As anyone who’s spent more than 10 minutes around me knows, I’m fascinated by software and by the development and management of the infrastructure that surrounds it. While I’m usually more interested in the machinery and software that surrounds projects I work on, the human machinery is also fascinating, especially when it breaks down.
When I joined the Void project I started out managing the Kansas City mirror, and configuring it with Ansible and other tools. This eventually turned into managing the entire fleet and being accepted in the “inner circle” of senior maintainers and project leads.
Those who don’t know of my involvement but know of Void probably know of it for one of two reasons. The first is that it has become (to the chagrin of the team that builds it) as a system without systemd. The second, and perhaps more tabloid friendly notoriety is that its one of few large scale software projects in the FOSS world that’s gone through an unplanned transfer of leadership and survived. This post is about that transfer of leadership and what happened surrounding it.
In late 2015, people who were well involved in the project could tell things were wrong. The Benevolent Dictator For Life (BDFL) Xtraeme wasn’t involved as much as usual. Some of us chalked this up to it being the end of the year, some of us chalked it up to stress and temporary burnout as he was maintaining an impossible pace with the number of packages under his care. Whatever the ultimate reason, its not important here, and it would be rude to pry into his personal life anyway.
The practical result of all of this is that by the end of 2015, the project was coasting without the formal head of development.
Detour through Politics
Lets take a quick detour into 2 other projects and see how they’re managed, then compare this to Void. We’ll look at Debian and Gitea.
Debian is legendary in its complexity of organizational progress. Between Debian Maintainers, Debian Developers, Sponsors, members of the General Assembly, Technical Committee, and the foundation, Debian has perhaps more bureaucratic machinery than some US states and perhaps even some European nations. All of this managerial infrastructure and distribution means that its virtually impossible for Debian to ever suffer a discontinuity in leadership, since someone will always be available. Unfortunately, it also means that like state governments and most members of the EU, its very difficult to get anything done quickly. Worse, the complexity can lead to distrust in the leadership when things happen in uncommon ways or the system appears to not honor a majority will, such as the trouble around the switch to systemd and the struggle for decision making power between the technical committee and the general assembly. Debian’s managerial machinery is also not cheap, there are entire sub teams dedicated to managing the infrastructure surrounding these human processes and the infrastructure is in many cases substantial.
At the other end of the scale is perhaps a project like Gitea, which has a triumvirate that rotates every year. The members of the triumvirate are chosen from among the community and simply own the GitHub organization. This ideally resolves any scenario where control is lost, and also helps to prevent burnout, since there’s an always present escape path at the end of the year for maintainers that are overwhelmed. There’s very little organizational machinery needed to surround this process, and there’s very little cost associated with it, unfortunately rotating out lead members doesn’t do well for project continuity in the long term when working on massive projects.
Void uses yet another system, so lets look at the original mechanism that Void works with, and how it works now. At first, Void was a very small project, and so had the equivalently small leadership structure. The GitHub organization was simply bound to Xtraeme’s personal account, and he added collaborators as necessary to spread the load of reviewing and merging packages.
Unfortunately, this meant that if he became unavailable for any reason for any period of time, the resources of the project could not easily be modified.
Reading this article of course you know that Xtraeme did become unavailable for an extended period of time, and eventually stopped returning messages to the remaining team. This brings us to…
The benevolent dictator for life model has one fatal flaw, and its when the benevolent dictator no longer dictates. So when Xtraeme stopped dictating, some interesting things happened. The first was: nothing.
Nothing happened, business continued as usual. Packages were updated, builds continued, and the state of the art of Void continued to advance and develop. It probably took 6 months before problems actually started to appear, and these didn’t manifest in the way that the rest of the contributors expected.
Void got popular.
This was a blessing and a curse. Suddenly we had more people that wanted to mirror us, people that wanted to send software and contribute fixes, and people that just wanted us to be bigger. Of these things, the third is perhaps the most frustrating to the Void team, as its not a goal of the project.
This popularity continued for a while and processes started to become strained. Two Void maintainers burned out and left the project. At the same time, a German Linux magazine wanted to do a rather lengthy article on Void. To ensure the best article possible for them, we really wanted to spin new ISO images that they could test with all the latest and greatest software. At this point the previous image set was well over a year old and without Xtraeme’s signing keys, new ISOs would need to break trust from the old ones.
What Happens Now?
At first, several maintainers reached out to Xtraeme and asked if he was leaving the project. We were told with confidence that he would return in 2 month’s time. Well 2 months came and went, and he hadn’t returned, so we asked again. Again we were told 2 months. This cycle repeated several times and as the date drew nearer to when the magazine wanted to look at Void, a decision had to be made. New images were created and signed with a different key. This was the first break of trust between the old processes of Void and the new processes, and it led to a lot of discussion behind closed doors.
Why behind closed doors? Well we truly believed this was going to be a temporary problem, and we would be able to continue with business as usual when Xtraeme returned, and we believed he would return. It was a baffling concept to us that he would leave the project. We believed it was in everyone’s best interests to not discuss things publicly until we knew facts that could be presented, rather than piecemeal guesses at what was happening. After all, Void has always been about software and just software; what goes on in maintainer’s personal lives is not relevant to the project.
The Power Struggle
Internally, there wasn’t a power struggle, there was a struggle from power. We had previously enjoyed that our own spheres of influence were fairly limited, and that there wasn’t a need to make large policy decisions on a day to day basis. Unfortunately without a BDFL, we now needed to make these decisions.
After some discussion, it was decided that we’d deal with problems as they came up, and it wasn’t worth us worrying about things before they happened. We did, however, decide it was worth worrying about the future of the project if we couldn’t get Xtraeme back onboard.
No one at the wheel
Of course, while all this has been happening, there’s some things that couldn’t be changed or updated. One that was about to become critical was ability to add new maintainers.
It was around the time that we’d concluded Xtraeme wasn’t coming back
any time soon and we’d have to keep the project running that
showed up. This prolific maintainer started sending a huge number of
PRs for updates and new packages, so many so that we questioned
whether or not the nick was a real person, or a front for a
development group. When it turned out that it was just a very very
efficient individual, we wanted to bring them onboard as a maintainer
with commit privileges to the main tree. This was also heavily
maxice8’s work consuming a full maintainer to get it
At the same time as the onslaught of PRs and updates, the DKIM keys for the forum’s mail address started to have unrecoverable problems. This led to no one being able to reset passwords or sign up for several weeks. This problems was eventually solved by routing email through a different domain that we had control of.
Its at this point that you might ask why we were bothering. Void isn’t nearly as popular as some of the other distros out there, and we were pouring in increasingly large amounts of work to fix it, so why do this?
For many of the maintainers, we considered this to be the right thing to do. As far as we were concerned, there were end users who had installed Void on computers with the expectation that it would work and function as advertised, and that it would continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
This led to a series of internal arguments over whether or not this was the right thing to do, or if it was even legal. We concluded that this was another argument that we’d have if it ever actually became a problem, and one developer decided to take leave of the project due to unsolvable differences of opinion in this area.
One solution which was available was to fork the project. We made plans for this, obtained appropriate resources, and maintain this capability today. Since the software is Open Source and freely licensed, a name change would be about the worst that would happen, but the ideals of Void would live on and systems could be transparently migrated to a new name and new repositories. Fortunately it hasn’t come to this yet.
Given that we’d chosen to maintain the distribution as well as we were able, and to maintain the quality of service that our users had come to expect, some difficult choices had to be made. Most of these revolved around infrastructure and project “ownership” but some changes to the way Void operates as a project also came about.
What’s in a (domain) name?
Once of the easiest resources we tried to track down was the domain
name, but not
voidlinux.eu. While this is the address the project
launched under, its more traditional for projects to reside under a
.org address, and we really wanted to be under
Fortunately someone had bought this name and knew of the project.
They’d just been waiting for a contact to arrange the transfer. We
explained what was going on, and asked them to keep this matter quiet
until we could do a coordinated release of information, as we weren’t
even sure it was possible to regain operational control of the
Systems, Servers, and Mirrors
Though a headache at times, it turns out that the disjoint ownership of all the servers was one of the best things that could have happened here. Since Void’s servers are all paid for and owned by different people, there wasn’t an awkward conversation of why bills hadn’t been paid at a colo. People were contacted individually, read into the situation, and agreement was sought on continuing to provide machines for the project, even under new leadership.
Only one machine needed to be migrated during all of this, and then only due to a failed disk.
Source Control, or the headache of GitHub
Easily the worst part of gaining control of the project was the Git repositories. Void, like many other open source projects hosts code on GitHub as its a convenient platform which most people have an account on already (unlike alioth, launchpad, or others that have come and gone in this space…). Incidentally its perhaps one of the least friendly platforms to massive projects in terms of tooling, but there really aren’t a lot of good options available for very large projects short of tools like Gerrit.
We reached out to GitHub initially and got what amounted to a form letter back that the situation was unfortunate, but that GitHub would not be assisting us.
After things became more serious and we had committed to getting control of the resources, we reached out again to GitHub, and again asked for assistance. Again we got a form letter that they would provide no assistance.
It is the author’s opinion that GitHub actually has no real strategy or plan for interacting with the projects they host, and that they have no plan for continuity when they are as the service provider asked to take actions only a service provider can take. This is incredibly frustrating, and led to a massive loss of trust from Void leadership in the reliability and long-term viability of GitHub as a platform host.
For a long time there was discussion of if Void should leave GitHub and go to another platform such as GitLab, or if we should even host our own repo. We reached out to GitLab they enthusiastically agreed to host us, but we couldn’t get feature parity on their platform.
Void is able to maintain 10k+ packages by making use of a large amount of automation. This automation runs in Travis CI and consumes an unbelievable amount of compute time per month. Making matters worse, we run on top of legacy travis, which runs on top of Google Compute Engine with full VMs (incidentally this is why CI runs take so long, cores have to become available in a Google cloud cluster before the CI job can schedule). Void’s workloads can’t be containerized easily as that encounters the container-in-containers problem, which is still not solved in a way that doesn’t introduce security concerns (look at the security implications of docker-in-docker to get a feel for the kinds of problems in this space).
So we were stuck with GitHub and no way to get control of our organization. As we later would discover GitHub wanted to see some documentation from a legal entity that this transfer needed to happen, i.e. some reason that Xtraeme wouldn’t be coming back. Its left as an excercise to the reader for how this would have worked out to get a Spanish legal entity to confirm to a San Francisco company the status of an EU citizen while the San Francisco company was being acquired by a Delaware corporation that’s been sued a few times by the EU.
We made the difficult choice to create a new organization with a dash between “Void” and “Linux” and pushed new copies of our repositories there.
This is when we discovered the second problem in GitHub’s infrastructure. There is no way to update the fork graph or to send a pull request to a non-parent of a fork. This requires you to maintain a fork of every repository you might wish to send a patch to, and meant that for Void maintainers we all needed to archive and re-fork our repositories. Again the author believes this kind of obvious technical limitation to be evidence of GitHub’s lack of plan around seriously hosting FOSS projects.
This led to some interesting problems. The void-packages repository is massive. Its not quite Linux Kernel massive, but its not the kind of thing you want to move and copy around very often. At the time of this writing there are 91,881 commits in the void-packages repository. This is decidedly larger than the size of repository that GitHub optimizes for. Most notably, we believe there’s a race condition when forking and renaming repositories, and in at least one example we believe this may have crashed some front-end servers that provide GitHub’s web-UI with a Query of Death style outage. GitHub has chosen not to confirm or deny this, but an outage starting exactly coincident with a repo rename and re-fork is very suspicious.
Enough about GitHub, lets talk now about an organization that absolutely has experience dealing with large FOSS projects.
IRC and freenode
The staff of freenode are amazing, besides handling trolls, maintaining the network, and hosting freenode Live, the staff are incredibly helpful. Within a few hours of us contacting them and explaining the situation, we’d been added with appropriate access to manage our channels. This was great, as it allowed us to post some good news within a few hours of publicly disclosing the problems we were facing.
So how do we prevent this from happening again? Well like any outage of service, the first part of answering this question is to examine exactly what went wrong in this instance.
The first thing that went wrong was a single point of failure. These are very bad in any system, but especially bad where globally distributed infrastructure is concerned. In this case our single point was Xtraeme, with his exclusive administrative access to many resources.
We’ve made sure we don’t have any more single points of failure, or at least as few as is reasonably practical. We have multiple people in GitHub as owners, we have multiple channel masters on IRC, and we have multiple owners on our Google Cloud account.
We’ve also eliminated the single point of management failure, our defined processes and decision making processes now happen more accessibly in IRC and policies and procedures are now posted to various parts of our website. This has led to us making sure we won’t have exactly the same problem again. We still effectively have a project head in terms of package management, but the line has to be drawn somewhere in subdividing decision making powers.
But Wait! Why isn’t there a Void Foundation?
Ah yes, this is the question that is still very sticky and comes up from time to time. Usually this question comes up in the form of “I like Void, I want to send you money, why won’t you take my money!?” For a FOSS project to not take donations is indeed a bit strange, and in our case it all comes down to legal standing. Well that and that we’re fairly well funded already.
Accepting money in the form of a donation means first and foremost being able to show where that money went. Any developed government in the world will want to know where the money goes if its being classed as a donation. Void makes most sense to be a non-profit organization, since we don’t do this for money. Now the question comes in the sticky bit of legal systems: where is Void?
For a project that lives on the internet, this is a bit of an odd question to ask, but its a very important one. Where Void actually exists determines what government needs to recognize it as a non-profit organization. We have developers that hold citizenship in the US, UK, Germany, Spain, Brazil, and a handful of other places scattered around the globe.
Any one of us could in theory do the paperwork and setup the legal entity in our respective countries, but doing so means that then we’re part of the organization that runs the non-profit. This is work we didn’t sign on for as developers, and work we aren’t qualified to do.
The obvious answer is to reach out to a firm that specializes in doing this for Open Source projects, and having done this, we’re still not at the point of having an organization with legal standing. Even once we have an organization with such standing, we’ll then need to transfer ownership of machines to the organization and notify our various providers around the world of this change, its not an easy project. It also would fundamentally change the culture of the project, and this isn’t something we’re willing to do.
Where are we now?
Void is stable, its been around for 9 years already, and it will continue to be around because the maintainers enjoy working on it. We’ve taken steps to ensure that the same loss of continuity doesn’t happen again, and we’ve ensured that our processes are documented, repeatable, and agreed upon.
If you liked this article and want to learn more, the best way is to become involved with the Void Project and help us keep going for another 9 years.
Feel free to reach out to the author on freenode,
maldridge idles in