Pending Head

26 April 2007

I'm a big fan of Continuous Integration, it's an relatively simple practice that can make a huge difference to most development teams. However like most practices it has its flaws^H^H^H^H^H opportunities for improvement. Paul Duvall, author of the soon-to-be-standard book on the subject, pointed out one of these recently. If the commit build breaks, the whole team is affected and potentially slowed until it's fixed.

When we first started doing Continuous Integration at Thoughtworks, this one of the of the things that worried me about the way we were doing it. It worried me because there was an important difference between between the Thoughtworks 2000 style and the style we'd used at C3.

The Thoughtworks 2000 style is pretty much the canonical style of CI used today. Once you are happy with your work you commit it to the repository, and then build it on the build machine (either manually or with a CI server like CruiseControl). The problem lies if your commit is bad, anyone who updates will get failing code until you fix it.

In the C3 way of doing it we didn't commit to the head of repository directly. C3 was a Smalltalk project and used Envy, a Smalltalk-oriented repository system. Envy had some different concepts to mainstream repositories. Since it's ages since I used it my memory on exactly how it worked has gone all fuzzy, but the basic idea was that when you were working on your feature you committed to editions. An edition was like a private branch, visible to everyone but not blessed. Only when you had a successful build on the build machine would you upgrade your edition into a release, which was the equivalent to the mainline. This way you never got broken code into the mainline of the project.

Envy made it easy to work this way, the version control systems we mostly use now make it more tricky. Ideally you want to create a working copy that updates from the true head (to keep you in sync) but commits to a different pending-head branch. Only a successful integration build can actually commit to the true project head. A continuous integration server would check out from the pending head and, if successful, commit to the true head.

How difficult is it to set something like this up yourself? I'm not sure, I haven't chatted with a team that's done it. However a number of team oriented tools are providing this kind of capability. For example JetBrains's TeamCity does it under the name "delayed commit". Paul also mentions Borland's Gauntlet.

The other question is how much it matters. Despite my worries we didn't get enough pain from broken builds to want to install a pending head in 2000. If you get a lot of broken integration builds there are other ways to fix it. Often the main problem is that people aren't doing a private build before they commit. As usual the people-issue is often a more important issue to deal with before introducing more complicated technology.