spox codes

The magic text book


A new approach at dependency solving.


A couple years ago I was at the Chef summit, and had a session with some of my workmates on cookbook dependency resolution. The result of the session was less than ideal, with trees being forced as the focus and the sight of the forest lost. It wasn’t too surprising. Resolution was already an issue, and it’s hard to sway the conversation from an issue that was punching people in the face for the one stabbing them in the back. Compounding this was the fact that I had no solution for the problem, just some ideas on how it could be fixed.


The problem is easily demonstrable via the classic infrastructure repository layout. Reasons for using the infrastructure repository approach are many, but it’s not really relevant here. What’s important is that we aren’t solving for a single cookbook. We want to solve for an entire infrastructure, and this is where existing tools like Librarian and Berkshelf come up short. They provide a single “best” path resolution given a set of dependencies and constraints. This is fine for a single node. But at the infrastructure level what we really want is all the cookbooks available within the defined set of dependencies and their constraints.

Since both Librarian and Berkshelf model themselves very closely on Bundler, an analogy with Bundler and RubyGems seems appropriate. Currently solvers are acting like Bundler: they solve for a single application. What we want is a solver that solves for RubyGems: all the gems that may be required by all the applications. In our case, an application is equivalent to a node, and RubyGems is equivalent to our Chef Server.

Where to start

So, this all came up awhile ago, and has been mostly ignored as a nuisance, but really annoying when things either can’t resolve, or multiple versions may be required. With supermarket finally adding support for full manifest, I wanted to start using it within Librarian. The project hasn’t been updated for awhile, and it looks like the main contributor (yfeldblum) is no longer employed with the owning organization. I pinged to see if maybe I could take over maintanence, start adding support for the new features available from the supermarket and start adding some solutions for this infrastructure resolution problem. When no reply came, I looked at just forking and starting a new project based on Librarian since the code is all MIT licensed. But I had also been reading and browsing around looking at different depsolvers, different implementation approaches. Why not take a crack at one of these different ideas? I mean, if it totally crash landed, I could always just fall back to forking Librarian.

The text book

I had been reading and searching on different solvers around, and how one implementation differed from another. It would be great to have something I could just build on top of and not have to create something new. During my searching I stumbled across the dependency resolver used with meteor. It uses ideas from the A* algorithm to generate resolution paths. And one of the really cool things that it did was only provide updates to libraries that required updates unless it had been requested. This was something that always bugged me about all the current tools I have been using (bundler, librarian, etc) and was added to the list of “things I would like”.

Keeping the library as pure Ruby was important, mainly for portability (more specifically portability between Ruby platforms). I read through the meteor code to get a rough idea of how they mutated the algorithm for solving use, and read lots more on the A* algorithm itself, building slim implementations and playing around with the results. Once it seemed like a pretty comfortable idea, I took a crack at writing a generic solver library.



The most important requirement for the solver is a priority queue. There’s a few libraries around that provide priority queues, but I only need a few specific behaviors and I want something that I can easily optimize. Since it might end up useful elsewhere in the future, I popped open the Bogo library and added in a new class: Bogo::PriorityQueue. It has a few features/restrictions:

  • Sorts queue based on score
  • Sorting can be ascending or descending
  • Scores can be provided as a Numeric or a Proc providing a Numeric
  • An instance cannot exist within queue multiple times

The Proc support for scoring was added just because it could be added. It currently isn’t being used anywhere, and for good reason. With Proc based scoring, we have to resort the queue prior to every PriorityQueue#pop since the score value may have changed. It still seems like it may be useful at some point, for some thing, so why not throw in support for it while we’re there.

Requirement of a Dependency for a Version

We also need a way to represent a constraint requirement, a dependency requirement, and a version. As luck would have it, Ruby ships with RubyGems which means we already have these things available from the RubyGems library. So lets just hijack these classes and use them instead of re-inventing them and most likely providing less features.

NOTE: These still need some work, specifically grimoire providing an interface the class must adhere to so they can easily be swapped.

Build the stupid thing already!

With the requirements accounted for, lets populate up the library with the things we need. We’ll add a Unit class to represent a “thing” that has a “version”. A RequirementList that provides names and version constraints. A System that holds all the Units we have available. A Solver to do the solving. And finally, a UnitScoreKeeper that can provide a score for a given Unit.

Alright, that was easy! So we end up with a System that we populate up with Units generated from where ever the actual implemention application decides. That gets passed to the Solver along with the RequirementList. The first thing the Solver does is build its “world”. The world building is merely trimming down the Units defined within the System to the set allowed based on the constraints provided within the RequirementList (and the dependency chains).

Wait: This world thing seems a lot like the “solving for RubyGems“ thing we were talking about earlier…

Once the world has been defined, it’s time to actually solve. By default the solver will discover valid solution paths and provide a PriorityQueue ordered by “best” solution, which in the default case is the latest possible version available within the applied constraints. This behavior is on par with the other solvers. Great, but lets do something with a little more wow.

When we initialize the Solver, we can provide a UnitScoreKeeper. Within grimoire the UnitScoreKeeper is just an abstract class, relying on the application to provide the proper scoring behavior. It has a single method, which is provided a Unit. The result is a score for that given Unit based on what ever criteria is important to the application. When the Solver generates solution paths, it starts by creating a PriorityQueue for each Unit name, and then populates the queue with every instance with that name available. The UnitScoreKeeper allows the application to suggest to the solver to prefer one version of another based on the score provided. This allows doing things like weighting versions currently in use, so they are not updated unless it’s required, giving a “least impact” style of updates. Awesome!

Generic library

The result of this work is a generic library that applications can build off to create specialized solvers. It allows these specialized solvers to:

  • Find single path resolution
  • Find single path weighted resolution
  • Find all Units required to solve for a given RequirementList