Stabilizing a Release

Stabilization is the process of getting a release branch into a releasable state; that is, of deciding which changes will be in the release, which will not, and shaping the branch content accordingly.

There's a lot of potential grief contained in the word "deciding". The last-minute feature rush is a familiar phenomenon in collaborative software projects: as soon as developers see that a release is about to happen, they scramble to finish their current changes, in order not to miss the boat. This, of course, is the exact opposite of what you want at release time. It would be much better for people to work on features at a comfortable pace, and not worry too much about whether their changes make it into this release or the next one. The more changes one tries to cram into a release at the last minute, the less stable the code is and (usually) the more new bugs are created.

Most software engineers agree in theory on rough criteria for what changes should be allowed into a release line during its stabilization period. Obviously, fixes for severe bugs can go in, especially for bugs without workarounds. Documentation updates are fine, as are fixes to error messages (except when they are considered part of the interface and must remain stable). Many projects also allow certain kinds of low-risk or non-core changes to go in during stabilization, and may have formal guidelines for measuring risk. But no amount of formalization can obviate the need for human judgement. There will always be cases where the project simply has to make a decision about whether a given change can go into a release. The danger is that since each person wants to see their own favorite changes admitted into the release, then there will be plenty of people motivated to allow changes and not enough people motivated to resist them.

Thus, the process of stabilizing a release is mostly about creating mechanisms for saying "no". The trick for open source projects, in particular, is to come up with ways of saying "no" that won't result in too many hurt feelings or disappointed developers, and also won't prevent deserving changes from getting into the release. There are many different ways to do this. It's pretty easy to design systems that satisfy these criteria, once the team has focused on them as the important criteria. Here I'll briefly describe two of the most popular systems, at the extreme ends of the spectrum, but don't let that discourage your project from being creative. Plenty of other arrangements are possible; these are just two that I've seen work in practice.

Dictatorship by Release Owner

The group agrees to let one person be the release owner. This person has final say over what changes make it into the release. Of course, it is normal and expected for there to be discussions and arguments, but in the end the group must grant the release owner sufficient authority to make final decisions. For this system to work, it is necessary to choose someone with the technical competence to understand all the changes, and the social standing and people skills to navigate the discussions leading up to the release without causing too many hurt feelings.

A common pattern is for the release owner to say "I don't think there's anything wrong with this change, but we haven't had enough time to test it yet, so it shouldn't go into this release." It helps a lot if the release owner has broad technical knowledge of the project, and can give reasons why the change could be potentially destabilizing (for example, its interactions with other parts of the software, or portability concerns). People will sometimes ask for such decisions to be justified, or will argue that a change is not as risky as it looks. These conversations need not be confrontational, as long as the release owner is able to consider all the arguments objectively and not reflexively dig in her heels.

Note that the release owner need not be the same person as the project leader (in cases where there is a project leader at all; see the section called “Benevolent Dictators”). In fact, sometimes it's good to make sure they're not the same person. The skills that make a good development leader are not necessarily the same as those that make a good release owner. In something as important as the release process, it may be wise to have someone provide a counterbalance to the project leader's judgement. In that case, the project leader needs to remember that overriding a decision by the release owner will undermine the release owner's authority; that alone may be enough reason, in most situations, to let the release owner win when there is a disagreement.

Contrast the release owner role with the less dictatorial role described in the section called “Release Manager”.

Voting on Changes

At the opposite extreme from dictatorship by release owner, developers can simply vote on which changes to include in the release. However, since the most important function of release stabilization is to exclude changes, it's important to design the voting system in such a way that getting a change into the release involves positive action by multiple developers. Including a change should need more than just a simple majority (see the section called “Who Votes?”). Otherwise, one vote for and none against a given change would suffice to get it into the release, and an unfortunate dynamic would be set up whereby each developer would vote for her own changes, yet would be reluctant to vote against others' changes, for fear of possible retaliation. To avoid this, the system should be arranged such that subgroups of developers must act in cooperation to get any change into the release. This not only means that more people review each change, it also makes any individual developer less hesitant to vote against a change, because she knows that no particular one among those who voted for it would take her vote against as a personal affront. The greater the number of people involved, the more the discussion becomes about the change and less about the individuals.

The system used for many years in the Subversion project seems to have struck a good balance, so I'll recommend it here. In order for a change to be applied to the release branch, at least three developers must vote in favor of it, and none against. A single "no" vote is enough to stop the change from being included; that is, a "no" vote in a release context is equivalent to a veto (see the section called “Vetoes”). Naturally, any such vote must be accompanied by a justification, and in theory the veto could be overridden if enough people feel it is unreasonable and force a special vote over it. In practice, this never happens. People are conservative around releases anyway, and when someone feels strongly enough to veto the inclusion of a change, there's usually a good reason for it.

Because the release procedure is deliberately biased toward conservatism, the justifications offered for vetoes are sometimes procedural rather than technical. For example, a person may feel that a change is well-written and unlikely to cause any new bugs, but vote against its inclusion in a micro release simply because it's too big — perhaps it adds a new feature, or in some subtle way fails to fully follow the compatibility guidelines. I've occasionally even seen developers veto something because they simply had a gut feeling that the change needed more testing, even though they couldn't spot any bugs in it by inspection. People grumbled a little bit, but the vetoes stood and the change was not included in the release (I don't remember if any bugs were found in later testing or not, though).

Managing Collaborative Release Stabilization

If your project chooses a change-voting system for releases, the physical mechanics of setting up ballots and casting votes must be as convenient as possible. Although there is plenty of open source electronic voting software available, setting it up and using it is not worth the overhead. Instead, just do something easy and simple, such as putting a text file, called STATUS or VOTES or something like that, in the release branch. This file lists each proposed change — any developer can propose a change for inclusion — along with all the votes for and against it, plus any notes or comments. (Proposing a change doesn't necessarily mean voting for it, by the way, although the two often go together.) An entry in such a file might look like this:

* commit b31910a7180fc (issue #49)
  Prevent client/server handshake from happening twice.
    Avoids extra network turnaround; 
    small change and easy to review.
    Discussed in https://.../msg-7777.html
    and other messages in that thread.
    +1: jsmith, kimf
    -1: tmartin (breaks compatibility with some 
                 pre-1.0 servers; true, those 
                 servers are buggy, but why be
                 incompatible if we don't have to?)

In this case, the change acquired two positive votes, but was vetoed by tmartin, who gave the reason for the veto in a parenthetical note. The exact format of the entry doesn't matter; whatever your project settles on is fine — perhaps tmartin's explanation for the veto should go up in the "Notes:" section, or perhaps the change description should get a "Description:" header to match the other sections. The important things are that all the information needed to evaluate the change is easily accessible and that the mechanism for casting votes is as lightweight as possible. The proposed change is referred to by its revision number in the repository (in the above case a single commit, b31910a7180fc, although a proposed change could just as easily consist of multiple commits). The revision is assumed to refer to a change made on the main branch; if the change were already on the release branch, there would be no need to vote on it.[110]

Those proposing or voting for a change are responsible for making sure it applies cleanly to the release branch, that is, applies without conflicts (see conflict). If there are conflicts, then the entry should point to a temporary branch that holds an adjusted version of the change, for example:

* r13222, r13223, r13232
  Rewrite libsvn_fs_fs's auto-merge algorithm
    unacceptable performance (>50 minutes for a small commit) in
    a repository with 300,000 revisions
    +1: epg, ghudson

That example is taken from real life; it comes from the STATUS file for the Subversion 1.1.4 release process. Notice how it uses the original revisions as canonical handles on the change, even though there is also a branch with a conflict-adjusted version of the change (the branch also combines the three mainline revisions into one, r13517, to make it easier to merge the change into the release, should it get approval). The original revisions are provided because they're still the easiest entity to review, since they have the original log messages. The temporary branch wouldn't have those log messages. In order to avoid duplication of information (see the section called “Singularity of Information”), the branch's log message for r13517 should simply say "Adjust r13222, r13223, and r13232 for backport to 1.1.x branch." All other information about the changes can be chased down at their original revisions.

Release Manager

The actual process of merging (see merge or port) approved changes into the release branch can be performed by any developer. There does not need to be one person whose job it is to merge changes; if there are a lot of changes, it can be better to spread the burden around.

However, although both voting and merging happen in a decentralized fashion, in practice there are usually one or two people driving the release process. This role is sometimes formally blessed as release manager, but it is quite different from a release owner (see the section called “Dictatorship by Release Owner”) who has final say over the changes. Release managers keep track of how many changes are currently under consideration, how many have been approved, how many seem likely to be approved, etc. If they sense that important changes are not getting enough attention, and might be left out of the release for lack of votes, they will gently nag other developers to review and vote. When a batch of changes are approved, these people will often take it upon themselves to merge them into the release branch; it's fine if others leave that task to them, as long as everyone understands that the release managers are not obligated to do all the work unless they have explicitly committed to it. When the time comes to put the release out the door (see the section called “Testing and Releasing”), the release managers also take care of the logistics of creating the final release packages, collecting digital signatures, uploading the packages, and making the public announcement.

[108] While any release methology requires some degree of branch management, time-based releases imply that the development team must use a fairly strict gateway policy at all times. Development work must stay isolated from release branches until that work is truly ready to be shipped. Otherwise, unfinished code might be hard to extricate from the release branch when release time rolls around.)

[109] For an alternative approach, you may wish to read Martin Michlmayr's Ph.D. thesis Quality Improvement in Volunteer Free and Open Source Software Projects: Exploring the Impact of Release Management ( It is about using time-based release processes, as opposed to feature-based, in large free software projects. See also, by Martin Michlmayr, Francis Hunt, and David Probert. Finally, Michlmayr gave a talk at Google on the subject:

[110] For projects on a Git hosting platform, a "merge request" or "pull request" ID can be the way to uniquely identify a change.