Stable, Vetted Hackage: Call for Participation

November 30, 2012

GravatarBy Michael Snoyman

About two weeks ago, I wrote a blog post giving a proposal to solve Cabal hell for end users. Let me summarise some main points of my proposal:

  • Cabal isn't really the problem at this point (so Cabal hell is really a misnomer; let's agree to start calling it version hell). The problem is that Hackage itself is unstable.

  • Hackage should be unstable, that's its purpose.

  • Many end users simply need access to a subset of Hackage which is guaranteed to play well together.

  • The Haskell Platform goes a step beyond that, by placing high quality standards on its packages. This is a good move for the Platform, but doesn't cover user needs enough.

  • In other words, we need a level between Hackage and the Haskell Platform.

I received a lot of very positive feedback, and have therefore started work on a project to implement this idea. This project has the full support of FP Complete, who is sponsoring my time to get this project rolling. I'll be writing a more thorough blog post on FP Complete's involvement, but in sum it is our goal to help the community create an even greater level of stability for the Haskell ecosystem, and we believe that this project is one means of doing so.

The code base I'm working on is available as a Github repo. (Note: I've called it "Stackage" == Stable Hackage for now, but I don't really like that name at all. If someone can come up with a better name, please let me know.) The most important file is Stackage.Config, and in particular the stablePackages value. This is where we would specify which packages should be included in the package set. If you look in that file, you'll see that there are already a number of people who have signed up as maintainers for various packages. I hope this number will increase as the community gets more involved; more on this below.

There are really two aspects to using Stackage: building the repos, and using a set of built repos. The idea is that we'll do the former as a community process (maybe on a dedicated build server, or a series of servers with different OSes), place the repos on some publicly available server, and then an end user would just need to do:

cabal install stackage # just needs to be run once
stackage update

From then on, the user would be guaranteed to never enter dependency hell when installing our blessed packages. For our purposes, the blessed packages would be the list of stable packages and all of their dependencies.

If you want to get started with trying out the code, you can try the following:

cabal update
cabal install cabal-dev
git clone
cd stackage
git submodule update --init # get the Haskell Platform files
runghc app/stackage.hs build # takes a *long* time
runghc app/stackage.hs init # modifies your ~/.cabal/config file

I've only tested this on Linux for now. I'm fairly certain we'll run into issues on other platforms, either due to differences in where Cabal stores things or missing platform-specific dependencies. If people can give the code a shot on Mac and Windows and file issues (or better: send pull requests), that would be a great way to move forward.

A few other minor details:

  • This is built as a superset of the Haskell Platform, so it pegs the versions of HP packages to the versions released in the platform itself.

  • There are actually two repos generated: stackage contains the blessed packages only, with only one version of each, and stackage-extra contains all packages which are neither distributed with GHC nor in the blessed list. This means that you can install (in theory) any package on Hackage, though you can still run into dependency hell with the -extra list.

So how can we move forward on this? There are a few important ways:

  • Add more packages. I've included Yesod and all its dependencies, and a number of other developerss (Neil Mitchell, Alan Zimmerman, Jasper Van der Jeugt and Antoine Latter) have added their packages as well. Among all of these packages and their dependencies, we already cover a lot of the most commonly used packages out there. But having wider coverage is even better. If you'd like to add your code, just send a pull request. (For more details, see the README.)

  • Start hosting prepared repositories somewhere, and then release stackage onto Hackage. We clearly need to have some more testing done before this can happen.

  • Set up automated, cross-platform testing. It would be wonderful if, before each release, every package was compiled and tested on all the major operating systems and versions of GHC.

  • Initially, the build procedure reported errors for a number of packages. I've sent a lot of pull requests over the past few weeks to try and get those corrected, and Stackage now builds cleanly. I'm hoping that by having this kind of automated tool running regularly, we'll be able to spot problems in packages quickly and alert the maintainers. To make the system great, I'm hoping that maintainers will be able to help out by making necessary changes to their packages.

  • It would be great to have Linux distribution maintainers on board with this initiative. Having the same set of stable packages available on multiple platforms would be great, and hopefully this project will allow us all to pool resources. I've been in touch with maintainers for Debian, Fedora, and Nix, and we're trying to coordinate how such a system would work. If there are other distributions I missed that want to be part of this process, please be in touch!

But I want to make one thing clear. For this project to succeed, it has to have wide-spread community support. There's been a great response from those I've contacted already, and I'm hoping this will continue after this blog post. The more of the community gets involved in the process, the greater the benefits for everyone.


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