Table of Contents
This chapter is about how free software projects package and release their software, and how overall development patterns organize around those goals.
A major difference between open source projects and proprietary ones is the lack of centralized control over the development team. When a new release is being prepared, this difference is especially stark: if a single corporation manages the entire development team, it can ask them to focus on an upcoming release, putting aside new feature development and non-critical bug fixing until the release is done. But open source developer communities are rarely so monolithic. People work on the project for all sorts of reasons, and those not interested in helping with a given release still want to continue regular development work while the release is going on. Because development doesn't stop, open source release processes tend to take longer, but be less disruptive, than commercial release processes.
It's a bit like highway repair. There are two ways to fix a road: you can shut it down completely, so that a repair crew can swarm all over it at full capacity until the problem is solved, or you can work on a couple of lanes at a time, while leaving the others open to traffic. The first way is very efficient for the repair crew, but not for anyone else — the road is entirely shut down until the job is done. The second way involves much more time and trouble for the repair crew (now they have to work with fewer people and less equipment, in cramped conditions, with flaggers to slow and direct traffic, etc.), but at least the road remains useable, albeit not at full capacity.
Open source projects tend to work the second way. In fact, for a mature piece of software with several different release lines being maintained simultaneously, the project is sort of in a permanent state of minor road repair. There are always a couple of lanes closed; a consistent but low level of background inconvenience is always being tolerated by the development group as a whole, so that releases get made on a regular schedule.
The model that makes this possible generalizes to more than just releases. It's the principle of parallelizing tasks that are not mutually interdependent — a principle that is by no means unique to open source development, of course, but one which open source projects implement in their own particular way. They cannot afford to annoy either the roadwork crew or the regular traffic too much, but they also cannot afford to have people dedicated to standing by the orange cones and flagging traffic along. Thus they gravitate toward processes that have flat, constant levels of administrative overhead, rather than peaks and valleys. Developers are generally willing to work with small but consistent amounts of inconvenience; the predictability allows them to come and go without worrying about whether their schedule will clash with what's happening in the project. But if the project were subject to a master schedule in which some activities excluded other activities, the result would be a lot of developers sitting idle a lot of the time — which would be not only inefficient but boring, and therefore dangerous, in that a bored developer is likely to soon be an ex-developer.
Release work is usually the most noticeable non-development task that happens in parallel with development, so the methods described in the following sections are geared mostly toward enabling releases. However, note that they also apply to other parallelizable tasks, such as translations and internationalization, broad API changes made gradually across the entire codebase, etc.
Before we talk about how to make a release, let's look at how to name releases, which requires knowing what releases actually mean to users. A release means that:
Some old bugs have been fixed. This is probably the one thing users can count on being true of every release.
New bugs have been added. This too can usually be counted on, except sometimes in the case of security releases or other one-offs (see the section called “Security Releases”).
New features may have been added.
New configuration options may have been added, or the meanings of old options may have changed subtly. The installation or upgrade procedures may have changed slightly since the last release too.
Incompatible changes may have been introduced, for example such that the data formats used by older versions of the software are no longer useable without undergoing some sort of (possibly manual) one-way conversion step.
As you can see, not all of these are good things. This is why experienced users approach new releases with some trepidation, especially when the software is mature and was already mostly doing what they wanted (or thought they wanted). Even the arrival of new features is a mixed blessing, in that it may mean the software will now behave in unexpected ways.
The purpose of release numbering, therefore, is twofold: obviously the numbers should unambiguously communicate the ordering of releases within a given series (i.e., by looking at the numbers of any two releases in the same series, one can know which came later), but also they should indicate as compactly as possible the degree and nature of the changes in each release.
All that in a number? Well, more or less, yes. Release numbering strategies are one of the oldest bikeshed discussions around (see the section called “The Smaller the Topic, the Longer the Debate”), and the world is unlikely to settle on a single, complete standard anytime soon. However, a few good strategies have emerged, along with one universally agreed-on principle: be consistent. Pick a numbering scheme, document it, and stick with it. Your users will thank you.
This section describes the usual conventions of release numbering in detail, and assumes very little prior knowledge. It is intended mainly as a reference. If you're already familiar with these conventions, you can skip this section.
Release numbers are groups of digits separated by dots:
...and so on. The dots are not decimal points, they are merely separators; "5.3.9" would be followed by "5.3.10". A few projects have occasionally hinted otherwise, most famously the Linux kernel with its "0.95", "0.96"... "0.99" sequence leading up to Linux 1.0, but the convention that the dots are not decimal points is now firmly established and should be considered a standard. There is no limit to the number of components (digit portions containing no dots), but most projects do not go beyond three or four. The reasons why will become clear later.
In addition to the numeric components, projects sometimes tack on a descriptive label such as "Alpha" or "Beta" (see Alpha and Beta), for example:
Scanley 2.3.0 (Alpha)
Singer 5.11.4 (Beta)
An Alpha or Beta qualifier means that this release precedes a future release that will have the same number without the qualifier. Thus, "2.3.0 (Alpha)" leads eventually to "2.3.0". In order to allow several such candidate releases in a row, the qualifiers themselves can have meta-qualifiers. For example, here is a series of releases in the order that they would be made available to the public:
Scanley 2.3.0 (Alpha 1)
Scanley 2.3.0 (Alpha 2)
Scanley 2.3.0 (Beta 1)
Scanley 2.3.0 (Beta 2)
Scanley 2.3.0 (Beta 3)
Notice that when it has the "Alpha" qualifier, Scanley "2.3" is written as "2.3.0". The two numbers are equivalent — trailing all-zero components can always be dropped for brevity — but when a qualifier is present, brevity is out the window anyway, so one might as well go for completeness instead.
Other qualifiers in semi-regular use include "Stable", "Unstable", "Development", and "RC" (for "Release Candidate"). The most widely used ones are still "Alpha" and "Beta", with "RC" running a close third place, but note that "RC" always includes a numeric meta-qualifier. That is, you don't release "Scanley 2.3.0 (RC)", you release "Scanley 2.3.0 (RC 1)", followed by RC2, etc.
Those three labels, "Alpha", "Beta", and "RC", are pretty widely known now, and I don't recommend using any of the others, even though the others might at first glance seem like better choices because they are normal words, not jargon. But people who install software from releases are already familiar with the big three, and there's no reason to do things gratuitously differently from the way everyone else does them.
Although the dots in release numbers are not decimal points, they do indicate place-value significance. All "0.X.Y" releases precede "1.0" (which is equivalent to "1.0.0", of course). "3.14.158" immediately precedes "3.14.159", and non-immediately precedes "3.14.160" as well as "3.15.anything", and so.
A consistent release numbering policy enables a user to look at two release numbers for the same piece of software and tell, just from the numbers, the important differences between those two releases. In a typical three-component system, the first component is the major number, the second is the minor number, and the third is the micro number (sometimes also called the "patch" number). For example, release "2.10.17" is the eighteenth micro release (or patch release) in the eleventh minor release line within the second major release series. The words "line" and "series" are used informally here, but they mean what one would expect: a major series is simply all the releases that share the same major number, and a minor series (or minor line) consists of all the releases that share the same minor and major number. That is, "2.4.0" and "3.4.1" are not in the same minor series, even though they both have "4" for their minor number; on the other hand, "2.4.0" and "2.4.2" are in the same minor line, though they are not adjacent if "2.4.1" was released between them.
The meanings of these numbers themselves are also roughly what you'd expect: an increment of the major number indicates that major changes happened; an increment of the minor number indicates minor changes; and an increment of the micro number indicates really trivial changes. Some projects add a fourth component, usually called the patch number, for especially fine-grained control over the differences between their releases (confusingly, other projects use "patch" as a synonym for "micro" in a three-component system, as mentioned earlier). There are also projects that use the last component as a build number, incremented every time the software is built and representing no change other than that build. This helps the project link every bug report with a specific build, and is probably most useful when binary packages are the default method of distribution.
Although there are many different conventions for how many components to use, and what the components mean, the differences tend to be minor — you get a little leeway, but not a lot. The next two sections discuss some of the most widely used conventions.
Most projects have rules about what kinds of changes are allowed into a release if one is only incrementing the micro number, different rules for the minor number, and still different ones for the major number. Here I will describe a policy that has been used successfully by multiple projects. You may want to just adopt this policy in your own project, but even if you don't, it's still a good example of the kind of information release numbers should convey. This policy is now formalized as Semantic Versioning at http://semver.org/.
Changes to the micro number only (that is, changes within the same minor line) must be both forward- and backward-compatible. The changes should be bug fixes only, or very small enhancements to existing features. New features should not be introduced in a micro release.
Changes to the minor number (that is, within the same major line) must be backward-compatible, but not necessarily forward-compatible. It's normal to introduce new features in a minor release, but usually not too many new features at once.
Changes to the major number mark compatibility boundaries. A new major release can be forward- and backward-incompatible. A major release is expected to have new features, and may even have entire new feature sets.
What backward-compatible and forward-compatible mean, exactly, depends on what your software does, but in context they are usually not open to much interpretation. For example, if your project is a client/server application, then "backward-compatible" means that upgrading the server to 2.6.0 should not cause any existing 2.5.4 clients to lose functionality or behave differently than they did before (except for bugs that were fixed, of course). On the other hand, upgrading one of those clients to 2.6.0, along with the server, might make new functionality available for that client, functionality that 2.5.4 clients don't know how to take advantage of. If that happens, then the upgrade is not "forward-compatible": clearly you can't now downgrade that client back to 2.5.4 and keep all the functionality it had at 2.6.0, since some of that functionality was new in 2.6.0.
This is why micro releases are essentially for bug fixes only. They must remain compatible in both directions: if you upgrade from 2.5.3 to 2.5.4, then change your mind and downgrade back to 2.5.3, no functionality should be lost. Of course, the bugs fixed in 2.5.4 would reappear after the downgrade, but you wouldn't lose any features, except insofar as the restored bugs interfere with the use of some existing features.
Client/server protocols are just one of many possible compatibility domains. Another is data formats: does the software write data to permanent storage? If so, the formats it reads and writes need to follow the compatibility guidelines promised by the release number policy. Version 2.6.0 needs to be able to read the files written by 2.5.4, but may silently upgrade the format to something that 2.5.4 cannot read, because the ability to downgrade is not required across a minor number boundary. If your project distributes code libraries for other programs to use, then APIs are a compatibility domain too: you must make sure that source and binary compatibility rules are spelled out in such a way that the informed user need never wonder whether or not it's safe to upgrade in place. She should be able to look at the numbers and know instantly.
In this system, you don't get a chance for a fresh start until you increment the major number. This can often be a real inconvenience: there may be features you wish to add, or protocols that you wish to redesign, that simply cannot be done while maintaining compatibility. There's no magic solution to this, except to try to design things in an extensible way in the first place (a topic easily worth its own book, and certainly outside the scope of this one). But publishing a release compatibility policy, and adhering to it, is an inescapable part of distributing software. One nasty surprise can alienate a lot of users. The policy just described is good partly because it's already quite widespread, but also because it's easy to explain and to remember, even for those not already familiar with it.
It is generally understood that these rules do not apply to pre-1.0 releases (although your release policy should probably state so explicitly, just to be clear). A project that is still in initial development can release 0.1, 0.2, 0.3, and so on in sequence, until it's ready for 1.0, and the differences between those releases can be arbitrarily large. Micro numbers in pre-1.0 releases are optional. Depending on the nature of your project and the differences between the releases, you might find it useful to have 0.1.0, 0.1.1, etc., or you might not. Conventions for pre-1.0 release numbers are fairly loose, mainly because people understand that strict compatibility constraints would hamper early development too much, and because early adopters tend to be forgiving anyway.
Remember that all these injunctions only apply to this particular three-component system. Your project could easily come up with a different three-component system, or even decide it doesn't need such fine granularity and use a two-component system instead. The important thing is to decide early, publish exactly what the components mean, and stick to it.
Some projects use the parity of the minor number component to indicate the stability of the software: even means stable, odd means unstable. This applies only to the minor number, not the major or micro numbers. Increments in the micro number still indicate bug fixes (no new features), and increments in the major number still indicate big changes, new feature sets, etc.
The advantage of the even/odd system, which has been used by the Linux kernel project among others, is that it offers a way to release new functionality for testing without subjecting production users to potentially unstable code. People can see from the numbers that "2.4.21" is okay to install on their live web server, but that "2.5.1" should probably stay confined to experimental servers. The development team handles the bug reports that come in from the unstable (odd-minor-numbered) series, and when things start to settle down after some number of micro releases in that series, they increment the minor number (thus making it even), reset the micro number back to "0", and release a presumably stable package.
This system preserves, or at least does not conflict with, the compatibility guidelines given earlier. It simply overloads the minor number with some extra information. This forces the minor number to be incremented about twice as often as would otherwise be necessary, but there's no real harm in that. The even/odd system is probably best for projects that have very long release cycles, and which by their nature have a high proportion of conservative users who value stability above new features. It is not the only way to get new functionality tested in the wild, however. In the section called “Stabilizing a Release” we will examine another, perhaps more common, method of releasing potentially unstable code to the public, in which the release number is further marked so that people have a clear picture of the risk/benefit trade-offs immediately on seeing the release's name.
 Not seventeenth and tenth, because numbering starts from 0, not 1 in the minor and micro components.
 Except that the semver.org standard apparently does not include the forward-compatibility requirement for increments in the micro (patch) number.
 Though Linux no longer uses it; see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linux_kernel#History.