It's 2004 and I'm in Oldenburg DE, working on the Debian Installer. Colin and I pair program on partman, its new partitioner, to get it into shape. We've somewhat reluctantly decided to use it. Partman is in some ways a beautful piece of work, a mass of semi-object-oriented, super extensible shell code that sprang fully formed from the brow of Anton. And in many ways, it's mad, full of sector alignment twiddling math implemented in tens of thousands of lines of shell script scattered amoung hundreds of tiny files that are impossible to keep straight. In the tiny Oldenburg Developers Meeting, full of obscure hardware and crazy intensity of ideas like porting Debian to VAXen, we hack late into the night, night after night, and crash on the floor.

sepia toned hackers round a table

It's 2015 and I'm at a Chinese bakery, then at the Berkeley pier, then in a SF food truck lot, catching half an hour here and there in my vacation to add some features to Propellor. Mostly writing down data types for things like filesystem formats, partition layouts, and then some small amount of haskell code to use them in generic ways. Putting these peices together and reusing stuff already in Propellor (like chroot creation).

Before long I have this, which is only 2 undefined functions away from (probably) working:

let chroot d = Chroot.debootstrapped (System (Debian Unstable) "amd64") mempty d
        & Apt.installed ["openssh-server"]
        & ...
    partitions = fitChrootSize MSDOS
        [ (Just "/boot", mkPartiton EXT2)
        , (Just "/", mkPartition EXT4)
        , (Nothing, const (mkPartition LinuxSwap (MegaBytes 256)))
 in Diskimage.built chroot partitions (grubBooted PC)

This is at least a replication of vmdebootstrap, generating a bootable disk image from that config and 400 lines of code, with enormous customizability of the disk image contents, using all the abilities of Propellor. But is also, effectively, a replication of everything partman is used for (aside from UI and RAID/LVM).

sailboat on the SF bay

What a difference a decade and better choices of architecture make! In many ways, this is the loosely coupled, extensible, highly configurable system partman aspired to be. Plus elegance. And I'm writing it on a lark, because I have some spare half hours in my vacation.

Past Debian Installer team lead Tollef stops by for lunch, I show him the code, and we have the conversation old d-i developers always have about partman.

I can't say that partman was a failure, because it's been used by millions to install Debian and Ubuntu and etc for a decade. Anything that deletes that many Windows partitions is a success. But it's been an unhappy success. Nobody has ever had a good time writing partman recipes; the code has grown duplication and unmaintainability.

I can't say that these extensions to Propellor will be a success; there's no plan here to replace Debian Installer (although with a few hundred more lines of code, propellor is d-i 2.0); indeed I'm just adding generic useful stuff and building further stuff out of it without any particular end goal. Perhaps that's the real difference.