Nov 10, 2017
The cargo cult of versioning

[Update Nov 27: This post had issues, and I retract some of my more provocative claims. See the errata at the end.]

All software comes with a version, some sequence of digits, periods and characters that seems to march ever upward. Rarely are the optimistically increasing versions accompanied by a commensurate increase in robustness. Instead, upgrading to new versions often causes regressions, and the stream of versions ends up spawning an extensive grapevine to disseminate information about the best version to use. Unsatisfying as this state of affairs is to everyone, I didn't think that the problem lay with these version numbers themselves. They're just names, right? However, over the past year I've finally had my attention focused on them, thanks to two people:

  • Rich Hickey pointed out last year that the convention of bumping the major version of a library to indicate incompatibility conveys no more actionable information than just changing the name of the library.

  • I recently encountered this post from 2012 by Steve Losh, pointing out that if version numbers were any good, we'd almost always be looking to use the latest version number. But that doesn't happen. In the real world we're constantly trying to hold the stream of versions back, to clamp version numbers to some ceiling. Pinning our systems to use a specific version or range of versions.
  • Why is version pinning so prevalent? The proximal reason is that modern package managers uniformly1 fail to provide the sane default of "give me the latest compatible version, excluding breaking changes."

  • RubyGems defaults to newest version available. So if you don't specify a version for a dependency and they create a breaking v3.0 when you've been implicitly using v2.2, boom. Result: best practice of pinning major version using the twiddle-waka or pessimistic operator all over the place, and Steve Losh shaking head sadly.

  • NPM for Node.js defaults to version tagged "latest". Again, if you go with the default version your project is liable to go boom at some future date. Best practice is to pin major versions using either the tilde operator or tags. Cue more sadness for Steve Losh. [Edit: The fact that you're required to provide some sort of version string at least raises the question of what it should be. It's still a gotcha that the empty string "" means "latest", but it's mitigated by the use of npm install --save to record dependencies rather than editing package.json directly.]

  • Leiningen for Clojure once again defaults to the latest version. [Correction: a comment pointed out that Clojure has no default, but always requires a version. This approach suffers from the opposite problem: you never get any bugfixes or security fixes unless you explicitly mess with package.clj.]

  • …and so on.
  • These are all deep, competent projects. Why are their defaults so uniformly useless and misleading? The underlying reason is the traditional format of version numbers: mashing together multiple numbers into a single string, and more importantly separating the version string from the name of a package. A dependency that is just a name provides no hint on what version you want compatibility with, so a package manager has no easy way to pick a good default version.

    Towards a better approach

    To begin with, it's weird that versions are strings. Parsing versions is non-trivial. Let's just make them a tuple. Instead of "3.0.2", we'll say "(3, 0, 2)".

    Next, move the major version to part of the name of a package. "Rails 5.1.4" becomes "Rails-5 (1, 4)". By following Rich Hickey's suggestion above, we also sidestep the question of what the default version should be. There's just no way to refer to a package without its major version.

    Since we always want to provide the latest version by default, the distinction between minor versions and patch levels is moot. Just combine the 2-tuple into a single number. "LeftPad 17.5.0" would now become something like "LeftPad-17 37".

    At this point you could even get rid of the version altogether and just use the commit hash on the rare occasions when we need a version identifier. We're all on the internet, and we're all constantly running npm install or equivalent. Just say "Leftpad-17", it's cleaner.

    And that's it. Package managers should provide no options for version pinning.

    A package manager that followed such a proposal would foster an eco-system with greater care for introducing incompatibility2. Packages that wantonly broke their consumers would "gain a reputation" and get out-competed by packages that didn't, rather than gaining a "temporary" pinning that serves only to perpetuate them. The occasional unintentional breakage would necessitate people downstream cloning repositories and changing dependency URLs, which would create a much more stringent atmosphere of accountability for the breaking package. As a result, breaking changes wouldn't live so long that they gain new users.

    In particular, Semantic Versioning is misguided, an attempt to fix something that is broken beyond repair. The correct way to practice semantic versioning is without any version strings at all, just Rich Hickey's directive: if you change behavior, rename. Or ok, keep a number around if you really need a security blanket. Either way, we programmers should be manually messing with version numbers a whole lot less. They're a holdover from the pre-version-control pre-internet days of shrink-wrapped software, vestigial in a world of pervasive connectivity and constant push updates. All version numbers do is provide cover for incompatibilities to hide under.

    Update (Nov 27)

    This post aroused a lot of great feedback on Hacker News and Lobste.rs. After a day of engaging with comments my conclusion was that I should have been more explicit about my focus: the flow for upgrading (and testing) software in development, not deploying to production. In particular, the post doesn't make any claims about versions in production. Reproducible builds are great! But you just need a hash for them. Right?

    A prolonged exchange with Joel Parker Henderson convinced me that it's just not feasible to separate operational concerns from development concerns. A common question when managing software in production is, "what version is this running?" And that question quickly requires drilling down to the constituent pieces of a release and their versions. A hash makes that too hard. And you can't have separate version strings for development and deployment either, that's just a recipe for confusion. Therefore, if you take operational considerations into account, my claim that we don't need versions at all is invalid.

    What, if anything, remains of value in this post? Package managers should by default never upgrade dependencies past a major version.

    The design goal of a package manager should be that a dependency once added to Gemfile or package.json should never need to be modified until it's deleted. What people specify manually goes there, what the package manager deduces goes somewhere else (like Gemfile.lock). If people are editing version strings en masse in Gemfile or equivalent, that is a smell.

    In the next mainstream platform, the versions people specify for dependencies should consist of just a major version, because that's the part that the package manager can never deduce. SemVer is a siren here because it conflates pieces from multiple jurisdictions. The major version is the user's responsibility, and minor and patch versions are the package manager's. Why coalesce the two? That just necessitates baroque syntax like twiddle-waka to do the safe thing.

    (And oh, if RubyGems and NPM are smelly, the Clojure approach totally stinks. Clojure requires manual intervention to pull in compatible/security fixes for dependencies. It follows the existing Java approach, but Java's eco-system predates the advance of package managers, half of whose reason for existence — after installing dependencies — is updating dependencies. I may still be unaware of some design rationale here, but for now I think Leiningen really missed an opportunity to improve on Java here.)


    footnotes

    1. One exception here is Go, where the standard go get command requires no versions, and always grabs the head of the repo. However, the community seems to be turning from the light to the darkness with a proposal for a tool called go dep. It's unclear to me if this is due to a failure of communication on the part of the original authors of Go, or if there's a deeper justification for go dep that I'm missing. If you know, set me straight in the comments below.

    2. Following Steve Losh, we'll allow packages ending in "-0" to make incompatible changes to their heart's content.

    comments

        
    • foljs, 2017-11-11: " It's unclear to me if this is due to a failure of communication on the part of the original authors of Go, or if there's a deeper justification for go dep that I'm missing. If you know, set me straight in the comments below."

      Well, the issue obviously is that just "getting the latest head" doesn't work if that can have breaking changes.

      If go packages also changed name (and thus github repo too?) to package-1 package-2, package-n, when they introduced a breaking change, like you propose above, then "get the latest of package-n" might work fine, but since this is not the case, "get the latest" is very dangerous and what nobody wants.   

          
      • Samat Galimov, 2017-11-11: As far as I know, not breaking api and creating a new repo on breaking changes is actually what original authors of Go prefer.   
            
        • alexsdisqusaccount, 2017-11-11: That’s dumb.   
        • Gabe D, 2017-11-12: Sadly this isn't how the community currently functions. Even personally I have been bitten by using go get instead of specifying a "version" with something like gopkg.in because they pushed completely breaking changes to a repository.   
        • Sean Russell, 2017-11-12: Except that Go itself does not do this. They don't change repository names when repeating new versions of Go, and if you were pulling and installing Go from source HEAD, you would -- occasionally -- encounter breaking changes.   
              
          • Adrian Price, 2017-11-13: Go itself, through the Go1 Compatibility promise, does not issue breaking changes, and therefor has not encountered this problem. Go2, the first stable release with breaking changes proposed, is in the early planning stages now.   
                
            • Kartik Agaram, 2017-11-14: Programming languages in general are pretty good at compatibility guarantees. This whole discussion is more about the eco-system of libraries around them, and the customs engendered there. These customs are often manifested as defaults in the package manager, which is why my article focused on them.   
                  
              • Adrian Price, 2017-11-14: OK, but I wasn't responding to the post, I was responding to a comment "Except that Go itself does not do this", which certainly sounds like it's about "Go itself", not the ecosystem of libraries around it.
        
    • Anonymous, 2017-11-11: As a practitioner: I do not care about major, minor, or other versions. I care about consistency. If I tested my code with foobar 17.03.63, I want to deploy to production with the same version. A year later, if I rebuild the same code, I want to pick the same version. Latest version does not cut it in any sense.

      I spent three! days (literally!) trying to find why something does not work on my dev box. It worked in CI, it worked on others' boxes. What I found we did not have fixed versions. Mine was a few weeks later than the rest of the pack. We switched to fixed versions as result.   

          
      • Kartik Agaram, 2017-11-11: Totally agreed! There's two distinct issues here: fixing versions of dependencies for testing and deployment, and pinning versions during development. I'm only concerned with the latter in this post. If you're familiar with Ruby's Bundler, it's the difference between having version numbers in Gemfile.lock (good!) and Gemfile (smell!).

        The question I'm trying to answer (following in the footsteps of Rich Hickey and Steve Losh) is: how can we make it easy for developers to upgrade their dependencies so that they pick up bugfixes and security fixes but not breaking changes?   

            
        • Sean Russell, 2017-11-12: I do not believe this is a solvable, and the premise on which the argument for allowing anything other than pinning as a default is flawed. The assumption that there is any class of change that can be considered "non-breaking" is wrong.

          We all know that we code and test against specific behavior, and this can include behavior resulting from things that can be considered bugs. Especially when bugs result in behavior that is not conformant with spec, but which works, when code confirming to spec would not. Legitimate bug fixes often result in downstream breakages in functionality.

          I believe that the only way to ensure maximum reliability in software is by version pinning, or vendoring, or immutable binaries... allowing dependancies to change without full regression testing is a recipe for breakage, and dependancy upgrades should be a managed, planned process. The last thing I want is to have to fix issues resulting from dependancy changes while I'm trying to roll out my own fixes, and it is unacceptable for a dependancy to change between code complete and a production roll-out.   

              
          • Kartik Agaram, 2017-11-13: I'm not trying to make things perfect, just strictly better. Yes, every change can cause incompatibility in some situations, but it's sheer innumeracy to ignore the relative probabilities. It is far more likely that an intentional incompatibility will inconvenience users than an unintentional one. Libraries follow a power law when it comes to number of users, so for the vast majority of libraries the odds that you as a single user will run into an unintentional incompatibility are extremely small. And yet we're constantly running into issues when upgrading. The vast majority of these issues are intentional incompatibilities.
        
    • Kyle, 2017-11-11: > NPM for Node.js defaults to version tagged "latest". Again, if you go with the default version your project is liable to go boom at some future date. Best practice is to pin major versions using either the tilde operator or tags.

      This statement is disingenuous.

      Yes, NPM will default to installing the latest version by invoking `npm install leftpad`, but when you run `npm install --save leftpad` to persist the dependency to your package manifest, npm will by default add a major version constraint.

      Most usage of npm within a project follows this `--save` pattern, and if you don't use the save flag, the dependency is not stored in your package manifest. So no, unless you have a script that looks like this:

      ``` npm install dependency1 npm install dependency 2 ..... ```

      instead of using package manifest to install your project dependencies, npm is not a major version footgun.

      NB: This has been the case as long as I've used npm (since v2) - some very very old version may not behave in this way, but I've never heard of it.   

          
      • Kartik Agaram, 2017-11-12: Thanks for the pointer to `npm install --save`. I only dabble in Node.js, and I've been modifying my `package.json` files by hand. It must have come from starting out in Rails where we manage Gemfiles by hand. I was thinking about the "" version string, which is the same as "*".   
            
        • Kyle, 2017-11-12: Ah, I see 😄 for my part, I didn't know that empty string resolved to "*"!

          `--save` is indeed handy. FYI, for devDependencies, there's `--save-dev` as well.

          Thanks for updating the body with a note about this catch.

          
      • Joe Pea, 2020-03-04: In new versions of NPM the `npm install foo` command defaults to --save, and so newly installed packages get a major constraint by default. To get around that, there's a --no-save option, which I use sparingly to temporarily install packages for tinkering when not sure if I want to keep them.
        
    • Larry Hosken, 2017-11-11: You might like Titus Winters' talk about supporting low-level libraries long-term. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tISy7EJQPzI&t=1032s   
    • David Kittrell, 2017-11-12: What? No mention of Knuth’s version scheme for TeX? <g>

      Seriously, the last paragraph says all that needs saying. Good article!   

    • br7tt, 2017-11-12: It's a better versioning scheme, but how do you get people to actually use it correctly? That seems to be the main challenge with versioning schemes. There's also the question of implicit APIs. You can end relying on behaviors from a library that are consistent but not part of the explicit API without realizing they are not guaranteed.   
          
      • Kartik Agaram, 2017-11-12: Yes, there's no way around the fact that a community has to collectively agree that this is important enough to take on some short-term pains, and to hold each other to a higher standard. That not pinning versions preemptively takes on some risk but is worthwhile. That pinning versions when libraries misbehave rewards bad behavior. (Better to fork and manage it locally, so that the pain of doing that forces you to find a new supplier for this functionality.)

        I spent the first half of my life in India, where people casually drive on the wrong side of the road. In the US, on the handful of times I saw someone accidentally go down the wrong way on a 1-way street, others immediately honk at them. Long before they're in any personal danger of collision. This is a hopeful sign to me, that it _is_ possible to engineer customs that safeguard a commons even though each individual isn't immediately affected.

        Hopefully the next language to go mainstream will create this awareness from the start. It doesn't have to be _precisely_ the solution I outlined. Just so long as we think about what eco-system we want to have, and what policy will engender it. I'm just throwing another log into the fire, in hopes of turning the tide of awareness. Consider not letting people pin versions, because that easy fix is a source of technical debt for the community at large.   

            
        • br7tt, 2017-11-15: "Yes, there's no way around the fact that a community has to collectively agree that this is important enough to take on some short-term pains, and to hold each other to a higher standard. "

          I hope so, but I think at some scale you have to treat the community as an unreliable system. Once you get enough people contributing, I don't think community norms are enough to keep everyone in line. Not everyone who contributes will participate in the community. Fixing the versioning system is great but I think it ultimately locates the problem in the wrong place, and hence can't fix it.

          It could be interesting if you tried to build a tool to enforce the versioning scheme though. Parse the code, and examine the exposed API. You could then classify sets of changes as neutral, breaking, or additive, at least for a shallow definition based on function signatures and types. 🤔   

              
          • Kartik Agaram, 2017-11-15: If someone's not following norms it's worth considering if they're part of the community :) They have to participate, as you put it.

            In any case, I'm not claiming the problem is entirely located in the version format or package manager. But now that I have a handle on that part it's worth eradicating it. That'll make the system less noisy and hopefully make it easier to 'listen for' the next problem.

            Your suggestion is indeed interesting. See Khalid's comment on Elm elsewhere in this thread. I wonder if avoiding smarts would be a better experience here than getting to 99% accuracy. I still prefer to avoid voice menus and use the touch tone interface because I know it'll be perfectly reliable. But that said, I'd be rooting for anyone who were to explore this possibility.   

                
            • br7tt, 2017-11-15: All of my comments assume an open participation model, where there is no authoritative repo or set of packages. Anyone can publish. I think they also reflect that I am more often disappointed by "Says it does X. Doesn't do X."

              The Elm approach is interesting. I wish go had thought of this before going forward with dep.

              A compromise approach is to enforce a better versioning scheme but still allow pegging your imported deps to a particular commit hash (or something). That way you get the versioning upgrade but can defend against errors.   

                  
              • Kartik Agaram, 2017-11-15: That's something that OP wasn't clear about, and that I've had to clarify several times to commenters: this post isn't about fixing versions of libraries in production. That is absolutely a good thing. It's about making it easy to periodically run things like `bundle update` or `npm update` in a dev box to get the latest security fixes and bugfixes. In Ruby parlance, versions in Gemfile.lock are absolutely fine, but versions in Gemfile are a smell. (Though there's no reason the version you fix at in Gemfile.lock can't be a commit hash. Nobody should be looking at it much.)

                So I think I'm already at your compromise position, and I refuse to compromise further :D I absolutely agree that enforcing a better version format isn't a panacea. I'm thinking of it rather as a strong default that will hopefully guide more people to doing the right thing.

        
    • John Carter, 2017-11-12: Hmm. You missing the "Can I go backwards?" question.

      ie. Sure, all bets are off if you go forward and back between Foo-N and Foo-M. But if Foo-N.2 is an open / closed extension of Foo-N.1, if you depend on Foo-N.1 you KNOW you can go forward to Foo-N.2, but if you depend on Foo-N.2, you DON'T know if you can go backwards to Foo-N.1

      Semantic versioning minor number will at least tell you if the change is open closed and going backwards will work (iff it compiles).   

          
      • Kartik Agaram, 2017-11-12: I'm not following you yet. Is your argument for preserving minor vs patch levels, or a broader rebuttal? Under what circumstances does SemVer tell you when going backwards will work?

        Perhaps I'm captured by my constraints, but it didn't at all occur to me that going backwards is something someone may want to do. I've always treated that as a deployment consideration rather than a pinning consideration. When upgrading I may spend a while trying to fix issues, but if it doesn't work I may just roll back to an older version without any of my changes. Should I be wanting more than this?   

            
        • John Carter, 2017-11-12: Well, what you're saying is not all that different from semver.

          Suppose you have a package foo that is semantically versioned...

          foo-n.m.o

          Your proposal essentially says call it foo-n version max_o*m+o.

          So what have you lost? Essentially the minor number.

          What did the minor number give you? The recognition that you have changed the API in an open closed manner.

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open/closed_principle

          ie. If a program compiled, linked, worked and all tests ran OK using version foo-n.m.o, you're promised by the developer that it will compile, link and work if you build with foo-n.m'.o' for m` >=m

          That's the promise, and the developer of foo's testing and design practices should verify that.

          That is sort of the same promise you get for foo-n.m.o' for all o' >= o

          The only difference should be some of you bugs may have disappeared. ie. Some of your tests that failed for foo-n.m.o because of bugs in foo may pass in foo.n.m.o'

          Conversely, you are _not_ guaranteed a program that compiles with foo.n.m' will compile with foo-n.m for m < m'

          You are guaranteed a statically typed program that compiles with foo.n.m' AND foo-n.m for m < m' will run successfully.

          Of course, Hickey being The Clojure Guy, a dynamically typed language, has no way of checking that. It's one of the things he has made the conscious choice to give up.

          In the ruby or javascript world, the same problem.

          In the C/C++ world, rolling back a minor number, if it compiles... you know you're safe to do.

          So in a dynamically typed language the minor version number is less useful.

          In the statically typed language the minor version number is... well... not very useful but slightly more so than in the dynamic language world.

          Dynamic languages like Clojure and Ruby and Python lean very heavily on automated testing to give you safety in moving versions. ie. You sort of don't care what the hell the version numbers are. They could be a sha1 has for all you care.

          I'd love a gemspec that says, "give me whatever damn version, any version that passes the most of my test cases weighted by customer value".

          In C/C++ world we have this optimistic fantasy "It compiles... so it must work.... Right?"

          Of course best practice statically typed language library design and evolution is...

          "Yup, if it compiles, odds on it will work, if it worked before and compiles now... I promise you I have evolved the library so that it will only work better.

          I also promise you if I have changed things so it won't work now... I have done it in a manner so that the compiler will slap you in the face so you know about it".

        
    • Attila Fulop, 2017-11-14: Why append a number to the end of the package?

      - Doctrine ORM should have been renamed to Dogma ORM as of the so called "v2.0" was released, and Axiom ORM in the future.
      - Rails should have been renamed to Trainwheel, Track, Line Framework,

      - Symfony to Orchestra, Harmony

      - Ruby itself to Zephyr, Esmerald

      - Windows to Aperture OS, Fenestra OS, Lancet OS

      - PHP to ... eer

        

    • khalidjebbari, 2017-11-15: The Elm language (strongly statically typed à la Haskell) has a compiler that disallows publish breaking changes to a library without bumping the major version number. So basically semantic versioning is enforced by the compiler - to the extent that type signatures guarantee behavior, which is not completely true...

      Still an interesting idea and approach to problem. At least obvious breaking changes (like changing the signature of a public API) are always accompagnied by a major bump. So at least some part of the problem of SemVer is handled properly by the compiler.

      [1] - https://github.com/elm-lang/elm-package/#version-rules   

          
      • Kartik Agaram, 2017-11-15: That does seem reasonable. Thanks, I was aware of Elm but hadn't considered it in this context.

        Do you have any insight into the Haskell eco-system? Does Cabal respect SemVer?

        
    • Kartik Agaram, 2018-03-12: How Python parses version numbers (https://setuptools.readthedocs.io/en/latest/setuptools.html#specifying-your-project-s-version):

      Setuptools can work well with most versioning schemes; there are, however, a few special things to watch out for..

      A version consists of an alternating series of release numbers and pre-release or post-release tags. A release number is a series of digits punctuated by dots, such as 2.4 or 0.5. Each series of digits is treated numerically, so releases 2.1 and 2.1.0 are different ways to spell the same release number, denoting the first sub-release of release 2. But 2.10 is the tenth sub-release of release 2, and so is a different and newer release from 2.1 or 2.1.0. Leading zeros within a series of digits are also ignored, so 2.01 is the same as 2.1, and different from 2.0.1.

      Following a release number, you can have either a pre-release or post-release tag. Pre-release tags make a version be considered older than the version they are appended to. So, revision 2.4 is newer than revision 2.4c1, which in turn is newer than 2.4b1 or 2.4a1. Post-release tags make a version be considered newer than the version they are appended to. So, revisions like 2.4-1 and 2.4pl3 are newer than 2.4, but are older than 2.4.1 (which has a higher release number).

      A pre-release tag is a series of letters that are alphabetically before “final”. Some examples of pre-release tags would include alpha, beta, a, c, dev, and so on. You do not have to place a dot or dash before the pre-release tag if it’s immediately after a number, but it’s okay to do so if you prefer. Thus, 2.4c1 and 2.4.c1 and 2.4-c1 all represent release candidate 1 of version 2.4, and are treated as identical by setuptools.

      In addition, there are three special pre-release tags that are treated as if they were the letter 'c': pre, preview, and rc. So, version 2.4rc1, 2.4pre1 and 2.4preview1 are all the exact same version as 2.4c1, and are treated as identical by setuptools.

      A post-release tag is either a series of letters that are alphabetically greater than or equal to “final”, or a dash (-). Post-release tags are generally used to separate patch numbers, port numbers, build numbers, revision numbers, or date stamps from the release number. For example, the version 2.4-r1263 might denote Subversion revision 1263 of a post-release patch of version 2.4. Or you might use 2.4-20051127 to denote a date-stamped post-release.

      After each pre or post-release tag, you are free to place another release number, followed again by more pre- or post-release tags. For example, 0.6a9.dev-r41475 could denote Subversion revision 41475 of the in-development version of the ninth alpha of release 0.6. Notice that dev is a pre-release tag, so this version is a lower version number than 0.6a9, which would be the actual ninth alpha of release 0.6. But the -r41475 is a post-release tag, so this version is newer than 0.6a9.dev.

      For the most part, setuptools’ interpretation of version numbers is intuitive, but [one tip]: Don’t stick adjoining pre-release tags together without a dot or number between them. Version 1.9adev is the adev prerelease of 1.9, not a development pre-release of 1.9a. Use .dev instead, as in 1.9a.dev, or separate the pre-release tags with a number, as in 1.9a0dev. 1.9a.dev, 1.9a0dev, and even 1.9.a.dev are identical versions from setuptools’ point of view, so you can use whatever scheme you prefer.

      Rotflmao.   

    • Anonymous, 2021-03-19: As a follow-up: what do you think of "Minimal Version Selection," now in widespread use thanks to Go modules? https://research.swtch.com/vgo-mvs

      It was controversial when first proposed, but seems to be working well in practice. Like you suggested, Go requires that you rename the package if you bump the major version. It still retains the three-segment semver versioning scheme though, rather than a single number or a commit hash.   

          
      • Kartik Agaram, 2021-03-20: It seems reasonable, but it's attacking a slightly different problem than the one I was alluding to here. You're right that Go's approach of renaming packages feels like the best option available today.

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