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Timestamps make the biggest source of reproducibility issues. Many build tools record the current date and time. The filesystem does, and most archive formats will happily record modification times on top of their own timestamps. It is also customary to record the date of the build in the software itself…

Timestamps are best avoided

Often the time of the build was used as an approximate way to know which version of the source has been built, and which tools had been used to do it. With reproducible builds, recording the time of the build becomes meaningless: on one side, the source code needs to be tracked more accurately than just a timestamp, and on the other side, the build environment needs to be defined or extensively recorded.

If a date is required to give users an idea on when the software was made, it is better to use a date that is relevant to the source code instead of the build: old software can always be built later. Like version information, it’s best to extract such a date from the revision control system or from a changelog.

External tools

Some tools used in build processes, like code or documentation generators, write timestamps which will create unreproducible build products.

The Reproducible Builds effort proposed the SOURCE_DATE_EPOCH environment variable to address the problem. Tools that support it1 will use its value—a number of seconds since January 1st 1970, 00:00 UTC—instead of the current date and time (when set). The variable has been formally defined in the hope of wider adoption.

(Originally SOURCE_DATE_EPOCH was introduced by the Debian reproducible builds folks and since has been adapted widely.)

Changes required to support SOURCE_DATE_EPOCH are usually fairly small and easy to write. Patches for tools which don’t yet support the environment variable have been usually well received and help all users wanting reproducible builds.

In case where that is not possible, an option is to do post-processing on the output. The idea is to either remove the timestamps entirely or to normalize them to a predetermined date and time. strip-nondeterminism was designed as an extensible program to perform such normalization on various file formats.

Another option is to run these tools using libfaketime. This library is loaded through the LD_PRELOAD environment variable and it will intercept function calls retrieving the current time of day. It will reply instead with a predefined date and time. In some cases, it works just fine and can solve problems without requiring many changes to a given build system. But if any part of the build process is relying on time differences, things will go wrong. One case of bad interaction between libfaketime and parallel compilation has been identified as a source of reproducibility issue in the Tor Browser. So beware.

  1. As of 2015-10-26, the following tools are known to support SOURCE_DATE_EPOCH: help2man, Sphinx. Also, others have been modified locally in Debian already to support this. 

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