Rethinking the D-Bus Message Bus

Later this year, on November 21, 2017, D-Bus will see its 15th birthday. An impressive age, only shy of the KDE and GNOME projects, whose collaboration inspired the creation of this independent IPC system. While still relied upon by the most recent KDE and GNOME releases, D-Bus is not free of criticism. Despite its age and mighty advocates, it never gained traction outside of its origins. On the contrary, it has long been criticized as bloated, over-engineered, and orphaned. Though, when looking into those claims, you’re often left with unsubstantiated ranting about the environment D-Bus is used in. If you rather want a glimpse into the deeper issues, the best place to look is the D-Bus bug-tracker, including the assessments of the D-Bus developers themselves. The bugs range from uncontrolled memory usage, over silent dropping of messages, to dead-locks by design, unsolved for up to 7 years. Looking closer, most of them simply cannot be solved without breaking guarantees long given by dbus-daemon(1), the reference implementation. Hence, workarounds have been put in place to keep them under control.

Nevertheless, these issues still bugged us! Which is, why we rethought some of the fundamental concepts behind the shared Message Buses defined by the D-Bus Specification. We developed a new architecture that is designed particularly for the use-cases of modern D-Bus, and it allows us to solve several long standing issues with dbus-daemon(1). With this in mind, we set out to implement an alternative D-Bus Message Bus. Half a year later, we hereby announce the dbus-broker project!

But before we dive into the project, lets first have a look at some of the long standing open bug reports on D-Bus. A selection:

  • Bug #33606: “stop dbus-daemon memory usage ballooning if a client is slow to read”

    The bug-report describes a situation where the memory-usage of dbus-daemon(1) grows in an uncontrolled manner, if inflight messages keep piling up in the incoming and outgoing queues of the daemon. Despite being reported more than 6 years ago, there is no satisfying solution to the issue.

    What it boils down to is the fact that dbus-daemon(1) does not judge messages based on their message type. Hence, whether a message was triggered by a peer itself (e.g., a method call), or triggered by another peer (e.g., a method reply), the message is always accounted on the sender of the message. Hence, if those messages are piled up in outgoing queues in dbus-daemon(1), the sender of those messages is accounted and punished for them. This can be misused by malicious applications that simply trigger a target peer to send messages (like method replies and signals), but they never read those messages but leave them queued. As a result, there is still no agreed upon way to decide who to punish for excessive buffering.

  • Bug #80817: “messages with abusive recursion are silently dropped”

    Depending on the linux kernel you use, consecutively queued unix-domain-sockets may be rejected by sendmsg(2). This can have the effect of dbus-daemon(1) being unable to forward a message. The message will be silently dropped, without notifying anyone.

    There is no known workaround for this issue, since the time of sendmsg(2) might be too late for proper error-handling, due to output buffering or short writes.

    Similarly, Bug #52372 describes another situation where messages are silently dropped, if they are queued on an activatable name but their sender disconnects before the destination is activated.

    Lastly, dbus-daemon(1) might fail any message and reply with an error message. That is, method-calls but also method-replies, signals, and error-messages can all be rejected for arbitrary reason by dbus-daemon(1) and trigger an error-reply. Nearly no application is ready to expect asynchronous error-replies to their attempt to send a method reply or signal. Again, this stems from dbus-daemon(1) never judging messages by their type. Despite method-transactions being stateful, there is no reliable way for a peer to cancel a message transaction. Any attempt to do so might fail. Same is true for a signal-subscription.

    There are some more similar scenarios where dbus-daemon(1) has to silently drop messages, or unexpectedly rejects messages, thus breaking the rule of reliability. This is not about catching errors in client libraries, but this is about either messages being silently discarded or asynchronously rejected.

  • Bug #28355: “dbus-daemon hangs while starting if users are in LDAP/NIS/etc.”

    Additionally to client-side policies, dbus-daemon(1) implements a mandatory access control mechanism, based on uids, gids, and message content. This, however, required D-Bus to resolve user-names and group-names to IDs, which will involve NSS, and as such LDAP/NIS/etc. This has long been a source of deadlocks, when using D-Bus to implement those NSS modules themselves. Workarounds are available, but the problem itself is not solved.

  • Bug #83938: “improve data structures for pending replies”

    This bug-report concerns the method-call tracking in dbus-daemon(1), which is used to allow exactly one reply per method-call, but not more. A list of open reply windows is kept to track pending method-calls. In dbus-daemon(1), this is a global, linked list, searched whenever a reply is sent. By queuing up too many replies on too many connections, lookups on this list will consume a considerable amount of time, slowing down the entire bus.

    While the issue at hand can be solved, and has been solved, there remain many similar global data-structures in dbus-daemon(1), that are shared across all users. Some of them can be fixed, some cannot, since D-Bus defines some global behavior (like broadcast matching and name-ownership/handover). This prevents D-Bus from scaling nicely with more processors being added to a system.

    In fact, the name-registry of D-Bus, and the atomic hand-over of queued name owners, requires huge global state-tracking without any known efficient, parallel solution.

    Furthermore, many of the employed workarounds simply introduce per-peer limits for those global resources. By setting them low enough, their scope has been kept under control. However, history shows that those limits have had violated application expectations several times.

None of the issues mentioned here is critical enough for D-Bus to become unbearable. On the contrary, D-Bus is still popular and no serious replacement is even close to be considered a contender. Furthermore, suitable workarounds have often been put in place to control those issues.

But we kept being annoyed by these fundamental problems, so we set forth to solve them in dbus-broker(1). What we came up with is a set of theoretical rules and concepts for a different message bus:

  1. No Shared Medium

    This is a rather theoretical change. Previously, the D-Bus Message Bus followed the model of actual physically wired buses, where peers place messages on a shared medium for others to fetch. The problem here is to guarantee fairness, and to make peers accountable for excessive use. In D-Bus the problem can be reduced to outgoing queues in the message broker. Whenever many peers send messages to the same destination, they fill the same message queue. If that queue runs full, someone needs to be held accountable. Was the destination too slow reading messages and should be disconnected? Did a sender flood the destination with an unreasonable amount of messages? Or did an innocent 3rd party just send a single message, but happened to be the final straw?

    We decided to overcome this by throwing the model of a shared medium overboard. We no longer consider a D-Bus Message Bus a global medium that all peers are connected to and submit messages to. We rather consider a bus a set of distinct peers with no global state. Whenever a peer sends a message, we consider this a transaction between the sender and the destination (or multiple destinations in case of multicasts). We try to avoid any global state or context. We want every action taken by a peer to only affect the source and target of the action, but nothing else.

    While nice in theory, D-Bus does not allow this. There is global state, and it is hard-coded in the D-Bus specification with many existing applications relying on it. However, we still tried to stick to this as close as possible. In particular, this means:

    • Whenever a peer creates an object in the bus manager, it must be linked and indexed on a specific peer. There must not be any global lists or maps. Whenever the bus manager performs a transaction, it must be able to collect all objects that affect it by just looking at the involved peers.

      This rule is, in some corner-cases, violated to keep compatibility to the specification. That is, if applications rely on global behavior, it will still work. However, anything that can be indexed, is indexed, and as long as applications don’t rely on obscure D-Bus features, they will never end up in those global data-structures.

    • We now judge messages by their message types. We implement proper message transactions and always know who to account for for inflight messages. Moreover, every peer now has a limited incoming queue, which every other peer gets a fair share of. Whenever a peer exceeds their share on another peer’s queue, one of both exceeded their configured limits and the message must be rejected. Details on how we dynamically adjust those shares can be found in the online documentation.

      We still need to decide who is at fault. Is the sender to blame or the receiver? Our solution is to base this on the question whether a message is unsolicited. That is, for unsolicited messages, the sender is to blame. For solicited messages, the receiver is to blame. Effectively, this means whenever you send a method call, you are to blame if you did not account for the reply. In case of signals, we simply treat a subscription as the intention of the subscriber to receive an unlimited stream of signals, thus making subscribed signals solicited.

      Lastly, in case of unsolicited messages, we reply with an error, and expect every peer to be able to deal with asynchronous errors to unsolicited messages. By contrast, solicited messages never yield an error. Instead, we always consider the receiver of solicited messages to be at fault, thus throw them off the bus.

  2. No IPC to implement IPC

    D-Bus is an IPC mechanism to allow other processes to communicate. We strictly believe that the implementation of an IPC mechanism should not use IPC itself. Otherwise, deadlocks are a steady threat.

    This means, the transaction of a message (whatever kind) should not depend on any other means but local data. We do not read files, we do not invoke NSS, we do not call into D-Bus. Instead, the operation of the bus manager regarding message transactions is a self-contained process without any external hooks or callbacks.

  3. User-based Accounting

    Any resource and any object allocated in the bus must be accounted on a user. We do not account based on peers, but always account based on users.

    In particular, this means we never have stacked accounting. We have limits for specific resources, but all those limits only ever affect the user accounting. That is, you can no longer exceed limits by simply connecting multiple times to the bus, or by creating objects that have separate accounting. Instead, whenever an action is accounted, it will be accounted on the calling user, regardless through which peer or object the action is performed.

  4. Reliability

    Never ever shall a message be silently dropped! Any error condition must be caught and handled, and must never put peers into unexpected situations.

    If a situation arises where we cannot gracefully handle an error condition, we exit. We never put the burden on the peers, nor do we silently ignore it.

With these in mind, we implemented an independent D-Bus Message Bus and named it dbus-broker. It is available on GitHub and already capable of booting a full Fedora Desktop System. Some of its properties are:

  • Pure Bus Implementation

    One of our aims was to make the bus manager a pure implementation with as little policy as possible. Furthermore, following our rule of “No IPC to implement IPC”, we stripped all external communication from it. The result is a standalone program we call dbus-broker, which implements a Message Bus as defined by the D-Bus specification. The only external control channel is a private socketpair that must be passed down by the parent process that spawns dbus-broker(1). This channel is used to control the broker at runtime, as well as get notified about specific events like name activation.

    On top of this, we implemented a launcher compatible to dbus-daemon(1), employing dbus-broker(1). This dbus-broker-launch(1) program implements the dbus-daemon(1) semantics of a system and session/user message bus.

  • Local Only

    We only implement local IPC. No remote transports are supported. We believe that this is beyond the realm of D-Bus. You can always employ ssh tunneling to get remote D-Bus working, just like most projects do already.

  • No Legacy

    We do not implement legacy D-Bus features. Anything that is marked as deprecated was dropped, as long as it is not relied upon by crucial infrastructure. We are compatible to dbus-daemon(1), so use it if your system still requires those legacy features.

    All those deviations are documented in our online wiki. Each case comes with a rationale why we decided to drop support for it.

  • Linux Only

    A lot of functionality we rely on is simply not available on other operating systems. dbus-daemon(1) is still around (and will stay around), so there will always be a working D-Bus Message Bus for other operating systems.

    Note that we rely on several peculiar features of the linux kernel to implement a secure message broker (including its accounting for inflight FDs, its output queueing on AF_UNIX including the IOCOUTQ ioctl, edge-triggered event notification, SO_PEERGROUPS ioctl, and more). We fixed several bugs upstream just few weeks ago, and we will continue to do so. But we are not in a position to review other kernels for the same guarantees.

  • Pipelining

    We support SASL pipelining for fast connection attempts. This means, all SASL D-Bus authentication requests can be queued up without waiting for their replies, including any following Hello() call or other D-Bus Message.

    This allows connecting to the message broker without waiting for a single roundtrip.

  • No Spec-Deviation

    We do not intend to add features not standardized in the D-Bus Specification, nor do we intend to deviate. However, we do sometimes deviate from the behavior of the reference implementation. All those deviations are carefully considered and documented.

    Our intention is to base this implementation on the ideas described above, and thus fix some of the fundamental issues we see in D-Bus. We report all our findings back and recommend solutions to upstream dbus-daemon(1). Discussion and development of the D-Bus specification still happens upstream. We are not the persons to contact for extensions of the specification, but we will happily collaborate on the upstream mailing-list and bug-tracker with whoever wants to discuss D-Bus.

  • Runtime Broker Control

    The message broker process provides a control API to its parent process via a private connection. It allows to feed initial state, but also control the broker at runtime.

    While it can and is used to implement compatibility to the dbus-daemon configuration files, it is also possible to modify the broker at runtime, if necessary. This includes adding and removing listener sockets and activatable names at runtime. Thus, appearance of activatable names can now be scheduled arbitrarily.

Please be aware that the dbus-broker project is still experimental. While we successfully use it on our machines to run the system and session/user bus, we do not recommend deploying it on production machines at this time. We are not aware of any critical bugs, but we do want more testing before recommending its deployment.

If you are curious and want to try it out, there are packages available for Fedora and Arch Linux. Other distributions will follow. The online documentation also contains information on how to compile and deploy it manually.

Written on August 23, 2017