Maintainer Confidential: Challenges and Opportunities One Year On

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A year ago I wrote an article to give some insight into how an open source project looks behind the scenes from a maintainer’s perspective. One year on, I thought it might be interesting to share an update on that.

Who I am and what the project is and does was covered previously and hasn’t really changed. In short, I’m the Yocto Project’s primary technical lead. The project allows people/companies to build and maintain customized Linux and open source software in general in a scalable and maintainable way. 

Who is using it? We often don’t know!

As the project continues to grow in usage, we keep finding out about new and interesting places it is being used. This is really exciting and what the project was designed for, so it is wonderful to see. The sad thing is that we can’t really talk about a lot of the usage. In some cases we find out by looking at the license compliance “bill of materials” that companies share. It is usually clear looking at the versions/names of the components that it is likely OpenEmbedded/Yocto Project derived but there is nothing we can quote to show that definitively. It is hard to demonstrate project usage or importance when you don’t know or can’t say who is using it. If you are using it, please let us say that you are! Please drop us an email or you can add to the list on our wiki.

Since last year the project has gained several members, some of them joining after reading the previous article and realizing the challenges the project was facing. This is great to see and really appreciated. The economic situation, globally and in this industry, hasn’t passed the project by and we have lost some members or some have downgraded, too.

The increased membership and participation has meant that the project can balance its budget and not forecast a deficit, hoping things will work out ok. For me personally, that does mean my job has a bit more security too; I’m not wondering if I’ll need to find a different income source in a few months. This also makes it easier for the project to retain some of our key help for things like documentation or maintaining our LTS releases. The time taken in training those people to the roles is not something which can be easily or quickly replaced so retention is important.

Sovereign Tech Fund support

The big news in the last year for us was finding that we could get some help from the Sovereign Tech Fund (STF), a German government funded initiative that is trying to help projects and the overall open software ecosystem. They read the article and wanted to see if there was a way to work together and help. The project had already been working on a five year plan, basically an open-ended discussion of where we’d like to see the project in five years’ time and what kinds of things might we like to see happen in that time frame. We found that we could take some of the themes from that plan and have financial help to bring them to reality.

Funding comes with constraints and it has been a challenge to do things in the time frame needed, but by contracting the work through many of the consultancies working within our ecosystem, we’ve been able to quickly pull together some amazing changes.

The projects we targeted were a mix across a spectrum of topics. Some are future looking with things like IDE integration into newer IDEs like VSCode. Some add automated testing to older code like Toaster, meaning we can stop it bit-rotting and degrading and start planning ways to better use it in the future. There was work to improve the developer experience both within our tools such as better understanding why cache objects (“sstate”) weren’t being reused, through to re-enabling patch submission/review processes automated CI-style helpers. There was also work done on properly documenting our security processes and preparing the project for the next generation of SPDX which is key to our Software Bill of Materials (SBoM) support.

Other projects include tool improvements to demonstrate and roll them out to other layers in the wider project ecosystem. Taking processes, techniques, and tools we have in the core and showing other layer maintainers how they can take advantage of them leads to wider ecosystem improvements in quality and productivity. We also have projects underway to explore the topic of binary packages in a source-based distro world and to look at ways we could improve our initial setup and user experience. Separate from the STF work, the project was also able to fund some improvements to the layer index but that wouldn’t have happened without the STF funding for other areas. The layer index works like a search engine for the project so it is of key importance to most of our users.

There were multiple good things to come out of all this work besides just the work itself. It meant that multiple members of the community were able to work on things that they have wanted to for a long time, knowing the benefit to everyone yet being unable to find a sponsor to allow them to spend that time. It also helped raise developer experience in a number of key areas, something we were conscious we were lacking.

I’d also note that the work was carefully planned to include and prioritize  test automation so that as well as fixing fundamental issues, we’re better placed to avoid some of these issues in the future, too.

Maintainer/developer resourcing issues remain

All this sounds really positive, and it most definitely is, but there was a bit of a darker side too. The core of the project was stretched thin and I remain the only full time developer at the core. Much of the writing and technical execution of the contracts therefore fell to me. I did realize this was likely to happen but the opportunity to fix so many of these long-term issues meant that I opted to push through it and make it happen. While I don’t regret it, I doubt I could sustain doing anything like this again.

The project has talked about “the bus factor” problem it has for a long time, and I’ve grown quite used to being hit by metaphorical buses in meeting discussions. In some ways I’m not as worried about this as I once was. Both Yocto Project and OpenEmbedded both have structures in place allowing a clear path to making decisions and those would work to allow the roles I fill to be replaced. It is ironic that when things are running relatively smoothly, people actually question the need for those structures, often not realizing that the time they really come into their own are in times of crisis.

The real concern now is one of scaling and overload and this is probably the key problem the project now needs to find solutions for. Funding is one challenge to improving this, it becomes an easier problem to solve if that is less constrained. The second challenge is the project has tried several times to write a job description for someone to shadow/assist/help me in various ways and we’ve struggled every time as my role within the project has so many hats and the skill sets overlap into what are traditionally different roles. When you add together the project and programme management pieces, the technical architecture oversight and vision, the bug fixing, general development skills, community relations and business relations pieces, good QA engineering skills and general operational execution, it gets complicated. The closest we’ve come was realizing that we needed both deeply technical programme management/execution and general but highly skilled development engineering help for me. This is still an ongoing discussion, so let us know if you have ideas!

Relevance in the wider open source ecosystem

There is a significant lack of understanding and recognition of what the project can actually do for the wider ecosystem and also for specific enablement. An interesting example is RISC-V support within the project. There has been community-driven support added over the last few years and it does basically work but the architecture has not been tested on our CI systems. The main reason for that is that those systems are high cost and maintenance, funded by the project membership and RISC-V does not have enough representation there. We’ve actively sought out platinum or multiple gold member participation from RISC-V interested parties but sadly there hasn’t been any commitment. The RISC-V story is particularly unfortunate since the project is about to release its next LTS which only happens every two years and it won’t be on the test matrix.

Besides the LTS, the project is extremely efficient at bringing in new versions of FOSS components as they become available when those upstream projects make releases. There is particular value in testing those on more unusual architectures such as RISC-V as early as you can, at the point of entry into the project and the wider ecosystem. By doing that it doesn’t just help Yocto Project support but also that support in other distributions too. We’re clearly struggling to showcase the huge benefit this has!

I’d also like to highlight another key feature of the project, which is the ability for users to own and control their entire build process. This means users don’t have dependencies on other companies or public services and that years from now, they have the ability to rebuild the software shipping in your products. Several recent examples of changes in availability of software or services, such as the structural changes around Fedora/CentOS, have made some users ask very valid questions about their reliance on other companies and their ability to “control their own destiny”. Yocto Project and OpenEmbedded were built to be able to solve that problem and there is no lock-in or reliance on others necessary.

Two other related areas the project has been able to help make step change improvements in is reproducibility and software manifests. For reproducibility we’ve worked with various upstreams to ensure the tooling is able to support it well (through compiler options for example) and that upstream software stops encoding things like build paths into binary output. For software manifest support, the project was proud to help test elements of the upcoming SPDX 3.0 standard to ensure some of the usage issues of the previous versions are addressed and that it fits well in a software build environment. With recent developments like the European Cyber Resilience Act and with similar changes already present or coming in other jurisdictions, being able to comply easily with these through good tooling and processes will be key.

Availability of developers

The huge demand for Yocto Project/OpenEmbedded skilled engineers does have one other rather unfortunate impact on the project core. That demand is great for ensuring people in the project have employment, however because the skills are scarce, they often aren’t allowed time to contribute to “upstream” or back to the project core. Understandably, they may also be asked to prioritize work on product specific layers in preference to core code and overall project architecture. The “layer” approach the project takes in some ways makes this much easier to do, too.

While understandable, the loss of access to people’s knowledge, and their ability to help work on bugs or improvements, is another significant challenge for us which I’m not sure how to address at this time. 

Summary

All in all, the last year has been really positive. The STF involvement was a very welcome surprise and we’ve achieved great things. Reading the article from a year ago, it is nice to be able to say that we’ve moved forward or even resolved some of those topic areas. Challenges remain though, particularly around participation in the project (both financial/membership and developer) if we’re to improve the overload problem.

Some of these issues are not unique to the Yocto Project and are faced by many open source projects. Regardless, I feel that we do need to be open about the issues even if we don’t have good solutions yet. While we don’t want to alienate our current developer community and maintainers, we’re trying to be open to new approaches and ideas, so please do get in touch if you think there is a way forward that we’re missing!

About the author: Richard Purdie is the Yocto Project architect and a Linux Foundation Fellow.



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