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Architecture: RPM packages, ostree commits

  1. RPMs + config -> single OSTree commit
  2. Philosophy: Every change is “from scratch”
  3. Overall architecture:
    1. Generating the filesystem tree
    2. Sandboxing scripts
    3. Kernel handling
    4. SELinux
      1. SELinux policy storage location

RPMs + config -> single OSTree commit

On the compose side, to generate the “base image” the core idea is that we take a set of packages as input, along with other configuration and data and generate a single OSTree commit - a versioned filesystem tree.

The same is also true on the client side, but it starts from a “base commit”.

This document will describe the “core” phases and steps in that process that apply both build/compose side and client side.

Philosophy: Every change is “from scratch”

For every change today, rpm-ostree generally rebuilds the target filesystem “from scratch” - adding accurate caching where needed. The goal is to avoid hysteresis (related blog).

In other words if e.g. you rpm-ostree install foo and then rpm-ostree install bar, the new target filesystem tree will be regenerated “from scratch” and all RPM %post scripts etc. will rerun.

Overall architecture:

  • For each package, download and import into OSTree commit if necessary
  • Unpack the “base” filesystem tree if any via hardlinks
  • Determine an installation order, and unpack each package-ostree commit again via hardlinks
  • Run all the %post scripts (in install order)
  • Run all the %posttrans scripts (in install order)
  • Write RPM database (if we had a “base commit”, starting from that)
  • If initramfs regeneration is enabled or the kernel was replaced, remove the base initramfs and run dracut to generate a new one.
  • Ask libostree to commit the resulting filesystem tree, optimized by a (device, inode) -> checksum cache, so that files that weren’t changed aren’t re-checksummed.

Generating the filesystem tree

In contrast to the above, traditional package managers like RPM are usually implemented in a flow that does:

  • Unpack package A
  • Run %post script for A
  • Update the package database with metadata for A
  • Unpack package B
  • Run %post script for B
  • Update the package database with metadata for B
  • Run %posttrans scripts


In contrast, rpm-ostree maintains an OSTree commit corresponding to each RPM package provided as input. On a client system, you can see this in e.g. ostree refs | grep rpmostree/pkg (assuming you have layered packages). On a build system, these ostree commits will be stored in a repo at pkgcache-repo/ within the cache directory.

This acts as an optimized cache for regenerating the target root filesystem. So for rpm-ostree, the phase is more like this:

  • Unpack the filesystem tree for all packages
  • Run all the %post scripts
  • Run all the %posttrans scripts …

rpm-ostree is effectively reimplementing large chunks of the librpm userspace in order to make it use OSTree natively.

Sandboxing scripts

On the build server side, it’s obviously desirable to have the “build” of an ostree commit for a target system not affect the running host.

Similarly, on the client side, the default is to provide “offline” updates that don’t affect the running system.

As part of this, rpm-ostree currently uses the bubblewrap tool to run each script in its own isolated container.

Today, scripts are run with real uid 0 (not in a user namespace), but we drop most capabilities. Additionally, scripts can’t see the real host root filesystem, most notably they do not see the real /var with all of the system data. A good example of the benefit of this is “tests: Add a test case for a %post that does rm -rf /”.

In addition to bubblewrap, rpm-ostree uses rofiles-fuse from the ostree project which originally enforced the model that a file that has multiple hardlinks is read-only, but more recently gained --copyup support which acts in a similar fashion to the in-kernel overlayfs. (See also

Kernel handling

ostree is entirely oriented around bootable filesystem trees; its “source of truth” is the bootloader entries. It has opinions about where the Linux kernel binaries are stored (the current standard is in /usr/lib/modules/$kver.)

In contrast, traditional RPM is unaware of what a kernel is; it’s just another package. Most higher level package managers such as yum gained some special casing around the kernel - because it’s not possible to restart the running kernel, traditional RPM systems need to keep the kernel modules for the running kernel around. For example yum/dnf have a concept of “installonlyn” which defaults to 2 for the kernel package.

Additionally, for at least traditional Fedora derivatives with yum/dnf, the initramfs is generated client side as part of a kernel update.

But for rpm-ostree, the decision was made to default to a pre-generated initramfs by default. Further, in order to implement transactional upgrades, rpm-ostree needs to be in control of the initramfs regeneration - it can’t just be a script forked off without its knowledge.

Further for rpm-ostree, easily replacing the kernel (as well as userspace) is intended to be a first-class operation; you need to be able to do that in order to debug production issues for example.

In contrast to the yum/dnf “installonly” for ostree there can be exactly one kernel per userspace filesystem tree. To ostree, a “bootable ostree commit” is the pair of (kernel, userspace).

rpm-ostree combines these two worlds, and goes to some lengths to bend the libdnf stack to work this way. We reset the “installonly” limit back to 1 to ensure we have exactly one kernel. PR:

Further, as noted above rpm-ostree takes over the handling of invoking dracut - just like other scripts, it is run inside a container with just read-only access to the system. dracut generates the initramfs CPIO archive, which we then place inside the /usr/lib/modules/$kver location.

If client-side initramfs regeneration is enabled, we may selectively provide desired configuration files into this process. PR:


Handling SELinux is very tricky, because it is a package that can affect every other package. Specifically, the SELinux policy package contains a vast set of regular expressions in file_contexts to determine labeling.

For traditional librpm, this is a plugin.

A major goal of OSTree from the start has been to ensure fully correct handling of SELinux for the base operating system. The way rpm-ostree handles this is by:

  • Recompiling the policy as a %posttrans equivalent
  • Loading the policy from the target root, and pass that loaded policy to libostree, which consults it to use for the label of each committed file.

This means that on an OSTree based system, the labels for the files in the booted deployment (e.g. in /usr) are always correct and set atomically - there’s no need to relabel.

SELinux policy storage location

Another major difference between traditional yum/dnf and rpm-ostree based systems is the location of the SELinux policy store database itself. rpm-ostree overrides it to be back in /etc, when it was moved to /var in the RPM package around the Fedora 24 timeframe. For more information see and the comments in rpmostree-postprocess.cxx.