RFC-0002: Fuchsia platform versioning

RFC-0002: Fuchsia platform versioning
  • General

Uses versioning to let the platform evolve while offering compatibility.

Gerrit change
Date submitted (year-month-day)2020-04-30
Date reviewed (year-month-day)2020-05-23


This document proposes the notion of an API level and an ABI revision to the Fuchsia platform. End-developers build against a target API level, which determines which declarations are visible to the application. The target API level also becomes embedded in the compiled application as a target ABI revision, which indicates the semantics the application expects from the platform. A given release of the Fuchsia platform typically supports multiple ABI revisions, which lets the platform run older applications while still providing a path for evolving the platform.


Currently, the Fuchsia platform evolves through a series of soft transitions. To change part of the Fuchsia System Interface, the platform first introduces the new interface. Applications then migrate to the new interface. After all the applications have migrated to the new interface, the platform then removes the old interface.

Using this approach, the platform can evolve only as fast as the slowest application. In order to complete a soft transition, the platform needs to wait for the last application to migrate off the old interface. As the number of applications increases and the coupling between the platform and the applications decreases, soft transitions take increasingly longer to execute. Eventually, we will be unable to evolve the platform using soft transitions.

This RFC addresses the following problem statement:

How can the Fuchsia platform continue to evolve while being able to run a growing number of older applications over a longer period of time?

Why now?

Several of our customers are requesting more stability from the platform. If we offer that stability now, we will slow down our ability to evolve the platform. In order to meet these current customer needs, the platform needs to be able to offer longer compatibility windows without grinding the project to a halt.

Additionally, the experience from Windows is that we would benefit from embedding target ABI revisions in applications prior to being required to provide binary compatibility with those applications for a long period of time. Windows missed that opportunity and now tries to guess the target ABI revision for binaries using heuristics, which creates significant developer pain.


A release of Fuchsia is a build of the Fuchsia operating system and associated packages that is deployed to a user population. A release has a version number that identifies the set of software artifacts contained in the release.

Backwards compatibility refers to the ability of a newer release of Fuchsia to run binaries intended to run on older release of Fuchsia.

The Fuchsia IDK is an artifact used by development environment integrators to expose the Fuchsia platform to developers to build applications that run on Fuchsia. The Fuchsia IDK is published by the Fuchsia project and defines the contract between the Fuchsia platform and applications that run on Fuchsia. The IDK tools define the contract between the Fuchsia IDK tools and the development environment integrators' environments.

A soft transition is a technique for breaking down a backwards-incompatible change into a sequence of smaller changes to the platform and a set of known binaries such that compatibility is maintained locally at each step.


The design described in this document is to version the Fuchsia System Interface, which lets the platform and the applications agree about the semantics the application expects from the platform.

Specifically, if an application works on a given release of Fuchsia, then the application should continue to work on future releases of Fuchsia unless Fuchsia intentionally drops support for the application. This design does not address the converse problem of creating a new application that works on older releases of Fuchsia.


The Fuchsia platform uses two version identifiers, an API level and an ABI revision. Both these versions identify the interface provided by the platform rather than the implementation of that interface. Releases of Fuchsia use a different versioning scheme, which identifies the specific implementation in that release.

A given API level implicates a specific ABI revision, but multiple API levels might implicate the same ABI revision.

API level

A Fuchsia API level denotes a set of APIs available when building an application. A given release of the Fuchsia IDK typically supports multiple API levels. The APIs available at a given supported API level should be consistent across IDK releases.

Example. Consider pkg/fit, which is a C++ library in the SDK. The fit library declares a number of functions, each of which is an API exposed by the library. The API defines that set of functions, which means two IDK releases should expose the same set of functions in the fit library at the same API level.

Syntactically, a Fuchsia API level is an unsigned, 64-bit integer. As the platform evolves (see Evolution below), API levels are assigned in increasing order and are intended to be understood by human beings, including end-developers.

ABI revision

A Fuchsia ABI revision denotes the semantics of the Fuchsia System Interface that an application expects the platform to provide. A given release of Fuchsia typically supports multiple ABI revisions, but semantics for a given supported ABI revision should be consistent (see Evolution below) across Fuchsia releases.

Example. Consider zx_clock_get_monotonic, which is a function exposed by the vDSO as part of the Fuchsia System Interface. The ABI revision specifies both whether this function exists and what happens when this function is called, which means the semantics of zx_clock_get_monotonic should be consistent across Fuchsia releases at the same ABI revision.

Syntactically, a Fuchsia ABI revision is an unsigned, 64-bit integer. An ABI revision is an opaque identifier without internal structure. To create an identifier for a new ABI revision, select a unsigned, 64-bit integer at random among values that have never been used to identify a Fuchsia ABI revision before.

Identifiers for ABI revisions are chosen at random to prevent end-developers from guessing a future ABI revision identifier and forming expectations about the semantics of a future version of the Fuchsia System Interface. As a result, ABI revisions are intended to be understood by machines and only rarely interpreted by human beings.


The platform increases the API level whenever the platform adds or removes an API from the Fuchsia IDK or when the ABI revision changes. In practice, the project might batch changes by increasing the API level on some defined cadence (e.g., once a day or once a week).

The platform changes the ABI revision whenever the platform makes a backwards-incompatible change to the semantics of the Fuchsia System Interface. In practice, the project might batch backwards-incompatible changes by changing the ABI revision on some defined cadence (e.g., every six weeks or every six months).

In the limit, every change in semantics is potentially backwards-incompatible, but, in practice, operating systems do make changes to their semantics without breaking applications. For example, many popular operating systems add system calls without breaking their applications.

Action item. Create a document that details what changes to the Fuchsia System Interface the platform considers to be backwards-compatible. The project will likely need to refine that document over time as the project gains implementation experience about what changes commonly do and do not break applications in practice.


End-developers select a single target API level when building a component. The target API level controls which declarations in the Fuchsia IDK are available when building the component. For example, a FIDL message introduced in API level 7 is not available when building a component that targets API level 6 but is available when building a component that targets API level 7 or 8 (assuming the message was not deprecated in API level 8).

As part of building a component, the tools in the SDK include the target ABI revision associated with the target API level in the manifest of the component. In this way, each component declares the semantics that the developer expected the platform to provide when they built their component. A given package can contain many components, each of which can select whichever target ABI revision they prefer.


The platform maintains a list of supported ABI revisions. The platform provides binary compatibility for components that target a supported ABI revision, which means the platform will attempt to provide those components the platform semantics indicated by their target ABI revision.

Example. Consider the transition from the fuchsia.foo.Bar protocol to the fuchsia.foo.Bar2 protocol. Suppose a component, baz.cm, has a target ABI revision that indicates that the component expects the platform to provide the fuchsia.foo.Bar. When running baz.cm, the platform will route requests for fuchsia.foo.Bar to the appropriate implementation. However, when running components with a target ABI revision after the transition to fuchsia.foo.Bar2, the platform will no longer route requests for fuchsia.foo.Bar to an implementation because components targeting that ABI revision should be using fuchsia.foo.Bar2 instead.

At some point, the platform might wish to remove support for a given ABI revision. Such removals are often gated on a tail of important components that still rely on the old ABI revision. Rather than maintaing the full semantics implied by the older ABI revisions, the platform maintains a list of legacy components along with a table of quirks necessary to run those specific components. A quirk is a compatibility shim that lets a legacy component use an otherwise unsupported interface. Using this mechanism, the platform can remove general support for an older ABI revision while still being able to run certain important components that target that older ABI revision.

Example. Suppose the platform no longer supports any ABI revisions that include fuchsia.foo.Bar but that baz.cm is an important component that has not migrated to fuchsia.foo.Bar2. The project can treat baz.cm as a legacy component with the needs-fuchsia-foo-bar quirk. Even though the platform does not support the target ABI revision for baz.cm, the platform can continue to run baz.cm by routing its request for fuchsia.foo.Bar to a compatibility shim, perhaps implemented using fuchsia.foo.Bar2. The compatibility shim does not need to support the full semantics implied by fuchsia.foo.Bar. Instead, the compatibility shim need only work well enough to keep baz.cm (and the other specific components with the needs-fuchsia-foo-bar quirk) working.

The platform cannot run components that neither target a supported ABI revision nor are listed as legacy components because the platform does not know what semantics those components expect.


Every element of the Fuchsia System Interface (e.g., a system call or a FIDL message) goes through the following lifecycle:

  1. The element is introduced into the platform. End-developers cannot use the API until Fuchsia releases an SDK with a new API level that includes that element. If the element can be introduced without breaking the ABI (e.g., adding a system call), then the semantics of existing ABI revisions can be updated to include the newly introduced element. Otherwise, the element must be hidden from components that target older ABI revisions to avoid breaking them.
  2. If possible, the element can be extended by introducing child elements. For example, a FIDL table can be extended by introducing new fields. Introducing a child element starts another instance of the element lifecycle for that child element, including requiring a new API level to make the API for that element visible to end-developers. An element can be extended only if adding child elements does not break the existing API or ABI.
  3. The element might be deprecated. Components that target older ABI revisions can still use the element when running on newer platform releases. However, end-developers that target a newer API level can no longer use the element.
  4. The element is a legacy once the platform no longer supports any ABI revisions between the introduction and deprecation of the element. At this point, the platform need only support the element insofar as the element is actually used by a specific legacy component by way of a quirk.
  5. Once none of the legacy components use the element, the element can be removed from the platform entirely.


This approach incentivizes developers to migrate away from deprecated interfaces by coupling access to new APIs to performing those migrations. Specifically, to gain access to a newly introduced API, the developer must change their target API level, which requires them to migrate off any interfaces that were deprecated in that API level.


Implementing this design involves many layers of the Fuchsia system. This document provides a sketch of the changes needed at each implicated layer, but the detailed designs for those layers are left to subsequent documents.


FIDL should offer a way to annotate the range of API levels in which each protocol element is available. The FIDL toolchain should be aware of the target API level and generate code appropriate for that API level.

When a protocol element (e.g., a field in a table or a message in protocol) is deprecated at a given API level, we would ideally like components that target that API level to be able to receive messages containing that protocol element but would like to prevent those components from sending messages that contain that protocol element.

System headers

The system headers should let the end-developer specify a target API level and then adjust the set of APIs that are visible using those headers according to the target API level. In addition, the system headers should define macros that can be used to limit the visibility of declarations in other libraries to certain API levels.


The system should offer multiple vDSOs, each of which supports a list of ABI revisions. When possible, the system should evolve by extending the vDSO in a backwards-compatible way, but, when not possible, the system can mint a new vDSO with a separate list of supported ABI revisions.

Extending the vDSO increases the attack surface for existing binaries because those existing binaries can gain access to the vDSO extensions. When deciding whether to extend an existing vDSO or whether to mint a new vDSO, the project should consider the security implications as well as the compatibility implications.

The vDSO could offer a function that checks whether the vDSO supports a given ABI revision, but the vDSO should not directly expose the list of supported ABI revisions because exposing that list to applications would let applications break when the list is extended.

Process framework

When launching a process, the client should inform the process launcher which ABI revision the process expects. The process launcher should use that information to select an appropriate vDSO and process bootstrap message for the newly launched process.

Open problem. What ABI revision should we use when creating processes that do not have a component manifest? One possibility is to put the ABI revision in the ELF data for the executable rather than (in addition to?) in the component manifest. Another possibility is to add the ABI revision to the fuchsia.ldsvc.Loader protocol, which is typically routed to the source of the executable.

Component framework

The tools that build component manifests should take the target API level as a command-line parameter and embed the corresponding ABI revision in the component manifests they create.

While not needed immediately, components will eventually want to modulate capability routes according to ABI revision. For example, a component might wish to stop offering a certain service to one of its child components. Removing the service immediately could break compatibility with older versions of that child component. Instead, the parent might want to offer the service only to children that target an older ABI revision.

Similarly, the platform might wish to route capabilities for specific legacy components to specialized destinations that provide compatibility shims. For example, we could define a routing quirk that gets applied for specific legacy components that have that quirk in the quirk table.


The SDK should specify the API levels supported by the SDK and the mapping between those API levels and their ABI revision in some machine-readable format (e.g., in its JSON metadata). The SDK integrations should be modified to let end-developers specify a target API level and to supply the target API level as a command line argument to all the tools that require that value.


This proposal attempts to minimize the performance impact of platform versioning by intervening primary during build and discovery. The compatibility shims used to run legacy components could have a significant performance impact, but the project can evaluate those performance implications on a case-by-case basis when adding a component to the list of legacy components.

Security considerations

This proposal should have a positive impact on security because the proposal will make it easier to migrate the Fuchsia software ecosystem to newer APIs, which presumably have better security properties than older APIs.

Additionally, the ability to allocate new ABI revisions makes it possible to avoid exposing new ABIs to existing applications, which can reduce the attack surface exposed to those applications. When deciding whether to extend an existing ABI or whether to allocate a new ABI revision, the project should consider the security benefits of allocating a new ABI revision.

This proposal does provide a mechanism for malicious applications to select different, potentially older, code paths in the platform, for example by claiming to target an older ABI revision. As the platform evolves, the project will need to treat code that supports older ABI revisions with the same security diligence that the project treats code that supports newer ABI revisions.

Privacy considerations

This proposal should have a positive impact on privacy because the proposal will make it easier to migrate the Fuchsia software ecosystem to newer APIs, which presumably have better privacy properties than older APIs.


This proposal somewhat increases the testing matrix because the platform behaves different depending on the ABI revision of the running component. We will need to factor this increase in the testing matrix into the design of the Fuchsia Compatibility Test Suite (CTS). For example, the project might want to version CTS according to the ABI revision to ensure that the platform does not regress its support for older ABI revisions as it evolves.


The documentation for the platform should be updated to annotate every API with its current stage in the lifecycle as well as its lifecycle history (e.g., when the API was introduced, deprecated, and/or removed). These annotations should be derived from the same source-of-truth that control whether applications have access to these API when targeting a specific API level. For example, the fidldoc tool should understand the API level annotations in the FIDL source files and generate the appropriate annotations in the generated documentation.

Whenever the platform creates a new ABI revision identifier, the project should update the documentation to describe in what ways the new ABI revision is not backwards compatible with the previous ABI revision and what action, if any, end-developers should take when updating their applications.

In addition, the project should have some conceptual documentation that explains why the platform has API levels and how to upgrade from one API level to another.

Drawbacks, Alternatives, and Unknowns

What are the costs of implementing this proposal?

The main cost of implementing this proposal is increased operational complexity when evolving the platform. Adding a new API now requires coordination across the project to release that API in a new API level. Similarly, deprecating an ABI is more involved because deprecation happens in several steps.

The system itself will also become more complicated because the behavior of the system will be partially dependent on the ABI revision of each component.

What other strategies might solve the same problem?

Another strategy, which is used by some other platforms, is to never remove functionality. For example, the web platform evolves almost entirely additively. In some ways, that approach is simpler because the system would not need a mechanism to deprecate functionality.

Another approach might be to use different version identifiers for different parts of the system rather than a single API level that applies to the entire system. To a certain extent, Fuchsia uses this approach as well. For example, the file systems each have their own version identifiers, which is used for the contract between the on-disk representation and the in-memory code for the file system. Using a single API level for the entire system implies a degree of coordination about the evolution of contract between the platform and applications.

Prior Art and References

There is a vast amount of prior art on this subject. The proposal in this document builds directly on the experience of Android, Windows, and macOS/iOS.


Android has the concept of an API level. Every platform interface on Android is annotated with the API level at which the interface was introduced. Android applications also specify their target API level in their manifest using the uses-sdk element. In principle, Android could use this API level mechanism to deprecate and remove older interfaces.


Windows makes heavy use of a concept similar to ABI revision, which appears as the SupportedOS entry in application manifests. Windows uses a GUID to identify the ABI revision that the application is targeting, which is similar to the proposal in this document to use an opaque 64-bit integer.

In Windows, the SupportedOS GUIDs are associated with specific releases of Windows. For example, e2011457-1546-43c5-a5fe-008deee3d3f0 identifies Windows Vista. However, later versions of Windows (e.g., Windows 7) understand the e2011457-1546-43c5-a5fe-008deee3d3f0 GUID and provide compatibility with the Windows Vista ABI. The proposal in this document decouples the ABI revision from platform releases, which is more flexible.

macOS, iOS

Both macOS and iOS use the API_AVAILABLE and @available annotations to control whether a declaration is available when building an application. System libraries (aka frameworks) also use "linked on or after" checks and explicit quirk tables to support legacy applications that require older semantics from the platform.

Apple has used these mechanisms successfully to migrate applications for these operating systems from older APIs to newer APIs.