Drizzle: the most influential software project you’ve (probably) never heard of

Posted on Tue 10 May 2022 in blog • 7 min read

Drizzle was an open-source project1 that, for all intents and purposes, died in 2016. Its project web site is now defunct, and the most recent snapshot from the Wayback Machine is that of September 2, 2016. In July of that year, Stewart Smith (one of the project’s core team) announced on the project mailing list that neither he nor any other core team members had time to dedicate to Drizzle anymore.

Prior to that, the project had been mostly dormant since 20122, having been founded in 2008. So it was properly “active” for just 4 years, and then in limbo for 4 more before finally wrapping up. Chances are, you’ve probably never run a Drizzle database server in production, and quite possibly never spun one up for any purpose either.

And yet, if you’re an open source software developer, you’re probably using something, every single day, that came out of Drizzle. And that something isn’t even software.

Drizzle’s history, a very brief summary

Drizzle started as an attempt to refactor MySQL, and was originally driven by Brian Aker, together with a small team of engineers at Sun (which had then-recently acquired MySQL), in the first half of 2008. A skunk works project that flew under the radar — to put it charitably — at Sun, Drizzle was publicly announced at O’Reilly OSCON of that year. There are a couple of videos floating around from that event (from the keynotes, and from a booth presentation) that are both… well, go and see for yourself. The aforementioned Stewart Smith did a very entertaining talk at linux.conf.au some five years later that covers those events, which you can watch from the official Linux Australia mirror, or from a YouTube upload.

There’s also an interesting old blog post from MySQL co-founder Monty Widenius, written in late July of 2008, which outlines the state of affairs at the time.

Of course, in 2010 Oracle acquired Sun (and with it, the MySQL database) — and Oracle was presumably less than keen on having an in-house fork of the database technology it had just acquired. Thus, the Drizzle engineers found a new home at Rackspace, with the goal of getting Drizzle to a production-ready release. That sort of happened, and the Drizzle package even got into Debian, but after the Drizzle 7.1 release in 2012, adoption did not exactly skyrocket. Development on Drizzle stagnated and eventually petered out. The 7.2 release branch never made it out of the alpha stage.

Today, to the best of my knowledge, you can’t install a Drizzle package on any contemporary operating system. There is no official Drizzle container image on Docker Hub, no DBaaS offering based on Drizzle, nothing.

But Drizzle left a very important legacy.

What did Drizzle do differently?

In 2008, it was already common for open source software to live in public version-controlled repositories. But far from all of them used Git, like the vast majority do today: some used CVS or Subversion, some used Mercurial, and the Launchpad platform (which Drizzle lived on) used Bazaar.

But most of them did have one thing in common, which is how changes landed in the tree. You had a small group of “core committers”, who had write access to the “official” code repository. They could (and would) push changes to the codebase on their own volition and authority. In smaller projects, the core committers “group” might be just one person. If someone outside the core committers group wanted to make a contribution, they had to convince a core committer to merge it.

Sometimes (though quite rarely at the time), projects had some form of scripted unit testing — typically implemented with the then-popular Hudson server, which was subsequently forked to become Jenkins. But such unit tests would be seen as merely advisory: breaking unit tests didn’t necessarily mean that a patch couldn’t land, specifically if the patch originated with a core committer. Unit tests would also not necessarily run automatically when a patch was submitted, they might instead run only if specifically kicked off by a core committer.

The Drizzle team, as Brian put it in a talk I recall attending (though not exactly when and where), “took commit rights away from everybody.” That meant that nobody could push changes directly to a central repository, and everything had to flow through CI tests. The process generally went like this:

  • You submitted a patch to Drizzle, implementing a new feature. Immediately after your submission, an automated process (in Hudson, later Jenkins) would automatically run its complete suite of unit tests against the current code base, with your patch applied.

  • Your patch would perhaps break an existing regression test. You would immediately be notified of the failure, giving you a chance to fix the problem that your change introduced.

  • You submitted a new version of the patch, which would now pass the test suite.

  • Humans would now review your patch. They would no longer have to worry that your patch broke anything pre-existing (a common question in patch reviews in many contemporary projects), and could instead focus on the merit of your feature addition.

  • If your reviewers determined that your new feature should come with additional tests (and they usually should), they would recommend you implement a test for your new feature.

  • You would then resubmit your patch with the added testing functionality, and — assuming everyone was happy with the implementation — your reviewers would give the go-ahead to merge your patch.

  • At this stage of course, the rest of the codebase might have changed: some other patches might have landed before yours. So, the entire pipeline — including tests that predated your patch, the new tests your patch introduced, and the new tests that other patches might have added in the interim — would re-run with the current state of the codebase with your patch applied. If your patch broke things now, you would be asked to fix them once more.

  • However, if your change didn’t break anything even now, then there would be no human blocking the merge anymore: as soon as the tests passed, the thing that ran the tests (I don’t recall if in 2008 we already had the term “CI pipeline” for that thing) would merge the patch on your behalf.

Much of this automation was brand new innovation at the time, largely due to the work of Drizzle developer Monty Taylor — who later went on to becoming a highly influential engineer in other projects, which (among many other things) landed him a profile in WIRED in 2013.

The Drizzle team also was pretty diligent about what they considered “breaking things:” for example, the Drizzle test suite contained several performance benchmarks. If a patch made the server perform worse, i.e. introduced a performance regression, that would be treated the same as a functional regression. So you not only would be unable to land a patch that actually broke functionality or made the database server eat data; you would also be unable to land a patch that made the server slower.

The Drizzle team is also where, to the best of my knowledge, a coinage for this kind of approach originated: “gated commits”, or “gating” in general.

How is this relevant?

A substantial fraction on the Drizzle core team — which had moved to Rackspace in 2010 — was instrumental in launching another project that came out of that company (and NASA) that same year: OpenStack. And OpenStack took the gating approach from its humble beginnings with Drizzle to an absolutely massive scale in its hype years (2011 – 2015 or thereabouts) — so much so that it established a new default in collaborative software projects. Many other projects that launched in that timeframe (including Kubernetes and Terraform) adopted this approach as well.

Today, having automated CI testing on every submitted patch is considered par for the course in a collaborative software project. GitLab CI and GitHub Actions workflows have made these much more accessible than they used to be with Hudson and Jenkins. It’s also exceedingly common to do detailed collaborative reviews in a public forum before merging — GitHub’s PR review workflow is ever more closely approaching the Gerrit review workflow that OpenStack uses. GitHub’s auto-merge functionality (which lands patches automatically once they have passed both automated unit tests and human review) is more or less a direct copy of the automated merge found in OpenStack’s development workflow, which itself can be directly traced back to Drizzle’s review process.

And all these things are found in open source software projects across all sorts of communities. Kubernetes, Terraform, Django, CPython, Open edX — you name it, it probably uses an approach first pioneered in Drizzle.

And that’s the real lasting legacy of a project that few people even remember by name.

Who do we owe this to?

I know some of the Drizzle developers personally, though certainly not all. What follows is an incomplete list of people you can buy a meal or a drink if you run into them, and you like the way you collaboratively develop software today:

  • Brian Aker
  • Mark Atwood
  • Aeva Black
  • Patrick Crews
  • Eric Day
  • Patrick Galbraith
  • Andrew Hutchings
  • Jay Pipes
  • David Shrewsbury
  • Stewart Smith
  • Pádraig O’Sullivan
  • Monty Taylor


Stewart Smith and Mark Atwood kindly reviewed this article and provided valuable feedback on it. Thanks to both of you! All errors and omissions are of course mine, and mine alone.

Also, though I’ve been meaning to write something like this post for a while, it was ultimately a Mastodon thread by Julia Ferraioli that became my writing prompt. Thanks for that, too!

  1. Disclaimer: I was never a part of the Drizzle project in any role, which for the purposes of this article is probably a good thing as I am not talking about personal accomplishments or failures, in other words I have no skin in the game. This article also does not contain any information about the Drizzle project except that which was available via public channels at the time, or has become public since. 

  2. The project did participate in Google Summer of Code in 2013, which is what the last tweets on the project’s Twitter account are about. But the project’s development branch had its last alpha release in September 2012