State of Spritely for February 2020

By Christine Lemmer-Webber on Mon 10 February 2020

We are now approximately 50% of the way through the Samsung Stack Zero grant for Spritely, and only a few months more since I announced the Spritely project at all. I thought this would be a good opportunity to review what has happened so far and what's on the way.

In my view, quite a lot has happened over the course of the last year:

  • Datashards grew out of two Spritely projects, Magenc and Crystal. This provides the "secure storage layer" for the system, and by moving into Datashards has even become its own project (now mostly under the maintainership of Serge Wroclawski, who as it turns out is also co-host with me of Libre Lounge. There's external interest in this from the rest of the federated social web, and it was a topic of discussion in the last meeting of the SocialCG. While not as publicly visible recently, the project is indeed active; I am currently helping advise and assist Serge with some of the ongoing work on optimizations for smaller files, fixing the manifest format to permit larger files, and a more robust HTTP API for stores/registries. (Thank you Serge also for taking on a large portion of this work and responsibility!)

  • Spritely Goblins, the actor model layer of Spritely, continues its development. We are now up to release v0.5. I don't consider the API to be stable, but it is stabilizing. In particular, the object/update model, the synchronous communication layer, and the transactional update support are all very close to stable. Asynchronous programming mostly works but has a few bugs I need to work out, and the distributed programming environment design is coming together enough where I expect to be able to demo it soon.

  • In addition, I have finally started to write docs for Spritely Goblins. I think the tutorial above is fairly nice, and I've had a good amount of review from various parties, and those who have tried it seem to think it is fairly nice. (Please be advised that it requires working with the dev branch of Goblins at the time of writing.) v0.6 should the first release to have documentation after the major overhaul I did last summer (effectively an entire rewrite of the system, including many changes to the design after doing research into ocap practices). I cannot recommend that anyone else write production-level code using the system yet, but I hope that by the summer things will have congealed enough that this will change.

  • I have made a couple of publicly visible demos of Goblins' design. Weirdly enough all of these have involved ascii art.

    • The proto-version was the Let's Just Be Weird Together demo. Actually it's a bit strange to say this because the LJBWT demo didn't use Goblins, it used a library called DOS/HURD. However, writing this library (and adapting it from DOS/Win) directly informed the rewrite of Goblins, Goblinoid which eventually became Goblins itself, replacing all the old code. This is why I advocate demo-driven-development: the right design of an architecture flows out of a demo of it. (Oh yeah, and uh, it also allowed me to make a present for my 10th wedding anniversary, too.)

    • Continuing in a similar vein, I made the "Season's Greetings" postcard, which Software Freedom Conservancy actually used in their funding campaign this year. This snowy scene used the new rewrite of Goblins and allowed me to try to push the new "become" feature of Goblins to its limit (the third principle of actor model semantics, taken very literally). It wasn't really obvious to anyone else that this was using Goblins in any interesting way, but I'll say that writing this really allowed me to congeal many things about the update layer and it also lead to uncovering a performance problem, leading to a 10x speedup. Having written this demo, I was starting to get the hang of things in the Goblins synchronous layer.

    • Finally there was the Terminal Phase demo. (See the prototype announcement blogpost and the 1.0 announcement.) This was originally designed as a reward for donors for hitting $500/mo on my Patreon account (you can still show up in the credits by donating!), though once 1.0 made it out the door it seems like it raised considerable excitement on the r/linux subreddit and on Hacker News, which was nice to see. Terminal Phase helped me finish testing and gaining confidence in the transactional object-update and synchronous call semantics of Spritely Goblins, and I now have no doubt that this layer has a good design. But I think Terminal Phase was the first time that other people could see why Spritely Goblins was exciting, especially once I showed off the time travel debugging in Terminal Phase demo. That last post lead people to finally start pinging me asking "when can I use Spritely Goblins"? That's good... I'm glad it's obvious now that Goblins is doing something interesting (though the most interesting things are yet to be demo'ed).

  • I participated in, keynoted, and drummed up enthusiasm for ActivityPub Conference 2019. (I didn't organize though, that was Morgan Lemmer-Webber's doing, alongside Sebastian Lasse and with DeeAnn Little organizing the video recording.) We had a great speaker list and even got Mark S. Miller to keynote. Videos of the event are also available. While that event was obviously much bigger than Spritely, the engagement of the ActivityPub community is obviously important for its success.

  • Relatedly, I continue to co-chair the SocialCG but Nightpool has joined as co-chair which should relieve some pressure there, as I was a bit too overloaded to be able to handle this all on my own. The addition of the SocialHub community forum has also allowed the ActivityPub community to be able to coordinate in a way that does not rely on me being a blocker. Again, not Spritely related directly, but the health of the ActivityPub community is important to Spritely's success.

  • At Rebooting Web of Trust I coordinated with a number of contributors (including Mark Miller) on sketching out plans for secure UI designs. Sadly the paper is incomplete but has given me the framework for understanding the necessary UI components for when we get to the social network layer of Spritely.

  • Further along the lines of sketching out the desiderata of federated social networks, I have written a nearly-complete OcapPub: towards networks of consent. However, there are still some details to be figured out; I have been hammering them out on the cap-talk mailing list (see this post laying out a very ocappub-like design with some known problems, and then this analysis). The ocap community has thankfully been very willing to participate in working with me to hammer out the right security foundations, and I think we're close to the right design details. Of course, the proof of the pudding is in the demo, which has yet to be written.

Okay, so I hope I've convinced you that a lot has happened, and hopefully you feel that I am using my time reasonably well. But there is much, much, much ahead for Spritely to succeed in its goals. So, what's next?

  • I need to finish cleaning up the Goblins documentation and do a v0.6 release with it included. At that point I can start recommending some brave souls to use it for some simple applications.

  • A demo of Spritely Goblins working in a primarily asynchronous environment. This might simply be a port of mudsync as a first step. (Recorded demo of mudsync from a few years ago.) I'm not actually sure. The goal of this isn't to be the "right" social network design (not full OcapPub), just to test the async behaviors of Spritely Goblins. Like the synchronous demos that have already been done, the purpose of this is to congeal and ensure the quality of the async primitives. I expect this and the previous bullet point to be done within the next couple of months, so hopefully by the end of April.

  • Distributed networked programming in Goblins, and associated demo. May expand on the previous demo. Probably will come out about two months later, so end of June.

  • Prototype of the secure UI concepts from the forementioned secure UIs paper. I expect/hope this to be usable by end of third quarter 2020.

  • Somewhere in-between all this, I'd like to add a demo of being able to securely run untrusted code from third parties, maybe in the MUD demo. Not sure when yet.

  • All along, I continue to expect to push out new updates to Terminal Phase with more fun enemies and powerups to continue to reward donors to the Patreon campaign.

This will probably take most of this year. What you will notice is that this does not explicitly state a tie-in with the ActivityPub network. This is intentional, because the main goal of all the above demos are to prove more foundational concepts before they are all fully integrated. I think we'll see the full integration and it coming together with the existing fediverse beginning in early 2021.

Anyway, that's a lot of stuff ahead. I haven't even mentioned my involvement in Libre Lounge, which I've been on hiatus from due to a health issue that has made recording difficult, and from being busy trying to deliver on these foundations, but I expect to be coming back to LL shortly.

I hope I have instilled you with some confidence that I am moving steadily along the abstract Spritely roadmap. (Gosh, I ought to finally put together a website for Spritely, huh?) Things are happening, and interesting ones I think.

But how do you think things are going? Maybe you would like to leave me feedback. If so, feel free to reach out.

Until next time...