Stages of project forking

I’ve been thinking recently about how to design an open source project, and realized that there’s a really neat framing hiding in my memory. So I dug it out. If you are trying to make sense of the concepts of forking source code, see if this framing works for you.

It is fairly common that we have a chunk of someone else’s open source code that we would like to use. Or maybe we are trying to best prepare for someone else to use our open source code. In either case, we typically want to understand how this might happen.

The framing that I have here is a three-stage progression. It really ought to have a catchy name. The three stages are: dependency, soft fork, and hard fork. In my experience, a lot of open source code tends to go through this progression, sometimes more than once.

Depending on a particular situation, we might not be starting at the beginning of the sequence. As I will illustrate later, a project might not even move through this sequence linearly. This framing is an oversimplification for the sake of clarity. I hope you get the general gist, and then will be able to apply it flexibly.

🔗 Dependency stage

When we see a useful bit of source code, we start at the “dependency” stage. We want to consume this code, so we include it into our build process or import it directly into our project as-is. Using someone else’s code as a dependency has benefits and drawbacks. 

The benefits of dependencies are that we don’t have to write or maintain this code. It serves as a layer of abstraction on top of which we build our thing, no longer needing to worry about the details hidden in this layer of abstraction.

The drawbacks come out of the failure of the assumptions made in the previous paragraph. Depending on the layer gaps this dependency contains or the sort of opinion it imposes, we might find that the code doesn’t quite do what we want.

At this point, we have two choices. The first choice is to continue treating this code as a dependency and try to fill in the gaps or shift the opinion by contributing back to the project from which this code originates. However, at this point, we are now participating in two projects: ours and the dependency’s. Depending on how different the projects’ organization and cultures are, we may start incurring an extra cost that we didn’t expect before: the cost of navigating across project boundaries. 

If these costs start presenting an obstacle for us, the second choice starts looking mighty appealing. This second choice moves us to the next stage in our progression: the soft fork.

🍝 Soft fork stage

When soft-forking, we create a fork of the open source code, but commit to regularly pulling commits from the original. This is very common in situations where we ourselves do not have enough resources (expertise, bandwidth, etc.) and the original code is being actively improved. Why not get the best of both worlds? Get the latest improvements from the original while making our own improvements in our copy.

In practice, we end up underestimating the costs of maintaining the fork. Especially when the original project is moving quickly, the divergence of thinking across the two pools of people who are working on same-but-different-but-same code starts to rapidly unravel our plans of the soft fork harmony. We end up caught in the trap of having to accommodate both the thinking of our team and the team that’s working on the original code – and that is frankly the recipe for madness. Maintenance costs start growing non-linearly, when our assumptions that it will “just be a simple merge” begin exploding, the timebombs that they are.

Because of that, the “soft fork” stage is rarely a stable resting place in our progression. To abate the growing discontent, we are once again faced with two choices: go back to the “dependency” stage or proceed forward to the next stage in our little progression. Both are expensive, which makes the soft fork a nasty kind of trap. 

Going back to the “dependency” stage means investing extra energy into upstreaming all of the accumulated code and insights. Many of them will be incompatible with what the original code maintainers think and like. Prepare for grueling debates and frustrations. Bring lots of patience and funding.

🔱 Hard fork stage

Moving forward to the “hard fork” stage means going our own way – and losing the benefit of the expertise and investment that made the soft fork so appealing in the first place. If we are a lean team that thought it would do a cool trick of drafting behind a larger team with our soft fork, this would be an impossible proposition.

Hard-forking is rarely beneficial in the short term. For a little while, we will be just learning how to run this thing by ourselves, and it will definitely feel like a dent in velocity. However, if we are persistent, a hard-forked project eventually regains its groove. Skill gaps are filled, duality of opinions is reduced, and the people around the project form unique culture and identity.

The key challenge of hard forks is that of utility. In the end, if the hard fork is not that different from the original, a natural question emerges: why do we need both? Depending on the kind of environment these projects inhabit, this question could be easily answered — or not.

📖 Story time

To give you an example of this progression, here’s an abbreviated (and likely embellished by yours truly) story of the relationship between Chromium and WebKit projects.

The Chromium project worked in secret for about two years, quickly going from WebKit being a dependency to a soft fork, with a semi-regular merge process. The shift from dependency to soft fork was pretty much necessary, given that the Chromium folks wanted to embed a different JavaScript engine than WebKit. This engine will end up being named “V8”.

 In the last year or so prior to release, the team decided to temporarily shift to a hard fork stage. When I joined the team one month before public release, returning back to the soft fork stage was my first big project. Since I was thrilled to work on a browser project, I remember reporting happily that I was down to just 400 linker errors. When my colleagues, wide-eyed, turned to stare at me, I would add that last week it was over 3000.

Once the first merge was successful, my colleague Ojan strongly advocated for a daily merge. I couldn’t understand why this was so important back then, but this particular learning opportunity presented itself nearly immediately. There was a strongly super-linear relationship between the difficulty of the merge and the number of commits in it. If the merge contained just a handful of commits, it wasn’t that big of a deal. However, if the number exceeded a few dozen, we would be in deep trouble – making sense of the changes and how they intersected with the changes we’ve made spiraled out of control.

Simultaneously, we committed to “unforking” – that is, to moving all the way back to the “dependency” stage, where Chromium consumed WebKit as a pure dependency. This was a wild time. We were doing three things at once: performing continuous merge with the tip-of-tree WebKit, shuttling our Chromium diffs over to WebKit, and building a browser. I still think of those times fondly. It was such a fun puzzle.

Over a year later – and that tells you about the sheer amount of work that was necessary to make all this happen – we were unforked. We moved all the way back to the first stage of the progression. At that point, the WebKit project’s code was just one of the dependencies of Chromium. We focused on making more and more contributions upstream, and the team that was working on WebKit directly grew.

Ultimately, as you may know, we forked again, creating Blink. This particular move was a hard fork, skipping a stage in the sequence. This wasn’t an easy decision, but having explored and understood the soft fork, we knew that it wasn’t what we’re looking for.

✨ What I learned

With this framing, I accumulated a few insights. Here they are. Your mileage may vary.

When consuming open source projects:

  • Be aware that soft forks are always a lot more expensive than they look.
  • There will be many different ideas that make soft forks look appealing, including neat techniques of carrying patches and clever tooling to seamlessly apply them. These don’t reduce the costs. They just hide them.
  • When stuck with soft-forking, put all your energy into reducing the delay between merges. The beer game dynamic will show up otherwise.

In our own open source project:

  • Work hard to reduce the need to be soft-forked. Invest extra time to make configuration more flexible. Accommodate diverse needs. We are better off having these folks work in the main tree rather than wasting energy on a soft work.
  • Culture of inviting contribution and respect of insights from others is paramount: when signing up to run an open source project, we accept the future where the project will morph and change from our original intention. Lean into that, rather than trying to prevent it.

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