Fedora, GNOME

Silverblue: pretty good family OS

I’m the go-to IT guy in the family, so my relatives rely on me when it comes to computers and software on them. In the past I also helped them with computers with Windows and macOS, but at some point I just gave up. I don’t know those systems well enough to effectively administer them and I don’t even have much interest in them. So I asked them to decide: you either use Linux which I know and can effectively help you with or ask someone else for help.

Long story short: I (mostly remotely) support quite a few Fedora (Linux of my choice) users in my family now. It’s a fairly easy task. Usually after I set up the machine I don’t hear from the user very often. Just once 6 months and a year typically when I visit them I upgrade the machine to the new release and check whether everything works. But Fedora upgrades became so easy and reliable that recently I usually just found out that they had already done it by themselves.

But there was still one recurring problem: even though they performed upgrades because it was probably a big enough thing to catch their attention they didn’t act on normal updates and I often found them with outdated applications such as Firefox.

I could set up automated DNF updates running in the background, but it’s really not the safest option. And that’s where Fedora Silverblue comes to rescue. Applications run as flatpaks which can be and in fact are by default updated automatically in the background. And it’s pretty safe because the updates are atomic and the app is not affected until you restart it.

The same goes for system updates. rpm-ostree can prepare the update in the background and the user switches to it once the computer is restarted.

So I thought: the user base of Silverblue typically consists of developers and power users used to the container-based workflow, but hey, it could actually be a pretty good system for the users I support in my family.

I got an opportunity to try it out some time ago. I visited my mom and decided to upgrade her laptop to Fedora 32. Everything would have gone well if my son hadn’t pulled the power cord out during the process. The laptop is old and has a dead battery, so it resulted in an immediate shutdown. And that’s never good during a system upgrade. Instead of manually fixing broken packages which is a lengthy process I decided to install Silverblue.

The fruits of it came a week later. My mom called me that she was experiencing some graphical glitches and hangs with Fedora 32. Probably some regression in drivers/mesa. It’s a T400s from 2009 and neither Intel nor anyone else does any thorough regression testing on such old models I suppose. On the standard Fedora Workstation my mom would have been screwed because there is no easy way back.

But it’s a different story on Silverblue. I just sent her one command over Telegram:

rpm-ostree rebase fedora/31/x86_64/silverblue

She copy-pasted it to Terminal, pressed Enter and 5 minutes later she was booting into Fedora 31.

And the best thing about it is not that it’s so easy to upgrade and rollback in Silverblue, but that the apps are not affected by that. I know that if I let my mom rollback to Fedora 31 she will find her applications there just like she left them in Fedora 32. The same versions, same settings…

P.S. my mom’s laptop is from 2009, but Fedora Workstation/Silverblue flies on it. Who would have thought that GNOME Shell animations could be smooth on an 11-year-old laptop. Kudos to everyone who helped to land all the performance optimizations in the last several releases!

Fedora, GNOME, Linux

Fedora at LinuxDays 2018 in Prague

LinuxDays, the biggest Linux event in the Czech Republic, took place at the Faculty of Information Technology of Czech Technical University in Prague. The number of registered attendees was a bit lower this year, it could be caused by municipality and senate elections happening on Fri and Sat, but the number got almost to the 1300 mark anyway.

Besides a busy schedule of talks and workshops the conference also has a pretty large booth area and as every year I organized the Fedora one. I drove by car to Prague with Carlos Soriano and Felipe Borges from the Red Hat desktop team on Saturday morning and we were joined by František Zatloukal (Fedora QA) at the booth.

linuxdays-fedora
František and me at the booth.

Our focus for this year was Silverblue and modularity. I prepared one laptop with an external monitor to showcase Silverblue, the atomic version of Fedora Workstation. I must say that the interest of people in Silverblue surprised me. There were even some coming next day saying: “It sounded so cool yesterday and I couldn’t resist and install it when I got home and played with it in the night…” With Silverblue comes distribution of applications in Flatpak and there was a lot of user interest in this direction as well.

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Reasons to use Fedora.

I was hoping for more interest in modularity, but people don’t seem to be so aware of it. It doesn’t have the same reach outside the Fedora Project as Flatpak does, it’s not so easy to explain its benefits and use cases. We as a project have to do a better job selling it.

The highlight of Saturday was when one of the sysadmins at National Library of Technology, which is on the same campus, took us to the library to show us public computers where they run Fedora Workstation. It’s 120 computers with over 1000 users (in the last 90 days). Those computers serve a very diverse group of users, from elderly people to computer science students. And they have received very few complaints since they switched from Windows to Fedora. Also they’ve hit almost no problems as sysadmins. They only mentioned one corner case bug in GDM which we promised to look into.

linuxdays-ntk
Carlos and Felipe checking out Fedora in the library.

It was also interesting to see the setup. They authenticate users against AD using the SSSD client, mount /home from a remote server using NFS. They enable several GNOME Shell extensions by default: AlternateTab (because of Windows users), Places (to show the Places menu next to Activities)… They also created one custom extension that replaces the “Power Off” button with “Log Out” button in the user menu because users are not supposed to power the computers off. They also create very useful stats of application usage based on “recently-used” XML files that GNOME creates to generate the menu of frequently used applications. All computers are administrated using Ansible scripts.

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Default wallpaper with instructions.

The only talk I attended on Saturday was “Why and How I Switched to Flatpak for App Distribution and Development in Sandbox” by Jiří Janoušek who develops Nuvola apps. It was an interesting talk and due to his experience developing and distributing apps on Linux Jiří was able to name and describe all the problems with app distribution on Linux and why Flatpak helps here.

On Sunday, we organized a workshop to teach to build flatpaks. It was the only disappointment of the weekend. Only 3 ppl showed up and none of them didn’t really need to learn to build flatpaks. We’ll have the same workshop at OpenAlt in Brno and if the attendance is also low, we’ll know that workshop primarily for app developers is not a good fit for such conferences.
But it was not a complete waste of time, we discussed some questions around Flatpak and worked on flatpaking applications. The result is GNOME Recorder already available in Flathub and Datovka in the review process.

The event is also a great opportunity to talk to many people from the Czech community and other global FLOSS projects. SUSE has traditionally a lot of people there, there was Xfce, FFMPEG, FreeBSD, Vim, LibreOffice…

 

Fedora, GNOME, Linux

Story of GNOME Shell Extensions

A long time ago (exactly 10 years ago) it was decided that the the shell for GNOME would be written in JavaScript. GNOME 3 was still looking for its new face, a lot of UI experimentation was taking place, and JavaScript looked like the best candidate for it. Moreover it was a popular language on the web, so barriers to entry for new contributors would be significantly lowered.

When you have the shell written in JavaScript you can very easily patch it and alter its look and behaviour. And that’s what people started doing. Upstream was not very keen to officially support extensions due to their nature: they’re just hot patching the GNOME Shell code. They have virtually unlimited possibilities in changing look and behaviour, but also in introducing instability.

But tweaking the shell became really popular. Why wouldn’t it? You can tweak your desktop by simply clicking buttons in your browser. No recompilations, no restarts. So extensions.gnome.org was introduced.

The number of available extensions grew to hundreds and instability some of them occasionally introduced seemed like a fair price for the unlimited tweakability. In the end when the Shell crashed it was just a blink. Xorg held up the session with opened clients, the Shell/Mutter was restarted and the show could go on.

In 2016 GNOME switches to Wayland by default. No Xorg and also nothing to hold up the session with opened clients when the Shell crashes. There is only Mutter as a Wayland compositor, but unfortunately it runs in the same process as GNOME Shell (a decision also made 10 years ago when it also looked like a good idea). If the Shell goes down, so does Mutter. Suddenly harmless blinks became desktop crashes with losing all unsaved data in opened applications.

I read user feedback and problems users are having with Fedora Workstation (and Linux desktop in general) a lot on the Internet. And desktop crashes caused by GS extensions are by far the most frequent problem I’ve seen recently. I read stories like “I upgraded my Fedora to 28 and suddenly my desktop crashes 5 times a day. I can’t take it any more and I’m out of ideas” on daily basis. If someone doesn’t step in and say: “Hey, do you have any GS extensions installed? If so, disable them and see if it keeps crashing. The extensions are not harmless, any error in them or incompatibility between them and the current version of GS can take the whole desktop down”, users usually leave with the experience of unstable Linux desktop. It hurts our reputation really badly.

Are there any ways to fix or at least improve the situation? Certainly:

  1. Extensions used to be disabled when the Shell crashed hard (couldn’t be restarted). Since on Wayland it’s the result of every crash, we should do that after every GS crash. And when the user goes back to GNOME Tweak Tool to enable the extensions again, she/he should be told that it was mostly likely one of the 3rd party extensions that made the desktop crash, and she/he should be careful when enabling them.
  2. Decoupling GNOME Shell and Mutter or/and other steps that would bring back the same behaviour like on Xorg: GS crash would not take everything down. This would require major changes in the architecture and a lot of work and GNOME Shell and Mutter developer community has already a lot on their plates.
  3. Discontinuing the unlimited extensions, introducing a limited API they can use instead of hot patching the GS code itself. This would be a very unpopular step because it’d mean that many of the existing extensions would be impossible to implement again. But it may become inevitable in the future.
Fedora, GNOME, Linux

Why I use Flatpak for 3rd party apps

flatpak-logo

There are more reasons why to run applications as flatpaks. Someone wants to have the latest versions as soon as possible. For me as a user of Fedora which provides up-to-date versions of apps this is not a big motivation. Someone wants to run apps more securely. Again I usually trust software provided by Fedora and Flatpak sandbox is still not as strictly enforced as it should ideally be.

But where I really prefer using Flatpak to RPM packages are 3rd party applications. I’m usually running development versions of Fedora. Pre-releases on my work machine and Rawhide on my home laptop. They have been pretty stable for me, including applications in Fedora repositories. Unfortunately it’s not the case for 3rd party applications. Their authors usually don’t follow distro development closely and although many of them bundle as much as possible to avoid problems with changing dependencies, things break.

I used to use the Spotify client as a package from Negativo17 repos. But when I upgraded to F27, something broke and it stopped working. I’m pretty sure it was fixed later on after people started reporting it, but I didn’t want to stop using Spotify for the time being and didn’t have time to debug and report the issue. So I switched to Spotify flatpak and it has worked for me ever since.

The problem I had with very early stages of pre-released Fedora and Rawhide is that dependecies of GStreamer plugins in RPMFusion were usually broken. So I ended up without system multimedia codecs. It was often the case for VLC from the same repository, too. Then I switched to VLC and GNOME MPV flatpaks. Problem solved.

The last example is Telegram. Until recently I was using the official version. It’s not even provided as an RPM package. You have to download an archive, unpack its content to your home, run the binary which creates a desktop file… not very elegant in 2018, but once you do it, it just works. Well… until it doesn’t. I upgraded to F28 and Telegram suddenly took a lot of time to start up. It hung on some font config error until it timeouted and finally started. It easily took 1 minute. So I switched to Telegram flatpak as well. Works like a charm.

So what I really appreciate about Flatpak is that the apps don’t rely on the underlying system, so if the system changes e.g. due to upgrade to a newer major version apps don’t break. As I said it’s not such a major issue for distro-provided apps, but it’s certainly an issue for 3rd apps and Flatpak solved it for me.

Fedora, GNOME, Linux

Flathub Experience: Adding an App

Flathub is a new distribution channel for Linux desktop apps. Truly distro-agnostic, unifying across abundance of Linux distributions. I was planning for a long time to add an application to Flathub and see what the experience is, especially compared to traditional distro packaging (I’m a Fedora packager). And I finally got to it this last week.

flathub

In Fedora I maintain PhotoQt, a very fast image viewer with very unorthodox UI. Its developer is very responsive and open to feedback. Already back in 2016 I suggested he provides PhotoQt as a flatpak. He did so and found making a flatpak really easy. However it was in the time before Flathub, so he had to host its own repo.

Last week I was notified about a new release of PhotoQt, so I prepared updates for Fedora and noticed that the Flatpak support became “Coming soon” again. So I was like “hey, let’s get it back and to Flathub”. I picked up the two-year-old flatpak manifest, and started rewriting it to successfully build with the latest Flatpak and meet Flathub requirements.

First I updated dependencies. You add dependencies to the manifest in a pretty elegant way, but what’s really time consuming is getting checksums of official archives. Most projects don’t offer them at all, so you have to download the archive and generate it yourself. And you have to do it with every update of that dependency. I’d love to see some repository of modules. Many apps share the same dependencies, so why to do the same work again and again with every manifest?

Need to bundle the latest LibRaw? Go to the repository and pick the module info for your manifest:

{
"name": "libraw",
"cmake": false,
"builddir": true,
"sources": [ { "type": "archive", "url": "https://www.libraw.org/data/LibRaw-0.18.8.tar.gz", "sha256":"56aca4fd97038923d57d2d17d90aa11d827f1f3d3f1d97e9f5a0d52ff87420e2" } ]
}

And on the top of such a repo you can actually build a really nice tooling. You can let the authors of apps add dependencies simply by picking them from the list and you can generate the starting manifest for them. And you could also check for dependency updates for them. LibRaw has a new version, wanna bundle it, and see how your app builds with it? And the LibRaw module section of your manifest would be replaced by the new one and a build triggered.

Of course such a repo of modules would have to be curated because one could easily sneak in a malicious module. But it would make writing manifests even easier.

Besides updating dependencies I also had to change the required runtime. Back in 2016 KDE only had a testing runtime without any versioning. Flathub now includes KDE runtime 5.10, so I used it. PhotoQt also uses “photoqt” in all file names and Flatpak/Flathub now requires it in the reverse-DNS format: org.qt.photoqt. Fortunately flatpak-builder can rename it for you, you just need to state it in the manifest:

"rename-desktop-file": "photoqt.desktop",
"rename-appdata-file": "photoqt.appdata.xml",
"rename-icon": "photoqt",

Once I was done with the manifest, I looked at the appdata file. PhotoQt has it in a pretty good shape. It was submitted by me when I packaged it for Fedora. But there were still a couple of things missing which are required by Flathub: OASR and release info. So I added it.

I proposed all the changes upstream and at this point PhotoQt was pretty much ready for submitting to Flathub. I never intended to maintain PhotoQt in Flathub myself. There should be a direct line between the app author and users, so apps should be maintained by app authors if possible. I knew that upstream was interested in adding PhotoQt to Flathub, so I contacted the upstream maintainer and asked him whether he wanted to pick it up and go through the Flathub review process himself or whether I should do it and then hand over the maintainership to him. He preferred the former.

The review was pretty quick and it only took 2 days between submitting the app and accepting it to Flathub. There were three minor issues: 1. the reviewer asked if it’s really necessary to give the app access to the whole host, 2. app-id didn’t match the app name in the manifest (case sensitivity), 3. by copy-pasting I added some spaces which broke the appdata file and of course I was too lazy to run validation before submitting it.

And that was it. Now PhotoQt is available in Flathub. I don’t remember how much time exactly it took me to get PhotoQt to Fedora, but I think it was definitely more and also the spec file is more complex than the flatpak manifest although I prefer the format of spec files to json.

Is not your favorite app available in Flathub? Just go ahead, flatpak it, and then talk to upstream, and try to hand the maintainership over to them.

GNOME

Attended GUADEC 2017

Although I was still recovering from bronchitis and the English weather was not helping much, I really enjoyed this year’s GUADEC. Last 3 GUADECs suffered a bit from lower attendance, so it was great to see that the conference is bouncing back and the attendance is getting close to 300 again.

What I value the most about GUADEC are hallway conversations. A concrete outcome of it is that we’re currently working with Endless people on getting LibreOffice to Flathub. In the process of it we’d like to improve the LibreOffice flatpak, so that it will be a full replacement for the traditional version in packages: having Java available, having spell-checking dictionaries available etc.

I also spent quite a lot of time with the Engagement team because they’re trying to build local GNOME communities and also make improvements in their budgeting. This is something I spent several years working on in the Fedora Project and we have built robust systems for it there. The GNOME community can get an inspiration from it or even reuse it. That’s why I’d like to be active in the Engagement team at least a bit to help bring those things into life.

GNOME, Linux

ThunderBolt Security Levels and Linux desktop

Recently I got Dell XPS 13 as my new work laptop and I use it with the TB16 dock. This dock doesn’t seem to fully work with Linux, only monitors work. But if you go to BIOS settings and set the Thunderbolt Security level to “No security”. Then suddenly almost everything is working.

However, it’s not an ideal solution, especially if you’re at least a bit paranoid. External Thunderbolt devices may connect to the machine via PCI-Express which means they can potencially read your system memory. That’s why Thunderbolt comes with a security system.

There are 4 security levels:

  • none (legacy mode): no security, everything gets enabled.
  • dponly: no PCIe tunneling, only USB and DisplayPort.
  • user: ask the user if it is ok to connect the device.
  • secure: as “user” but also create and use a random key that later can be used on subsequent connects of the same device to ensure its identity.

Intel is already working on a Linux implementation of TB security. But the user and secure levels need user’s action, so there will have to be some support for it in the desktop. I discussed that with designers and they don’t really like the idea of poping up dialogs asking users if they trust the device. “Do I trust this projector? I’m not really sure, but since I’m plugging it in, I guess I do”.

I also checked how it works in Windows 10. And it works exactly that way. I plugged in the dock and I got a bunch of dialogs asking about every single plugged-in device. The experience is pretty terrible. And I have to agree with the designers, I’m not sure how this improves security.

On the other hand, I don’t think it’s a good idea to leave the Thunderbolt port completely unprotected. There is one relevant use case: you leave your computer unattanded and even though you locked your screen, someone can access your system through an unsecured TB3 port.

I wonder if it could be solved by automatically switching to a “reject everything” mode once you lock your screen. You lock your screen, leave your computer, and any device plugged into the TB3 port would be rejected. Once you come back and unlock your screen, it’s your responsibility what you plug in and any plugged device would be accepted.

I wonder if there is any relevant use case which would not be covered well by this policy. Any ideas?

Fedora, GNOME

Printing Improvements for Fedora 27 Workstation

Fedora 26 is not out yet, but it’s already time to think about how to improve the Workstation edition of Fedora 27. One of the areas my team is focusing on is printing (the desktop side of it). For GNOME 3.24 and Fedora 26 Workstation we landed a new interface for the printing module in GNOME Control Center. It gives a much cleaner overview of printers that are set up on your system.

One thing that I think deserves an improvement is printer sharing. GNOME Control Center doesn’t allow you to easily share a printer with other devices over the network. I’ve heard users complain about it and the competition provides it (even though Windows do it very unintuitively). Sharing via IPP is a pretty low hanging fruit because that’s what CUPS already perfectly supports, you just need to expose it in the UI.

A common use case is sharing a printer with your mobile devices. iOS uses AirPrint which is an extension of the IPP,  you just need to convince the device that it’s talking to an AirPrint server. To support Android devices, I think the best way is to use Google Cloud Print. We already support Google Cloud Print, but from the client side. I wonder if it’d be useful to support the server side as well. Google provides an open source server implementation, but it’s written in Go and unnecessarily advanced for our use cases, so writing our own implementation would probably be a better way to go. But I wonder if it’d be worth it. Do people use Google Cloud Print? If not, how do you print from your Android device?

Or are there any other things you think we should improve in printing (desktop-wise)?

Fedora, GNOME, Linux

Nextcloud & Linux Desktop

I’ve used different services for my personal agenda and I always valued if they could well integrate into my Fedora Workstation. Some did it well, some at least provided a desktop app, some only had a web client. That’s fine for many people, but not for me. Call me old-school, but I still prefer using desktop applications and especially those who look and behave natively.

Last summer, I decided to install Nextcloud on my VPS. Originally I was planning to replace Dropbox with it, but then I found out I could actually use it for many other things, for all my personal agenda. Shortly after that I realized that I’d found what I was always looking for in terms of integration into my desktop. Nextcloud apps use standard protocols and formats and integrate very well with the desktop apps I use.

nextcloud

Nextcloud/ownCloud is supported by GNOME Online Accounts, so I log in to my server and automagically get this:

Files – my Nextcloud appears in Nautilus as a remote disk. I like that it doesn’t work like the official desktop client of Nextcloud or Dropbox and doesn’t sync files to the local drive. If you work with small files and documents remotely, you can hardly notice lags and they don’t consume space on your hard drive. If I want to work with large files (e.g. video) or offline, I just download them.

Documents – documents that are stored on your Nextcloud server appear among documents in GNOME Documents. The app makes an abstraction layer over different file sources and the user can work with documents no matter where they come from. A nice thing, but I’m a bit conservative in this and prefer working with files and Nautilus.

Contacts – the Nextcloud app for contacts uses CardDAV, so after a login in GOA your contact list appears in all applications that are using the evolution-data-server backend. In my case it’s Evolution and GNOME Contacts. Evolution is still my daily driver at work while I use the specialized apps at home.

Calendars – the calendar app for Nextcloud uses CalDAV, so after a login in GOA you get the same automagic like with contacts, your calendars appear in all apps that are using evolution-data-server. Again in my case it’s Evolution and GNOME Calendar.

Tasks – CalDAV is also used for tasks in Nextcloud, so if you enable calendars in GOA, your task lists will also appear in Evolution or GNOME Todo.

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GNOME Todo

Notes – the same applies to notes, you will also be able to automagically access them in Evolution or GNOME Bijiben.

News – the only thing I had to set up separately is a news reader. I use FeedReader which (among other services) supports Nextcloud/ownCloud, too. So I could replace Feedly with it and get a native client as a bonus.

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FeedReader

What’s really great is that except for the RSS reader everything is set up with one login. I’m done with Feedly, Evernote, Wunderlist and all those services that each require another login and generally have poor desktop integration. Now I can use Nextcloud, have all my data under control and get great and super-easy-to-setup integration into my desktop.

I can imagine even more areas where Nextcloud can improve my desktop experience. For instance, it’d be great if my desktop user settings could be synced via Nextcloud or I could back them up there and then restore them on my new machine. Or it’d be great if the desktop keyring could work with Passman and sync your passwords.

BTW integration into my Android phone is equally important to me and Nextcloud doesn’t fail me there either although setting it up was not as easy as in my Fedora Workstation. I needed to install CalDAV-Sync and CardDAV-Sync apps (DAVdroid which is officially recommended by Nextcloud never worked for me, a while back it didn’t want to sync my contact list at all, now it does, but doesn’t import photos). Then my contacts and calendars were synced to the default apps. For tasks I use OpenTasks. For RSS ownCloud/Nextcloud Reader and for notes MyOwnNotes. To access files Nextcloud provides their own app.

And if I’m not around my PC or phone, I can always access all the services via the web interface which is pretty nice, too. So all in all I’ve been really satisfied with Nextcloud and am really happy how dynamically it’s developing.