We have recently moved the majority of Racket's code base into packages and repositories separate from the main core repository. This has given the Racket package system another cycle of attention. Whenever this happens, there are often questions and confusion about how to solve various distribution problems with the package system. A natural point of comparison is the older Planet system provided by Racket that appears to solve similar problems. In this blog post, I attempt to explain the purpose of the package system and its relation to Planet.
The package system and Planet do not solve the same problem and don't exist for the same reason.
A file distribution mechanism for source code.
.pltfiles that are installed into a particular place on your machine and then
A mechanism for automatically downloading and installing source code just before it is needed by programs.
(planet ...)require form.
A centralized database of libraries
Via the Planet website and its server & protocol which were undocumented and proprietary for the majority of Planet's life
A prescriptive model of how programs and libraries should be composed.
Specifically the system of major/minor versions, tagging packages by author name, and embedding the names of packages in source code.
In contrast, the package system is:
A file distribution mechanism for source code, byte code, and documentation.
In this way, the package system is almost identical to an operating system package system like Debian's dpkg and apt systems. The problem is very finely tailored and becomes more flexible as a result (notice that we can now distribute byte code and documentation.) This design aspires to follow the admonition of holy writ: "Programming languages should be designed not by piling feature on top of feature, but by removing the weaknesses and restrictions that make additional features appear necessary."
Furthermore, it was intended to solve practical problems throughout the Racket ecosystem. In particular, one of the common complaints people had and have about Planet is the very long install times because of long builds. The package system allows this problem to be solved by distributing pre-built code.
Since the package system specifically does not address jobs 2, 3, or 4 of Planet, we have to ask, "Do they need to be solved?" and if so, "How can we solve them on top of the package system, i.e. as a library in honor of the design principle?".
In particular, 2 and 3 are very painful for people wanting to just use the file distribution mechanism of Planet. 2 causes unpredictability, because you don't know if running a program will start a long invocation of "raco setup", require Internet access, and start running un-vetted code. 3 requires you to share your code if you want to use the file distribution mechanism and is a single point of failure for doing installation.
By not mandating how to address 2 and 3 in the package system, we offer flexibility. Here is where the solutions to these jobs are now:
2. There is currently no way to get automatic installs of packages. However, both DrRacket and xrepl offer advice about which packages you might want to install to compile and run the program. It would be natural to extend this advice to be automatic and patches are welcome. Given the experiences of operating systems which merely make suggestions (
nethack: command not found, provided by nethack-console), I personally feel like we are at the sweet spot.
3. The file distribution mechanism's flexible package sources combine with a very simple protocol for package catalogs (Take a URL, add
/pkg/, add a string, get a
read-able hash table) to look up packages you don't yet have. As a service, we run a few catalogs (one for each release, plus pkgs.r-l.o). But we expect that users with special needs (such as sensitive installations that need exactly certain tested and trusted versions, especially with proprietary software) will build their own catalogs on private Web sites.
Clearly, however, job 4 is where Planet and the package system differ the most.
With the package system, we follow the precedent of operating systems. An OS package's job is to get files into the right spot. An OS package contains a binary and instructions to install it as
/usr/bin/zsh. It is not typical in OSes to be able to install multiple packages (such as different "versions" of the "same" package) that both provide
/usr/bin/zsh. When you're at a Unix prompt, you don't have to write
zsh-5.0.5/usr/bin/zsh. It's possible that many consider this is a big problem with OSes and indeed we do observe that it is fairly common to provide packages that provide binaries and libraries with embedded names such as how on my machine I have
python3.2 all in my
$PATH. It is important to realize, however, that the
deb format and the
apt tool didn't need to change to support this change or future changes in perspective in how to compose code.
I hope this analogy helps understand the Racket package system. In the package system, a package doesn't install "binaries", "man pages", and "init scripts", but installs similar things, such as "module paths", "documentation manuals", and "
raco commands". Each of these has a notion of conflict: can't have two
zshs or two
racket/lists; can't have two
zsh.1 pages or two docs named
doc; can't have two modules trying to provide
raco neo-tokyo-is-about-to-explode. If you find a random
.deb on the Internet, can you predict what binaries it will contain from its name? No. The same goes for Racket packages. However, if you are egregiously weird, then people probably won't want to install your packages, just like for random
However, clearly rules are helpful. In the world of operating systems, you know that basically all packages distributed by Debian can be installed at the same time, except for "virtual packages" that do stuff like selecting whether
sendmail should be responsible for the
sendmail command. These rules are not enforced through technology, though. Instead, the Debian maintainers have a social process that enforces them, with information being provided by technology (such as regression systems that identify unintended conflicts.) The catalog server that the Racket team provides helps facilitate a similar process with the concentric rings (all ring <=1 packages can be installed at once and ring 1< packages can do anything.)
Non-conflicting sets of packages is the simplest rule to define and enforce. Other rules about backwards compatibility are much more complicated to define and enforce. I do not believe there is much precedent in the world of OSes, although we can see a little bit of what they do through things like
libgtk3, where generally code written for one
libgtk2 package is compatible with all
libgtk2 packages made in the future, but
libgtk3 is effectively a totally different package and introduces totally separate binaries like
The most that the Racket team attempts to do here is to say, "Here are the rules we will follow and we think you should follow them too." Specifically, that we will maintain backwards compatibility or make a new package. We can't and won't enforce this, nor do we always live up to it with our own work (but we feel really bad about it when we do.)
Although my main goal of this section has been to explain my solution to (4), a great thing about the package system is that it is not binding at all. You can decide to follow the same rules as Planet. It is easy to do so:
- Always name your packages
- Always provide modules from only the collection,
- Maintain backwards compatibility within releases of
- Update the
'versionmetadata in the package
info.rktto reflect the
And, boom!, you've recreated the rules of Planet to a T except for two things: (a) you'll still need to put a dependency on
$AUTHOR-$PACKAGE-$MAJOR on the outside of code in a package
info.rkt file rather than just inside files and (b) you can't use
$AUTHOR-$PACKAGE to refer to "whatever the current
The first compromise of adding something to the
info.rkt is fairly modest, as it requires O(1) line modifications.
The second compromise is more severe, although actually you could just maintain such a package and deal with the breakage that occurs when you try to upgrade. Such breakage, however, was present in Planet too, as when a package was installed based on
$AUTHOR-$PACKAGE only the local machine would cache the version used, so if you took the requiring module to another machine, it would download a new version and, potentially, have a backwards incompatibility problem. Using the package system in the most naive way (i.e. installing the
$AUTHOR-$PACKAGE at some point and programming to that) would work exactly the same as Planet, except that the package system was designed to be able to port installations from one machine to another with
raco pkg migrate.
I hope this blog post has helped explain the package system and shown that it does not prevent you from doing anything that Planet let you do, it only allows you to do more.