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15 September 2022 — by Mark Karpov
How to keep a Bazel project hermetic?
bazeldevops

A build is hermetic if it is not affected by details of the environment where it is performed. Hermeticity is a prerequisite for generally desirable features like remote caching and remote execution. While certain build systems, such as Nix, impose hermeticity through their design, others rely on their users to do the extra work and be vigilant to get it. Bazel enforces hermeticity to some extent, for example through sandboxing, but is less strict about it than Nix. In this post I’m going to try to enumerate most ways in which hermeticity of a Bazel project can be compromised.

Execution strategy

One source of inhermeticity is the file system. If tools, such as compilers, are invoked in a way that does not limit their access to contents of the file system, the output of these tools can be influenced by extraneous files that might be present during the build. One example could be include files in languages like C or C++. Imagine a shared machine that is used to perform builds with different configurations. One build might generate some header files and place it in a directory that might later be specified as an include directory in a compiler invocation performed by another build. If the generated header file happens to have the right name it can shadow the correct header file and lead to a build failure that is hard to reproduce and understand. This is not a hypothetical example, but a real problem our client once struggled with. This is why it is important to always use some form of sandbox for your build actions. Sandboxing also guarantees that all build inputs are declared correctly, because otherwise the input files will simply not be available.

The use of sandbox is controlled by choosing an execution strategy. The following execution strategies are available:

  • local (or standalone, which is the same but deprecated) causes commands to be executed as local subprocesses without sandboxing.
  • sandboxed causes commands to be executed inside a sandbox on the local machine.
  • worker causes commands to be executed using a persistent worker, if available.
  • docker causes commands to be executed inside a docker sandbox on the local machine.
  • remote causes commands to be executed remotely; this is only available if a remote executor has been configured separately.

These are set with --spawn_strategy and --strategy flags.

Without going into details of all the strategies mentioned, it must be noted that local should be avoided if the build is to stay hermetic. In addition to the strategy flags there are several ways to choose local execution:

It should also be noted that, as of this writing, Windows has no support for sandboxing. Therefore build hermeticity on Windows cannot be enforced at that level.

With persistent workers

Another pitfall is related to the worker strategy. While using persistent workers can have performance benefits, these workers will not use sandboxed execution by default. It must be enabled manually by using the --worker_sandboxing flag.

Environment

Environment variables can also be a source of inhermeticity. There are many ways to inherit the environment of the machine that executes the build:

Whenever the environment of host machine is inherited it becomes an input to the respective build actions and since it is very hard to ensure identical environments on different machines, especially developer machines, features like remote caching have no chance to work.

Rules

While most modern Bazel rules will provide a way to pin the toolchain that is used for the build, others will default to simply picking up binaries from the PATH. Nothing prevents these binaries to vary from machine to machine. The built-in C and C++ rules are notorious for this kind of behavior. It is worth paying attention to what kind of rules you are using and what their guarantees with respect to hermeticity and reproducibility are.

Workspace status

Not a bug, but a feature—workspace status is in the gray area with respect to hermeticity. Activated by the --workspace_status_command command line option, it allows users to call an arbitrary program before the build begins and then use its output to stamp build results (e.g. status command could return git commit hash or time stamp). If an action directly depends on the output of the status command, typically stored as bazel-out/stable-status.txt, then it will likely be invalidated and rebuilt more often than intended and not benefit much from remote caching. Extra care must be exercised so as to pick only relevant bits of information from stable-status.txt, put them in a separate file, and depend on that file only when truly necessary.

Other things to watch for

Unfortunately, there is always a new way to shoot yourself in the foot. Here are some examples:

  • Repository rules can execute arbitrary code outside of the sandbox, they can potentially break hermeticity. For example, pip_install or npm_install may build native components with whichever compiler is in PATH, linking against whichever system libraries are found. Avoiding such dependencies, importing them in a reproducible way, for example through rules_nixpkgs, or carefully controlling the environment during fetch may be solutions to this problem.
  • Performing any non-deterministic actions. Creating archives (zip, tar, etc.) is a good example: The order of directory listings as well as timestamps are usually non-deterministic. The [reprodubile-builds project(https://reproducible-builds.org/docs/archives/) is a great resources to learn about these issues and how to circumvent them.

Detecting hermeticity issues

In general, detecting hermeticity issues is hard. The best strategy, it seems, is to attempt building your project in different environments and have Bazel write execlogs. An execlog is the ground truth about what is going on during the build. This page about troubleshooting remote cache hits describes how to make Bazel write execlogs. Let’s summarize it:

  1. Execute bazel clean in order to force the subsequent build command to perform all necessary actions so that they end up in the execlog.
  2. Execute bazel build //your:target --execution_log_binary_file=/tmp/exec1.log. This will produce a binary execution log.
  3. Re-run the build (preceding it with a bazel clean invocation) in a different environment or even in the same environment if there is a reason to suspect that something could change between two runs in the same environment.
  4. Compare execution logs following the instructions from this section. The procedure involves building a special parser that can convert binary execlogs produced by Bazel into text and then diffing the obtained text files with a tool like diff. Differences found in this way will reveal sources of inhermeticity.

With this approach the main question becomes “how to choose the environments in which builds are performed so as to detect all hermeticity issues.” There is no answer to this question that works in all cases. Varying host name and user name might catch some problems, while others may only reveal themselves in specific circumstances. If you already know what might be a source of potential problems that could help with choosing the right build environments for these tests. From a pragmatic point of view, choosing environments that are already typically used to perform builds (remote workers, build agents, local developer machines) is probably a good first step.

Conclusion

It is likely true that virtually all users of Bazel wish their builds be hermetic. The blog post summarizes most ways in which hermiticity can be violated and provides some suggestions about how to avoid the common pitfalls and debug hermeticity issues.

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