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Archive metadata

Most archive formats record metadata that will capture details about the build environment if no care is taken. File last modification time is obvious, but file ordering, users, groups, numeric ids, and permissions can also be of concern. Tar will be used as the main example but these tips apply to other archive formats as well.

File modification times

Most archive formats will, by default, record file last modification times, while some will also record file creation times.

Tar has a way to specify the modification time that is used for all archive members:

$ tar --mtime='2015-10-21 00:00Z' -cf product.tar build

(Notice how Z is used to specify that time is in the UTC timezone.)

For other archive formats, it is always possible to use touch to reset the modification times to a predefined value before creating the archive:

$ find build -print0 |
    xargs -0r touch --no-dereference --date="@${SOURCE_DATE_EPOCH}"
$ zip -r build

In some cases, it is preferable to keep the original times for files that have not been created or modified during the build process:

$ find build -newermt "@${SOURCE_DATE_EPOCH}" -print0 |
    xargs -0r touch --no-dereference --date="@${SOURCE_DATE_EPOCH}"
$ zip -r build

In tar >= 1.29, the --clamp-mtime flag can be used to only set the when the file is more recent than the value specified with --mtime:

$ tar --mtime='2015-10-21 00:00Z' --clamp-mtime -cf product.tar build

This has the benefit of leaving the original file modification time untouched.

File ordering

When asked to record directories, most archive formats will read their content in the order returned by the filesystem which is likely to be different on every run.

With version 1.28, GNU Tar has gained the --sort=name option which will sort filenames in a locale independent manner:

# Works with GNU Tar 1.28
$ tar --sort=name -cf product.tar build

For older versions or other archive formats, it is possible to use find and sort to achieve the same effect:

$ find build -print0 | LC_ALL=C sort -z |
    tar --no-recursion --null -T - -cf product.tar

Care must be taken to ensure that sort is called in the context of the C locale to avoid any surprises related to collation order.

Users, groups and numeric ids

Depending on the archive format, the user and group owning the file can be recorded. Sometimes it will be using a string, sometimes using the associated numeric ids.

When files belong to predefined system groups, this is not a problem, but builds are often performed with regular users. Recording of the account name or its associated ids might be a source of reproducibility issues.

Tar offers a way to specify the user and group owning the file. Using 0/0 and --numeric-owner is a safe bet, as it will effectively record 0 as values:

$ tar --owner=0 --group=0 --numeric-owner -cf product.tar build

PAX headers

GNU tar defaults to the pax format and if POSIXLY_CORRECT is set, that adds files’ ctime, atime and the PID of the tar process as non-deterministic metadata.

To avoid this, either unset POSIXLY_CORRECT (only works with tar>1.32) or add to the tar call,delete=atime,delete=ctime or --format=gnu (both only available in GNU tar) or use --format=ustar if the limitations in that format are not a problem.

Full example

The recommended way to create a Tar archive is thus:

# requires GNU Tar 1.28+
$ tar --sort=name \
      --mtime="@${SOURCE_DATE_EPOCH}" \
      --owner=0 --group=0 --numeric-owner \,delete=atime,delete=ctime \
      -cf product.tar build

Zip files

Zip files can additionally store metadata in “extra file attributes”. We believe these were intended as a cross-platform means of storing, say, Extended Attributes on OS/2 as well as user/group information. Crucially, it can store multiple file timestamps on Unix, including creation, modification and access time. (NB. You may not see access time changes under Linux system is your filesystems are mounted with noatime or norelatime).

When creating .zip files, it is recommended to use the --no-extra / -X argument to not save these fields. It is also recommended that developers unzip archives with TZ=UTC.


If tools do not support options to create reproducible archives, it is always possible to perform post-processing.

strip-nondeterminism already has support to normalize Zip and Jar archives (with limitations). Custom scripts like Tor Browser’s might also be an option.

Static libraries

Static libraries (.a) on Unix-like systems are ar archives. Like other archive formats, they contain metadata, namely timestamps, UIDs, GIDs, and permissions. None are actually required for using them as libraries.

GNU ar and other tools from binutils have a deterministic mode which will use zero for UIDs, GIDs, timestamps, and use consistent file modes for all files. It can be made the default by passing the --enable-deterministic-archives option to ./configure. It is already enabled by default for some distributions1 and so far it seems to be pretty safe except for Makefiles using targets like archive.a(foo.o).

When binutils is not built with deterministic archives by default, build systems have to be changed to pass the right options to ar and friends. ARFLAGS can be set to Dcvr with many build systems to turn on the deterministic mode. Care must also be taken to pass -D if ranlib is used to create the function index.

Another option is post-processing with strip-nondeterminism or objcopy:

objcopy --enable-deterministic-archives libfoo.a

The above does not fix file ordering.

Initramfs images

cpio archives are commonly used for initramfs images. The cpio header format (see man 5 cpio) can contain device and inode numbers, which whilst deterministic, can vary from system to system.

One way to filter these is by piping through bsdtar.

Example of non-deterministic code:

echo ucode.bin |
    bsdcpio -o -H newc -R 0:0 > ucode.img

Example of deterministic code:

echo ucode.bin |
    bsdtar --uid 0 --gid 0 -cnf - -T - |
    bsdtar --null -cf - --format=newc @- > ucode.img

Note that other issues such as timestamps may still require rectification prior to archival.

GNU Libtool

GNU Libtool prior to 74c8993c (first included in version 2.2.7b) did not sort the find output. It appears that many packages are bootstrapped with a version prior to this.

Confusingly, although GNU GCC’s claims to have been generated by libtool 2.2.7a, GNU GCC actually maintains their own version of libtool.m4 and, which fixed this issue independently in d41cd173e23. This aforementioned change was first included in version 9.1.0, meaning that the reproducibility issue remains in GCC versions below that.

  1. Debian since version 2.25-6/stretch, Ubuntu since version 2.25-8ubuntu1/artful 17.10. It is the default for Fedora 22 and Fedora 23, but it seems this will be reverted in Fedora 24

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