Bug Tracker

Bug tracking is a broad topic, and various aspects of it are discussed throughout this book. Here I'll concentrate mainly on the features your project should look for in a bug tracker, and how to use them. But to get to those, we have to start with a policy question: exactly what kind of information should be kept in a bug tracker anyway?

The term bug tracker is misleading. Bug tracking systems are used to track not only bug reports, but new feature requests, one-time tasks, unsolicited patches — really anything that has distinct beginning and end states, with optional transition states in between, and that accrues information over its lifetime. For this reason, bug trackers are also called issue trackers, ticket trackers, defect trackers, artifact trackers, request trackers, etc.

In this book, I'll generally use the word ticket to refer the items in the tracker's database, because that distinguishes between the behavior that the user encountered or proposed — that is, the bug or feature itself — and the tracker's ongoing record of that discovery, diagnosis, discussion, and eventual resolution. But note that many projects use the word bug or issue to refer to both the ticket itself and to the underlying behavior or goal that the ticket is tracking. (Those usages are in fact more common than "ticket"; it's just that in this book we need to be able to make this distinction explicitly in a way that projects themselves usually don't.)

The classic ticket life cycle looks like this:

  1. Someone files the ticket. They provide a summary, an initial description (including a reproduction recipe, if applicable; see the section called “Treat Every User as a Potential Participant” for how to encourage good bug reports), and whatever other information the tracker asks for. The person who files the ticket may be totally unknown to the project — bug reports and feature requests are as likely to come from the user community as from the developers.

    Once filed, the ticket is in what's called an open state. Because no action has been taken yet, some trackers also label it as unverified and/or unstarted. It is not assigned to anyone; or, in some systems, it is assigned to a fake user to represent the lack of real assignation. At this point, it is in a holding area: the ticket has been recorded, but not yet integrated into the project's consciousness.

  2. Others read the ticket, add comments to it, and perhaps ask the original filer for clarification on some points.

  3. The bug gets reproduced. This may be the most important moment in its life cycle. Although the bug is not actually fixed yet, the fact that someone besides the original filer was able to make it happen proves that it is genuine, and, no less importantly, confirms to the original filer that they've contributed to the project by reporting a real bug. (This step and some of the others don't apply to feature proposals, task tickets, etc, of course. But most filings are for genuine bugs, so we'll focus on that here.)

  4. The bug gets diagnosed: its cause is identified, and if possible, the effort required to fix it is estimated. Make sure these things get recorded in the ticket; if the person who diagnosed the bug suddenly has to step away from it for a while, someone else should be able to pick up where she left off.

    In this stage, or sometimes in the previous one, a developer may "take ownership" of the ticket and assign it to herself (the section called “Distinguish Clearly Between Inquiry and Assignment” examines the assignment process in more detail). The ticket's priority may also be set at this stage. For example, if it is so important that it should delay the next release, that fact needs to be identified early, and the tracker should have some way of noting it.

  5. The ticket gets scheduled for resolution. Scheduling doesn't necessarily mean naming a date by which it will be fixed. Sometimes it just means deciding which future release (not necessarily the next one) the bug should be fixed by, or deciding that it need not block any particular release. Scheduling may also be dispensed with if the bug is quick to fix.

  6. The bug gets fixed (or the task completed, or the patch applied, or whatever). The change or set of changes that fixed it should be discoverable from the ticket. After this, the ticket is closed and/or marked as resolved.

There are some common variations on this life cycle. Often a ticket is closed very soon after being filed, because it turns out not to be a bug at all, but rather a misunderstanding on the part of the user. As a project acquires more users, more and more such invalid tickets will come in, and developers will close them with increasingly short-tempered responses. Try to guard against the latter tendency. It does no one any good, as the individual user in each case is not responsible for all the previous invalid tickets; the statistical trend is visible only from the developers' point of view, not from the user's. (In the section called “Pre-Filtering the Bug Tracker” we'll look at techniques for reducing the number of invalid tickets.) Also, if different users are experiencing the same misunderstanding over and over, it might mean that some aspect of the software needs to be redesigned. This sort of pattern is easiest to notice when there is a dedicated issue manager monitoring the bug database; see the section called “Issue Manager”.

Another common life event for the ticket to be closed as a duplicate soon after Step 1. A duplicate is when someone reports something that's already known to the project. Duplicates are not confined to open tickets: it's possible for a bug to come back after having been fixed (this is known as a regression), in which case a reasonable course is to reopen the original ticket and close any new reports as duplicates of the original one. The bug tracking software keeps track of this relationship bidirectionally, so that reproduction information in the duplicates is available to the original ticket, and vice versa.

A third variation is for the developers to close the ticket, thinking they have fixed it, only to have the original reporter reject the fix and reopen it. This is usually because the developers simply don't have access to the environment necessary to reproduce the bug, or because they didn't test the fix using the exact same reproduction recipe as the reporter.

Aside from these variations, there may be other small details of the life cycle that vary depending on the tracking software. But the basic shape is the same, and while the life cycle itself is not specific to open source software, it has implications for how open source projects use their bug trackers.

The tracker is as much a public face of the project as the repository, mailing lists or web pages.[49] Anyone may file a ticket, anyone may look at a ticket, and anyone may browse the list of currently open tickets. It follows that you never know how many people are waiting to see progress on a given ticket. While the size and skill of the development community constrains the rate at which tickets can be resolved, the project should at least try to acknowledge each ticket the moment it appears. Even if the ticket lingers for a while, a response encourages the reporter to stay involved, because she feels that a human has registered what she has done (remember that filing a ticket usually involves more effort than, say, posting an email). Furthermore, once a ticket is seen by a developer, it enters the project's consciousness, in the sense that the developer can be on the lookout for other instances of the ticket, can talk about it with other developers, etc.

This centrality to the life of the project implies a few things about trackers' technical features:

Interaction with Email

Most trackers now have at least decent email integration features: at a minimum, the ability to create new tickets by email, the ability to "subscribe" to a ticket to receive emails about activity on that ticket, and the ability to add new comments to a ticket by email. Some trackers even allow one to manipulate ticket state (e.g., change the status field, the assignee, etc) by email, and for people who use the tracker a lot — such as an issue manager (see the section called “Issue Manager”) — that can make a huge difference in their ability to stay on top of tracker activity and keep things organized.

The tracker email feature that is likely to be used by everyone, though, is simply the ability to read a ticket's activity by email and respond by email. This is a valuable time-saver for many people in the project, since it makes it easy to integrate bug traffic into one's daily email flow. But don't let this integration give anyone the illusion that the total collection of bug tickets and their email traffic is the equivalent of the development mailing list. It's not, and the section called “Choose the Right Forum” discusses why this is important and how to manage the difference.

Pre-Filtering the Bug Tracker

Most ticket databases eventually suffer from the same problem: a crushing load of duplicate or invalid tickets filed by well-meaning but inexperienced or ill-informed users. The first step in combatting this trend is usually to put a prominent notice on the front page of the bug tracker, explaining how to tell if a bug is really a bug, how to search to see if it's already been reported, and finally, how to effectively report it if one still thinks it's a new bug.

This will reduce the noise level for a while, but as the number of users increases, the problem will eventually come back. No individual user can be blamed for it. Each one is just trying to contribute to the project's well-being, and even if their first bug report isn't helpful, you still want to encourage them to stay involved and file better tickets in the future. In the meantime, though, the project needs to keep the ticket database as free of junk as possible.

The two things that will do the most to prevent this problem are: making sure there are people watching the bug tracker who have enough knowledge to close tickets as invalid or duplicates the moment they come in, and requiring (or strongly encouraging) users to confirm their bugs with other people before filing them in the tracker.

The first technique seems to be used universally. Even projects with huge ticket databases (say, the Debian bug tracker at https://bugs.debian.org/, which contained 996,003 tickets as of this writing) still arrange things so that someone sees each ticket that comes in. It may be a different person depending on the category of the ticket. For example, the Debian project is a collection of software packages, so Debian automatically routes each ticket to the appropriate package maintainers. Of course, users can sometimes misidentify a ticket's category, with the result that the ticket is sent to the wrong person initially, who may then have to reroute it. However, the important thing is that the burden is still shared — whether the user guesses right or wrong when filing, ticket watching is still distributed more or less evenly among the developers, so each ticket is able to receive a timely response.

The second technique is less widespread, probably because it's harder to automate. The essential idea is that every new ticket gets "buddied" into the database. When a user thinks he's found a problem, he is asked to describe it on one of the mailing lists, or in a chat room, and get confirmation from someone that it is indeed a bug. Bringing in that second pair of eyes early can prevent a lot of spurious reports. Sometimes the second party is able to identify that the behavior is not a bug, or is fixed in recent releases. Or she may be familiar with the symptoms from a previous ticket, and can prevent a duplicate filing by pointing the user to the older ticket. Often it's enough just to ask the user "Did you search the bug tracker to see if it's already been reported?" Many people simply don't think of that, yet are happy to do the search once they know someone's expecting them to.

The buddy system can really keep the ticket database clean, but it has some disadvantages too. Many people will file solo anyway, either through not seeing or through disregarding the instructions to find a buddy for new tickets. Thus it is still necessary for some experienced participants to watch the ticket database. Furthermore, because most new reporters don't understand how difficult the task of maintaining the ticket database is, it's not fair to chide them too harshly for ignoring the guidelines. The watchers must be vigilant, yet exercise restraint in how they bounce unbuddied tickets back to their reporters. The goal is to train each reporter to use the buddying system in the future, so that there is an ever-growing pool of people who understand the ticket-filtering system. On seeing an unbuddied ticket, the ideal steps are:

  1. Immediately respond to the ticket, politely thanking the user for filing, but pointing them to the buddying guidelines (which should, of course, be prominently posted on the web site).

  2. If the ticket is clearly valid and not a duplicate, approve it anyway, and start it down the normal life cycle. After all, the reporter's now been informed about buddying, so there's no point closing a valid ticket and wasting the work done so far.

  3. Otherwise, if the ticket is not clearly valid, close it, but ask the reporter to reopen it if they get confirmation from a buddy. When they do, they should put a reference to the confirmation thread (e.g., a URL into the mailing list archives).

Remember that although this system will improve the signal/noise ratio in the ticket database over time, it will never completely stop the misfilings. The only way to prevent misfilings entirely is to close off the bug tracker to everyone but developers — a cure that is almost always worse than the disease. It's better to accept that cleaning out invalid tickets will always be part of the project's routine maintenance, and to try to get as many people as possible to help.

See also the section called “Issue Manager”.

[49] Indeed, as the section called “Evaluating Open Source Projects” discusses, the bug tracker is actually the first place to look, even before the repository, when you're trying to evaluate a project's overall health.

[50] For logged-in users whom the system already knows, these details are automatically filled in, of course.