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The Review Review

Posted on Sat 29 January 2022 in blog • 13 min read

I wanted to share a few thoughts on something I consider a rather important topic in our industry: code review and CI/CD tools, and how they relate.

This means that I'm talking about

  • source code management: where we store our code, and how we manage access to it;
  • code review: how we coordinate changes to our code;
  • testing and gating: how we make sure that those changes don’t break anything;
  • deployment: how we push changes and updates out to the consumers of our code.

In case it’s not obvious, that means I’m talking about a large fraction of the software engineering cycle. Not all of it; the part involving “fooling around” (creative play) is perhaps excluded — but substantially everything where people can be said to be “developing” in a software engineering organization is encompassed in these things.

And there’s a few things that follow from that:

First, whatever tools we use in order to accomplish these four things, they simultaneously influence and are influenced by our collaboration culture.

It's ludicrous to presume that tools and culture are independent of each other, or to categorically declare that tools must be made to fit processes, not the other way around. That’s not how people work. Culture and tools always have an influence on each other.

Second, the scope of these things is continually expanding as the field evolves. To illustrate, a few years ago a CI/CD platform could get away with supporting automated unit tests and kicking off an Ansible playbook to deploy things to VMs. Today, what we expect out of a continuous deployment pipeline includes support for

  • a package registry (for Python packages or Node.js modules, to give just two examples),
  • a container image registry (for Docker/Podman/OCI containers),
  • a secret store,
  • the ability to deploy to a Kubernetes cluster.

And that’s just a few examples. I might be forgetting others.

Third, this is a classic example of where we must apply systems thinking: since substantially everything the organization does is connected to the toolchain, we cannot make changes to one part of the system without considering the consequences for the system as a whole. That is not to say that we cannot make incremental changes, just that we can’t pretend that anything in the system stands alone.

To illustrate what I mean, consider the example of an automotive engineer implementing a design change for an engine. If the design change makes the engine so much more efficient that it means a range extension by 10% then that’s excellent. But if in the process the designer has made it impossible to connect the engine to its battery (or the fuel line, if we’re talking about obsolescent technology), then installing the new engine doesn’t just not improve anything — it renders the vehicle immobile.

Responsibility

Now, what does that mean about responsibility? Who is ultimately in charge of the system consisting of source code management and review tools, and your CI/CD pipeline? The answer is hopefully a no-brainer: since everything I talk about including your organizational culture encompasses substantially all of your engineering organization, the responsibility rests with whoever is in charge of your engineering organization (in most companies, that’s often the CTO). And if you’re a software technology company so your entire enterprise is substantially a software engineering organization, it’s your CEO’s or MD’s responsibility.

Of course, that person may delegate some of the tasks and details of running your source code management and code review and CI/CD platform, but responsibility stays with them.

And that responsibility requires both an understanding of the technology itself, and an understanding of how it interacts with your engineering culture. A profound understanding.

And I’d go so far as to say if you head up a software engineering organization and you don’t have a profound understanding of this toolchain and its mutual influence on your culture, you should find another job.

And if you work in a software engineering organization and the person in charge lacks precisely that profound understanding, you should also find another job, because you deserve better.

So having said all that, we can start talking about tools.

And I’m going to talk about three of them, all of which I use in some professional capacity on an at-least-weekly basis.

GitHub

The first one is the toolchain that — I think — a majority of open source developers will be most familiar with: GitHub, whose collaboration model is based on the Pull Request (PR).

Now the GitHub PR model was strongly influenced by the distributed development model of the Linux kernel. The kernel project is what Git was originally written for, so naturally it is also where the original convention for pull requests emerged.

In kernel development, during a kernel merge window, subsystem maintainers fix up a publicly accessible Git tree for Linus to pull from. They then send a message that follows a conventional format to the linux-kernel mailing list (the LKML) outlining the purpose of the changes they want merged. This email contains a summary of the changes, and then an enumeration of each commit to be merged. (There’s a git subcommand, git request-pull, to format such a message.)

The review then proceeds in an email exchange on LKML. Once Linus is happy with the change, he pulls from the subsystem maintainer’s branch and informs them that their changes have merged.

Individual subsystem maintainers replicate this model, perhaps with small modifications, for contributions to the subsystems they are responsible for.

GitHub Pull Requests (PRs)

GitHub replicates some features of the kernel’s model:

  • The collaboration model is generally, “fork and pull”. Individuals maintain their own forks of an upstream codebase, and then send pull requests when they are ready to review. (However, the review process then uses a web interface, rather than a mailing list — in principle, a GitHub reviewer can do a complete review within the GitHub web interface and source code browser and would never even need to check out the repository locally.)
  • Each PR generally consists of multiple commits, which however are expected to closely relate and serve a common purpose.
  • That common purpose is enumerated in a summary at the top of the pull request. GitHub calls this the PR description.
  • Submitters can mark a PR as a draft, with which they indicate that the PR is not ready to be merged yet. When drafts became available in 2019, they replaced an emerging convention in which PR descriptions would be prefixed by WIP (work in progress) or DNM (do not merge).

GitHub PRs can be approved, rejected or commented on by maintainers or other contributors, and an approval can be made a mandatory requirement for merging, but by default GitHub will let anyone merge the PR who has write permissions to the repository that the PR targets. This includes the possibility for a maintainer to merge the contributor’s remote branch to their own local checkout, and then pushing the merged branch to he target repo of the PR. Such an event will automatically close the PR and mark it as merged.

GitHub Actions

GitHub has, for a long time, allowed maintainers to require that PRs pass automated testing. However, until rather recently, it relied on them to run (or interface with) a separate testing infrastructure outside of GitHub to do that. Typical examples for this included CircleCI, or Travis, or Jenkins. It was only in 2019 that GitHub announced automated testing via GitHub Actions.

At the time of writing however, GitHub Actions workflows are in widespread use for CI/CD, but it is still quite common for GitHub-hosted projects to allow maintainers to circumvent CI/CD tests and merge directly. When this happens, it often creates a rather unpleasant situation in which CI/CD testing is only run for contributions by “outsiders” or “newbies”, whereas maintainers get to break things with impunity. This means that issues are often not detected until a casual contributor sends a PR, at which point the test breaks and leave the contributor confused (and sometimes lead to the change not even being considered because, well, “it makes the tests break.”)

Another thing that comes bundled with GitHub (and GitHub workflow actions) is the ability to maintain your own package registry and push artifacts to it from your workflow. Interestingly, at the time of writing, GitHub’s definition of “packages” includes container images, Ruby gems, and npm modules among others, but presently does not include Python modules — although you do, of course, have the option to push your packages to PyPI from your workflow.

GitLab

The equivalent to the GitHub pull request (PR) is the GitLab merge request (MR). In principle, a GitLab MR is quite similar to a GitHub PR, albeit with a few noticeable differences:

  • The “fork and pull” model is less prevalent on GitLab. Instead, it is far more common for collaborators to work on one project, and then create topic branches within that project for each set of changes.
  • Since the project repo is shared, this facilitates collaboration on a single changeset by multiple people: if two or more people wish to collaborate on a change, they simply push additional squash or fixup commits on the topic branch. They can also agree to force-push amended commits to the topic branch, in which the GitLab web interface will helpfully point out differences between individual versions of a commit (something that GitHub presently cannot do in a PR).
  • As in a GitHub PR, a GitLab MR is generally expected to include one or more commits.
  • Also as in a GitHub PR, an MR is expected to contain a summary that outlines its purpose.
  • GitLab MRs have a Draft status just like GitHub PRs do, and they were introduced about the same time in both products, but GitLab had a preceding feature called work-in-progress MRs (WIP MRs). GitLab has the handy feature that MRs are automatically marked as drafts once any commit with squash: or fixup: in the commit message ends up in the topic branch — GitLab rightfully infers that the branch still needs a squash rebase prior to merge.
  • GitLab MRs can be reviewed in full using the web interface alone: the review interface and the source code browser are closely integrated, just like in GitHub.

GitLab CI

CI/CD has been an intrinsic part of the GitLab review experience for years, since GitLab includes full CI integration via the .gitlab-ci.yml configuration file.

Since GitLab CI has been around for quite a while, and it has a multitude of ways to be used, it “feels” more intrinsic to the review process than GitHub Actions do, which to me still leave an impression of being bolted on. In addition, GitLab CI comes with multiple options of using the CI runner:

  • You can use shared runners, which GitLab operates for you. These are Docker containers that GitLab spins up on your behalf in the cloud, and which you share with other GitLab subscription customers.
  • You can also host your own runners. You can do that in Docker containers, in Kubernetes clusters, in virtual machines, and even on bare metal. The runners need no incoming network connectivity; they simply connect to a service on your GitLab host and then poll whether jobs wait for them.
  • You can also specify runners that are exclusive to a project, or to a group or subgroup of projects.

GitLab also comes with a package registry, to which you can push packages from CI pipelines. This differs from GitHub in such a way that it includes more package different formats, including a private PyPI workalike for Python packages. In addition, there’s also a separate container registry for container images.

Gerrit/Zuul

Now, it feels a bit awkward to call this one “Gerrit/Zuul” when I’ve called the others just “GitHub” and “GitLab” respectively, and tacitly included the corresponding CI integrations (GitHub Actions and GitLab CI, respectively) in them. There are a couple of reasons for that:

  • Zuul is a CI/CD framework that is, in principle, not tied to Gerrit, whereas GitHub Actions only apply to GitHub, and GitLab CI only to GitLab. Gerrit/Zuul is a particular combination that was largely popularized by the OpenStack community, which is why a lot of people who are or were part of that community intuitively associate Gerrit with Zuul and vice versa.

  • Likewise, Gerrit is not tied to a specific CI/CD framework. It’s perfectly feasible to run code reviews in Gerrit and use a different CI/CD pipeline (or even none at all).

And Gerrit/Zuul does differ quite notably from GitHub and GitLab, whose features often map quite closely to each other, and I’d like to highlight some of those differences.

Gerrit reviews

The Gerrit review process differs in a few crucial points from the one we know from GitHub and GitLab:

  • You don’t ask someone to pull from a branch or a fork or yours. Instead, you run git review and Gerrit will make a branch for you. Everything else flows from there.

  • Unlike a GitHub PR and GitLab MR, which both typically contain a series of commits to be taken as a whole, a Gerrit change is really just that: one change.

  • Which, of course, also means that we don’t need a separate summary for the change: the summary is the commit message.

  • It’s still possible to submit a series of commits in the course of a Gerrit review. However, Gerrit simply sees those as a series of changes that all depend on one another.

  • Dependencies between changes can also be expressed explicitly, by including appropriate keywords in commit messages. Crucially, these dependencies can cross project boundaries. That is to say, a change in one Git repository can depend on a change in another Git repository, so long as they both use the same Gerrit instance for review.

  • And we also have the equivalent of a Draft PR/MR; in Gerrit that’s called a work-in-progress change.

Because of this, when used in combination with CI such as Zuul, a Gerrit-reviewed project generally expects CI tests to pass on every commit, without exceptions. This is in contrast to many GitHub or GitLab managed projects, which typically only expect the head commit of the topic branch associated with a PR/MR to pass CI.

In Gerrit/Zuul managed projects, it’s also Zuul that merges the commit. This is also in contrast to projects that live in GitHub or GitLab: in those, the pipeline run results are generally advisory in nature, and a successful pipeline run must still be confirmed by a human clicking a Merge button (or running a git merge command locally, and then pushing to the repository). In addition, even a failing CI run can generally be overridden by a “core committer” who has the ability to merge the PR/MR anyway.

A Gerrit/Zuul project typically has no such shortcuts, meaning the only way to get changes into the repo is to pass both peer review, and the CI pipeline. In my experience, this tends to create a climate of leadership by example, which has a beneficial effect on both experienced developers (“seniors” in a corporate setting) and newcomers (“juniors”).

Speculative merging

There is one other property that Gerrit/Zuul has that sets it apart from other review/CI toolchains: speculative merging. This involves the parallel execution of CI jobs for interdependent changes. With speculative merging, even complex, long-running CI/CD pipelines don’t hold up the development process — and this massively enhances project scalability.

No direct repo browser integration

Notably, in Gerrit/Zuul there is no close integration with repository browsing. Gerrit does include the Gitiles plugin for the purpose, but its user experience is rudimentary at best. A popular alternative is to deploy Gerrit with Gitea, but again, that’s not built-in and your trusted Gerrit/Zuul admin has to set it up for you. In addition, while source code browsing in GitHub and GitLab is tightly integrated with project permissions, and that is also true for Gitiles, there is a certain amount of administrative duplication to make your Gerrit repository and project permissions apply to Gitea.

No built-in package registries

There’s another difference in the Gerrit/Zuul stack when compared to GitHub and GitLab, and that is its absence of built-in package registries. Zuul has ready-to-use jobs for pushing to a container registry, or to PyPI, but you do have to either push to upstream public registries, or build your own. Zuul does not come bundled with multitenant private registries the way GitHub and GitLab do.

Administrative complexity

In view of the above, there's another thing that you might want to consider, which in my humble opinion is an important reason why the Gerrit/Zuul combination has less uptake than it deserves on its technical merits. And this may sound overly dramatic, but: people like to be in charge of their own actions, and software developers are people. And here’s an issue with Zuul: there are quite a few things a developer can do on their own in GitHub Actions or GitLab CI that they’d need to ask an admin’s help for in Zuul.

Creating a relatively standard workflow of building a private container image, pushing it to your own registry, and then rolling out that image to a Kubernetes deployment, is something you can do in GitHub or GitLab as a project owner. With Zuul, you’ll need an admin at least to set up and manage your container registry. Rerunning a pipeline, a simple click of a button or API call in GitHub or GitLab, is something you trigger via a Gerrit keyword (typically recheck) for Zuul — but only on the pipelines where your admin has defined that trigger.

So, which one’s best?

So you want to know which one of these you should choose (or advocate for)? That’s surprisingly difficult to answer, and greatly depends on your priorities. And I’ll give you this from four angles.

  • When it comes to scalability — the ability to adapt to massive organizational sizes, and/or rapid project growth, or an obscenely large number or projects within an organization — the Gerrit/Zuul combination wins hands down if you have a competent, responsive, and dedicated crew to manage it.

  • When it’s about getting started quickly — helping a project get off the ground with a good, usable, easily manageable review and fully integrated CI/CD structure — you can’t beat GitLab.

  • In terms of beneficial effect on your development culture, Gerrit/Zuul again probably scores best. If you have a team that’s great at reviews and commit and CI and doesn’t cut corners, or you want to build a team like that, Gerrit/Zuul can really help.

  • And when it’s about giving developers the lowest barrier to entry — meaning using tools that they’re most likely already familiar with — GitHub is your platform of choice.