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Archive for February, 2011

The CPAN ecosystem is one of the most compelling reasons for the continued growth of the Perl programming language. It has been discussed at length by numerous people, and there have been several attempts to imitate this aspect of the Perl community through projects like: CRAN, CCAN, JSAN and more.

Unfortunately, in equal parts due to its age and design philosophy, the PAUSE system powering CPAN makes it difficult for distributions to be maintained by a group, rather than an individual. The inspiration for this post comes from a discussion I had recently with Florian Ragwitz, who contributes to several key Perl projects, including Catalyst, Moose, DBIx::Class and many more.

Permissions

First, a bit about how permissions on CPAN work.

In order to make a package installable using the CPAN Shell, there must be some mechanism to disambiguate a module name. Consider this simple example:

  1. I upload Acme::Package to CPAN.
  2. Some time passes, and unbeknownst to me, another author uploads a different package, but which is called Acme::Package to CPAN as well.

In the absence of any permission checking, if I then instructed users to install Acme::Package using the CPAN Shell, they would inadvertently install the wrong distribution! This has some rather serious implications: the other Acme::Package is probably quite different from mine, and a malicious author could have taken my software and added a backdoor vulnerability.

CPAN solves this issue by tracking each module namespace separately using the PAUSE Indexer, which assigns upload permissions to users through two mechanisms:

  1. The module namespace registration list.
  2. First-come status (the first uploader of a given package namespace “owns” that namespace).

Going back to the example given, the second uploader of Acme::Package would not have permission to use the namespace. The package will be accepted into the archive, but will not be indexed, meaning that users installing Acme::Package will still get my distribution.

If users want to install the other author’s package (which is marked as an UNAUTHORIZED upload in big red letters on CPAN Search), they would need to explicitly specify AUTHOR/Acme-Package-1.00.tar.gz.

For packages maintained by several people, it is also possible to assign co-maintainer status to others, so that they may also upload a package and have it correctly indexed. This way, two or more people can work on the same package together, and upload it under their own accounts (without causing the upload to be marked unauthorized). Thus, PAUSE credentials do not need to be shared.

This provides a nice solution to the malicious upload problem, but also has implications for team-maintained packages. In particular, consider the case where there are two authors working on Acme::Library.

  1. Alice uploads the first version to CPAN, containing modules: Acme::Library and Acme::Library::Main.
  2. The PAUSE Indexer grants Alice first-come permissions to both Acme::Library and Acme::Library::Main.
  3. Alice grants Bob co-maintainer status on both Acme::Library and Acme::Library::Main.
  4. Bob creates a new Acme::Library::Other module and adds it to the  package.
  5. The PAUSE Indexer grants Bob first-come permissions to Acme::Library::Other.
  6. Subsequent uploads by Alice will cause the upload of Acme::Library::Other to be marked UNAUTHORIZED.

Solutions

Clever Perl authors have attempted to solve this problem in many different ways over the years, but none of them have been widely successful because they all rely on some degree of human interaction.

Shared PAUSE Accounts

Some notable projects have attempted to solve the issue by creating a shared PAUSE user to hold the requisite first-come or module list upload permissions, which may then be granted to all other team members through the existing co-maintainer facility.

Alternatively, since it is easier for smaller projects, many modules simply assign first-come permissions to a single person, who is then in charge of providing co-maintainer permissions to others who would like to work on it.

Both of these approaches have the same limitation: any people uploading new modules must remember to assign first-come permissions to the group or user in question. In our case, Bob should have assigned first-come permissions to Acme::Library::Other to Alice, who then must pass co-maintainer permissions back to Bob. Unfortunately, this almost never happens, and Alice must chase down Bob (who happens to be on vacation in Antarctica) or, alternatively, the already over-worked PAUSE administrators.

Single Uploader

Some projects deal with this issue by sharing a version control system and having all the uploads go through a single person, in our case, Alice. This fixes the permission problem, since first-come permissions are always granted to Alice, but it results in a single point of failure. If there are some serious security issues requiring an immediate release, Alice must be available (and, as luck would have it, she is vacationing in Antarctica at the time).

Enter x_authority

One proposed solution, which is used in projects including Moose and Catalyst, is to use a special field in the CPAN Metadata file (META.yml or META.json) that defines someone as the “authority” for first-come namespaces in a distribution.

This is how it would work for Alice‘s Acme::Library distribution:

  1. Alice uploads a package to CPAN, containing modules: Acme::Library and Acme::Library::Main.
  2. Alice specifies, in META.yml:
    x_authority: cpan:ALICE

    This refers to Alice‘s PAUSE login, and is the person to whom permissions for new modules uploaded in this distribution are assigned.

  3. Alice grants Bob co-maintainer status on both Acme::Library and Acme::Library::Main.
  4. Bob creates a new Acme::Library::Other module and adds it to the package
  5. The PAUSE indexer, seeing the x_authority defined in META.yml, grants Alice (not Bob!) first-come permissions to Acme::Library::Other. At this time, Bob also automatically gets co-maintainer permissions to Acme::Library::Other.
  6. Subsequent uploads by Alice will be indexed properly.

Problems

There are still some outstanding issues that need to be resolved, but the x_authority proposal represents a giant leap forward for team-maintained software.

The name: any keys not part of the CPAN Metadata Specification must be prefixed with “x_” – eventually, once it is used by more people and accepted into the specification, this name will become, simply, “authority.”

Other comaintainers: if Charlie joined the project prior to Bob‘s upload of Acme::Library::Other, then Alice still needs to grant co-maintainer permissions to Charlie. Unfortunately, the PAUSE Indexer cannot automatically grant permissions to him, since it has no notion of a “distribution,” only module namespaces.

Malicious uploaders: in the worst case, if Eve joins the project and maliciously (or unintentionally!) changes the x_authority, she will automatically get first-come permissions on the namespace of any modules she adds. However, this is the same behaviour that we had in the absence of x_authority.

Conclusions

Ultimately, the benefits of this feature (making group maintenance easier) drastically outweigh the cost (only a few small changes need to be made to the PAUSE Indexer). They are unlikely to cause any problems in practice, and the worst-case behaviour is the same as if we did not have x_authority at all.

It isn’t perfect, but it is a solution that requires minimal effort and minimal changes to PAUSE. Eventually, the goal is to create a more sophisticated system that will handle the issues outlined above, as well as more complex ones, such as renaming distributions or moving modules between distributions.

Thanks to Florian Ragwitz for spending some time discussing x_authority at length with me. He and Leon Timmermans proofread this article prior to publication.

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