Martin Michlmayr
Martin Michlmayr

I'm a member of Debian, and I work for HP as an Open Source Community Expert. The opinions expressed here are mine.

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Quality Improvement in Free Software: Release Management

As I'm nearing the completion of my PhD, I'm starting to write about the findings from my research. The aim of my PhD is to investigate quality improvement in free software projects. After some exploratory studies about quality in free software, I decided to focus on release management as one problematic area in which improvement is possible. My approach is to study the development process of projects and to investigate ways how these processes can be improved. The hope is that such improvements will lead to increased levels of quality in the software produced by free software projects.

With regard to release management, I'm focusing especially on large and complex projects, in which hundreds of volunteers need to be coordinated during release preparations. I've been looking particularly at time based release management since my exploratory studies have shown that there is significant interest in this release management strategy. The main question of my research is how and why time based release management works for large free software projects.

In my first series of postings, I will introduce the seven free software projects I have studied in depth during my research. For each project, I will briefly summarize what problems the project faced in the past, what changes they have implemented to address these problems, and what outstanding problems they still have.

Projects: Debian | GCC | GNOME | Linux kernel | OpenOffice.org | Plone | X.org

Tue, 13 Mar 2007; 22:22 — phdpermanent link

Debian

The aim of Debian is to integrate software produced by other projects to create a complete operating system based on free software. In recent years, the project has faced increasingly delayed and unpredictable releases. Most notably, the release process of Debian 3.1 was characterized by major delays. Initially announced for December 1, 2003, the software was finally released in June 2005: a delay of one and a half years. Since then, the project has made a number of improvements to its release process.

VersionDateMonths
1.11996-06-17
1.21996-12-126
1.31997-06-026
2.01998-07-2414
2.11999-03-097
2.22000-08-1417
3.02002-07-1923
3.12005-06-0635

Past Problems

Solutions

Outstanding problems

Wed, 14 Mar 2007; 09:42 — phdpermanent link

GCC

The GNU Compiler Collection (GCC) is a compiler suite which supports a number of programming languages, such as C and C++. It is a very important development tool and is the standard compiler among free software projects. GCC was quite stagnant in the middle of the 1990s until the EGCS project formed. EGCS took over development of the official GCC in October 1998 and instituted rigorous processes, such as high levels of peer review, and created a steering committee which has the power to appoint maintainers and make important decisions. In theory, the project follows a time based release with an interval of six months. In practice, the project has released only one new version every year in recent times.

VersionDateMonths
3.02001-06-18
3.12002-05-1511
3.22002-08-143
3.32003-05-139
3.4.02004-04-1811
4.0.02005-04-2012
4.1.02006-02-2810

Past problems

Solutions

Outstanding problems

Wed, 14 Mar 2007; 15:41 — phdpermanent link

GNOME

GNOME provides a complete desktop environment that is easy to use. The project experienced major problems, such as delays, during its 1.x series and in particular during the preparation of its 2.0 release. GNOME introduced time based releases after its 2.0 release and has significantly improved release management. The project has published time based releases every six months for a number of years now and is considered as the reference model for a good implementation of time based release management. They have shown that it's possible to set and meet deadlines in volunteer projects and to release on time.

VersionDateMonths
1.01999-03-03
1.22000-05-2515
1.42001-04-0210
2.02002-06-2715
2.22003-02-067
2.42003-09-117
2.62004-03-317
2.82004-09-156
2.102005-03-096
2.122005-09-076
2.142006-03-156
2.162006-09-066
2.182007-03-146

Past problems

Solutions

Outstanding problems

Thu, 15 Mar 2007; 08:21 — phdpermanent link

Linux kernel

The Linux kernel project has seen major changes to its development and release strategy in the last few years, in particular since the first stable release of the 2.6 series in December 2003. This series was opened almost three years after the 2.4 series in January 2001, which many felt was too long. A problem that resulted from the long interval between major releases was that vendors had to back- and forward-port a lot of patches. Nowadays, major development happens on the 2.6 series and new releases are published every three to four months. This new development model has faced much controversy. While some people, in particular developers of the kernel, claim that the new model is working very well, some users are worried about the number of significant changes and lack of stability in the kernel. Andrew Morton, a lead developer, has expressed several times that he believes the kernel is getting buggier.

VersionDateMonths
1.01994-03-14
1.21995-03-0712
2.01996-06-0915
2.21999-01-2531
2.42001-01-0423
2.62003-12-1735

Past problems

Solutions

Outstanding problems

Thu, 15 Mar 2007; 16:31 — phdpermanent link

OpenOffice.org

OpenOffice.org is an office suite offering various integrated applications, such as a word processor and a spreadsheet. Originally developed by StarDivision, StarOffice was acquired by Sun who released it as free software as OpenOffice.org in July 2000. While Sun still maintains fairly tight control over the development of OpenOffice.org, many other vendors, in particular Novell, are important contributors to the project. The project had a fairly long release cycle of about 18 months to accommodate StarOffice, the commercial product from Sun. There were many delays, making it hard for vendors to decide which version to include. OpenOffice.org moved to a three month release cycle after their long-delayed 2.0 release, published 26 months after 1.1. The new release cycle is viewed as a positive development by contributors who get their features and fixes out to users faster. Nevertheless, at the end of 2006 a discussion took place in which a six month interval was suggested. Apparently users didn't want new features every three months and the short interval between releases put a lot of pressure on the QA team.

VersionDateMonths
1.02002-05-01
1.12003-09-0216
2.02005-10-2026
2.0.12005-12-212
2.0.22006-03-083
2.0.32006-06-294
2.0.42006-10-133
2.1.02006-12-122

Past problems

Solutions

Outstanding problems

Fri, 16 Mar 2007; 08:44 — phdpermanent link

Plone

Plone is a content management system that is built on the powerful Zope application server. The project experienced many delays with its 2.1 release. This made it difficult for Plone consultants to choose whether to use the old release or wait for the new one, and users faced many upgrade issues when 2.1 was finally released and had many changes. Partly to address these problems and partly in order to sync their releases with Zope, they decided in 2005 to move to a six month time based release cycle.

VersionDateMonths
1.02003-02-06
2.02004-03-2313
2.12005-09-0617
2.52006-06-169

Past problems

Solutions

Outstanding problems

Fri, 16 Mar 2007; 19:52 — phdpermanent link

X.org

In previous times, most Linux distributions and other free software projects relied on the XFree86 system. Over the years, the structures within the XFree86 project became were rigid and the project failed to innovate and keep up with the pace of the wider free software community. When XFree86 changed its license in February 2004, the active community and the majority of vendors quickly moved to X.org. X.org is a very active community and they decided to break up the monolithic code base and to adopt a more modern build system. As of X.org 7.0, the project moved to the modular system in which components are developed and released separately. Effectively, the project introduced a development mechanism which features two release mechanisms: individual components can be released as needed and there is an overall release of X.org in which all stable components are put together. These roll-up releases take place every six months.

VersionDateMonths
7.02005-12-21
7.12006-05-225
7.22007-02-159

Past problems

Solutions

Outstanding problems

Sat, 17 Mar 2007; 11:49 — phdpermanent link

Links

Here are a number of links to various postings and other information related to my research about release management in free software projects:

Sat, 28 Apr 2007; 11:30 — phdpermanent link