Bramble: A Purely Functional Build System and Package Manager

About a year and a half ago I decided to start working on a build system inspired by Nix called Bramble. Andrew Chambers had launched hermes and I was messing around with starlark-go a bit and it seemed like writing a Nix-inspired functional build system with Starlark would be a nice way to better understand how they work.

Bramble is no longer a test project, and has matured into something that I think has a few interesting ideas worth sharing.

What is it in a few sentences?

Bramble is a work-in-progress functional build system inspired by Nix. It intends to be a user-friendly, robust, and reliable way to build software. It is reproducible, rootless, daemonless, proactively-sandboxed, project-based, and extremely cacheable (more on all that here).

Unlike traditional package managers Bramble does not intend to maintain a core set of packages. Similarly to Go, Bramble packages are just version control repositories. More npm i than apt-get.

The project is still very rough around the edges. If you try using it it will likely break in some marvelous and unexpected ways.

How do I use it?

Installation instructions and a hello world are available in the project readme.

Most Bramble functionality will not work unless Bramble is run from within a project. A project has a bramble.toml where the package name and version are configured along with any dependencies. A bramble.lock is used to track various metadata for reproducibility.

Here is Bramble’s bramble.toml:

name = ""
version = "0.0.2"

"" = "0.0.2"

Once you have a project you’ll add files that end with .bramble, and fill them with a language that looks like Python, but it’s not.

Here’s some example code:


def print_simple():
    return run(simple.simple(), "simple", hidden_paths=["/"])

def bash():
    return run(seed.stdenv(), "bash", read_only_paths=["./"])

If I configured the dependencies and added that code to a file called example.bramble I could do the following:

$ bramble run ./example:bash
bramble path directory doesn't exist, creating
✔ busybox-x86_64.tar.gz - 394.546982ms
✔ busybox - 85.373221ms
✔ url_fetcher.tar.gz - 506.919852ms
✔ url_fetcher - 45.844013ms
✔ busybox-x86_64.tar.gz - 352.000704ms
✔ patch_dl - 416.00372ms
✔ patchelf - 28.538933ms
✔ patchelf-0.13.tar.bz2 - 722.859392ms
✔ bootstrap-tools.tar.xz - 3.499340974s
✔ stdenv - 1.602750216s

$ ls
bramble.toml bramble.lock  example.bramble

$ touch foo
touch: cannot touch 'foo': Read-only file system

Here Bramble is building the necessary dependencies to run bash. Once that’s done bash is run but with a read-only view of the project filesystem. The bash process is also sandboxed from the rest of the filesystem by default, and can only read files within the project.

Once a project is set up you can also run a remote package and it will be added to the project as a dependency. Running bramble run ash in a new project fetches the from a remote cache, adds it as a dependency to bramble.toml and runs the ash executable in a sandbox.

How is it different from Nix?

  • Starlark is used as a config language instead of the Nix language.
  • Project-based, no central package tree.
  • No central daemon or root privileges needed to run.
  • Very limited build inputs. No env-var, arguments, or other inputs allowed for build configuration. Almost all configuration must be done in-code.
  • No network access in builds outside of the built-in fetchers. Networked builds will be supported, but they’ll need to write incremental state to bramble.lock so that subsequent builds don’t need network access.
  • /nix/store is hardcoded in many Nix derivations, Bramble allows build outputs to be patched so that they can be relocated to stores at different locations. Computed hashes are also “store path agnostic” and hashes will match on different systems even if the store location is different.
  • Derivations are required to be reproducible. This assumption reduces the complexity of the build logic, but also means Bramble can be harder to work with.
  • Nix is mature software, Bramble is not.

What’s next?

A few things:

  • Lots of bugs to fix. The spec needs to be completed and all the related functionality implemented.
  • I’m hoping to build better documentation and testable documentation similar to Rust’s. You can preview the documentation support a little bit today with the bramble ls command.
  • First-class support for building Docker/OCI containers from build outputs. Also remote build support for a variety of systems.
  • macOS support.
  • Dependency/package management is roughly implemented, but will need more work to make it usable.
  • Lots more, hopefully.

That’s it, very interested in your thoughts.