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Definition strategies

There are multiple ways to define the build environment in a way that it can be distributed. The following methods are not exclusive and multiple aspects can be used for a single project.

Defining the build environment as part of the development process has a very desirable aspect: changes in the build environment can be vetted like any other changes. Updating to a new compiler version can be subject to reviews, automatic testing, and—in case things break—rollback.

Build from source

One simple way to have users reproduce the tools that are used to perform the build is making them start building the right version of these tools from source.

Using make or any other compilation driver, the required tools will be downloaded, built, and locally installed before compiling the software.

Like any other inputs from the network, the content of the archive where the required source for the tools is stored should be backed up and verified using cryptographic checksums.

Reference distribution

Using a specific version of a free software distribution is another viable option for a build environment.

Ideally, it should offer stable releases (like Debian, CentOS, or FreeBSD) to avoid having constant updates to the documentation or building scripts.

Recording the exact versions of the installed packages might be helpful to diagnose issues. Some distributions also keep a complete history of source packages or binary packages available for later reinstallation.

Virtual machines / containers

Some aspects of the build environment can be quite simplified by using virtual machines or containers. With a virtual machine you can easily perform the build in a more controlled environment. The build user, system hostname, network configuration, or other aspects can be enforced easily on all systems.

The downside is that it can introduce a lot of software that has to be trusted somehow. For example, it’s currently not possible to install Debian in a reproducible manner1. This makes it harder to compare different installations.

  1. Some preliminary work has been done, mainly to identify the issues. Having byte-for-byte identical installations is a requirement to make live distributions build in a reproducible manner, so there is interest by multiple parties in fixing the problem. 

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