IdealPackage

Tim Lebedkov edited this page Mar 30, 2016 · 4 revisions

Introduction

An ideal package should meet all the expectations a user would have from a software installed on his system. These expectations are: the whole system should remain fast, secure, predictable and reproducible after the installation of a package. Predictable in this context means that all the changes to the system were expected by the user. Reproducible means that the same packages installed on another computer would yield the same results. The installed package should either fulfill a specific need of the user or make the whole system faster, or more secure. Sometimes a package would improve one aspect and worsen the other. For example, installation of a anti virus software makes a computer more secure, but also slower. Such a trade-off and any other deviations from the rules below should be clearly indicated to the user via the package description. The rest of this document applies these basic goals to real packages and shows best practices and common pitfalls.

Download location

Package installation starts with the download. A download location should be fast. It should be fast for all your users. If your software can be downloaded around the world, your download location should be fast regardless of the physical user location. This means in most cases that a content delivery system should be used. The main download URL could for example find out the geographical location of the user via the IP address and redirect to another URL that is closer to the user.

A package download should also be secure. This means that HTTPS should be used. The Npackd repository format allows the definition of an SHA-256 sum for the downloaded binary (SHA1 is not recommended anymore). This possibility should also be used to prevent binary change for a hacked download location. Sometimes software vendors publish a newer program version at the same location. In this case SHA-256 definition in the repository cannot be used making the download less secure.

It is also very important to have a reproducible download location. Once a binary is referenced, it should never be deleted or moved to a new location, even if there is a newer version of the program available. The corresponding repository may not yet be updated and the installation of the previous package version would fail. Often users prefer an older version of a program for some reason. It may be easier to use, does not have a particular bug etc. Especially for software development it is critical to use a particular version of a package instead of the newest available. All this also applies even to small fixes. The version number should be increased and the new version should be published at a new URL.

The discovery of new package versions could be made easier or even automated with a little help from the software vendor. The package site should clearly state which version is currently considered stable. Example: "Current stable version: 17.2"

Versioning

Npackd only supports numeric version numbers. If possible, packages should follow this scheme. If code names are used for particular package versions, it should be clear which real package versions should be used instead.

A package should also not fail to install if a newer version is already present.

Package format

Npackd supports packages in ZIP format natively. All other installation formats are unpacked and installed using specific tools. ZIP based packages are faster to install and remove and are therefore preferred. For example, MSI based packages keep the list of the files installed on the system and only delete the installed files during the package removal. Npackd on the contrary always deletes the whole directory where a package is installed, which is much faster. Distributing your application as a ZIP file does not mean that a complicated installation procedure is not possible. The usage of the Windows command shell or other programs via dependencies is still possible. If you also would like to have an installer that works without Npackd, we recommend using InnoSetup, NSIS or MSI based installers which are known to work well with Npackd.

There is no difference in security as all packages are installed using the administrative privileges. Current version of Npackd (1.17.9) also does not handle signed binaries in any special way. Starting with Windows Vista Microsoft only allows installation of signed drivers.

It is important, that the package installer supports silent installation without showing any confirmation or progress dialogs. The same applies to the package removal. Additionally the installer should support installation in a predefined existing directory.

So called light installers that download the rest of the package during the installation are also undesirable. The installer could use another set of proxies than Npackd or other network protocols that could be blocked.

Dependencies

A package vendor should clearly describe all dependencies including the valid range of versions and whether they are optional. The installation and removal scripts should only expect those software packages to be installed that were mentioned as a dependency. The installation location of a dependency should not be assumed to be in %ProgramFiles%, npackdcl.exe should be used instead. Since repository format 3 it is also possible to specify an environment variable that will be set automatically (see RepositoryFormat for more information).

Changes on the computer

A package installation should not make the system significantly slower.

The very same rule applies to security: a package should not make the system less secure.

During installation a package changes different parts of the operating system we would call "resources" in the following. The first resource every package uses is the installation directory. Npackd chooses automatically a non-existing name so no conflicts will arise here. All other changes to the system should also be done so that they do not conflict with other packages or other versions of the same package. A package should not change the default settings for a resource during installation. Example: the default editor for a file type or default browser search engine should not be changed by a package installation.

User-level settings

All packages are installed by Npackd on the system level. A package should never change the settings of the current user only.

Entries in the start menu

Each package version can define different entries for the start menu (see RepositoryFormat). Npackd manages these entries automatically. They are created whenever a package is installed and deleted if a package gets uninstalled. Version number and package title are added to the file names like "ABC (2.4.1)" or "Read Me (ABC 2.4.1)" if necessary so that there will be no conflicts between different packages or different versions of the same package.

Shortcut on the desktop

One of the often used changes to the system is the installation of a shortcut on the desktop. This change is unexpected as all shortcuts are already in the start menu. Additionally this resource is limited: only a few icons may be placed on the desktop and still be easily found by the user.

Shortcut to the uninstaller in the Start Menu

Another often used and unwanted change is the installation of the shortcut to the uninstaller in the start menu. This is superfluous and unnecessary because the package removal is managed by Npackd.

Shortcuts in the Quick Launch Bar

The shortcuts in the Quick Launch Bar should not be created by an installation. The Quick Launch Bar is a limited resource and is user specific.

PATH

Packages should not change the PATH variable during installation or removal. The same applies to CLASSPATH (Java class path), PYTHONPATH (Python module path) and similar variables.

The PATH variable cannot be perfectly shared between different packages as the order of entries is significant. A file on PATH that comes from one package can be hidden by another file with the same name from another package.

Adding libraries to the PATH does not make much sense as library packages tend to have many incompatible versions. Adding libraries to the PATH increases the risk of a wrong library version being chosen. Some programs find wrong libraries and crash too (e.g. gcc).

The PATH becomes very long very fast. The existing limit in Windows for the length of this variable is 2048 characters. Although NpackdCL is aware of this limit, not all installers are. Many installers just clear the PATH making the whole system almost unusable. Many shortcuts in the start menu stop to work as they assume that at least C:\Windows and C:\Windows\System32 are in the PATH. Many programs just start to crash (e.g. ClickOnce installer).

One of the possible ways to deal with all these limitations is to set PATH dynamically for each package version.

Certificates

Installation of a certificate lowers the security of the system and should be clearly indicated.