The Core Deficiency

Core Reviewers

One of the key concepts in OpenStack development is that nothing can get merged into the codebase without being reviewed and approved by others. Not all approvals count the same, though: there are some developers who are designated core reviewers (also referred to as "core developers") because of their extensive knowledge of the project. No matter how many other reviewers have approved a patch, it takes two core approvals to get any change merged, and any individual core can block a patch. Note: some projects change that requirement, so for this post I'm speaking entirely of Nova.

The Bottleneck

Imposing such a requirement means that there are some very tough hurdles a patch has to clear in order to be merged. This slows down the velocity tremendously. However, I tend to think of this as a very good thing, as it (usually) keeps development from going off in unwise directions. The one time that it is clearly a problem is just before the code freeze, like the one we had a little while ago in Nova for the Kilo release: any code not merged by March 19 would have to wait until the Liberty release, which would be 7 months later! That's a long time to have to wait to have something that you may have had ready to go months ago. (Yes, there are exceptions to the freeze, but let's not get into that. The aim is to have zero exceptions).

Core reviewers don't just review code – they are some of the most active contributors to the project. They also have employers, who frequently require them to attend meetings and attend to other non-OpenStack tasks. And when these demands on their time happen during the rush before feature freeze, the backlog can get overwhelming.

Ideas for Improvement

Joe Gordon posted this message to the openstack-dev list last week, and it touched off a discussion about some issues related to this problem. There were several variations proposed, but they all seemed to revolve around the concept of adding another layer to the mix; in Joe's case, it was to add a designation of maintainer, whose responsibilities aren't just about code review, but is a more encompassing notion of investing one's time to ensure the overall success of the project.

Other ideas were floated around, such as having some additional people designated as domain experts for some part of the Nova codebase, and require one core and one domain expert (junior core? core light?). I think that while that's a great idea, since cores know the people who are working on the various parts of the Nova code base and tend to rely on their opinions, it would be a logistical nightmare, since a patch could span more than one such sub-domain. The main advantage of having cores approve is that they are familiar with (pretty much) the entire Nova code base, and also have a strong familiarity with the interactions between Nova and other projects, and it is this knowledge that makes their reviews so critically helpful.

The Big Problem

Where I see a problem is that there are only about 15 core reviewers for all of Nova, and there is no clear path to add new cores to Nova. In the early days of OpenStack I was a core reviewer for Nova, but job changes made me leave active development for 2 years. When I came back, it seemed that just about everything had changed! I spent a lot of time revisting code I was once familiar with, tracing the new paths that it took. I've caught up a bit, but I realize that it will take me a long time to learn enough to be qualified for core status.

So where are the new cores coming from? In general, it's been a few very enthusiastic people who routinely spend 60-hour weeks on this stuff. That may be fine for them, but that doesn't sound like a sustainable plan to me. If we are serious about growing the number of people qualified to approve changes to Nova, we need to have some kind of education and/or training for aspiring cores.

Idea: Core Training

It's all done rather informally now; I'm just wondering if by making the process a little more explicit and deliberate, we might see better results. Hell, I would love to sit next to Dan Smith or Sean Dague for a couple of weeks and pick their brains, and have them show me their tricks for managing their workloads, and be able to get their insights on why they felt that a certain proposed change had issues that needed correction. Instead, though, I do as many code reviews as I feel qualified to do, and follow as much as I possibly can on IRC and the dev email list. But I know that at this rate it will be quite a while until I have learned enough. I can't imagine how daunting of a challenge that would be to someone who wasn't as familiar with OpenStack and its processes

So what would such training look like? It isn't practical to co-locate a developer with a core, as OpenStack developers are scattered all across the globe (I certainly can't imagine Dan or Sean wanting me sitting next to them all day, either! ;-). Maybe a regular IRC session? There could be different sessions each week, led by a core in Asia, one in Europe, and one in the Americas, so that developers in different time zones can learn without having to get up at 3am. Perhaps the core could select a review that they feel is illustrative, or the aspiring devs might pick reviews that they would like to understand better. I'm not sure on the details, but I'd like to get the discussion going. I'd love to hear other suggestions.