Hi, prospective Tails contributor! This document is intended to quickly (in 20 minutes!) get you up to speed on how to write code for Tails by giving a brief overview the Tails source tree and Git branch organization without referring to more detailed (and hence longer) resources. As such it might not be enough for some specific things, but it should cover 95% of use cases for aspiring code contributors. Also, this document risks getting out of date, so don't trust every single detail as the written word of $DEITY.

Note that this document will not teach you how to contribute code to Tails; it will only introduce you how to write code for Tails. Once you have something to contribute, please read our extensive instructions for contributors.

Git branch organization

  • master: as soon as something is pushed to this branch in Tails main git repository, the live Tails' website is rebuilt. This branch is only used for the website. Don't waste time trying to build it, or basing new branches on it if you intend to build them!

  • devel: This is the development branch, where new features end up. In general you should base new branches on this one.

  • stable: When a new major Tails release is out, we merge devel into stable and use it to build minor releases (e.g. when there's a new Tor Browser (= Firefox ESR) release) and emergency releases from. We only merge security fixes and bugfixes into this branch, so new such branches should be based on stable.

  • testing: After a freeze for a new major release (e.g. when we prepare release candidates), this is the branch were the continued work for this release happens. At that point devel is used for the next major release. Bugfixes on new features introduced in the this upcoming Tails release should be based on this branch (as should new translations).

  • feature/DEBIAN_NEXT: The development branch for Tails based on the next Debian major release.

  • feature/XXXX-*, bugfix/XXXX-*, test/XXXX-*: We use this naming scheme for the branches if new features, bugfixes and automated tests, where XXXX refers to the Redmine ticket they fix.

We will sometimes talk about "base branches", which are stable, testing, devel and feature/DEBIAN_NEXT. When developing a new branch, this should be the branch you based it on. It will be used during the build to determine which packages from Tails APT repo to install (see some details about this below).

For detailed information see our documentation about Git.

Important files and directories

Some of the more important files during build, and for running Tails sessions, are listed below. In general, just look at the existing files or content to understand the format -- we won't explain them fully here most of the time.

config/chroot_sources/

The files in here determine which APT repositories to use during build, and in the resulting Tails image.

Note that while it is possible to add non-Debian repositories, and that it is fine to do so for testing/development purposes, limitations inherent in Tails' APT snapshot system (see below) prevents us from using them in releases. In fact, in releases we can only use:

  • Debian's APT repository
  • deb.torproject.org
  • deb.tails.boum.org

So, if you need a package from some other repository, feel free to add through this mechanism it when developing your branch. When it's time to merge we will figure out the best way to get the packages available to us, usually by importing them to deb.tails.boum.org. The preferred solution is always to have the packages available in Debian.

config/chroot_apt/preferences

The /etc/apt/preferences file that will be used during the build process, and later copied in to the resulting Tails filesystem. We use it heavily. If you want to install a package (or another version of a package) that is not in the stable Debian release, you will have to add a pinning rule in this file in order to make it install.

config/chroot_local-packageslists/tails-common.list

The primary list of packages to install in Tails. Sometimes extra magic has to be done when installing a package, and then we install it with a build-time hook (see config/chroot_local-hooks/ below). If the package is to be installed from another source than Debian Stable, make sure to add a pinning rule (see config/chroot_apt/preferences above).

config/chroot_local-packages/

If you put a .deb here, it will be installed with high priority (disregarding the rules in config/chroot_apt/preferences). This is useful for testing purposes only!

config/base_branch

This encodes which base branch (see above) the current branch is based on (the base branches themselves are "based" on themselves). In practice this determines which APT suite from deb.tails.boum.org to use (so if config/base_branch contains devel, then the devel APT suite will be used). These APT suites are the place where we upload all our custom Debian packages.

config/APT_overlays.d/

Each file here corresponds to an APT suite on deb.tails.boum.org to be used. E.g. if we have config/APT_overlays.d/feature-1234-example then the feature-1234-example APT suite will be used. Each branch that is pushed to Tails' main Git repo will automatically have such a suite created (but with illegal charactes changed to -, so feature/1234-example becomes feature-1234-example).

This is useful for importing specific package versions in between Tails releases, and gives us very exact control of which branches gets which packages.

config/APT_snapshots.d/

The APT repositories used to install packages during the build process are snapshotted several times per day. The files in here simply encode which snapshot to use for each APT repository. In general, the devel branch always uses the latest snapshots, while all other branches more or less use the snapshot from the last feature freeze (when we prepare the release candidate for the last Tails major release). This way only devel is a bit crazy, and the build result depends on what happens e.g. in Debian's APT repository from day to day. Other branches remain pretty much the same until these snapshots are bumped, or something changes in deb.tails.boum.org (but then you should just merge your base branch, and all should be good again).

For detailed information see our documentation about APT repositories.

config/binary_*

These files are about what will happen outside of Tails filesystem, on the ISO9660 filesystem of the resulting .iso image.

config/chroot_local-includes/

These files and directories will be copied into the Tails file system, overwriting existing file. This is the main way to include e.g. static configurations, custom scripts, and similar things not handled by Debian packages.

config/chroot_local-patches/

These patches will be applied on / of the Tails filesystem right after config/chroot_local-includes/ is copied in. Here we patch various configuration files and similar installed by Debian packages, but where we still want to keep any changes made upstream. Remember, if we use config/chroot_local-includes/ files are overwritten, so any such upstream changes are lost. With a patch we'll get them as well as our desired change (and we get build failures as a "notification" when the upstream has changed in a conflicting way, which is nice).

config/chroot_local-hooks/

These scripts will run right after the patches in config/chroot_local-patches/ are applied. Here we can pretty much do anything we want. We use it to reconfigure various things, install packages that require extra magic, programatically generating various files (images, configurations, even some scripts), cleaning up unneeded files etc.

config/chroot_local-includes/lib/live/config/

These scripts will be run early during Tails' boot process, in lexical order. Quite a few of them are installed by the live-config package, but we have some custom ones in there as well. Note that 0030-user-setup is when the Live user (amnesia) is created, so prior to that any reference to it won't work (e.g. in the build-hooks in config/chroot_local-hooks/).

config/chroot_local-includes/etc/skel/

This is the seed for the Live user's (amnesia for now) home directory. Put static application configuration files ("dot files" and "dot dirs") here!

config/chroot_local-includes/usr/share/tails/

A directory where we dump Tails-specific files with no obvious place to live. Generally these are files needed during build (and then we clean them up with a build hook) or during Tails operation (e.g. by some script).

config/chroot_local-includes/usr/local/

This is where we put most of the custom scripts shipped in Tails. Some honorable mentions are:

  • config/chroot_local-includes/usr/local/sbin/ for scripts used by root only.
  • config/chroot_local-includes/usr/local/bin/ for scripts used by non-root users (and root too).
  • config/chroot_local-includes/usr/local/lib/ for scripts that we don't want to expose to the user at all times (it's not in the $PATH).
  • config/chroot_local-includes/usr/local/lib/tails-shell-library/ for "libraries" often included in the above scripts.

Overview of the build process

The order of how things are applied matters greatly. In terms of the files and directories you have learned about above, this is how Tails is built, in order:

  1. A minimal Debian system is debootstrap:ed.
  2. APT is set up according to config/chroot_sources/ and config/chroot_apt/preferences (and config/APT_overlays.d/ and config/APT_snapshots.d/).
  3. Packages listed in config/chroot_local-packageslists/tails-common.list are installed.
  4. Packages stored in config/chroot_local-packages/ are installed.
  5. Everyting in config/chroot_local-includes/ is copied to /, overwriting existing files.
  6. All patches in config/chroot_local-patches/ are applied on /.
  7. All build-time hooks in config/chroot_local-hooks/ are run.
  8. Now the Tails filesystem is done!
  9. The ISO9660 filesystem used in the resulting .iso image is created according to config/binary_*.

Building Tails

Just follow the "Using Vagrant" section in our build instruction. Copy-pasting the shell commands should be enough. Then it's as simple as:

rake build

although you may want to look through the build options you can supply via the TAILS_BUILD_OPTIONS environment variable.

Happy hacking!