You have a machine someplace, probably in The Cloud, and it has Linux installed, but not to your liking. You want to do a clean reinstall, maybe switching the distribution, or getting rid of the cruft. But this requires running an installer, and it's too difficult to run d-i on remote machines.

Wouldn't it be nice if you could point a program at that machine and have it do a reinstall, on the fly, while the machine was running?

This is what I've now taught propellor to do! Here's a working configuration which will make propellor convert a system running Fedora (or probably many other Linux distros) to Debian:

testvm :: Host
testvm = host ""
        & os (System (Debian Unstable) "amd64")
        & OS.cleanInstallOnce (OS.Confirmed "")
                `onChange` propertyList "fixing up after clean install"
                        [ User.shadowConfig True
                        , OS.preserveRootSshAuthorized
                        , OS.preserveResolvConf
                        , Apt.update
                        , "/dev/sda"
                                `requires` Grub.installed Grub.PC
        & Hostname.sane
        & Hostname.searchDomain
        & Apt.installed ["linux-image-amd64"]
        & Apt.installed ["ssh"]
        & User.hasSomePassword "root"

And here's a video of it in action.

It was surprisingly easy to build this. Propellor already knew how to create a chroot, so from there it basically just has to move files around until the chroot takes over from the old OS.

After the cleanInstallOnce property does its thing, propellor is running inside a freshly debootstrapped Debian system. Then we just need a few more Propertites to get from there to a bootable, usable system: Install grub and the kernel, turn on shadow passwords, preserve a few config files from the old OS, etc.

It's really astounding to me how much easier this was to build than it was to build d-i. It took years to get d-i to the point of being able to install a working system. It took me a few part days to add this capability to propellor (It's 200 lines of code), and I've probably spent a total of less than 30 days total developing propellor in its entirity.

So, what gives? Why is this so much easier? There are a lot of reasons:

  • Technology is so much better now. I can spin up cloud VMs for testing in seconds; I use VirtualBox to restore a system from a snapshot. So testing is much much easier. The first work on d-i was done by booting real machines, and for a while I was booting them using floppies.

  • Propellor doesn't have a user interface. The best part of d-i is preseeding, but that was mostly an accident; when I started developing d-i the first thing I wrote was main-menu (which is invisible 99.9% of the time) and we had to develop cdebconf, and tons of other UI. Probably 90% of d-i work involves the UI. Jettisoning the UI entirely thus speeds up development enormously. And propellor's configuration file blows d-i preseeding out of the water in expressiveness and flexability.

  • Propellor has a much more principled design and implementation. Separating things into Properties, which are composable and reusable gives enormous leverage. Strong type checking and a powerful programming language make it much easier to develop than d-i's mess of shell scripts calling underpowered busybox commands etc. Properties often Just Work the first time they're tested.

  • No separate runtime. d-i runs in its own environment, which is really a little custom linux distribution. Developing linux distributions is hard. Propellor drops into a live system and runs there. So I don't need to worry about booting up the system, getting it on the network, etc etc. This probably removes another order of magnitude of complexity from propellor as compared with d-i.

This seems like the opposite of the Second System effect to me. So perhaps d-i was the second system all along?

I don't know if I'm going to take this all the way to propellor is d-i 2.0. But in theory, all that's needed now is:

  • Teaching propellor how to build a bootable image, containing a live Debian system and propellor. (Yes, this would mean reimplementing debian-live, but I estimate 100 lines of code to do it in propellor; most of the Properties needed already exist.) That image would then be booted up and perform the installation.
  • Some kind of UI that generates the propellor config file.
  • Adding Properties to partition the disk.

cleanInstallOnce and associated Properties will be included in propellor's upcoming 1.1.0 release, and are available in git now.

Oh BTW, you could parameterize a few Properties by OS, and Propellor could be used to install not just Debian or Ubuntu, but whatever Linux distribution you want. Patches welcomed...