lloyd.io is the personal website of Lloyd Hilaiel, a software engineer who works for Team Ozlo and lives in Denver.

All the stuff you'll find here is available under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license (use it and change it, just don't lie about who wrote it). Icons on this site are commercially available from steedicons.com. Fonts used are available in Google's Web Font directory, and I'm using Ubuntu and Lekton. Finally, Jekyll is used for site rendering.

Finally, Atul, Pascal, and Stephen inspired the site's design. And in case you're interested, this site's code is available on github.

Challenges in Repurposing the Addon SDK (aka, jetpack)
2010-10-25 00:00:00 -0700

Lately I’ve been collaborating with Marcio Galli on the chromeless project in Mozilla Labs, and one thing I like about the approach is that it leverages huge swaths of the jetpack platform.

What’s Jetpack Got To Do With It?

At first glance you may wonder what jetpack (making it possible to write extensions in web technologies) could have to do with the very different problem of making it possible to create a browser in web technologies. The answer is that the folks working on jetpack had to solve a couple of interesting problems that are very relevant:

A Module System For JavaScript

Because JetPack represents a shift to writing potentially large and complex extensions in javascript, the first thing that comes up is the question of code organization. How do we break the implementation into several different files to support our abstractions? How do we share libraries between developers?

The solution in JetPack is something that looks like the CommonJS module specification, and one of the thing that jetpack provides is a mechanism for building and consuming libraries of code in javascript.

Module Documentation

If your familiar at all with jetpack, you might have seen their built-in documentation mechanism. The way it works is the python scripts that compose the interface to the platform spawn a local web server which can display a combination of dynamically generated and static documentation. Along the way, JetPack has made some technology decisions and introduced some conventions around documenting code that are not specific to generating extensions.

Mozilla Platform Abstraction

In addition to the concrete features mentioned above, the jetpack platform provides the ability to generate idiomatic JavaScript APIs which can then be implemented leveraging existing platform features, implemented themselves in XPCOM, JavaScript, or even ctypes.

How Do We Share the Jetpack Core?

While the above was enough reason for Marcio and I to agree that leveraging work in jetpack for chromeless was a Good Thing, this left the question of How? How can we have two distinct projects that efficiently share large swaths of code without adding undue complications, or limiting either’s ability to move rapidly. There seem to be at least four arrangements worth mentioning:

“One is the loneliest number” — jetpack-sdk could be the canonical source for building browsers, building addons, and whatever else we dream up in the future.

“The messy breakup” — fork, diverge, and cry.

“The great cuddlefish escape” — slice the common bit out of the jetpack-sdk and figure out how other repositories can consume that thing conveniently and then layer their own modules, documentation, and additional cfx features on top of it (i.e. addons want to export to .xpi, skinned browsers want export to .dmg/.exe).

“Port Style” — the new guy, “chromeless-skinner-thingy” can consume jetpack-sdk from github, and layer a bit of love on top of it. jetpack-sdk code wouldn’t be duplicated, but rather be pulled as a pre-build step.

Looking at these options, my thinking goes like this: One is the loneliest number puts too much in a single repository and creates the potential for far too much friction between the two different projects. The messy breakup (where we are today) is unacceptable because we have to find and fix bugs twice, and there’s no good way to share improvements and new features added to common code.

This leaves two interesting solutions, Port Style and The Great Cuddlefish Escape: Both would address some of the key issues, but the great escape would arguably add risk prematurely to a project with great momentum, jetpack.

For this reason the approach that I intend to pursue is Port Style in the short term, and to work with the jetpack team to consider a Great Escape in the future.

The Plumbing

Haven chosen an initial approach, the final question is how do we actually pull and patch jetpack sources? I’d offer the following proposed requirements:

pre-build step – required dependencies are fetched as a (discoverable) pre-build step.

solves xulrunner acquisition – the largest source of issues thus far has been in people trying to get the correct version of xulrunner on their platform so they can try chromeless. We there’s an issue open to address this, and because acquiring xulrunner is a similar problem to acquiring the jetpack SDK, we should at least consider a combined solution.

explicit version tracking – the version of jetpack-sdk being tracked should be captured in the chromeless repository. That is, it should be required that a developer confirm chromeless functions against a newer version before the version we’re targeting is updated.

automatic update – If bob has checked out chromeless, and Jane updates the version of the jetpack SDK that should be tracked (via sha1?) and then bob pulls latest changes into his checked out chromeless, then his jetpack-sdk should be automatically updated.

In considering these requirements, what seems to fit best is the application of a little tool called the bakery which was designed to solve these very problems. The benefit of using the bakery to fetch both xulrunner and jetpack sdk is that all of the above requirements would be satisfied, and it would be a very quick integration. The downside of using the bakery is that its written in ruby, and this would require people wanting to work on chromeless would have to have ruby installed, which is another build dependency and adds an unfortunate barrier to entry…

Despite this, It seems like using the bakery on an experimental branch may be a good place to start. Once SDKs are generated, the ruby requirement would not apply to folks wanting to use chromeless, only those developing on it.