PRoot sorcery

A good practice for software developer is to provide a test suite while developing a software. When developing for Linux, it's also a good practice to compile the software and run the test suite on many distributions like Debian, Ubuntu, Fedora, ArchLinux, Centos, Slackware and for both i386 and x86_64.

Usually, softwares are compiled and tested on only one distribution because setting up the right environment is long and painful. Most of the time root privileges are also required to setup such environment.

In this article and the following one, I will show that using PRoot, such testing is quite handy and can be done by any users.

Getting PRoot up and running

In order to test PRoot, you can download the latest version on the official website and compile it. You can also grab a package for your distribution on the Open Build Service.

If you choose to compile PRoot, that's just a matter of:

git clone git://
cd PRoot/src

Grabbing a RootFS

The second step to test VLC media player in different distributions is to get a root file system for every distribution we want to try.

The first and easy way to have a working root file system is to download it from OpenVZ repository or OpenVZ contribs.

It's also possible, under Debian and Ubuntu, to create a root file system using debootstrap, but let's take the easy way for today.

% mkdir debian-6.0-x86_64
% cd debian-6.0-x86_64
% wget
% tar xf debian-6.0-x86_64.tar.gz
% cd ..

As we will see later, you can safely ignore the warnings printed by tar when extracting the file system. Let us note that everything is run as a normal user.

Now you can "jump" into this new root file system using PRoot:

% cat /etc/debian_version
% proot ./debian-6.0-x86_64
~ cat /etc/debian_version

For now on, the root file system is the one you just downloaded. For instance:

~ gcc --version
gcc (Debian 4.4.5-8) 4.4.5
~ logout
% gcc --version
gcc (Debian 4.6.3-1) 4.6.3

You just tested the first feature provided by PRoot:

  • Changing the root file system of a process

As you may have noticed, I used '%' for the host file system shell prompt (a Debian Sid) and '~' for the PRooted one (a Debian Squeeze).

Setting up the new RootFS

We now have a basic and working root file systems but some configuration has to be done before any real usages:

  • Adding the right users and groups to /etc/passwd and /etc/group
  • Configuring DNS resolution
  • Binding some special directories
  • Updating the system

Normally, all this tasks can only be done by root as they will modifies files owned by root. As we extracted the archive as a normal user, the current user can modify any files in the root file system though making root privileges pointless.

Adding some user and groups

In order to keep the same user inside the PRooted file system, you just have to copy the right lines from /etc/passwd to the corresponding file in the PRooted file system. You can do the same thing for groups in /etc/group.

Configuring DNS resolution

Just copy /etc/resolv.conf from the host root file system to the PRooted one. This way the same mechanism will be used in the host system and in the PRooted one.

Another solution is to ask PRoot to do the job for you: binding /etc/resolv.conf to the same file in the PRooted file system. Adding -b /etc/resolv.conf to the PRoot command line will do the trick.

% proot ./debian-6.0-x86_66
~ cat /etc/resolv.conf
cat: /etc/resolv.conf: No such file or directory
~ logout
% proot -b /etc/resolv.conf ./debian-6.0-x86_64
~ cat /etc/resolv.conf
[...]same file as /etc/resolv.conf on the host[...]

You just tested the second feature provided by PRoot:

  • Binding some files to another location in the file system.

In this case you bound /etc/resolv.conf to the same location inside the PRooted environment. It's also possible to bind it somewhere else with: -b /etc/resolv.conf:/Somewere_else_in_the_PRooted_FS.

Binding some special directories

For the moment, the /dev and /proc directories are empty. However some programs need it in order to work correctly. For example ssh-keygen will refuse to work without /dev/random.

We should bind the real /dev and /proc in the new root file system. Adding -b /dev -b /proc to the PRoot command line will solve this issue.

Updating the system

We already noticed that the current user can modify any file on the PRooted file system because it was extracted by this user.

However most tools like dpkg required the current user id to be root in order to work. For this reason, PRoot can be launched with the -0 (zero) option which fake some syscalls and makes the programs think the current user is root.

% proot -b /etc/resolv.conf -0 ./debian-6.0-x86_64
~ id -a
uid=0(root) gid=0(root) groupes=0(root)
~ cat /etc/apt/source.list
deb squeeze main contrib non-free
deb squeeze/updates main contrib non-free
~ apt-get update
Hit squeeze Release.gpg
Ign squeeze/contrib Translation-en
Reading package lists... Done
~ apt-get upgrade

You can manage this root file system like a classical one. Pay attention that some services that really required root privileges to work (like apache or some daemons) could not run correctly under PRoot as we only fake root privileges.

Future work

This article is beginning to be really long so I will finish here for today.

We saw a simple way to get a working Debian root file systems that we can manage without real root privileges. This work will be useful for the next article which will cover the compilation and testing of VLC media player in this new root file system.

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