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Shorebird Architecture

Shorebird is a set of tools that allow you to build and deploy new versions of your Flutter app directly to your users' devices.

This document exists to explain how Shorebird works and to provide a high-level overview of the components that make up the Shorebird system.

Lifetime of a Shorebird Update​

This assumes the developer already has installed Shorebird and has a working Flutter project, as covered in the Getting Started guide.

shorebird init tells Shorebird servers to create a new "App" entry associated with your account as well as writes the resulting app_id to shorebird.yaml in your project.

shorebird release builds your app using flutter build and then uploads the resulting binary to a private Google Cloud Storage bucket. The command also creates a "release" record in our database that associates the app_id with the release version.

shorebird preview can be used to download and run any of these privately stored release binaries on your local device.

Developers then typically take the resulting .aab or .ipa and distribute it to their users, typically via the Play Store or App Store.

At some point later, developers use shorebird patch to build a new version of their app. shorebird patch then downloads the previous release binary associated with that app_id and version number (patches use the same version number as the release they are patching) and then builds a "patch diff" from the combined release and patch binaries. This "patch diff" is then uploaded to a public Google Cloud Storage bucket where it will be served to devices requesting an update with the corresponding app_id and release version.

shorebird patch also creates a record in our database that associates the patch with the app_id and release version and alerts our "patch check" servers that a new patch is available. Patches can optionally be "staged" when uploaded. They will then not appear in patch checks until the patch "channel" is set to "stable" by the developer in the Shorebird Console.

Release binaries which were built with Shorebird contain Shorebird's updater library. By default, the updater library will check for patches every time the app is started. This is done via a background thread to not slow down launch. The updater code makes a single request to our "patch check" servers which are again Google Cloud Run instances. The "patch check" servers respond with the URL of the patch diff if one is available.

A typical patch check is made via https, and contains:

"app_id": "uuid...",
"channel": "stable",
"release_version": "1.0.0",
"patch_number": 1,
"platform": "android",
"arch": "arm64-v8a"

A patch response contains:

"patch_available": true,
"patch": {
"number": 1,
"hash": "sha256...",
"download_url": "google cloud storage url"

The code to do these checks is open source as part of the Updater library and may change from what is documented above:

The updater library then downloads the patch diff and applies it to the release binary. The patch diff is a binary diff. The updater library also checks the hash of the patch diff to confirm download integrity.

The hash is not meant to be a security feature, but rather a way to detect errors in the patch diff. A common error we see is that developers shorebird release with one source and then actually build an release a different binary, resulting then in invalid patches. This hash helps detect such errors. We currently do not sign patches, but plan to add that capability in the near future.

The modified Flutter engine also reports successful or failed launch of a patch back to our servers the next time it makes a patch check.

A patch event contains:

"app_id": "uuid...",
"arch": "arm64-v8a",
"platform": "android",
"type": "PatchInstallSuccess",
"release_version": "1.0.0",
"patch_number": 1

These events are used to display patch install analytics in the Shorebird Console.

If a patch fails to launch after install, in addition to sending a "PatchInstallFailure" event, the updater library will also mark that patch number as "bad" locally and refuse to boot the app with that patch number again. This is to prevent a bad patch from causing a crash loop on the device.

Shorebird Components and Source Code​

Shorebird consists of 3 major parts:

  • shorebird line tool that you use to build and deploy your app.
  • A modified Flutter engine that you include in your app.
  • Our public-cloud based infrastructure which hosts your app's updates.

shorebird tool​

The shorebird commands are documented on this site. Most of the build logic is just wrapping the flutter tool and it also adds a few commands to interface with Shorebird's servers.

The source for the shorebird tool is available on GitHub:

A Modified Flutter​

Code push requires technical changes to the underlying Flutter engine. To make those changes required forking Flutter.

We had to fork 4 Flutter and Dart repositories to make Shorebird work:

flutter/engine "The Flutter Engine"​

The Flutter engine is the C++ code that runs on the device. It is responsible for rendering the UI, handling input, and communicating with the host.

We forked this code to add the Shorebird updater, which lets the Flutter engine load new code from Shorebird's servers.

Our Flutter Engine fork is public. You can see our engine changes on GitHub by comparing our release branches to the upstream Flutter engine, e.g. for 3.16.9:

flutter/flutter "The Flutter Framework"​

The flutter/flutter repo contains the Dart code that runs on the device as well as the flutter tool that is used to build and run Flutter apps.

We forked this code to be able to deliver our modified Flutter engine to change the version of the engine that the flutter tool uses.

Our Flutter Framework fork is public. You can see our engine changes on GitHub by comparing our release branches to the upstream Flutter Framework, e.g. for 3.16.9:

flutter/buildroot "The Buildroot"​

The buildroot repo contains the build scripts that are used to build the Flutter engine for various platforms. It's separate from flutter/engine in order to share code and configuration with the Fuchsia build system.

We forked this code to make one small modification to the build setup to allow exposing our updater symbols from the Flutter engine up to package:shorebird_code_push. is a Rust library which we link into the engine. The way we do that is via a C-API on a static library (libupdater.a). The default flags for linking for the Flutter engine hide all symbols from linked static libraries. We need to be able to expose the shorebird_* symbols from libupdater.a up through FFI to the Dart code. We did that by making one change to buildroot and then a second change to the engine to place the symbols on the allow-list.

Installing a Forked Flutter​

When you install Shorebird, it installs Flutter and Dart from our fork. These are currently not exposed on the user's path, rather private copies that Shorebird will use when building your app.

This was necessary to avoid conflicts with other Flutter installations on the user's machine. Specifically, the way that Flutter downloads artifacts is based on the version of the engine. If we were to use the same version of the engine as the user's Flutter installation, then we would overwrite the user's engine artifacts.

We deliver our artifacts to this fork of Flutter with two ways. First is we change the version of the engine in the flutter tool. Second is we pass FLUTTER_STORAGE_BASE_URL set to (instead of when calling our vended copy of the flutter tool.

Currently this means shorebird will not work in an environment where the user needs to use FLUTTER_STORAGE_BASE_URL to download Flutter artifacts from a private mirror (e.g. a corporate network or China).

Serving Forked Binaries​

We also use a custom server to handle requests from flutter for our modified engine. The source for that server is here:

The artifact proxy is hosted at via Google Cloud Run.

This proxy knows how to serve the modified binaries from our Google Storage bucket, as well as how to forward along requests to Google's Flutter storage bucket for unmodified binaries for all parts of Flutter we didn't have to modify.

Shorebird's Cloud Infrastructure​

Shorebird's public-cloud based infrastructure is responsible for hosting your app's updates. It's a set of services that handle the following:

  • Release binary (private) storage
  • Patch binary (public) storage and serving (via global CDN)
  • Patch check requests (via Google Cloud Run)

We also provide a web-based console for developers to manage their apps and view analytics as well as the underlying database that powers the patch checks and console.

Currently all of our infrastructure is hosted on Google Cloud Platform although we will likely expand to other cloud providers over time. If we do, we will update our privacy policy to reflect such. All of these services are currently set to use US regions by default.