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Smaller Firefox Updates

Back in 2014 I blogged about several ideas about how to make Firefox updates smaller.

Since then, we have been able to implement some of these ideas, and we also landed a few unexpected changes!


It's hard to measure exactly what the impact of all these changes are over time. As Firefox continues to evolve, new code and dependencies are added, old code removed, while at the same time the build system and installer/updater continue to see improvements. Nevertheless I was interested in comparing what the impact of all these changes would be.

To attempt a comparison, I've taken the latest release of Firefox as of March 6, 2019, which is Firefox 65.0.2. Since most of our users are on Windows, I've downloaded the win64 installer.

Next, I tried to reverse some of the changes made below. I re-compressed omni.ja, used bz2 compression for the MAR files, re-added the deleted images and startup cache, and used the old version of mbsdiff to generate the partial updates.

Format Current Size "Old" Size Improvement (%)
Installer 45,693,888 56,725,712 19%
Complete Update 49,410,488 70,366,869 30%
Partial Update (from 64.0.2) 14,935,692 28,080,719 47%

Small updates FTW!

Ideally most of our users are getting partial updates from version to version, and a nearly 50% reduction in partial update size is quite significant! Smaller updates mean users can update more quickly and reliably!

One of the largest contributors to our partial update sizes right now are the binary diff size for compiled code. For example, the patch for xul.dll alone is 13.8MB of the 14.9MB partial update right now. Diffing algorithms like courgette could help here, as could investigations into making our PGO process more deterministic.

Here are some of the things we've done to reduce update sizes in Firefox.

Shipping uncompressed omni.ja files

This one is a bit counter-intuitive. omni.ja files are basically just zip files, and originally were shipped as regular compressed zips. The zip format compressed each file in the archive independently, in contrast to something like .tar.bz2 where the entire archive is compressed at once. Having the individual files in the archive compressed makes both types of updates inefficient: complete updates are larger because compressing (in the MAR file) already compressed data (in the ZIP file) doesn't yield good results, and partial updates are larger because calculating a binary diff between two compressed blobs also doesn't yield good results. Also, our Windows installers have been using LZMA compression for a long time, and after switching to LZMA for update compression, we can achieve much greater compression ratios with LZMA of the raw data versus LZMA of zip (deflate) compressed data.

The expected impact of this change was ~10% smaller complete updates, ~40% smaller partial updates, and ~15% smaller installers for Windows 64 en-US builds.

Using LZMA compression for updates

Pretty straightforward idea: LZMA does a better job of compression than bz2. We also looked at brotli and zstd for compression, but LZMA performs the best so far for updates, and we're willing to spend quite a bit of CPU time to compress updates for the benefit of faster downloads.

LZMA compressed updates were first shipped for Firefox 56.

The expected impact of this change was 20% reduction for Windows 64 en-US updates.

Disable startup cache generation

This came out of some investigation about why partial updates were so large. I remember digging into this in the Toronto office with Jeff Muizelaar, and we noticed that one of the largest contributors to partial update sizes were the startup cache files. The buildid was encoded into the header of startup cache files, which effectively changes the entire compressed file. It was unclear whether shipping these provided any benefit, and so we experimented with turning them off. Telemetry didn't show any impact to startup times, and so we stopped shipping the startup cache as of Firefox 55.

The expected impact of this change was about 25% for a Windows 64 en-US partial update.

Optimized bsdiff

Adam Gashlin was working on a new binary diffing tool called bsopt, meant to generate patch files compatible with bspatch. As part of this work, he discovered that a few changes to the current mbsdiff implementation could substantially reduce partial update sizes. This first landed in Firefox 61.

The expected impact of this change was around 4.5% for partial updates for Window 64 builds.

Removed unused theme images

We removed nearly 1MB of unused images from Firefox 55. This shrinks all complete updates and full installers by about 1MB.

Optimize png images

By using a tool called zopflipng, we were able to losslessly recompress PNG files in-tree, and reduce the total size of these files by 2.4MB, or about 25%.

Reduce duplicate files we ship

We removed a few hundred kilobytes of duplicate files from Firefox 52, and put in place a check to prevent further duplicates from being shipped. It's hard to measure the long term impact of this, but I'd like to think that we've kept bloat to a minimum!