Thursday, September 24, 2015

Linux applications backwards compatibility redux

As we all know Linux applications are tied to the distro they have been built on. The do not work on other distros and even on later releases of the same distro. Anyone who has tried to run old binaries knows this. It is the commonly accepted truth.

But is it the actual truth?

In preparation for my LCA2016 presentation I decided to test this. I took Debian Lenny from 2009 and installed it in VirtualBox. Lenny is the oldest version that would work, the older ones would fail because distro mirrors no longer carry their packages. Then I downloaded GTK+ 1.2 from the previous millennium (1999). I built and installed it and GLib 1 into a standalone directory and finally compiled a helloworld application and a launcher script and put them in the same dir.

This directory formed an application bundle that is almost identical to OSX app bundles. The main difference to a distro package is that it embeds all its dependencies rather than resorting to distro packages. This is exactly how one would have produced a standalone binary at the time. I copied the package to a brand new Fedora install and launched it. This is the result.
This is a standard Fedora install running Gnome 3. The gray box in the middle is the GTK+ 1.2 application. It ran with no changes whatsoever. This is even more amazing when you consider that this means a backwards compatibility time span of over 15 years, over two completely different Linux distributions and even CPU architectures (Lenny was x86 whereas Fedora is x86_64).

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