Bugzilla and the Future of Firefox Development

January 16, 2015 at 10:50 AM | categories: MozReview, Bugzilla, Mozilla, code review | View Comments

Bugzilla has played a major role in the Firefox development process for over 15 years. With upcoming changes to how code changes to Firefox are submitted and reviewed, I think it is time to revisit the central role of Bugzilla and bugs in the Firefox development process. I know this is a contentious thing to say. Please, gather your breath, and calmly read on as I explain why I believe this.

The current Firefox change process defaults to requiring a Bugzilla bug for everything. It is rare (and from my experience frowned upon) when a commit to Firefox doesn't reference a bug number. We've essentially made Bugzilla and a bug prerequisites for changing anything in the Firefox version control repository. For the remainder of this post, I'm going to say that we require a bug for any change, even though that statement isn't technically accurate. Also, when I say Bugzilla, I mean bugzilla.mozilla.org, not the generic project.

Before I go on, let's boil the Firefox change process down to basics.

At the heart of any change to the Firefox source repository is a diff. The diff (a representation of the differences between a set of files) is the smallest piece of data necessary to represent a change to the Firefox code. I argue that anything more than the vanilla diff is overhead and could contribute to process debt. Now, there is some essential overhead. Version control tools supplement diffs with metadata, such as the author, commit message, and date. Mozilla has also instituted a near-mandatory code review policy, where changes need to be signed off by a set of trusted individuals. I view both of these additions to the vanilla diff as essential for Firefox development and non-negotiable. Therefore, the bare minimum requirements for changing Firefox code are a diff plus metadata (a commit/patch) and (almost always) a review/sign-off. That's it. Notably absent from this list is a Bugzilla bug. I argue that a bug is not strictly required to change Firefox. Instead, we've instituted a near-universal policy that we should have bugs. We've chosen to add overhead and process debt - interaction with Bugzilla - to our Firefox change process.

Now, this choice to require all changes be associated with bugs has its merits. Bugs provide excellent anchor points for historical context and for additional information after the change has been committed and is forever set in stone in the repository (commits are immutable in Mercurial and Git and you can't easily attach metadata to the commit after the fact). Bugs are great to track relationships between different problems or units of work. Bugs can even be used to track progress towards a large feature. Bugzilla components also provide a decent mechanism to follow related activity. There's also a lot of tooling and familiar process standing on top of the Bugzilla platform. There's a lot to love here and I don't want diminish the importance of all these things.

When I look to the future, I see a world where the current, central role of Bugzilla and bugs as part of the Firefox change process begin to wane. I see a world where the benefits to maintaining our current Bugzilla-centric workflow start to erode and the cost of maintaining it becomes higher and harder to justify. You actually don't have to look too far into the future: that world is already here and I've already started to feel the pains of it.

A few days ago, I blogged about GitHub and its code first approach to change. That post was spun off from an early draft of this post (as were the posts about Firefox contribution debt and utilizing GitHub for Firefox development). I wanted to introduce the concept of code first because it is central to my justification for changing how we do things. In summary, code first capitalizes on the fact that any change to software involves code and therefore puts code front and center in the change process. (In hindsight, I probably should have used the term code centric, because that's how I want people to think about things.) So how does code first relate to Bugzilla and Firefox development?

Historically, code review has occurred in Bugzilla: upload a patch to Bugzilla, ask for review, and someone will look at it. And, since practically every change to Firefox requires review, you need a bug in Bugzilla to contain that review. Thus, one way to view a bug is as a vehicle for code review. Not every bug is just a code review, of course. But a good number of them are.

The only constant is change. And the way Mozilla conducts code review for changes to Firefox (and other projects) is changing. We now have MozReview, a code review tool that is not Bugzilla. If we start accepting GitHub pull requests, we may perform reviews exclusively on GitHub, another tool that is not Bugzilla.

(Before I go on, I want to quickly point out that MozReview is nowhere close to its final form. Parts of MozReview are pretty bad right now. The maintainers all know this and we have plans to fix it. We'll be in Toronto all of next week working on it. If you don't think you'll ever use it because parts are bad today, I ask you to withhold judgement for a few more months.)

In case you were wondering, the question on whether Bugzilla should always be used for code review for Firefox has been answered and that answer is no. People, including maintainers of Bugzilla, realized that better-than-Splinter/Bugzilla code review tools exist and that continuing to invest time to develop Bugzilla/Splinter into a best-in-class code review tool would be better spent integrating Bugzilla with an existing tool. This is why we now have a Review Board based code review tool - MozReview - integrated with Bugzilla. If you care about code quality and more powerful workflows, you should be rejoicing at this because the implementation of code review in Bugzilla does not maximize optimal outcomes.

The world we're moving to is one where code review occurs outside of Bugzilla. This raises an important question: if Bugzilla was being used primarily as a vehicle for code review, what benefit and/or role should Bugzilla play when code review is conducted outside of Bugzilla?

I posit that there are a class of bugs that won't need to exist going forward because bugs will provide little to no value. Put another way, I believe that a growing number of commits to the Firefox repository won't reference bugs.

Come with me on a journey to the future.

MozReview is purposefully being designed in a code and repository centric way. To initiate the formal process for considering a change to code, you push to a Mercurial (or Git!) repository. This could be directly to Mozilla's review repository. If I have my way, this could even be kicked off by submitting a pull request on GitHub or Bitbucket. No Bugzilla attachment uploading here: our systems talk in terms of repositories and commits. Again, this is by design: we don't want submitting code to Mozilla to be any harder than hg push or git push so as to not introduce process debt. If you have code, you'll be able to send it to us.

In the near future, MozReview will stop cross-posting detailed review updates to Bugzilla. Instead, we'll use Review Board's e-mail feature to send its flavor of emails. These will have rich HTML content (or plain text if you insist) and will provide a better experience than Bugzilla ever will. We'll adopt the model of tools like Phabricator and GitHub and only post summaries or links of activity, not full content, to bugs. You may be familiar with the concept as applied to the web: it's called hyperlinking.

Work is being invested into Autoland. Autoland is an automated landing queue that pushes/lands commits semi-automatically once they are ready (have review, pass automation, etc). Think of Autoland as a bot that does all the labor intensive and menial actions around pushing that you do now. I believe Autoland will eventually handle near 100% of pushes to the Firefox repository. And, if I have my way, Autoland will result in the abolishment of integration branches and merge commits in the Firefox repository. Good riddance.

MozReview and Autoland will be highly integrated. MozReview will be the primary user interface for interacting with Autoland. (Some of this should be in place by the end of the quarter.)

In this world, MozReview and its underlying version control repositories essentially become a database of all submitted, pending, and discarded commits to Firefox. The metaphorical primary keys of this database are not bug numbers: they are code/commits. (Code first!) Some of the flags stored in this database tell Autoland what it should do. And the MozReview user interface (and API) provide a mechanism into controlling those flags.

Landing a change in Firefox will be initiated by a simple action such as clicking a checkbox in MozReview. (That could even be the Grant Review checkbox.) Commits cleared for landing will be picked up by Autoland and eventually automatically pushed to the Firefox repository (assuming the build and test automation is happy, of course). Once Autoland takes control, humans are just passengers. We won't be bothered with menial tasks like updating the commit message to reflect a review was performed: this will happen automatically inside MozReview or Autoland. (Although, there's a chance we may adopt some PGP-based signing to more strongly convey review for some code changes in order to facilitate stronger auditing and trust guarantees. Stay tuned.) Likewise, if a commit becomes associated with a bug, we can add that metadata to the commit before it is landed, no human involvement necessary beyond specifying the link in the MozReview web UI (or API). Autoland/MozReview will close review requests and/or bugs automatically. (Are you excited about performing less work yet?)

When commits are added to MozReview, MozReview will read metadata from the repository they came from to automatically determine an appropriate reviewer. (We plan to leverage moz.build files for this in the case of Firefox.) This should eliminate a lot of process debt around choosing a reviewer. Similar metadata will also be used to determine what Bugzilla component a change is related to, static analysis rules to use to critique the phsyical structure of the change, and even automation jobs that should be executed given the set of files that changed. The use of this metadata will erode significant process debt around the change contribution workflow.

As commits are pushed into MozReview/Autoland, the systems will be intelligent about automatically tracking dependencies and facilitating complex development workflows that people run into on a daily basis.

If I create a commit on top of someone else's commit that hasn't been checked in yet, MozReview will detect the dependency between my changes and the parent ones. This is an advantage of being code first: by interfacing with repositories rather than patch files, you have an explicit dependency graph embedded in the repository commit DAG that can be used to aid machines in their activities.

It will also be possible to partially land a series of commits. If I get review on the first 5 of 10 commits but things stall on commit 6, I can ask Autoland to land the already-reviewed commits so they don't get bit rotted and so you have partial progress (psychological studies show that a partial reward for work results in greater happiness through a sense of accomplishment).

Since initiating actions in MozReview is light weight (just hg push), itch scratching is encouraged. I don't know about you, but in the course of working on the Firefox code base, I frequently find myself wanting to make small, 15-30s changes to fix something really minor. In today's world, the overhead for these small changes is often high. I need to upload a separate patch to Bugzilla. Sometimes I even need to create a new bug to hold that patch. If that patch depends on other work I did, I need to set up bug dependencies then worry about landing everything in the right order. All of a sudden, the overhead isn't worth it and my positive intentions go unacted on. Multiplied by hundreds of developers over many years, and you can imagine the effect on software quality. With MozReview, the overhead for itch scratching like this is minor. Just make a small commit, push, and the system will sort everything out. (These small commits are where I think a bugless process really shines.)

This future world revolves around code and commits and operations on them. While MozReview has review in its name, it's more than a review tool: it's a database and interface to code and its state.

In this code first world, Bugzilla performs an ancillary role. Bugzilla is still there. Bugs are still there. MozReview review requests and commits link to bugs. But it is the code, not bugs, that are king. If you want to do anything with code, you interact with the code tools. And Bugzilla is not one of them.

Another way of looking at this is that nearly everything involving code or commits becomes excised from Bugzilla. This would relegate Bugzilla to, well, an issue/bug tracker. And - ta da - that's something it excels at since that's what it was originally designed to do! MozReview will provide an adequate platform to discuss code (a platform that Bugzilla provides today since it hosts code review). So if not Bugzilla tools are handling everything related to code, do you really need a bug any more?

This is the future we're trying to build with MozReview and Autoland. And this is why I think bugs and Bugzilla will play a less central role in the development process of Firefox in the future.

Yes, there are many consequences and concerns about making this shift. You would be rational to be skeptical and doubt that this is the right thing to do. I have another post in the works that attempts to outline some common conerns and propose solutions to many of them. Before writing a long comment pointing out every way in which this will fail to work, I encourage you to wait for that post to be published. Stay tuned.

blog comments powered by Disqus