Defining Moss

Thursday, September 10, 2020 - Ikey Doherty (BDFL)

Over the past few weeks, throughout the entire bootstrap process, we’ve been deliberating on what our package manager is going to look like. We now have a very solid idea on what that’ll be, so it’s time for a blog post to share with the community.

Initial moss prototype CLI

Old, but new

The team has been very clear in wanting a traditional package management solution, whereby repositories and packages compose the OS as a whole. However, we also want modern features, such as being stateless by default. A common theme is wanting to reduce the complex iterations of an OS into something that is sanely versioned, but also flexible, to ensure a consistent, tested experience with multiple end targets.

Additionally, the OS must be incredibly easy for contributors and team members to maintain, with intelligent tooling and simple, but powerful formats.

Atomic updates

One of the most recent software update trends of recent years is atomic updates. In essence this allows applying an update in a single operation, and importantly, reversing an update in a single operation, without impacting the running system.

This is typically achieved using a so-called A/B switch, which is what we will also do with moss. We won’t rely on any specific filesystem for this implementation, instead relying on a smart layout, pivot_root and a few other tricks.

Primarily we’ll update a single /usr symlink to point to the current OS image, with / being a read-only faux rootfs, populated with established mountpoints and symlinks. Mutation will be possible only via moss transactions, or in world-writable locations (/opt, /usr/local, /etc …)


The moss binary package format will be deduplicated in nature, containing hash-keyed blobs in an zstd compressed payload. Unique blobs will be stored in a global cache, and hard-linked into their final location (i.e. /moss/root/$number/usr/...) to deduplicate the installed system too. This allows multiple system snapshots with minimal overhead, and the ability to perform an offline rollback.


We’ll need to lock kernels to their relevant transactions (or repo versions) to prevent untested configurations. Additionally the boot menu will need to know about older versions of the OS that are installed, so they can be activated in the initrd at boot. This will require us doing some work with clr-boot-manager to achieve our goals.

Difference from existing solutions

We’re trying to minimise the iterations of the OS to what is available in a given version of the package repositories. Additionally we wish to avoid extensive “symlink farms” as we’re not a profile-oriented distribution. Instead we focus on deduplication, atomic updates and resolution performance.


Keeping a system slim is often a very difficult thing to achieve, without extensive package splitting and effort on the user’s part. An example might be enabling SELinux support on a system, or culling the locales to only include the used ones.

In Serpent OS (and moss, more specifically) we intend to address this through “subscriptions”. Well defined names will be used by moss to filter (or enable) certain configurations in packages + dependencies. In some instances this will toggle subpackages/dependencies and in others it will control which paths of a package are actually installed to disk.

Going further with this concept, we will eventually introduce modalias based capabilities to automatically subscribe users to required kernel modules, allowing slim or fullfat installations as the user chooses. This in turn takes the burden of maintainence away from developers + users, and enables an incredibly flexible, approachable system.

Mandatory reboots

Where possible we will limit mandatory reboots, prefering an in-place atomic update to facilitate high uptime. However, there are situations where a reboot is absolutely unavoidable, and the system administrator should plan some downtime to handle this case.

Certain situations like a kernel update, or security fix to a core library, would require a reboot. In these instances, the atomic update will be deferred until the next boot. In most situations, however, reboots will not be mandatory.

Until the next time

Well, we’ve given a brief introduction to our aims with moss and associated tooling, and you can get more information by checking the moss

The takeaway is we want a package-based software update mechanism that is reliable and trusted, and custom-built to handle Serpent OS intricities, with a simple approach to building and maintaining the distribution.

For now, we’re gonna stop talking, and start coding.