that a number of them where checking explicitly whether they were running in a virtualized environment (i.e. in a kvm, VMWare, LXC guest or suchlike) or not. Some init scripts disabled themselves in such cases[1], others enabled themselves only in such cases[2]. Frequently, it would probably have been a better idea to check for other conditions rather than explicitly checking for virtualization, but after looking at this from all sides we came to the conclusion that in many cases explicitly conditionalizing services based on detected virtualization is a valid thing to do. As a result we added a new configuration option to systemd that can be used to conditionalize services this way: ConditionVirtualization; we also added a small tool that can be used in shell scripts to detect virtualization: systemd-detect-virt(1); and finally, we added a minimal bus interface to query this from other applications.

Detecting whether your code is run inside a virtualized environment is actually not that hard. Depending on what precisely you want to detect it's little more than running the CPUID instruction and maybe checking a few files in /sys and /proc. The complexity is mostly about knowing the strings to look for, and keeping this list up-to-date. Currently, the the virtualization detection code in systemd can detect the following virtualization systems:

  • Hardware virtualization (i.e. VMs):

    • qemu
    • kvm
    • vmware
    • microsoft
    • oracle
    • xen
    • bochs
  • Same-kernel virtualization (i.e. containers):

Let's have a look how one may make use if this functionality.

Conditionalizing Units

Adding ConditionVirtualization to the [Unit] section of a unit file is enough to conditionalize it depending on which virtualization is used or whether one is used at all. Here's an example:

Name=My Foobar Service (runs only only on guests)


Instead of specifiying "yes" or "no" it is possible to specify the ID of a specific virtualization solution (Example: "kvm", "vmware", ...), or either "container" or "vm" to check whether the kernel is virtualized or the hardware. Also, checks can be prefixed with an exclamation mark ("!") to invert a check. For further details see the manual page.

In Shell Scripts

In shell scripts it is easy to check for virtualized systems with the systemd-detect-virt(1) tool. Here's an example:

if systemd-detect-virt -q ; then
        echo "Virtualization is used:" `systemd-detect-virt`
        echo "No virtualization is used."

If this tool is run it will return with an exit code of zero (success) if a virtualization solution has been found, non-zero otherwise. It will also print a short identifier of the used virtualization solution, which can be suppressed with -q. Also, with the -c and -v parameters it is possible to detect only kernel or only hardware virtualization environments. For further details see the manual page.

In Programs

Whether virtualization is available is also exported on the system bus:

$ gdbus call --system --dest org.freedesktop.systemd1 --object-path /org/freedesktop/systemd1 --method org.freedesktop.DBus.Properties.Get org.freedesktop.systemd1.Manager Virtualization

This property contains the empty string if no virtualization is detected. Note that some container environments cannot be detected directly from unprivileged code. That's why we expose this property on the bus rather than providing a library -- the bus implicitly solves the privilege problem quite nicely.

Note that all of this will only ever detect and return information about the "inner-most" virtualization solution. If you stack virtualization ("We must go deeper!") then these interfaces will expose the one the code is most directly interfacing with. Specifically that means that if a container solution is used inside of a VM, then only the container is generally detected and returned.


[1] For example: running certain device management service in a container environment that has no access to any physical hardware makes little sense.

[2] For example: some VM solutions work best if certain vendor-specific userspace components are running that connect the guest with the host in some way.

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