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Buildkit solver design

The solver is a component in BuildKit responsible for parsing the build definition and scheduling the operations to the workers for execution.

Solver package is heavily optimized for deduplication of work, concurrent requests, remote and local caching and different per-vertex caching modes. It also allows operations and frontends to call back to itself with new definition that they have generated.

The implementation of the solver is quite complicated, mostly because it is supposed to be performant with snapshot-based storage layer and distribution model using layer tarballs. It is expected that calculating the content based checksum of snapshots between every operation or after every command execution is too slow for common use cases and needs to be postponed to when it is likely to have a meaningful impact. Ideally, the user shouldn't realize that these optimizations are taking place and just get intuitive caching. It is also hoped that if some implementations can provide better cache capabilities, the solver would take advantage of that without requiring significant modification.

In addition to avoiding content checksum scanning the implementation is also designed to make decisions with minimum available data. For example, for remote caching sources to be effective the solver will not require the cache to be loaded or exists for all the vertexes in the graph but will only load it for the final node that is determined to match cache. As another example, if one of the inputs (for example image) can produce a definition based cache match for a vertex, and another (for example local source files) can only produce a content-based(slower) cache match, the solver is designed to detect it and skip content-based check for the first input(that would cause a pull to happen).

Build definition

The solver takes in a build definition in the form of a content addressable operation definition that forms a graph.

A vertex in this graph is defined by these properties:

type Vertex interface {
    Digest() digest.Digest
    Options() VertexOptions
    Sys() interface{}
    Inputs() []Edge
    Name() string

type Edge struct {
    Index Index
    Vertex Vertex

type Index int

Every vertex has a content-addressable digest that represents a checksum of the definition graph up to that vertex including all of its inputs. If two vertexes have the same checksum, they are considered identical when they are executing concurrently. That means that if two other vertexes request a vertex with the same digest as an input, they will wait for the same operation to finish.

The vertex digest can only be used for comparison while the solver is running and not between different invocations. For example, if parallel builds require using image as one of the operations, it is pulled only once. But if a build using was built earlier, the checksum based on that name can't be used for finding if the vertex was already built because the image might have changed in the registry and "latest" tag might be pointing to another image.

Sys() method returns an object that is used to resolve the executor for the operation. This is how a definition can pass logic to the worker that will execute the task associated with the vertex, without the solver needing to know anything about the implementation. When the solver needs to execute a vertex, it will send this object to a worker, so the worker needs to be configured to understand the object returned by Sys(). The solver itself doesn't care how the operations are implemented and therefore doesn't define a type for this value. In LLB solver this value would be with type llb.Op.

Inputs() returns an array of other vertexes the current vertex depends on. A vertex may have zero inputs. After an operation has executed, it returns an array of return references. If another operation wants to depend on any of these references they would define an input with that vertex and an index of the reference from the return array(starting from zero). Inputs need to be contained in the Digest() of the vertex - two vertexes with different inputs should never have the same digest.

Options contain extra information that can be associated with the vertex but what doesn't change the definition(or equality check) of it. Normally this is either a hint to the solver, for example, to ignore cache when executing. It can also be used for associating messages with the vertex that can be helpful for tracing purposes.

Operation interface

Operation interface is how the solver can evaluate the properties of the actual vertex operation. These methods run on the worker, and their implementation is determined by the value of vertex.Sys(). The solver is configured with a "resolve" function that can convert a vertex.Sys() into an Op.

// Op is an implementation for running a vertex
type Op interface {
    // CacheMap returns structure describing how the operation is cached.
    // Currently only roots are allowed to return multiple cache maps per op.
    CacheMap(context.Context, int) (*CacheMap, bool, error)
    // Exec runs an operation given results from previous operations.
    // Note that this is not the process execution but can have any definition.
    Exec(ctx context.Context, inputs []Result) (outputs []Result, err error)

type CacheMap struct {
    // Digest is a base digest for operation that needs to be combined with
    // inputs cache or selectors for dependencies.
    Digest digest.Digest
    Deps   []struct {
        // Optional digest that is merged with the cache key of the input
        Selector digest.Digest
        // Optional function that returns a digest for the input based on its
        // return value
        ComputeDigestFunc ResultBasedCacheFunc

type ResultBasedCacheFunc func(context.Context, Result) (digest.Digest, error)

// Result is an abstract return value for a solve
type Result interface {
    ID() string
    Release(context.Context) error
    Sys() interface{}

There are two functions that every operation defines. One describes how to calculate a cache key for a vertex and another how to execute it.

CacheMap is a description for calculating the cache key. It contains a digest that is combined with the cache keys of the inputs to determine the stable checksum that can be used to cache the operation result. For the vertexes that don't have inputs(roots), it is important that this digest is a stable secure checksum. For example, in LLB this digest is a manifest digest for container images or a commit SHA for git sources.

CacheMap may also define optional selectors or content-based cache functions for its inputs. A selector is combined with the input cache key and useful for describing when different parts of an input are being used, and inputs cache key needs to be customized. Content-based cache function allows computing a new cache key for an input after it has completed. In LLB this is used for calculating cache key based on the checksum of file contents of the input snapshots.

Exec executes the operation defined by a vertex by passing in the results of the inputs.

Shared graph

After new build request is sent to the solver, it first loads all the vertexes to the shared graph structure. For status tracking, a job instance needs to be created, and vertexes are loaded through jobs. A job ID is assigned to every vertex. If vertex with the same digest has already been loaded to the shared graph, a new job ID is appended to the existing record. When the job finishes, it removes all of its references from the loaded vertex. The resources are released if no more references remain.

Loading a vertex also creates a progress writer associated with it and sets up the cache sources associated with the specific vertex.

After vertexes have been loaded to the job, it is safe to request a result from an edge pointing to a previously loaded vertex. To do this build(ctx, Edge) (CachedResult, error) method is called on the static scheduler instance associated with the solver.


The scheduler is a component responsible for invoking the individual operations needed to find the result for the graph. While the build definition is defined with vertexes, the scheduler is solving edges. In the case of LLB solver, a result of a solved edge is associated with a snapshot. Usually, to solve an edge, the input edges need to be solved first and this can be done concurrently, but there are many exceptions like edge may be cached but its input might be not, or solving one input might cause a cache hit while solving others would just be wasteful. Scheduler tries do handle all these cases.

The scheduler is implemented as a single threaded non-blocking event loop. The single threaded constraint is for simplicity and might be removed in the future - currently, it is not known if this would have any performance impact. All the events in the scheduler have one fixed sender and receiver. The interface for interacting with the scheduler is to create a "pipe" between a sender and a receiver. One or both sides of the pipe may be an edge instance of the graph. If a pipe is added it to the scheduler and an edge receives an event from the pipe, the scheduler will "unpark" that edge so it can process all the events it had received.

The unpark handler for an edge needs to be non-blocking and execute quickly. The edge will process the data from the incoming events and update its internal state. When calling unpark, the scheduler has already separated out the sender and receiver sides of the pipes that in the code are referred as incoming and outgoing requests. The incoming requests are usually requests to retrieve a result or a cache key from an edge. If it appears that an edge doesn't have enough internal state to satisfy the requests, it can make new pipes and register them with the scheduler. These new pipes are generally of two types: ones asking for some async function to be completed and others that request an input edge to reach a specific state first.

To avoid bugs and deadlocks in this logic, the unpark method needs to follow the following rules. If unpark has finished without completing all incoming requests it needs to create outgoing requests. Similarly, if an incoming request remains pending, at least one outgoing request needs to exist as well. Failing to comply with this rule will cause the scheduler to panic as a precaution to avoid leaks and hiding errors.

Edge state

During unpark, edge state is incremented until it can fulfill the incoming requests.

An edge can be in the following states: initial, cache-fast, cache-slow, completed. Completed edge contains a reference to the final result, in-progress edge may have zero or more cache keys.

The initial state is the starting state for any edge. If a state has reached a cache-fast state, it means that all the definition based cache key lookups have been performed. Cache-slow means that content-based cache lookup has been performed as well. If possible, the scheduler will avoid looking up the slow keys of inputs if they are unnecessary for solving current edge.

The unpark method is split into four phases. The first phase processes all incoming events (responses from outgoing requests or new incoming requests) that caused the unpark to be called. These contain responses from async functions like calls to get the cachemap, execution result or content-based checksum for an input, or responses from input edges when their state or number of cache keys has changed. All the results are stored in edge's internal state. For the new cache keys, a query is performed to determine if any of them can create potential matches to the current edge.

After that, if any of the updates caused changes to edge's properties, a new state is calculated for the current vertex. In this step, all potential cache keys from inputs can cause new cache keys for the edge to be created and the status of an edge might be updated.

Third, the edge will go over all of its incoming requests, to determine if the current internal state is sufficient for satisfying them all. There are a couple of possibilities how this check may end up. If all requests can be completed and there are no outgoing requests the requests finish and unpark method returns. If there are outgoing requests but the edge has reached the completed state or all incoming requests have been canceled, the outgoing requests are canceled. This is an async operation as well and will cause unpark to be called again after completion. If this condition didn't apply but requests could be completed and there are outgoing requests, then the incoming request is answered but not completed. The receiver can then decide to cancel this request if needed. If no new data has appeared to answer the incoming requests, the desired state for an edge is determined for an edge from the incoming requests, and we continue to the next step.

The fourth step sets up outgoing requests based on the desired state determined in the third step. If the current state requires calling any async functions to move forward then it is done here. We will also loop through all the inputs to determine if it is important to raise their desired state. Depending on what inputs can produce content based cache keys and what inputs have already returned possible cache matches, the desired state for inputs may be raised at different times.

When an edge needs to resolve an operation to call the async CacheMap and Exec methods, it does so by calling back to the shared graph. This makes sure that two different edges pointing to the same vertex do not execute twice. The result values for the operation that is shared by the edges is also cached until the vertex is cleaned up. Progress reporting is also handled and forwarded to the job through this shared vertex instance.

Edge state is cleaned up when a final job that loaded the vertexes that they are connected to is discarded.

Cache providers

Cache providers determine if there is a result that matches the cache keys generated during the build that could be reused instead of fully reevaluating the vertex and its inputs. There can be multiple cache providers, and specific providers can be defined per vertex using the vertex options.

There are multiple backend implementations for cache providers, in-memory one used in unit tests, the default local one using bbolt and one based on cache manifests in a remote registry.

Simplified cache provider has following methods:

Query(...) ([]*CacheKey, error)
Records(ck *CacheKey) ([]*CacheRecord, error)
Load(ctx context.Context, rec *CacheRecord) (Result, error)
Save(key *CacheKey, s Result) (*ExportableCacheKey, error)

Query method is used to determine if there exist a possible cache link between the input and a vertex. It takes parameters provided by op.CacheMap and cache keys returned by the calling the same method on its inputs.

If a cache key has been found, the matching records can be asked for them. A cache key can have zero or more records. Having a record means that a cached result can be loaded for a specific vertex. The solver supports partial cache chains, meaning that not all inputs need to have a cache record to match cache for a vertex.

Load method is used to load a specific record into a result reference. This value is the same type as the one returned by the op.Exec method.

Save allows adding more records to the cache.

Merging edges

One final piece of solver logic allows merging two edges into one when they have both returned the same cache key. In practice, this appears for example when a build uses image references alpine:latest and alpine@sha256:abcabc in its definition and they actually point to the same image. Another case where this appears is when same source files from different sources are being used as part of the build.

After scheduler has called unpark() on an edge it checks it the method added any new cache keys to its state. If it did it will check its internal index if another active edge already exists with the same cache key. If it does it performs some basic validation, for example checking that the new edge has not explicitly asked cache to be ignored, and if it passes, merges the states of two edges.

In the result of the merge, the edge that was checked is deleted, its ongoing requests are canceled and the incoming ones are added to the original edge.