GLEP 78: Gentoo binary package container format

Author Michał Górny <>
Type Standards Track
Status Draft
Version 1
Created 2018-11-15
Last modified 2019-07-29
Posting history 2018-11-17, 2019-07-08
GLEP source glep-0078.rst


This GLEP proposes a new binary package container format for Gentoo. The current tbz2/XPAK format is shortly described, and its deficiences are explained. Accordingly, the requirements for a new format are set and a gpkg format satisfying them is proposed. The rationale for the design decisions is provided.


The current Portage binary package format

The historical .tbz2 binary package format used by Portage is a concatenation of two distinct formats: header-oriented compressed .tar format (used to hold package files) and trailer-oriented custom XPAK format (used to hold metadata) [1]. The format has already been extended incompatibly twice.

The first time, support for storing multiple successive builds of binary package for a single ebuild version has been added. This feature relies on appending additional hyphen, followed by an integer to the package filename. It is disabled by default (preserving backwards compatibility) and controlled by binpkg-multi-instance feature.

The second time, support for additional compression formats has been added. When format other than bzip2 is used, the .tbz2 suffix is replaced by .xpak and Portage relies on magic bytes to detect compression used. For backwards compatibility, Portage still defaults to using bzip2; compression program can be switched using BINPKG_COMPRESS configuration variable.

Additionally, there have been minor changes to the stored metadata and file storage policies. In particular, behavior regarding INSTALL_MASK, controllable file compression and stripping has changed over time.

The advantages of tbz2/XPAK format

The tbz2/XPAK format used by Portage has three interesting features:

  1. Each binary package is fully contained within a single file. While this might seem unnecessary, it makes it easier for the user to transfer binary packages without having to be concerned about finding all the necessary files to transfer.
  2. The binary packages are compatible with regular compressed tarballs, most of the time. With notable exceptions of historical versions of pbzip2 and the recent zstd compressor, tbz2/XPAK packages can be extracted using regular tar utility with a compressor implementation that discards trailing garbage.
  3. The metadata is uncompressed, and can be efficiently accessed without decompressing package contents. This includes the possibility of rewriting it (e.g. as a result of package moves) without the necessity of repacking the files.

Transparency problem with the current binary package format

Notwithstanding its advantages, the tbz2/XPAK format has a significant design fault that consists of two issues:

  1. The XPAK format is a custom binary format with explicit use of binary-encoded file offsets and field lengths. As such, it is non-trivial to read or edit without specialized tools. Such tools are currently implemented separately from the package manager, as part of the portage-utils toolkit, written in C [2].
  2. The tarball compatibility feature relies on obscure feature of ignoring trailing garbage in compressed files. While this is implemented consistently in most of the compressors, this feature is not really a part of specification but rather traditional behavior. Given that the original reasons for this no longer apply, new compressor implementations are likely to miss support for this.

Both of the issues make the format hard to use without dedicated tools, or when the tools misbehave. This impacts the following scenarios:

  1. Using binary packages for system recovery. In case of serious breakage, it is really preferable that the format depends on as few tools a possible, and especially not on Gentoo-specific tools.
  2. Inspecting binary packages in detail exceeding standard package manager facilities.
  3. Modifying binary packages in ways not predicted by the package manager authors. A real-life example of this is working around broken pkg_* phases which prevent the package from being installed.

OpenPGP extensibility problem

There are at least three obvious ways in which the current format could be extended to support OpenPGP signatures, and each of them has its own distinct problem:

  1. Adding a detached signature. This option is non-intrusive but causes the format to no longer be contained in a single file.
  2. Wrapping the package in OpenPGP message format. This would use a standard format and make verification and unpacking relatively easy. However, it would break backwards compatibility and add explicit dependency on OpenPGP implementation in order to unpack the package.
  3. Adding OpenPGP signature as extra XPAK member. This is the clever solution. It implies strengthening the dependency on custom tooling, now additionally necessary to extract the signature and reconstruct the original file to accommodate verification.

Goals for a new container format

All of the above considered, the new format should combine the advantages of the existing format and at the same time address its deficiencies whenever possible. Furthermore, since a format replacement is taking place it is worthwhile to consider additional goals that could be satisfied with little change.

The following obligatory goals have been set for a replacement format:

  1. The packages must remain contained in a single file. As a matter of user convenience, it should be possible to transfer binary packages without having to use multiple files, and to install them from any location.
  2. The file format must be entirely based on common file formats, respecting best practices, with as little customization as necessary to satisfy the requirements. The format should be transparent enough to let user inspect and manipulate it without special tooling or detailed knowledge.
  3. The file format must provide support for OpenPGP signatures. Preferably, it should use standard OpenPGP message formats.
  4. The file format must allow for efficient metadata updates. In particular, it should be possible to update the metadata without having to recompress package files.

Additionally, the following optional goals have been noted:

  1. The file format should account for easy recognition both through filename and through contents. Preferably, it should have distinct features making it possible to detect it via file(1).
  2. The file format should provide for partial fetching of binary packages. It should be possible to easily fetch and read the package metadata without having to download the whole package.
  3. The file format should allow for metadata compression.
  4. The file format should make future extensions easily possible without breaking backwards compatibility.


The container format

The gpkg package container is an uncompressed .tar achive whose filename should use .gpkg.tar suffix.

The archive contains a number of files, stored in a single directory whose name should match the basename of the package file. However, the implementation must be able to process an archive where the directory name is mismatched. There should be no explicit archive member entry for the directory.

The package directory contains the following members, in order:

  1. The package format identifier file gpkg-1 (required).
  2. A signature for the metadata archive: metadata.tar${comp}.sig (optional).
  3. The metadata archive metadata.tar${comp}, optionally compressed (required).
  4. A signature for the filesystem image archive: image.tar${comp}.sig (optional).
  5. The filesystem image archive image.tar${comp}, optionally compressed (required).

It is recommended that relative order of the archive members is preserved. However, implementations must support archives with members out of order.

The container may be extended with additional members in the future. The implementations should ignore unrecognized members and preserve them across package updates.

Permitted .tar format features

The tar archives should use either the POSIX ustar format or a subset of the GNU format with the following (optional) extensions:

  • long pathnames and long linknames,
  • base-256 encoding of large file sizes.

Other extensions should be avoided whenever possible.

The package identifier file

The package identifier file serves the purpose of identifying the binary package format and its version.

The implementations must include a package identifier file named gpkg-1. The filename includes package format version; implementations should reject packages which do not contain this file as unsupported format.

The file can have any contents. Normally, it should be empty.

Furthermore, this file should be included in the .tar archive as the first member. This makes it possible to use it as an additional magic at a fixed location that can be used by tools such as file(1) to easily distinguish Gentoo binary packages from regular .tar archives.

The metadata archive

The metadata archive stores the package metadata needed for the package manager to process it. The archive should be included at the beginning of the binary package in order to make it possible to read it out of partially fetched binary package, and to avoid fetching the remaining part of the package if not necessary.

The archive contains a single directory called metadata. In this directory, the individual metadata keys are stored as files. The exact keys and metadata format is outside the scope of this specification.

The package manager may need to modify the package metadata. In this case, it should replace the metadata archive without having to alter other package members.

The metadata archive can optionally be compressed. It can also be supplemented with a detached OpenPGP signature.

The image archive

The image archive stores all the files to be installed by the binary package. It should be included as the last of the files in the binary package container.

The archive contains a single directory called image. Inside this directory, all package files are stored in filesystem layout, relative to the root directory.

The image archive can optionally be compressed. It can also be supplemented with a detached OpenPGP signature.

Archive member compression

The archive members outlined above support optional compression using one of the compressed file formats supported by the package manager. The exact list of compression types is outside the scope of this specification.

The implementations must support archive members being uncompressed, and must support using different compression types for different files.

When compressing an archive member, the member filename should be suffixed using the standard suffix for the particular compressed file type (e.g. .bz2 for bzip2 format).

OpenPGP member signatures

The archive members support optional OpenPGP signatures. The implementations must allow the user to specify whether OpenPGP signatures are to be expected in remotely fetched packages.

If the signatures are expected and the archive member is unsigned, the package manager must reject processing it. If the signature does not verify, the package manager must reject processing the corresponding archive member. In particular, it must not attempt decompressing compressed members in those circumstances.

The signatures are created as binary detached OpenPGP signature files, with filename corresponding to the member filename with .sig suffix appended.

The exact details regarding creating and verifying signatures, as well as maintaining and distributing keys are outside the scope of this specification.


Package formats used by other distributions

The research on the new package format included investigating the possibility of reusing solutions from other operating system distributions. While reusing a foreign package format would be interesting, the differences in Gentoo metadata structure would prevent any real compatibility. Some degree of compatibility might be achieved through adapting the Gentoo metadata, however the costs of such a solution would probably outweigh its usefulness.

Debian and its derivates are using the .deb package format. This is a nested archive format, with the outer archive being of ar format, and containing nested tarballs of control information (metadata) and data [3].

Red Hat, its derivates and some less related distributions are using the RPM format. It is a custom binary format, storing metadata directly and using a trailer cpio archive to store package files.

Arch Linux is using xz-compressed tarballs (suffixed .pkg.tar.xz) as its binary package format. The tarballs contain package files on top-level, with specially named dotfiles used for package metadata. OpenPGP signatures are stored as detached .sig files alongside packages.

Exherbo is using the pbins format. In this format, the binary package metadata is stored in repository alike ebuilds, and the binary package files are stored separately and downloaded alike source tarballs.

Nested archive format

The basic problem in designing the new format was how to embed multiple data streams (metadata, image) into a single file. Traditionally, this has been done via using two non-conflicting file formats. However, while such a solution is clever, it suffers in terms of transparency.

Therefore, it has been established that the new format should really consist of a single archive format, with all necessary data transparently accessible inside the file. Consequently, it has been debated how different parts of binary package data should be stored inside that archive.

The proposal to continue storing image data as top-level data in the package format, and store metadata as special directory in that structure has been discarded as a case of in-band signalling.

Finally, the proposal has been shaped to store different kinds of data as nested archives in the outer binary package container. Besides providing a clean way of accessing different kinds of information, it makes it possible to add separate OpenPGP signatures to them.

Inner vs. outer compression

One of the points in the new format debate was whether the binary package as a whole should be compressed vs. compressing individual members. The first option may seem as an obvious choice, especially given that with a larger data set, the compression may proceed more effectively. However, it has a single strong disadvantage: compression prevents random access and manipulation of the binary package members.

While for the purpose of reading binary packages, the problem could be circumvented through convenient member ordering and avoiding disjoint reads of the binary package, metadata updates would either require recompressing the whole package (which could be really time consuming with large packages) or applying complex techniques such as splitting the compressed archive into multiple compressed streams.

This considered, the simplest solution is to apply compression to the individual package members, while leaving the container format uncompressed. It provides fast random access to the individual members, as well as capability of updating them without the necessity of recompressing other files in the container.

This also makes it possible to easily protect compressed files using standard OpenPGP detached signature format. All this combined, the package manager may perform partial fetch of binary package, verify the signature of its metadata member and process it without having to fetch the potentially-large image part.

Container and archive formats

During the debate, the actual archive formats to use were considered. The .tar format seemed an obvious choice for the image archive since it is the only widely deployed archive format that stores all kinds of file metadata on POSIX systems. However, multiple options for the outer format has been debated.

Firstly, the ZIP format has been proposed as the only commonly supported format supporting adding files from stdin (i.e. making it possible to pipe the inner archives straight into the container without using temporary files). However, this format has been clearly rejected as both not being present in the system set, and being trailer-based and therefore unusable without having to fetch the whole file.

Secondly, the ar and cpio formats were considered. The former is used by Debian and its derivative binary packages; the latter is used by Red Hat derivatives. Both formats have the advantage of having less historical baggage than .tar, and having less overhead. However, both are also rather obscure (especially given that ar is actually provided by GNU binutils rather than as a stand-alone archiver), considered obsolete by POSIX and both have file size limitations smaller than .tar.

Thirdly, SquashFS was another interesting option. Its main advantage is transparent compression support and ability to mount as a filesystem. However, it has a significant implementation complexity, including mount management and necessity of fallback to unsquashfs. Since the image needs to be writable for the pre-installation manipulations, using it via a mount would additionally require some kind of overlay filesystem. Using it as top-level format has no real gain over a pipeline with tar, and is certainly less portable. Therefore, there does not seem to be a benefit in using SquashFS.

All that considered, it has been decided that there is no purpose in using a second archive format in the specification unless it has significant advantage to .tar. Therefore, .tar has also been used as outer package format, even though it has larger overhead than other formats (mostly due to padding).

.tar portability issues

The modern .tar dialects could be considered dirty extensions of the original .tar format. Three variants may be considered of interest: POSIX ustar, pax (newer POSIX standard) and GNU tar. All three formats are supported by GNU tar, whose presence on systems used to create binary packages could be relied on. Therefore, the portability concerns are related mostly to being able to read and modify binary packages in scenarios of GNU tar being unavailable.

For the purpose of this specification, detailed research on portability of individual tar features has been conducted. The research concluded:

Judging by the test results, the most portability could be achieved by:

  • using strict POSIX ustar format whenever possible,
  • using GNU format for long paths (that do not fit in ustar format),
  • using base-256 (+ pax if already used) encoding for large files,
  • using pax (+ octal or base-256) for high-range/precision timestamps and user/group identifiers,
  • using pax attributes for extended metadata and/or volume label. [4]

It has been determined that for the purpose of binary package we really only need to be concerned about long paths and huge files. Therefore, the above was limited to the three first points and a guideline was formed from them.

Debian has a similar guideline for the inner tar of their package format [3].

Member ordering

The member ordering is explicitly specified in order to provide for trivially reading metadata from partially fetched archives. By requiring the metadata archive to be stored before the image archive, the package manager may stop fetching after reading it and save bandwidth and/or space.

Detached OpenPGP signatures

The use of detached OpenPGP signatures is to provide authenticity checks for binary packages. Covering the complete members with signatures provide for trivial verification of all metadata and image contents respectively, without having to invent custom mechanisms for combining them. Covering the compressed archives helps to prevent zipbomb attacks. Covering the individual members rather than the whole package provides for verification of partially fetched binary packages.

Format versioning

The format is versioned through an explicit file, with the version stored in the filename. If the format changes incompatibly, the filename changes and old implementations do not recognize it as a valid package.

Previously, the format tried to avoid an explicit file for this purpose and used volume label instead. However, the use of label has been renounced due to unforeseen portability issues.

Backwards Compatibility

The format does not preserve backwards compatibility with the tbz2 packages. It has been established that preserving compatibility with the old format was impossible without making the new format even worse than the old one was.

For example, adding any visible members to the tarball would cause them to be installed to the filesystem by old Portage versions. Working around this would require some kind of awful hacks that would oppose the goal of using simple and transparent package format.

Reference Implementation

The proof-of-concept implementation of binary package format converter is available as xpak2gpkg [5]. It can be used to easily create packages in the new format for early inspection.


[1]xpak - The XPAK Data Format used with Portage binary packages (
[2]portage-utils: Small and fast Portage helper tools written in C (
[3](1, 2) deb(5) — Debian binary package format (
[4]Michał Górny, Portability of tar features (
[5]xpak2gpkg: Proof-of-concept converter from tbz2/xpak to gpkg binpkg format (