Debugging Electron to run shell scripts in a packaged application

TL;DR: This article discusses a file permissions error on Electron that can affect spawning, and an upstream fix for it

I’ve been working on Etcher, a cross-platform Electron application to flash OS images.

In Windows, the maximum length of a file path is 260 characters. To work around this limitation, Electron encourages developers to package their applications for distribution using a tar-like format called asar.

For asars to work, Electron patches some functions from the Node.js API to treat an asar package as a virtual directory. One of the patched functions is child_process.execFile, which when called on a file inside an asar archive, will extract the file into a temporary location and execute it from there.

Etcher makes use of an npm module called drivelist to list the connected drives. This module executes some shell scripts using child_process.execFile, and parses back the results.

We get the following mysterious error as soon as we package the application inside an asar and try running drivelist:

Error: spawn EACCES

The problem is that asar discards execution permissions from the files it archives. For example:

# Install the command line utility tool
$ npm install -g asar

# Create a directory containing an executable file
$ mkdir asar_test
$ touch asar_test/foo
$ chmod 755 asar_test/foo

# Check that the file has execution permissions for the everyone
$ ls -l asar_test/foo
-rwxr-xr-x  1 jviotti  staff  0 Nov 26 21:54 asar_test/foo*

# Pack the directory and extract the resulting archive
$ asar pack asar_test app.asar
$ asar extract app.asar output

# The file indeed lost its execution permissions
$ ls -l output/foo
-rw-r--r--  1 jviotti  staff  0 Nov 26 21:57 asar_test/foo

By looking closer at asar, we can see that it stores a serialized 8 bytes JSON header at the beginning of the archive that indexes the files and directories stored in the archive along with boolean executable properties, which are set to true if the files have execution permissions at the point where the archive was created:

if process.platform isnt 'win32' and stat.mode & 0o100
     node.executable = true

We can fix this by consulting the executable property using the stat method provided by asar as part of the child_process.execFile Electron function, and adding the execution permission using fs.chmod after the file is extracted into a temporary location.

See the following pull request that implements this fix:

After the above fix, the application runs flawlessly on UNIX based operating systems, however, we get a new error on Windows:

Error: spawn UNKNOWN

By taking another closer look at Electron and asar, we can see that Electron extracts files out of the archive appending a generic .tmp extension. This comes from Chromium’s CreateTemporaryFile utility, which makes use of GetTempFileName from the Windows API, which according to the docs:

The GetTempFileName function creates a temporary file name of the following form:


Windows fails with an UNKNOWN error as it doesn’t know how to execute a .tmp file. The solution is to append the file extension when extracting files out of the asar, to we get a .bat extension after .tmp.

See the following pull request that implements this fix: