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System configuration with GNU Guix


GNU Guix is more than a package manager. Its definition system is so powerful that it can be used for full system configuration in a functional way, i.e., with versions, roll-back and non-interference between configurations. These are attractive properties not matched by non-deterministic systems, such as Cfengine, Chef and Puppet (in computer science, a nondeterministic algorithm is an algorithm that, even for the same input, can exhibit different behaviors on different runs, as opposed to a deterministic algorithm).

In this document we explore sudo configuration as it can be handled by Guix. sudo is of particular interest since it requires setuid and is fussy about its configuration file /etc/sudoers.

GNU Guix system configuration

According to the GNU Guix System-Configuration manual, the Guix System Distribution (aka GuixSD) supports a consistent whole-system configuration mechanism. By that we mean that all aspects of the global system configuration—such as the available system services, timezone and locale settings and user accounts—are declared in a single place. Such a system configuration can be instantiated—i.e., effected.

One of the advantages of putting all the system configuration under the control of Guix is that it supports transactional system upgrades, and makes it possible to roll-back to a previous system instantiation, should something go wrong with the new one. Another one is that it makes it easy to replicate the exact same configuration across different machines, or at different points in time, without having to resort to additional administration tools layered on top of the system’s own tools.

So, for example, user accounts and groups are entirely managed through the operating-system declaration. They are specified with the user-account and user-group forms:

  (name "alice")
  (group "users")
  (supplementary-groups '("wheel"   ;allow use of sudo, etc.
                          "audio"   ;sound card
                          "video"   ;video devices such as webcams
                          "cdrom")) ;the good ol' CD-ROM
  (comment "Bob's sister")
  (home-directory "/home/alice"))

When booting or upon completion of guix system reconfigure, the system ensures that only the user accounts and groups specified in the operating-system declaration exist, and with the specified properties. Thus, account or group creations or modifications made by directly invoking commands such as useradd are lost upon reconfiguration or reboot. This ensures that the system remains exactly as declared.

How does it work?

The sudo package (an example)

The sudo package can be installed with

guix package -i sudo

This installs the sudo binary in gnu/store and symlinks sudo and sudoers from ~.guix-profile/bin. Now trying to run either sudo or sudoedit results in

sudo: ~/.guix-profile/bin/sudo must be owned by uid 0 and have the setuid bit set

also, if you check out the tree in /gnu/store there is no configuration file, though it includes documentation and examples.

It all looks terrifically bare bones. The sudo package can be found in the file gnu/packages/admin.scm. There you can see sudo actually is configured to use system paths for logging, but avoids creating the paths and does not create the /etc/sudoers file:

       (list "--with-logpath=/var/log/sudo.log"
       #:phases (alist-cons-before
                 'configure 'pre-configure
                 (lambda _
                   (substitute* (find-files "." "Makefile\\.in")
                     (("-o [[:graph:]]+ -g [[:graph:]]+")
                      ;; Allow installation as non-root.
                     (("^install: (.*)install-sudoers(.*)" _ before after)
                      ;; Don't try to create /etc/sudoers.
                      (string-append "install: " before after "\n"))
                      ;; Don't try to create /run/sudo.
                      ;; Don't try to create /var/db/sudo.

No need to understand the commands exactly, but you get the gist. It is important that sudo is configured to use /run/sudo.log, but it is not allowed to create this directory at build-time (if it would try it would be wrong because the build happens in an isolated `chroot', i.e., standard directories, such as /etc and /var, are simply not available).

How does Guix configure sudo?

A GuixSD build already configures sudo as can be seen here. The example code (again) looks like

  ;; This is where user accounts are specified.  The "root"
  ;; account is implicit, and is initially created with the
  ;; empty password.
  (users (cons (user-account
                (name "alice")
                (comment "Bob's sister")
                (group "users")

                ;; Adding the account to the "wheel" group
                ;; makes it a sudoer.  Adding it to "audio"
                ;; and "video" allows the user to play sound
                ;; and access the webcam.
                (supplementary-groups '("wheel"
                                        "audio" "video"))
                (home-directory "/home/alice"))

So, GuixSD knows how to set up sudo! Note that Guix, the package manager, is not the same as GuixSD, the system distribution, though the come currently in the same source code repository.

Guix packages, such as that for sudo and ssh are building blocks for GuixSD, but can also be deployed independently. Mentioned GuixSD template is available in gnu/system/examples/bare-bones.tmpl and can be used to set up a VM, for example. The system install is managed by gnu/system/install.scm. The workhorse, however, is gnu/system.scm.

In the last you can find that sudo is a required package, /etc/sudoers gets written and that setuid is set for the sudo command.

(sudoers-file operating-system-sudoers-file     ; file-like
                (default %sudoers-specification))

(define %setuid-programs
  ;; Default set of setuid-root programs.
  (let ((shadow (@ (gnu packages admin) shadow)))
    (list #~(string-append #$shadow "/bin/passwd")
          #~(string-append #$shadow "/bin/su")
          #~(string-append #$sudo "/bin/sudo")
          #~(string-append #$fuse "/bin/fusermount"))))

(define %sudoers-specification
  (plain-file "sudoers" "\
root ALL=(ALL) ALL
%wheel ALL=(ALL) ALL\n"))

The role of setuid-programs is explained in the Guix documentation where it states that the binaries are actually installed in /run/setuid-programs. It would be a security hazard to allow setuid inside the /gnu/store.

In short the configuration of sudo is not part of the sudo package itself. It is 'lifted' by GuixSD to the level of system configuration at build time, which makes sense when you want determinism.

Another intriguing file is gnu/build/activation.scm which contains

;; Things such as /etc/sudoers must be regular files, not
;; symlinks; furthermore, they could be modified behind our
;; back---e.g., with 'visudo'.  Thus, make a copy instead of
;; symlinking them.
(if (file-is-directory? source)
    (symlink source target)
    (copy-file source target))
(when (string=? (basename target) "sudoers")
  (chmod target #o440))

where you can see sudo getting special treatment at GuixSD build-time activation. First the file /etc/static/sudoers is created, next it is copied to /etc and finally its permissions are set.

This happens every time you build a system. Note that on a running system when the sudo package gets updated nothing will happen to the configuration. I.e. you need to regenerate the full system to make use of an updated package which, essentially, is the right thing to do with determinism.

System configuration

The above example shows that it is possible to install software with GuixSD outside /gnu/store directories (but not possible from within a Guix package install during the build phase). It should be stressed, however, that this should only be done there is a good reason to do so. Inside /gnu/store a package with its configuration is free from tampering because the store is immutable.

sudo and passwd tools are special because they require special permissions and are fussy about file locations (well, you don't want to have passwd and group files in the store since many tools relate to them).

So, what goes into a package is the generic stuff - so any target can use it. Anything specific to a system has to go into the system configuration layer. User settings, typically, are part of system configuration. But - and this is important - they can still be in the /gnu/store itself.

This is the nice bit, you can create lighter-weight overrides of packages and put in some extra plumbing. E.g., the cheerful way of overriding a version of a package:

    (use-modules (guix) (gnu packages emacs))

      (inherit emacs)
      (name "emacs-snapshot")
      (source "/path/to/some-file-or-directory.tar.gz"))

and then run:

guix package --install-from-file=that-file.scm

Alternatively create configuration modules that make use of the GUIX_PACKAGE_PATH. One such example lives here.

Essentially, you get new packages in the store that are specific for your purpose. These are building blocks for a full system configuration. Say we have the generic apache package, but we want to configure it for one type of webserver: simply create the package 'apache-myserver' which either inherits from apache, or has apache as a dependency.

Example 1: Tell Guix package to use config file from /etc

In fact we have done this. In the sudo example above sudo uses /etc/sudoers for its configuration. If we don't use GuixSD to configure the system (in the next step) we could do the same by hand (or chef or puppet) in a non-deterministic fashion by adding the /etc/sudoers file and by providing a copy of the sudo binary outside the store and suid'ing it.

Example 2: Use sudoers from the store

Earlier we configured sudo by having the configuration system create /etc/sudoers. Another option would be to drop the configuration into the store itself. This is quite possible by configuring sudo to use $out/etc/sudoers instead and by writing $out/etc/sudoers from inside the package.

Deterministic system configuration and maintenance

Cfengine, Chef and Puppet are non-deterministic system maintenance tools. There is no guarantee the resulting target system is consistent. These tools were invented out of the necessity of automating system administration, simply by overwriting packages and configuration files. The time and order of running these tools may result in different outcomes. The next evolutionary step in system administration is combining light-weight containers in conjunction with deterministic GNU Guix, so we can avoid non-determinism altogether. Note that light-weight containers on their own (such as Docker) are not enough to avoid non-determinism - though they can be a part of the solution.

GNU Guix can also be configured to check its settings on reboot or when running

guix system reconfigure

From the sudo example above it should also be noted that systems can be updated in the traditional way, but that you need to update /run/suid-programs after a sudo update to make use of the updated sudo. You can still work the old way if you want to. Determinism is not an enforced policy ;)