Composing linux namespaces with GNU guix

GNU Guix is a package manager, build tool, configuration management system, and operating system built with Guile scheme. Much like Nix before it, it implements functional package management, where a software package is built in a hermetic environment with only its explicit and transitive dependencies available. The output of a package build is named using a hash of its inputs and stored in a globally readable directory called the GNU store, conventionally /gnu/store. Importantly, given the same set of inputs, a package’s output will always be the same, bit-for-bit. This nice property gives you the ability to audit build caches (called substitutes) by re-running a package build and comparing the outputs. You can also share a GNU store among multiple machines.

Because it is inconvenient to run commands using their absolute paths in the GNU store, which will be a long name like /gnu/store/1b9aa5iwgl956xrav7p1kdq4k2ackmym-bird-2.0.8/sbin/bird, guix helps you build a different type of object, called a “profile”, which is, essentially, a directory tree containing the union of one or more packages’ directory trees. For example, I can use the guix build command to build a profile that is suited to running a network router:

$ cat <<EOF > profile.scm
  (guix profiles)
  (gnu packages networking)
  (gnu packages linux)
  (gnu packages busybox))

    (packages->manifest (list bird busybox iproute util-linux))))
$ guix build -f profile.scm

This builds the directory /gnu/store/q6al2kmlgcaw1kzlqvqzmm213fnp48lb-profile . This directory is the union of the bird, busybox, iproute, and util-linux packages; for example, here is an excerpt from the /sbin directory:

$ for path in sbin/* ; do echo $path '->' $(readlink $path); done
sbin/uuidd -> /gnu/store/xxx-util-linux-2.37.2/sbin/uuidd
sbin/vconfig -> /gnu/store/xxx-busybox-1.33.1/sbin/vconfig
sbin/vdpa -> /gnu/store/xxx-iproute2-5.15.0/sbin/vdpa

These directories of symlinks are sometimes called “symlink farms”. The union algorithm is implemented in the (guix build union) module like so, where the inputs are each package, and the output is the target union directory (such as the /gnu/store/...-profile directory in the example above):

  1. Sort the inputs.
  2. If a file only exists in one input, create a symlink in the output to the file in that input.
  3. If the file path exists in multiple inputs and is not a directory, print a warning and choose the first file.
  4. If the file exists in multiple inputs and is a directory, create an empty directory with the same name in the output, and repeat from step 2, relative to the new empty directory.

The guix subcommands maintain a chain of symlinks starting from ~/.guix-profile to one of these profile outputs, allowing you to add ~/.guix-profile/bin to your PATH variable. The guix package command, for example, simply links packages from the GNU store into your currently active profile.

This is great, and gives users the ability to freely compose different versions of packages within their own environment without affecting other users, and without root privileges. However, something about seeing so many symlinks irks me. I will fully admit that my sense of disgust is irrational and I should get over it. But here are the series of symlink walks needed to run, for example, the ip program at ~/.guix-profile/sbin/ip:

-> /var/guix/profiles/per-user/david/guix-profile
-> guix-profile-47-link
-> /gnu/store/j9amghbs5nk3gwj27r62gv56q6rh80k2-profile
-> /gnu/store/j9amghbs5nk3gwj27r62gv56q6rh80k2-profile/sbin/ip
-> /gnu/store/35lj2sn5p6wfd8h1j11hb2mcvria3cfl-iproute2-5.15.0/sbin/ip

I accept that symlinks solve a real problem and are very useful. But in my opinion, they are a wart, they required invasive changes to most unix utilities, and they allow for directory loops. Most of the problems that they solve would have been solved better by allowing processes to modify their mount namespaces, and providing a union meta-filesystem, as Plan 9 did in the 90s. They also require careful planning and definition to use with chroot. An absolute symlink to a path in /gnu/store requires /gnu/store to be present in the new root, and be mounted in the same place. The guix command provides a few subcommands and flags for running in a chroot environment that will handle this for you.

A less technical problem is that sometimes I don’t want a user, human or otherwise, know the “real” path to a file. I want /bin/sh, from the perspective of a user or process trapped in a given namespace, to just be /bin/sh, not a symbolic link, which the user can read the contents of, to /gnu/store/xxx-bash/bin/sh. Not so much for security reasons, but because I just don’t want an uninitiated user to get confused. I want a person to be able to use a guix-managed system without realizing it, because it looks just like any other system, except perhaps that more directories are read-only than they’re used to.

Fortunately, many ideas from Plan 9 are available in Linux today, including mount namespaces and a union file system implementation in the form of overlayfs. When compared to their Plan 9 counterparts, they are harder to use, less general, and there is more ceremony and privilege required for their use. However, I believe these are surmountable problems.

Proposed semantics

First I started with a vision of what I wanted to accomplish; I want to write in a file, my-namespace.scm, something like this:

  ;; bind mount host paths into this new namespace
  (bind (list "/var/" "/dev/" "/proc/"))

  ;; bind this path to the output of a G-expression
  (bind "/etc/hosts" #~#$(plain-file "hosts" " localhost\n"))
  (bind "/etc/resolv.conf" #~#$(local-file "./resolvconf-file"))

  ;; merge the output of these packages
  (bind "/"
    (list bird iproute busybox util-linux)))

More formally, if root is the new root of the namespace:

When the same path is mounted more than once, an overlay mount is performed instead, with the first binding taking higher precedence in the event of collisions.

I could then run guix build -f my-namespace.scm, and the resulting output directory in the GNU store would contain a directory structure and supporting programs for building the described mount namespace and executing a new process inside of it. A mount namespace is a run-time kernel resource that zero or more processes may share; it is different from symbolic links, which are stored in the file system and available to everyone. The only way to “persist” a namespace across reboots is to persist a program constructing said namespace, and get that program to run automatically.

Development environment

I’m not sure this work would or should ever make into the GUIX project, so for now, I maintain my own guix channel which lets me define my own modules and packages. I’ve checked this repository out to my workstation, and I followed the instructions in its README to add the channel to my ~/.config/guix/channels.scm file, so that guix subcommands can access the modules defined within it. For guix to see a file in my channel, that file must be committed to the repository, and that commit must be signed with my GPG signature.

I do not want to commit every little change I make just to test if it works. Luckily, guix subcommands have a --load-path=DIR flag, allowing me to load files from an existing directory. I want to have a quick feedback loop while developing this, so I start first with a test, creating tests/namespace.scm in my guix-channel repository:

(define-module (test-namespace)
  #:use-module (srfi srfi-64)
  #:use-module (aqwari namespace))

This expression creates a module called test-namespace, which depends on two other modules, whose public symbols will be available in the body of this module. The first module is the unit test module srfi/srfi-64. Scheme is a very minimal language, but there is a repository of interfaces called “Scheme Requests for Implementation” or SRFI for short, describing libraries for common tasks like list manipulation, string processing, records, and so on. Guile scheme comes with implementations for a large swath of finalized SRFIs, along with its own set of libraries under the ice-9 prefix.

The second #:use-module argument loads aqwari/namespace.scm, which is where I will put the implementation of the (namespace ...) expression I envisioned above. It doesn’t exist, yet.

(test-begin "namespace")

(define simple-ns
    (bind "/var")
    (bind "/dev")))

(test-assert (namespace? simple-ns))

In this series of expressions, I define a test that constructs a namespace with bindings from “/var” to “./var” and “/dev” to “./dev”. I plan for this expression to create a record, and my module will export the function namespace? which is true if a value has that record type.

I can then run the test from the root of my guix channel like so:

$ guix repl -L $(pwd) -- tests/namespace.scm

It currently fails with the error:

no code for module (aqwari namespace)

which is expected. I setup a loop so that this test will run whenever I make a change to the aqwari/ directory. I use the Acme text editor, with the Watch command to trigger the tests whenever I save a file with the Put command. You may do something similar in a terminal with the inotifywait command like so:

inotifywait -e modify -m -q aqwari | \
    xargs -n 1 guix repl -L . -- tests/namespace.scm

On to the implementation!

Developing the namespace syntax

The way I plan to implement this feature is to define a <namespace> record type, containing a list of records resembling fstab(5) entries. Then I will use the define-gexp-compiler syntax to define a function that converts a record of this type into a directory structure and a helper program that builds the mount namespace and executes into it.

Similarly to the test, I start aqwari/namespace.scm with a define-module expression:

(define-module (aqwari namespace)
  #:use-module (ice-9 match)
  #:use-module (srfi srfi-9)

An addition here is the use of the #:export keyword argument, which defines the list of public symbols available to other modules that import this one. The (ice-9 match) module provides syntax for pattern matching. You will see it in action below. I learned about pattern matching from Ocaml, and I find it to be a very useful tool that generally leads to clearer code and better error messages. The (srfi srfi-9) module provides records, data types with named fields.

(define-record-type <namespace>
  (make-namespace mounts)
  (mounts namespace-mounts))

This defines a new record type, <namespace>, with a single field, mounts. The constructor make-namespace creates new values of this type. The mounts field, accessed with the function namespace-mounts, will have a list of file systems to mount.

I want to start by creating the (namespace ...) syntax, which I sketched out earlier. This high-level expression will be converted into an expression that ultimately calls the make-namespace constructor to create a <namespace> record. In scheme, new syntax is defined using a syntax-rules expression, so I will start with that.

(define-syntax namespace
  (syntax-rules ()
    ((namespace expr ...)
     (make-namespace '() '()))))

This converts any expresion of the form (namespace ...), where expr ... matches zero or more arbitrary expressions, to the expression (make-namespace '() '()), which will create an empty namespace. With this, the test starts passing:

%%%% Starting test namespace
Group begin: namespace
Test begin:
  test-name: #<procedure %namespace?-procedure (a)>
  source-file: "tests/namespace.scm"
  source-line: 15
  source-form: (test-assert (namespace? simple-ns))
Test end:
  result-kind: pass
  actual-value: #t

However, recall that simple-ns in the unit test defined a binding for the “/var” directory, but the current code just creates an empty namespace. The tests need an addition.

(test-assert (not (nil? (namespace-mounts simple-ns))))

Now the test is failing again, as desired. Going back to the namespace syntax, sometimes it can be difficult to write macros because it can be easy to get confused about what your output should look like. It’s important to remember that macros are transforming code from one form to another. A macro is just manipulating a tree of symbols, and can’t make any determination about what those symbols mean. So the namespace macro takes a series of (bind args ...) expressions and converts them to an expression that, when evaluated, constructs the equivalent <namespace> record.

(define-syntax namespace-args
  (syntax-rules (bind)
    ((namespace-args ()) '())

    ((namespace-args ((bind args ...) . rest))
     (cons (bind->mount args ...) (namespace-args rest)))))

(define-syntax-rule (namespace . args)
  (make-namespace (namespace-args args)))

The namespace-arg macro is a recursive macro which converts an expression like

  (bind "/var/")
  (bind "/dev/"))

to this:

(cons (bind->mount "/var/")
  (cons (bind->mount "/dev/")

if you have any experience with lisp, you know (cons x (cons y '())) is equivalent to (list x y). The namespace macro then just passes the list to the make-namespace constructor. I haven’t shown bind->mount yet. Here it is:

(define bind->mount
    (((? string? target) (? string? source))
     (make-bind-mount target source))

    (((? string? target) (? gexp? source))
     (make-bind-mount target source))

    (((? string? target) (? package? pkg))
     (make-bind-mount target (gexp (ungexp pkg))))

    (((? string? target))
     (make-bind-mount target target))))

I left out the list cases to keep it brief. You might have guessed, but make-bind-mount is a constructor for a record type, <bind-mount>.

(define-record-type <bind-mount>
  (make-bind-mount target source)
  (target bind-mount-target)
  (source bind-mount-source))

There is also <overlay-mount>:

(define-record-type <overlay-mount>
  (make-overlay-mount target lowerdir upperdir workdir)
  (target   overlay-mount-target)   ;; dir to mount on
  (lowerdir overlay-mount-lowerdir) ;; ordered list of dirs
  (upperdir overlay-mount-upperdir) ;; single writable dir
  (workdir  overlay-mount-workdir)) ;; writable merge dir

I will expand on in a bit.

Layering definitions

To enable code sharing between namespace specifications I added a simple include statement to the (namespace-args) macro:

((namespace-args ((include ns) . rest))
 (append (namespace-mounts ns) (namespace-args rest)))

This allows definitions such as

(define base-ns
    (bind '("/etc/resolv.conf" "/etc/nsswitch.conf" "/etc/gai.conf"))
    (bind '("/etc/passwd" "/etc/group" "/etc/services"))))

(define app1-ns
  (include base-ns)
  (bind "/" my-app1-package))

(define app2-ns
  (include base-ns)
  (bind "/" my-app2-package))

which allows me to share some code between namespace definitions. I defined a %namespace-minimal variable which contains essential files like resolv.conf, SSL certificates, the time zone database, and so on.

Merging mountpoints

When the same mountpoint is bound multiple times, I want the files in all sources to be visible under the mountpoint. The overlay filesystem, available in the stock Linux kernel, allows for this. So, given the raw list of mountpoints produced by a (namespace ...) expression, I want a function that produces a new list with multiple mounts to the same mountpoint replaced with a single overlay mount.

(define (collapse-mounts mounts)
  ;; The order of bindings to the same mountpoint is significant,
  ;; so stable sort is a requirement.
  (let loop ((args (stable-sort mounts compare-mountpoints)))
    (match args
      ('() '())

      ((($ <overlay-mount> mnt lower upper work)
        ($ <bind-mount>    mnt source) . rest)
       (let ((stack (append lower (list source))))
             (make-overlay-mount mnt stack upper work)

      ((($ <bind-mount> mnt dir1)
        ($ <bind-mount> mnt dir2) . rest)
           (make-overlay-mount mnt (list dir1 dir2) #f #f)

      (((= mount-file mnt) (= mount-file mnt) . rest)
       (error "don't know how to combine ~a" (take args 2)))

      ((fs . rest) (cons fs (loop rest))))))

A subtle detail that you may overlook is the re-use of the identifier mnt in the match cases, like:

      ((($ <bind-mount> mnt dir1)
        ($ <bind-mount> mnt dir2) . rest)

The syntax ($ <record-name> field1 field2 field3 ...) allows for pattern matching on records. In the example above, because mnt is used in both cases, this pattern only matches mounts that have the same target. The initial sorting of mounts ensures that mounts for the same mountpoints are adjacent, and the use of a stable sort preserves the input ordering of mounts for the same mountpoint.

“Lowering” a namespace

When you run a command like guix build hello, the guix command spawned by your shell will find the definition of the hello package in one of the configured channels. It has a definition like this, which, similar to the (namespace ...) expression, evaluates to a <package> record:

  (name "hello")
  (source ...)
  (build-system gnu-build-system)
  (license gpl3+)
  ... more fields ...))

The guix command loads this high-level description, and converts it into a lower-level representation called a derivation. A derivation is, more or less, a list of inputs and outputs, plus a builder that will build the output from the inputs. Each of the inputs, outputs, and builders are themselves derivations. The guix-daemon service, which actually runs builds in sandboxed environments and puts outputs in the GNU store, understands derivations.

In the parlance of the Guix manual, the process of translating a high-level object like a package record to a derivation is called “lowering” and is briefly described in the G-expressions section of the manual. The (guix gexp) module provides a define-gexp-compiler syntax that allows me to convert the high-level <namespace> record into a derivation.

Before I do that, I’ll revisit what I want the output to look like. Remember that a namespace is part of the state of running process(es). Some tools like lxc and docker exist to deserialize descriptions of namespaces onto a group of running processes, but namespaces are still fundamentally a run-time concept, rather than a build-time one. So I am not building a namespace; I’m building a directory structure and startup script that can be executed to instantiate a namespace.

The directory structure will look something like this:

+ /gnu/store/...-namespace
  - exec
  + root
    - /var
    - /dev

The root directory will be the new root (/) directory of the mount namespace, pre-populated with mountpoints for directories specified in (bind ...) directives. exec is an executable that, when run, will create a new, anonymous mount and network namespace, mount any directories described by (bind ...) directives in the (namespace ...) specification, and allocate any network links described by (link ...) directives. it will then use the pivot_root(2) system call to change the root directory to root, and call execv(2) to execute into its command-line argument. You should be able to do something like

$ exec $(guix build -f my-namespace.scm) /bin/sh

To replace your existing shell process with a new sh shell running in the mount namespace described by my-namespace.scm. Of course, that namespace must contain a /bin/sh executable.

The exec program is a statically-compiled C program. While I prototyped this program in bash, and then execline, I want exec to have no dependencies, and work in any environment, regardless of what is in the PATH environment variable, or what dynamic libraries are or are not visible currently located. This allows the exec program to work from another mount namespace. The static executable also produced less noisy strace output which was a benefit while debugging it.

The C program is here. It assumes the existence of global variables root and fstab, and the definition of a struct fstab with parameters for mount(2) calls. During the build process, I pipe these structs and variables to the C compiler as a header file with the -include flag. The C program took a lot of trial and error to write. One issue I encountered almost immediately after getting what looked like reasonable strace output was an error like this:

execv(/bin/sh): No such file or directory

You may think this means that I messed up the mounts, and /bin/sh didn’t exist in the new namespace. But it did! What was actually going on is evident once you inspect busybox’s /bin/sh:

$ file $(guix build busybox)/bin/sh
/gnu/store/...-busybox-1.33.1/bin/sh: symbolic link to busybox
$ ldd $(guix build busybox)/bin/sh (0x00007ffd3e504000) => /gnu/store/...-glibc-2.33/lib/ (0x00007f83ec62b000) => /gnu/store/...-glibc-2.33/lib/ (0x00007f83ec612000) => /gnu/store/...-glibc-2.33/lib/ (0x00007f83ec450000)
    /gnu/store/...-glibc-2.33/lib/ (0x00007f83ec76e000)

The busybox program is dynamically linked to files in the GNU store, which wasn’t mounted in the new namespace. Because almost all guix binaries are dynamically linked, there are very few useful namespaces I can produce without /gnu/store present, and I decided to unconditionally add it to all mount namespaces.

With the current state of the repo, I can run something like this:

sudo PATH=/bin:/sbin $(guix build -f my-namespace.scm)/exec /bin/sh
/ # findmnt
TARGET                       SOURCE                             FSTYPE  OPTIONS
/                            overlay                            overlay ro,relat
|-/dev                       dev                                devtmpf rw,nosui
| |-/dev/shm                 tmpfs                              tmpfs   rw,nosui
| |-/dev/pts                 devpts                             devpts  rw,nosui
| |-/dev/hugepages           hugetlbfs                          hugetlb rw,relat
| `-/dev/mqueue              mqueue                             mqueue  rw,nosui
|-/etc/gai.conf              /dev/nvme0n1p2[/etc/gai.conf]      ext4    rw,relat
|-/etc/group                 /dev/nvme0n1p2[/etc/group]         ext4    rw,relat
|-/etc/nsswitch.conf         /dev/nvme0n1p2[/etc/nsswitch.conf] ext4    rw,relat
|-/etc/passwd                /dev/nvme0n1p2[/etc/passwd]        ext4    rw,relat
|-/etc/resolv.conf           /dev/nvme0n1p2[/etc/resolv.conf]   ext4    rw,relat
|-/etc/services              /dev/nvme0n1p2[/etc/services]      ext4    rw,relat
|-/proc                      proc                               proc    rw,nosui
| `-/proc/sys/fs/binfmt_misc systemd-1                          autofs  rw,relat
|   `-/proc/sys/fs/binfmt_misc
|                            binfmt_misc                        binfmt_ rw,nosui
`-/gnu/store                 /dev/mapper/sata-gnustore[/store]  xfs     ro,relat
/ #

I have left out how I make read-write unions if a tmpfs is bound to a union directory, and some other hairy details. The exec C program is fairly readable, but finding the correct incantations took some careful reading of the man pages. If you want to see all the gory bits, check the repo

There are a few open problems and areas for improvement.

Overlay limitations

On my machine, which is running a 5.17 kernel, the overlayfs driver defines the constant:

#define OVL_MAX_STACK 500

This is the maximum number of lowerdir parameters allowed. 500 may sound like a lot, and I think most useful profiles could fit within that limit, but if I add runtime dependencies, the union mounts could balloon in size.

Runtime dependencies

Building a namespace such as

  (bind "/" (list s6)))

Will put binaries like s6-svscan in /bin. However, it will not put binaries from the execline package in /bin, even though they are required at run-time for some functionality of binaries in s6. A binding should include all run-time dependencies as well.

The <package> record defines a propagated-inputs field, described thus:

propagated-inputs is similar to inputs, but the specified packages will be automatically installed to profiles (see the role of profiles in Guix) alongside the package they belong to (see guix package, for information on how guix package deals with propagated inputs).

It was fairly easy to extend the bind->mount routine to add propagated inputs of a package to the mount set. However, this does not cover the case of dynamic libraries, which are needed at run-time. But that point is moot, because I can’t move the dynamic libraries anyway.

Dynamic linking

If I resolved the runtime dependency issue above, dynamically-linked executables would still force me to include the /gnu/store directory in the new namespace. It would be a much more fundamental change, but it’s an interesting thought exercise; what if guix (and nix before it) did not use tools like patchelf and did not scan all files it built for shebang lines to rewrite, and manipulated union mounts instead? If mount namespaces were treated as first-class objects, and you could modify and transition between them as easily as you can transition between guix profiles today, how much of guix internals could be simplified? Would the end-user experience be simplified?

Being realistic, I think once one started adding dynamic libraries to the mount namespace, the limit of 500 directories gets really small, really fast. It could be worked around by taking advantage of the fact that collisions are unlikely, allowing us to move the mountpoints lower in the directory hierarchy. But at that point, is the complexity worth it?


As you can see in the examples, in a default Linux installation, mount namespaces can only be created by a privileged user. There is a kernel parameter to allow unprivileged users to do this, but there are security drawbacks; once a user has the ability to change what a name like /etc/sudoers or /etc/shadow points to, they have the ability to trick setuid-root programs like mount or sudo and compromise the system security.

I would lean towards addressing the problems that make unprivileged mount namespaces insecure. It should be possible to build or modify a linux distribution so it does not require setuid root programs. Moreover, it should be possible to de-claw root, and remove much of root’s privilege, making it just another user that happens to have the uid 0, granting privilege as needed to a few trusted system daemons using the capability. Some functionality could be replaced with local services that can run in their own, controlled environment, outside of user-controlled mount namespaces.

Similarly, I could expose a helper for the exec binary that constructs the mount namespaces on behalf of the user. This does not really avoid the security concerns, as any user can add a namespace description to the GNU store.

Another layer of protection would be to run exec in a user namespace. It’s probably the more realistic approach, since the other approaches involve undoing years of conventions. However, I hesitate to do it, because if possible I’d like to build a set of orthogonal utilities for manipulating pid, net, user and mount namespaces, and I don’t want to merge the tools for mount and user namespaces. Still, I’m open to it, but more research is needed.

Transitioning between namespaces

It is trivial to modify a guix profile or switch to a new one – you are just updating a symlink. It is not so clear how one could transition from one mount namespace to the next, or modify the existing namespace.

If one assumes all files are mounted from /gnu/store, then the current mount namespace can be modified with mount(2) system calls. However, privilege issues aside, you would not have visiblity to mount sources outside of your namespace. Any child processes you spawned could also prevent the namespace from being cleaned up.

For interactive use, it seems like a downgrade over symlinks. For now I would stick to using this for processes that live and die in one namespace.


Currently GUIX runs on Linux systems and GNU Hurd. Assuming the rest of guix is ported to another operating system, for a <namespace> to be usable on that OS it would need:

That may disqualify operating systems that could be made to run Guix otherwise. However, OpenBSD and FreeBSD, at least, tick all the boxes.

Parting thoughts

This was a fun experiment, and the end result is useful enough for me to continue on with it. My plan is to use this work, perhaps together with guix pack to deploy process trees managed by the s6 supervision suite, that will run build servers, game servers, file servers, irc bots, and whatever else I want to deploy, at home and in the cloud.

I found the Guix code base to be approachable. I was already familiar with Scheme, having worked with Chez scheme and DrScheme (which grew into Racket) in college. There are a wealth of examples in the Guix code base that I was able to study that helped me with building the macro and the builder code. One task I wavered on was how to transfer data between the “host-side” code and “build-side” code; I had to think about different types of quotation and it took awhile to get used to it.

Sometimes the error messages were terse or unhelpful. I didn’t always get stack traces when I wanted them. For debugging the build-side code, I found the following process helpful; given an error, such as

% guix build -f my-ns.scm -L $(pwd)
substitute: updating substitutes from ''... 100.0%
The following derivation will be built:
building /gnu/store/xqi08dsq7gv8wk536gw77w3z2k5fgcs7-namespace.drv...
           7 (primitive-load "/gnu/store/26h4rv6dmq4jmnxfdifa2cg8acy?")
In ice-9/eval.scm:
    619:8  6 (_ #(#(#(#<directory (guile-user) 7fffeffcfc80>) "?") ?))
    163:9  5 (_ #(#(#<directory (guile-user) 7fffeffcfc80>) #<outp?>))
    159:9  4 (_ #(#(#<directory (guile-user) 7fffeffcfc80>) #<outp?>))
In srfi/srfi-1.scm:
   608:16  3 (map #<procedure 7fffeec01e20 at ice-9/eval.scm:383:13?> ?)
   460:18  2 (fold #<procedure 7fffefb65310 at srfi/srfi-1.scm:608:?> ?)
   609:38  1 (_ ",\n" 12)
In unknown file:
           0 (length+ ",\n")

ERROR: In procedure length+:
In procedure length+: Wrong type argument in position 1 (expecting proper or circular list): ",\n"
builder for `/gnu/store/xqi08dsq7gv8wk536gw77w3z2k5fgcs7-namespace.drv' failed with exit code 1
build of /gnu/store/xqi08dsq7gv8wk536gw77w3z2k5fgcs7-namespace.drv failed
View build log at '/var/log/guix/drvs/xq/i08dsq7gv8wk536gw77w3z2k5fgcs7-namespace.drv.bz2'.
guix build: error: build of `/gnu/store/xqi08dsq7gv8wk536gw77w3z2k5fgcs7-namespace.drv' failed

At first it seems inscrutable as it’s given you positions in a generated file rather than the file that generated it. But you can find the generated file by looking at the derivation, which is visible on this line:

build of /gnu/store/xqi08dsq7gv8wk536gw77w3z2k5fgcs7-namespace.drv failed

If you open that file, it looks something like this:

  [ ... list of outputs ... ],
  [ ... list of inputs ... ],
   [ ... command-line flags ... ],
  [ ... outputs again ... ])

The file ending in -builder contains the generated builder program, with all the substitutions already performed. It is all on one line, so I used guile scheme’s ,pp helper to pretty-print it:

> ,pp (quote (program ...))

And then I could read the code. Usually this made the error obvious, and if it didn’t, a few print statements got me the rest of the way there.