What’s involved in maintaining a package?

An interesting question was asked on a MeeGo mailing list recently: What does it mean to be a maintainer of something? How much time does it take to maintain software? It resulted in a short discussion which went down a few back alleys, and I think has some useful general information for people working with projects like MeeGo, which are part software development, part distribution.

Are you maintaining software, or a package?

The first question is whether you are asking about maintaining something in the Debian sense, or the GNOME sense?

A Debian package maintainer:

  • Tracks upstream development, and ensures new releases of software are packaged and uploaded in a timely manner
  • Work with distribution users and other maintainers to identify bugs and integration issues
  • Ensure bugs and feature requests against upstream software are reported upstream, and bugs fixed upstream are propagated to the distribution packages
  • Fix any packaging related issues, and maintain any distribution-specific patches which have not (yet) been accepted or released upstream

A GNOME project maintainer:

  • Makes regular releases of the software they maintain (typically a .tar.gz with “./configure; make; make install” to build)
  • Are the primary guardians of the roadmap for the module, and sets the priorities for the project
  • Works with packagers, documenters, translators and other contributors to the software to ensure clear communication of release schedules and  priorities
  • Acts as a central point of contact for release planning, bug reports and patch review and integration
  • A typical maintainer is also the primary developer of the software in question, but this is not necessarily the case

Obviously, these two jobs are very different. One places a high priority on coding & communication, another on integration, testing, and communication.

So how much time does maintaining software take?

Well, how long is a piece of string?

To give opposite extremes as examples: Donald Knuth probably spends a median time of 0 hours per week maintaining TeX and Metafont. On the other hand, Linux Torvalds has worked full time maintaining the Linux kernel for at least the past 15 years, and has been increasingly delegating large chunks of maintenance to lieutenants. The maintenance of the Linux kernel is a full time job for perhaps dozens of people.

On a typical piece of GNOME software (let’s take Brasero as an example) much of the work is simplified by following the GNOME release schedule – the schedule codifies string freezes and interface freezes to simplify the co-ordination of translation and documentation. In addition, outside of translation commits, Brasero has had contributions from its maintainer, Philippe Rouquier, and 6 other developers in the last 3 months. Most of these changes are related to the upcoming GTK+ 3 API changes, and involve members of the GTK+ 3 team helping projects migrate.

In total since the 2.32.0 release, there have been 55 commits relating to translations, 50 commits from Philippe, 9 from Luis Medina, co-maintainer of the module, and there were 4 commits by other developers. Of Philippe’s 50 commits, 14 were related to release management or packaging (“Update NEWS file”), 5 were committing patches by other developers that had gone through a review process, and the remainder were features, bug fixes or related to the move to the new GTK+. Of Luis’s commits, 2 were packaging related, and 2 were committing patches by other developers.

This is a lot of detail, but the point I am making is that the “maintenance” part of the work is relatively small, and that the bigger part of maintenance is actually sending out the announcements, paying attention to bug reports and performing timely patch review. I would be interested to know how much time Philippe has spent working on Brasero over the past release cycle. I would guess that he has spent a few hours (somewhere between 5 and 10) a week.

On the other hand, the Debian maintainer for the Brasero package has a different job. There are 6 bugs currently forwarded upstream from the Debian bug tracker, and another 35 or so awaiting some final determination. A number of these look like packaging bugs (“you need version X of dependency Y installed”). The last release packaged and uploaded was 2.30.3-2, dating from November, and there have been 4 releases packaged in the past 8 months, none by the maintainer.

A typical Debian maintainer is a “Debian developer” for several packages. Pedro Fragoso, the Debian maintainer of Brasero, maintains 5 packages. I think it is fair to say that the amount of time a package maintainer spends maintaining an individual package is quite low, unless it is extremely popular. Perhaps a few hours a month. But the package maintainer has little or no say (beyond interacting with the project maintainer and forwarding on bug reports & feature requests) in what happens upstream, or which features have a high priority.

What’s in a word?

It’s clear that a package maintainer is not the same thing as a project maintainer. So when Sivan asked on the MeeGo developer list how he could become a maintainer, he clarified later to say that what he was really asking was “How can I affect change in MeeGo?” To do that, you need to write some code that changes a module, or a number of modules, and then you need to get that code into MeeGo.

How that happens, in all its gory details, is the next instalment in this series of at least 2 articles: The Lifecycle of a Patch (or: Working Upstream).


  • Upstream: The place where the thing you package comes from. For example, Ubuntu’s upstream for gedit is gnome.org
  • Downstream: Any distributors who take what you release and re-package it before redistributing
  • Distribution: A collection of software packages that are organised into a product, with integration testing

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