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Saturday, February 18. 2012
We needed a new package at work and once I'd written it, I realised that it could well be useful for others, so I did the ITP and the package is now in Debian unstable.
Ladder - Stepwise repository upgrade tool
The only dependencies are some simple perl modules, reprepro for the repository, apt and gnupg for the signing. None of those need to be particularly recent versions, so once ladder has had a little time in testing, I will be doing a backport to Squeeze. Lenny is a little less likely but eminently possible if someone specifically asks for it. Not that it particularly needs a backport mind, if you want to run ladder on some other Debian-based system, it's simply a case of installing the version in unstable. reprepro was in Lenny at a suitable version for what ladder requires, so any system remotely recent should be able to run ladder without changes.
Normally, whenever you need to upgrade a device, you need to get that device onto a network, get access over the serial port or some form of pre-configured network connection, run the commands and clean up afterwards. OK, now do that again... oh and here are another 40 or 100 devices which all need precisely the same thing done and they all have to be shipped to paying customers today. What does any geek do? Script it.
Ladder is part of that process. There would need to be some scripting / programming support on the devices concerned but ladder makes it easier to put that support in place at the design stage and then automate the actual update without the device needing to get onto a network and, potentially, allowing you to decide how to offer the upgrade (automatic, user involvement, engineers only etc.) Once that is implemented, the device is simply pointed at a locally mounted filesystem which contains the ladder step for the migration. Each step is a SecureApt signed repository which is available at a deterministic location which can be easily scripted and which contains only the packages necessary (with dependencies) to upgrade any device installed at Milestone A to Milestone B. Nice and small, only the stuff you need, whatever architecture you like and if you need to migrate from Milestone A to Milestone D, then you create a few steps on the ladder and automate the migration from A to B to C to D. All you need is enough space on whatever local media you need to use to plug into the devices. Then copy the media enough times, start the interface on each device and do something useful whilst the upgrade happens. Then, when the next lot need to be upgraded, you already have the media... Oh and ladder does not need to run on the same architecture as the devices - all package handling is entirely architecture-neutral. So create the ladder steps and media on your fast x86 machines and then let the slower SSD devices take their own sweet time via automation. Simple - maybe, hopefully.
I'm expressly talking about devices here because this is where the original requirement arose - embedded devices which don't have direct / automatic / accessible network ports or even a working network configuration preset. These aren't new images to flash onto the device either, these are apt repositories, so only the stuff which needs to be changed is changed which saves a lot of time writing to slow SSD storage.
If the mechanism sounds familiar, yes, it's using the same principles as xapt, multistrap and emdebian-grip but I thought it could be useful, so I generalised the interface (a bit) and uploaded.
Let me know via the BTS if you need tweaks to the support. Ladder isn't particularly about getting desktop machines from Debian Potato to Debian Wheezy because you need to identify a target package to be the top point of the dependency chain which gets into the step repository and all devices should start with the same packages at the same versions. Normally, the kind of devices I use at work have a single top level application which is the sole user interface and which directly or indirectly depends on all the other software required for that device. Whilst the target package value could take a few carefully selected packages instead of just one and there is support for an extra packages field, it's not intended / expected to be useful for desktops. This is for use with multiple devices which all have the same package selection, are at the same milestone at the start and which all need to migrate smoothly to whatever milestone is intended - one step at a time. Ladder could be used to migrate between Debian releases and I've included example config files to support that, but the principle usage is with internal / proprietary repositories based on a common Debian stable platform where the user interface software is managed via identifiable milestones and where users have no direct control over installing packages. It's a production / manufacturing support tool more than a user / admin support tool. If you want to manage servers and desktops which allow users to install (or request to be installed) arbitrary packages, there are plenty of tools which already support this and are used by DSA in Debian for exactly these tasks. Ladder is not puppet but Linp didn't sound like a good name...
Ladder step repositories only include the binary packages, not sources - so if the migration is not going to be done in-house and you're expecting to distribute these steps to users somehow, ensure that the original source repository is available online for the Debian / free software packages concerned. If you can't do that (because the source is proprietary), you possibly shouldn't be distributing the binaries as a user update mechanism in the first place because each step will include packages from the core Debian system which need to have the sources available when distributed.
Inevitably, the ladder source package already contains two POT files for translations of the runtime messages and the POD based manpage. I expect to need to expand / clarify the manpage in due course, so don't rush to translate it yet as it's likely to change.
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