The value of engagement

Mal Minhas of the LiMo Foundation announced and presented a white paper at OSiM World called “Mobile Open Source Economic Analysis” (PDF link). Mal argues that by forking off a version of a free software component to adjust it to your needs, run intensive QA, and ship it in a device (a process which can take up to 2 years), you are leaving money on the table, by way of what he calls “unleveraged potential” – you don’t benefit from all of the features and bug fixes which have gone into the software since you forked off it.

While this is true, it is also not the whole story. Trying to build a rock-solid software platform on shifting sands is not easy. Many projects do not commit to regular stable releases of their software. In the not too distant past, the video codecs produced by the MPlayer project, universally shipped in Linux distributions, had never had a stable or unstable release. The GIMP went from version 1.2.0 in December 1999 to 2.0.0 in March 2004 in unstable mode, with only bug-fix releases on the 1.2 series.

In these circumstances, getting both the stability your customers need, and the latest & greatest features, is not easy. Time-based releases, pioneered by the GNOME project in 2001, and now almost universally followed by major free software projects, mitigate this. They give you periodic sync points where you can get software which meets a certain standard of feature stability and robustness. But no software release is bug-free, and this is true for both free and proprietary software. In the Mythical Man-Month, Fred Brooks described the difficulties of system integration, and estimated that 25% of the time in a project would be spent integrating and testing relationships between components which had already been planned, written and debugged. Building a system or a Linux distribution, then, takes a lot longer than just throwing the latest stable version of every project together and hoping it all works.

By participating actively in the QA process of the project leading up to the release, and by maintaining automated test suites and continuous integration, you can mitigate the effects of both the shifting sands of unstable development versions and reduce the integration overhead once you have a stable release.At some stage, you must draw a line in the sand, and start preparing for a release. In the GNOME project, we have a progressive freezing of modules, progressively freezing the API & ABI of the platform, the features to be included in existing modules, new module proposals, strings and user interface changes, before finally we have a complete code freeze pre-release. Similarly, distributors decide early what versions of components they will include on their platforms, and while occasional slippages may be tolerated, moving to a newmajor version of a major component of the platform would cause integration testing to return more or less to zero – the overhead is enormous.

The difficulty, then, is what to do once this line is drawn. Serious bugs will be fixed in the stable branch, and they can be merged into your platform easily. But what about features you develop to solve problems specific to your device? Typically, free software projects expect new features to be built and tested on the unstable branch, but you are building your platform on the stable version. You have three choices at this point, none pleasant – never merge, merge later, or merge now:

  • Develop the feature you want on your copy of the stable branch, resulting in a delta which will be unique to your code-base, which you will have to maintain separately forever. In addition, if you want to benefit from the features and bug fixes added to later versions of the component, you will incur the cost of merging your changes into the latest version, a non-negigible amount of time.
  • Once you have released your product and your team has more time, propose the features you have worked on piecemeal to the upstream project, for inclusion in the next stable version. This solution has many issues:
    • If the period is long enough, your feature additions will be long removed from the codebase as it has evolved, and merging your changes into the latest unstable tree will be a major task
    • You may be redundantly solving problems that the community has already addressed, in a different or incompatible way.
    • Feature requests may need substantial re-writing to meet community standards. This problem is doubly so if you have not consulted the community before developing the feature, to see how it might best be integrated.
    • In the worst case, you may have built a lot of software on an API which is only present in your copy of the component’s source tree, and if your features are rejected, you are stuck maintaining the component, or re-writing substantial amounts of code to work with upstream.
  • Develop your feature on the unstable branch of the project, submit it for inclusion (with the overhead that implies), and back-port the feature to your stable branch once included. This guarantees a smaller delta from the next stable version to your branch, and ensures you work gets upstream as soon as possible, but adds a time & labour overhead to the creation of your software platform

In all of these situations there is a cost. The time & effort of developing software within the community and back-porting, the maintenance cost (and related unleveraged potential) to maintaining your own branch of a major component, and the huge cost of integrating a large delta back to the community-maintained version many months after the code has been written.

Intuitively, it feels like the long-term cheapest solution is to develop, where possible, features in the community-maintained unstable branch, and back-port them to your stable tree when you are finished. While this might be nice in an ideal world, feature proposals have taken literally years to get to the point where they have been accepted into the Linux kernel, and you have a product to ship – sometimes the only choice you have is to maintain the feature yourself out-of-tree, as Robert Love did for over a year with inotify.

While addressing the raw value of the code produced by the community in the interim, Mal does not quantify the costs associated with these options. Indeed, it is difficult to do so. In some cases, there is not only a cost in terms of time & effort, but also in terms of goodwill and standing of your engineers within the community – this is the type of cost which it is very hard to put a dollar value on. I would like to see a way to do so, though, and I think that it would be possible to quantify, for example, the community overhead (as a mean) by looking at the average time for patch acceptance and/or number of lines modified from intial proposal to final mainline merge.

Anyone have any other thoughts on ways you could measure the cost of maintaining a big diff, or the cost of merging a lot of code?

6 Responses to “The value of engagement”

  1. Pingback from Safe as Milk » Blog Archive » The value of engagement:

    [...] (Reposted from Neary Consulting) [...]

  2. Pingback from Dave Neary: The value of engagement | Full-Linux.com:

    [...] (Reposted from Neary Consulting) [...]

  3. Pingback from LiMo white paper: Mobile open source economic analysis | Open Source Pixels:

    [...] The LiMo Foundation has published an interesting white paper [PDF] on the economic value of working with the development community. “The cost of forking and losing connection with upstream development is twofold: i) the corresponding cost of presumed beneficial unleveraged potential, ii) the further cost of having to re-engineer modified forked code in the future to accommodate the inevitable eventual re-sync with upstream. We quantified the former to show that the figures run into $millions for important components such as GTK, WebKit, GStreamer and BlueZ.” (By way of Dave Neary). [...]

  4. Pingback from LiMo white paper: Mobile open source economic analysis | Full-Linux.com:

    [...] The LiMo Foundation has published an interesting white paper [PDF] on the economic value of working with the development community. “The cost of forking and losing connection with upstream development is twofold: i) the corresponding cost of presumed beneficial unleveraged potential, ii) the further cost of having to re-engineer modified forked code in the future to accommodate the inevitable eventual re-sync with upstream. We quantified the former to show that the figures run into $millions for important components such as GTK, WebKit, GStreamer and BlueZ.” (By way of Dave Neary). [...]

  5. Pingback from Safe as Milk » Blog Archive » Estimating merge costs:

    [...] commenting on Mal Minhas’s “cost of non-participation” paper (PDF), I’ve been thinking [...]

  6. Pingback from Dave Neary: Estimating merge costs | Full-Linux.com:

    [...] commenting on Mal Minhas’s “cost of non-participation” paper (PDF), I’ve been thinking about the cost [...]

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