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Getting updates as fast as possible to users has made deltas a popular and sought after feature for distributing packages. Over the last couple of days, I've been investigating various techniques we can look at to support deltas in moss.

Trade-offs Between Packages and Deltas

Minimising the size of updates is particularly valuable where files are downloaded many times and even better if they're updated infrequently. With a rolling release, packages will be updated frequently, so creating deltas can become resource intensive, especially if supporting updates over a longer period of time. Therefore it's important to get the right balance between compression speed, decompression memory and minimising file size.

Package priorities How best to meet these needs
Developers Creation speed Quickly created packages
Users File size and update speed Size minimised deltas

From the users point of view, minimising file size and upgrade time are important priorities, but for a developer, the speed at which packages are created and indexed is vital to progression. Deltas are different to packages in that they aren't required immediately, so there's minimal impact in taking longer to minimise their size. By getting deltas right, we can trade-off the size of packages to speed up development, while users will not be affected and fetch only size optimised deltas.

Test Case - QtWebEngine

QtWebEngine provides a reasonable test case where the package is a mix of binaries, resources and translations, but above average in size (157.3MB uncompressed). The first trade-off for speed over size has already been made by incorporating zstd in moss over xz, where even with max compression zstd is already 5.6% larger than using xz. This is of course due to the amazing decompression speeds where zstd is magnitudes faster.

Compression levels with zstd

With maximum compression, large packages can take over a minute to compress. With a moderate increase in size, one can reduce compression time by 2-10x. While making me happier as a developer, it does create extra network load during updates.

Full Package zstd -16 -T0 zstd -16 zstd -19 -T0 zstd -19 zstd -22 xz -9
Time to create 5.4s 26.8s 27.8s 56.0s 70.6s 66.5s
Size of package 52.6MB 52.6MB 49.2MB 49.2MB 48.4MB 45.9MB

Deltas to the Rescue!

There are two basic methods for deltas. One simple method is to include only files that have been changed since the earlier release. With reproducible builds, it is typical to create the same file from the same inputs. However, with a rolling release model, files will frequently have a small change from dependency changes and new versions of the package itself. In these circumstances the delta size starts to get closer to the full package anyway. As a comparison to other delta techniques, this approach resulted in a 38.2MB delta as it was a rebuild of the same version at a different time so the resources and translations were unchanged (and therefore omitted from the delta).

An alternative is a binary diff, which is a significant improvement when files have small changes between releases. bsdiff has long been used for this purpose and trying it out (without knowing much about it) I managed to create a delta of 33.2MB, not a bad start at all.

To highlight the weakness of the simple method, when you compare the delta across a version change, the simple delta was only a 7% reduction of the full package (as most files have changed), while using an optimal binary diff, it still managed to achieve a respectable 31% size reduction.

A New Contender

While looking into alternatives, I happened to stumble across a new feature in zstd which can be used to create deltas. As we already use zstd heavily it should make integration easier. --patch-from allows zstd to use the old uncompressed package as a dictionary to create the newer package. In this way common parts between the releases will be reused in order to reduce the file size. Playing around I quickly achieved the same size as bsdiff, and with a few tweaks was able to further reduce the delta by a further 23.5%! The best part is that it has the same speedy decompression as zstd, so it will recreate most packages from deltas in the blink of an eye!

Delta only changed files bsdiff zstd -19 zstd -22 zstd -22 --zstd=chainLog=30
Time to create 60.8s 153.0s 85.5s 111.6s 131.8s
Size of delta 38.2MB 33.2MB 33.3MB 28.5MB 25.4MB

Next Steps

There's certainly a lot of information to digest, but the next step is to integrate a robust delta solution into the moss format. I really like the zstd approach, where you can tune for speed with an increase in size if desired. With minimising on delta size, users can benefit from smaller updates while developers can benefit from faster package creation times.

Some final thoughts for future consideration:

  • zstd has seen many improvements over the years, so I believe that ratios and performance will see incremental improvements over time. Release 1.4.7 already brought significant improvements to deltas (which are reflected in this testing).
  • The highest compression levels (--ultra) are single threaded in zstd, so delta creation can be done in parallel to maximise utilisation.
  • Over optimising the tunables can have a negative impact on both speed and size. As an example, --zstd=targetLength=4096 did result in a 2KB reduction in size at the same speed, but when applied to different inputs (kernel source tree), it not only made it larger by a few hundred bytes, but added 4 minutes to delta creation!
  • Memory usage of applying deltas can be high for large packages (1.74GB for the kernel source tree) as it has to ingest the full size of the original uncompressed package. It is certainly possible to split up payloads with some delta users even creating patches on a per file basis. It is a bit more complicated when library names change version numbers each release with only the SONAME symlink remaining unchanged.
  • There's always the option to repack packages at higher compression levels later (when deltas are created). This solves getting the package 'live' ASAP and minimises the size (eventually), but adds some complication.