In October 2018 there was a face-to-face short meeting with a big part of libosinfo maintainers, some contributors, and some users.
This short meeting took place during a lunch break in one of KVM Forum 2018 days and, among other things, we discussed whether we should allow, and / or prefer receiving patches through GitLab Merge Requests.
Here’s the announcement:
[Libosinfo] Merge Requests are enabled! From: Fabiano Fidêncio <fidencio redhat com> To: "libosinfo redhat com" <libosinfo redhat com> Subject: [Libosinfo] Merge Requests are enabled! Date: Fri, 21 Dec 2018 16:48:14 +0100 People, Although the preferred way to contribute to libosinfo, osinfo-db and osinfo-db-tools is still sending patches to this ML, we've decided to also enable Merge Requests on our gitlab! Best Regards, -- Fabiano Fidêncio
Now, one year past that decision, let’s check what has been done, review some numbers, and discuss what’s my take, as one of the maintainers, of the decision we made.
2019, the experiment begins …
After the e-mail shown above was sent, I’ve kept using mailing list as the preferred way to submit and review patches, keeping an eye on GitLab Merge Requests, till August 2019 from when I did a full switch to using GitLab instead of mailing list.
… and what changed? …
Well, to be honest, not much. But in order to extend a little bit more, I have to describe a little bit my not optimal workflow.
Even before describing my workflow, let me just make clear that:
I don’t have any scripts that would fetch the patches from my e-mail and apply them automagically for me;
I never ever got used to text-based mail clients (I’m a former Evolution developer, I’m an Evolution user for several years);
Knowing those things, this is how my workflow looks like:
Development: I’ve been using GitLab for a few years as the main host of, my forks of. the projects I contribute to. When developing a new feature, I would:
- Create a new branch;
- Do the needed changes;
- Push the new branch to the project on my GitLab account;
- Submit the patches;
Review: It may sound weird, maybe it really is, but the way I do review patches is by:
- Getting the patches submitted;
- Applying atop of master;
- Doing a
git rebase -iso I can go through each one of the patchesR;
- Then, for each one of the patches I would:
- Add comments;
- Do fix-up changes;
- Squash my fixes atop of the original patch;
- Move to the next patch;
And now, knowing my workflow, I can tell that pretty much nothing changed.
As part of the development workflow:
- git publish -> click in the URL printed when a new branch is pushed to GitLab;
- Saving patch e-mails as mbox, applying them to my tree -> pull the MR
Everything else stays pretty much the same. I still do a
git rebase -i and
go through the patches, adding comments / fix-ups which, later on I’ll have to
organise and paste somewhere (either replying to the e-mail or adding to
GitLab’s web UI) and that’s the part which consumes the most of my time.
However, although the change was not big to me as a developer, some people had to adapt their workflow in order to start reviewing all the patches I’ve been submitting to GitLab. But let’s approach this later on … :-)
Anyways, it’s important to make it crystal clear that this is my personal experience and that I do understand that people who rely more heavily on text-based mail clients and / or with a bunch of scripts tailored for their development would have a different, way way different, experience.
… do we have more contributions since the switch? …
As by November 26th, I’ve checked the amount of submissions we had on both libosinfo mailing list and libosinfo GitLab page during the current year.
Mind that I’m not counting my own submissions and that I’m counting osinfo-db’s addition, which usually may consist in adding data & tests, as a single submission.
As for the mailing list, we’ve received 32 patches; as for the GitLab, we’ve received 34 patches.
Quite similar number of contributions, let’s dig a little bit more.
The 32 patches sent to our mailing list came from 8 different contributors, and all of them had at least one previous patch merged in one of the libosinfo projects.
The 34 patches sent to our GitLab came from 15 different contributors and, from those, only 6 of them had at least one previous patch merged in one of the libosinfo projects, whilst 9 of them were first time contributors (and I hope they’ll stay around, I sincerely do ;-)).
Maybe one thing to consider here is whether forking a project on GitLab is easier than subscribing to a new mailing list when submitting a patch. This is something people usually do once per project they contribute to, but subscribing to a mailing list may actually be a barrier.
Some people would argue, though, it’s a both ways barrier, mainly considering one may extensively contribute to projects using one or the other workflow. IMHO, it’s not exactly true. Subscribing to a mailing list, getting the patches correctly formatted feels more difficult than forking a repo and submitting a Merge Request.
In my personal case, I can tell the only projects I contribute to which still didn’t adopt GitLab / GitHub workflow are the libvirt ones, although it may change in the near future, as mentioned by Daniel P. Berrangé on his KVM Forum 2019 talk.
… what are the pros and cons? …
When talking about the “pros” and “cons” is really hard to get exactly which are the objective and subjective pros and cons.
CI: The possibility to have a CI running for all libosinfo projects, running the tests we have on each MR, without any effort / knowledge of the contributor about this;
Tracking non-reviewed patches: Although this one may be related to each one’s workflow, it’s objective that figuring out which Merge Requests need review on GitLab is way easier for a new contributor than navigating through a mailing list;
Centralisation: This is one of the subjective ones, for sure. For libosinfo we have adopted GitLab as its issue tracker as well, which makes my life as maintainer quite easy as I have “Issues” and “Merge Requests” in a single place. It may not be true for different projects, though.
Reviewing commit messages: It seems to be impossible to review commit messages, unless you make a comment about that. Making a comment, though, is not exactly practical as I cannot go specifically to the line I want to comment and make a suggestion.
Creating an account to yet another service: This is another one of the subjective ones. It bothers me a lot, having to create an account on a different service in order to contribute to a project. This is my case with GitLab, GNOME GitLab, and GitHub. However, is that different from subscribing to a few different mailing lists? :-)
Those are, for me, the most prominent “pros” and “cons”. There are a few other things that I’ve seen people complaining, being the most common one related to changing their workflow. And this is something worth its own section! :-)
… is there something out there to make my workflow change easier? …
Yes and no. That’s a horrible answer, ain’t it? :-)
Daniel P. Berrangé has created a project called Bichon, which is a tool providing a terminal based user interface for reviewing GitLab Merge Requests.
Cool, right? In general, yes. But you have to keep in mind that the project is still in its embryonic stage. When more mature, I’m pretty sure it’ll help people used to mailing lists workflow to easily adapt to GitLab workflow without leaving behind the facilities of doing everything via command-line.
I’ve been using the tool for simple things, I’ve been contributing to the tool with simple patches. It’s fair to say that it I do prefer adding a comment to Merge Requests, Approve, and Merge them using Bichon than via the web UI. Is the tool enough to suffice all the people’s needs? Of course not. Will it be? Hardly. But it may be enough to surpass the blockers of migrating away from mailing lists workflow.
… a few words from different contributors …
It should go without saying that their opinions should not be taken as “this workflow is better than the other”. However, take their words as valid points from people who are heavily using one workflow or the other, as Cole Robinson comes from libvirt / virt-tools world, which rely heavily on mailing list, and Felipe Borges comes from GNOME world, which is a huge GitLab consumer.
“The change made things different for me, slightly worse but not in any disruptive way. The main place I feel the pain is putting review comments into a web UI rather than inline in email which is more natural for me. For a busier project than libosinfo I think the pain would ramp up, but it would also force me to adapt more. I’m still largely maintaining an email based review workflow and not living in GitLab / GitHub” - Cole Robinson
“The switch to Gitlab has significantly lowered the threshold for people getting started. The mailing list workflow has its advantages but it is an entry barrier for new contributors that don’t use native mail clients and that learned the Pull Request workflow promoted by GitLab/GitHub. New contributors now can easily browse the existing Issues and find something to work on, all in the same place. Reviewing contributions with inline discussions and being able to track the status of CI pipelines in the same interface is definitely a must. I’m sure Libosinfo foresees an increase in the number of contributors without losing existing ones, considering that another advantage of Gitlab is that it allows developers to interact with the service from email, similarly to the email-driven git workflow that we were using before.” - Felipe Borges
… is there any conclusion from the author’s side?
As the first thing, I’ve to emphasize two points:
Avoid keeping both workflows: Although we do that on libosinfo, it’s something I’d strongly discourage. It’s almost impossible to keep the information in sync in both places in a reasonable way.
Be aware of changes, be welcome to changes: As mentioned above, migrating from one workflow to another will be disruptive at some level. Is it actually a blocker? Although it was not for me, it may be for you. The thing to keep in mind here is to be aware of changes and welcome them knowing you won’t have a 1:1 replacement for your current workflow.
With that said, I’m mostly happy with the change made. The number of old time contributors has not decreased and, at the same time, the number of first time contributors has increased.
Another interesting fact is that the number of contributions using the mailing list has decreased as we only had 4 contributions through this mean since June 2019.
Well, that’s all I have to say about the topic. I sincerely hope a reading through this content somehow helps your project and the contributors of your project to have a better idea about the migration.