Why I Don’t Use Third-Party Binary Packages

by Bob Plankers on September 21, 2011 · 8 comments

in System Administration

There are a number of third-party package repositories out there for Linux distributions. For example, Fedora runs the Extra Packages for Enterprise Linux (EPEL) repository, which contains builds of open source software that isn’t supplied with Fedora or Red Hat Enterprise Linux. Similarly, a lot of projects have their own repositories that supply builds of software for OpenSUSE, Debian, Ubuntu, etc.

Maybe it’s just because I’m old-school, and maybe it’s because I enjoy compiling things, but I really don’t like the idea of using binaries found on the Internet. I never have.

As an aside, I really tried hard to make the rest of this post not be critical, or seem like criticism, but instead just be a reflection of what I think is the reality of the situation for me. A ton of very valuable work is done in the open source community by hard-working, dedicated, smart, honorable volunteers, to which we all owe a lot of beer. I will consider it a failure if those people take this the wrong way.

I’m also going to use RPMs as my examples, but this is all likely true for any package management system, on Linux, Solaris, AIX, whatever.

Anyhow, the reasons I shy away from third-party precompiled & pre-assembled packages are:

1. Trust. The people that are doing the packaging are unknown to me, and I cannot make any assumptions about them or their intentions. For example, I can’t easily audit a binary package to confirm that it’s built from exactly the source that I trust. I can’t even audit it to confirm that it’s built from a particular source package, and I cannot assume that a source RPM & binary RPM pair have the same contents. What if the binary package is built from different source that includes a rootkit?

Source RPMs help this by allowing me to confirm that the tarball inside is the same as what was released by the developers, and I can see what the build parameters are. Then I can build the RPM myself. I like that transparency.

2. Timeliness. Binary builds of software are often done by volunteers, and volunteers, though awesome, have other stuff going on in their lives. In many cases updates are built when someone has time. When it’s a security problem that causes a new release it’s important that the updates appear quickly, and not just when someone has time in the future. A number of Linux distributions have been dinged in the last year for not providing timely security updates, and it’s pretty common to see RPMs lag behind.

Solutions to this sort of problem require a project-level commitment, and are often helped by automation and teams. Automation helps reduce the time a volunteer needs to spend on packaging, and having a team of people who are capable of doing this work increases the odds that someone will have time for it. That said, it’s up to the project to do this sort of thing, and many don’t.

3. Understanding. I like building the software, or the binary RPMs, on my own, because it means I understand the decisions that were made in the process. Why did the packager decide to put the binaries in /usr/local rather than /opt? Who thought those crazy compiler flags were a good idea? Why aren’t the logs in /var/log?

It also helps me understand the dependencies. Too often a third-party package requires another set of packages in order to resolve dependencies, and that quick installation of OpenNMS, for example, via the pre-built binaries turns into a giant chain of installations. The more third-party stuff you install on a host the better the chance of creating dependency loops and conflicts with vendor-supplied software.

To each their own, but I’m a control freak, and I don’t like the idea that some unknown person is making decisions for me and my organization, or that my organization is now dependent in some way on someone who is unaccountable to us. Similarly, I don’t like the idea that I don’t know where binaries really came from, as I install them on hosts inside all of my security and defenses. As a result I build my own software most of the time, or create my own in-house RPMs when I need to, documenting the process and leaving the build environment around so if I’m on vacation someone from my team can take over.

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