Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Shake file hashes/digests

Summary: Shake can now be configured to check file hashes/digests instead of modification times, which is great if you frequently switch git branches.

Build systems run actions on files, skipping the actions if the files have not changed. An important part of that process involves determining if a file has changed. The Make build system uses modification times to impose an ordering on files, but more modern build systems tend to use the modification time as a proxy for the file contents, where any change indicates the contents have changed (e.g. Shake, Ninja). The alternative approach is to compute a hash/digest of the file contents (e.g. SCons, Redo). As of version 0.13, Shake supports both methods, along with three combinations of them - in this post I'll go through the alternatives, and their advantages/disadvantages.

Modification times rely on the file-system updating a timestamp whenever the file contents are written. Modification time is cheap to query. Saving a file afresh will cause the modification time to change, even if the contents do not - as a result touch causes rebuilds. Unfortunately, working with git branches sometimes modifies a file but leaves it with the same contents, which can result in unnecessary rebuilds (see the bottom of this post for one problematic git workflow).

File digests are computed from the file contents, and accurately reflect if the file contents have changed. There is a remote risk that the file will change without its digest changing, but unless your build system users are actively hostile attackers, that is unlikely. The disadvantage of digests is that they are expensive to compute, requiring a full scan of the file. In particular, after every rule finishes it must scan the file it just built, and on startup the build system must scan all the files. Scanning all the files can cause empty rebuilds to take minutes. When using digests, Shake also records file sizes, since if a file size changes, we know the digest will not match - making most changed digests cheap to detect.

Modification time and file digests combines the two methods so that a file only rebuilds if both the modification time and digest have changed. The advantage is that for files that have not changed the modification time will cheaply detect that, without ever computing the file hash. If the file has changed modification time, then a digest check may save an expensive rebuild, but even if it doesn't, the cost is likely to be small compared to rerunning the rule.

Modification time and file digests on inputs takes the previous method, but only computes digests for input files. Generated files (e.g. compiled binaries) tend to be large (expensive to compute digests) and not edited (rarely end up the same), so a poor candidate for digests. The file size check means this restriction is unlikely to make a difference when checking all files, but may have some limited impact when building.

Modification time or file digests combines the two methods so that a file rebuilds if either modification time or file digest have changed. I can't think of a sensible reason for using this setting, but maybe someone else can?

Suggestions for Shake users

All these options can be set with the shakeChange field of shakeOptions, or using command line flags such as --digest or --digest-and-input. Switching between some change modes will cause all files to rebuild, so I recommend finding a suitable mode and sticking to it.

  • If you can't trust the modification times to change, use ChangeDigest.
  • If you are using git and multiple branches, use ChangeModtimeAndDigestInput.
  • If you have generated files that rewrite themselves but do not change, I recommend using writeFileChanged when generating the file, but otherwise use ChangeModtimeAndDigest.
  • Otherwise, I currently recommend using ChangeModtime, but some users may prefer ChangeModtimeAndDigest.

Appendix: The git anti-build-system workflow

Certain common git workflows change files from the current version, to an old version, then back again - causing modification-time checks to run redundant rebuilds. As an example, imagine we have two branches foo and bar, based on remote branches origin/foo and origin/bar, both of which themselves are regularly synced to a common origin/master branch. The difference between origin/foo and origin/bar is likely to be small. To switch from an up-to-date bar to an up-to-date foo we can run git checkout foo && git pull. These commands switch to an out-of-date foo, then update it. As a result, any file that has changed since we last updated foo will change to an old version, then change to a new version, likely the same as it was before we started. This workflow requires build systems to support file digests.


Florian said...

Wouldn't it be useful to actually store the hash and a hash-creation-timestamp in the files metadata?

This of course depends on the filesystem, but most of them support metadata nowadays.

Depending on the filesystem you could even use the checksums and/or modification hints created by the filesystem (eg btrfs).

Neil Mitchell said...

Florian: I can't see any benefits to storing the hash in the files metadata, unless the OS was going to update or invalidate it for me. I've got to store a lot of information about files already, so the extra hash information is barely noticeable.

If the file system could report the hash of a file cheaply that would be awesome. I think getting it from btrfs is interesting, but until it's available in more file systems, probably not worth the effort.

Florian said...

Yep you are right. Storing the hashes would only be useful if there was a process actively watching the files (eg inotify) and updating them. Sorry for the noise.