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Theme fund: NGI0 PET
Start: 2021-02
End: 2022-10
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Software engineering


Safer and faster incremental software builds

As it stands, reproducible builds are not accessible to the average developer. Existing projects tackling this problem come with significant caveats: some rebuild packages from scratch, making them practically useless for interactive development, while discouraging users from hacking on the core parts of their system due to cascading rebuilds; others are drastically more efficient, but come with fewer correctness guarantees, and require build scripts to be re-implemented in custom DSLs, making them costly to adopt. This is further exacerbated by frustrating, flaky tooling, and the proliferation of compatibility issues arising from inherent constraints of these solutions. Ripple is a hermetic, incremental, meta build system. It provides stronger purity guarantees and improved efficiency over existing solutions, while being completely ecosystem-agnostic. In effect, Ripple can memoize arbitrary programs. This lets users migrate gradually, opting into ecosystem-specific optimizations and abstractions at their own pace, and opens up a huge number of creative possibilities. Ripple aims to make reproducible builds not only easy, but fun — encouraging mainstream adoption, so we might together put to rest the ghost of bygone builds.

Why does this actually matter to end users?

When you start up your computer, you will probably think twice before you download some random piece of software from the internet and run it. You know that doing so could allow unwelcome guests to your computer and your data. Your computer might even end up in a bot net. So when you see some nice piece of software, you will ask yourself the question: can I really trust the software? Perhaps you will check the origin it comes from. Better safe than sorry.

Did you miss checking something, though? What about the software that is already on your computer before you started? A computer is not of much use without an operating system. While most computers are sold with an operating system, actually you have the choice to remove that and install something different. Have you thought about the trustworthiness of that fundamental piece of software - your most fundamental travel companion on the wild west of the internet? Trustworthiness is essential. When an operating system has a so called 'back door' (either intentionally or not), someone could extract whatever user data - like personal pictures or home movies - from your computer. And the worse thing: without you ever finding out. The operating system guards all the other software, and warns you when you install software from the internet. But itself, it doesn't have to ask for permission. Ever. It doesn't just have "access all areas": in fact, it runs the whole show.

With commercial software like Microsoft Windows or Mac OS X that you get delivered when you buy a computer, trust in what their closed operating system does will of course always be a leap of faith: as a user you essentially are given no choice. In proprietary systems you do not have the freedom to study the source code, or to control what really happens. So you either trust the vendor, or you'd better not use it. For an increasing amount of people, after the revelations from whistleblowers like Edward Snowden, that "leap of faith" is not so obvious anymore. They prefer to use free and open source operating systems like GNU Linux, FreeBSD and OpenBSD. These are technology commons: the people that wrote the software allow you to inspect the source code. Even more so, they give you the source code to do anything with it that you like. So you don't just blindly have to take their word for it and trust them, you can take matters into your own hands.

One step beyond transparent source code is transparent running code. After all, most software is distributed pre-compiled with no method to confirm whether the binary code you have installed on your system is actually identical to the thoroughly vetted source code. To promote such reproducible code, Ripple helps developers and users transparently and incrementally build programs, without relying on any particular tool or ecosystem.

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This project was funded through the NGI0 PET Fund, a fund established by NLnet with financial support from the European Commission's Next Generation Internet programme, under the aegis of DG Communications Networks, Content and Technology under grant agreement No 825310.