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Hash Collision

Flox Team | 31 January 2023
Hash Collision

TL;DR

Github changed the format of their archives and this unexpectedly caused some systems and services that depend on the hash of the archives of a source tree to break. Nix uses NAR hashes, a custom format for source archives; NAR hashes are deterministic based on the content of a source tree.

What happened?

The default Git archive format changed last year. Around January 30th, Github followed suit and changed the format of their archives and this unexpectedly caused some systems and services that depend on the hash of the archives of a source tree to break. People have come to depend on this hash as an integrity check of the files they are receiving from GitHub due to several reasons, mainly because it’s the most straightforward way to do so. Github made it really convenient to use and depend on this hash, for example by taking the hash and adding tar.gz to it, you could generate a URL for people to download the archive from.

Does this affect Nixpkgs?

No, because Nix leverages a custom format called Nix Archive (NAR) for archiving source trees, specifically by relying on the NAR hash and the git revision hash.

Why did Nix do this? Why does Nix have its own format?

The NAR format was written into Nix at the start, about 20 years ago. TAR has a few problems, mostly because it's old (the original TAR format was released by Bell Labs in 1979–fairly jurassic in internet-years). The tar format includes a variety of information that makes it non-deterministic regarding the source tree it is archiving, such as file creation time, owners and groups, timestamps; it also dumps files sequentially into the archive. As such, tar is good for validating integrity in transmission –making sure the file wasn’t tampered with from origin to destination when transferred– but not well suited for validating the integrity of the contents of the source tree itself.

Nix required something that could reliably and deterministically pack the source tree. Hence NAR format: the Nix Archive format. It’s very simple, and unlike tar has no options to fiddle with. See for yourself (via Eelco’s original PhD thesis):

What's a NAR hash?

A NAR hash deterministically identifies the contents of a source tree. Nixpkgs is not affected by GitHub’s change, even though it pulls in source trees from GitHub, because Nixpkgs uses the NAR hash and a git revision hash to validate the contents received, and therefore even if the tar hash changes, we can still validate the integrity of the files we’re sourcing.

NAR hashes are not Nix-specific, they can be used generically for any source tree.

Should GitHub provide NARs for source trees?

Not a bad idea at all! A NARinfo file contains both an archive hash, a NAR hash, and a signature from whoever is providing this archive. GitHub has accommodated different hashing and archiving schemes before. In this case, if people relied on the NAR hash in addition to the TAR hash, this episode could perhaps have been avoided, or at least mitigated.