Why I don’t trust most fully automatic CI systems

Some people complain that I should let the tinderbox work by itself and either open bugs or mail the maintainers when a failure is encountered. They say that it should make it faster for the bugs to be reported and so on. I resist the idea.

While it does take time, most of the error logs I see in the tinderbox are not reported as bug. They can be either the same bug happening over and over and over again ­– like in the case of openldap lately, which fails to build with gnutls 3 – or they can be known/false positives, or they simply might not be due to the current package but something else that broke, like if a KDE library is broken because one of its dependencies changed ABI.

I had a bad encounter with this kind of CI systems when, for a short while, I worked on the ChromiumOS project. When you commit anything, a long list of buildbots pick up the commits and validate them against their pre-defined configurations. Some of these bots are public, in the sense that you can check their configuration and see the build logs, but a number of them are private and only available on Google’s network (which means you either have to be at a Google office or connect through a VPN).

I wasn’t at a Google office, and I had no VPN. From time to time one of my commits would cause the buildbots to fail and then I had to look up the failure; I think more or less half the time, the problem wasn’t a problem at all but rather one of the bots going crazy, or breaking on another commit that wasn’t flagged. The big bother was that many times the problem appeared in the private buildbots, which meant that I had no way to check the log for myself. Worse still, it would close the tree making it impossible to commit anything else than a fix for that breakage… which, even if there was one, I couldn’t do simply because I couldn’t see the log.

Now when this happened, my routine was relatively easy, but a time waster: I’d have to pop in the IRC channel (I was usually around already), and ask if somebody from the office was around; this was not always easy because I don’t remember anybody in the CEST timezone to have access to the private build logs at the time, at least not on IRC; most where from California, New York or Australia. Then if the person who was around didn’t know me at least by name, they’d explain to me how to reach the link to the build log… to which I had to reply that I have the link, but the hostname is not public, then I’d have to explain that no, I didn’t have access to the VPN….

I think in the nine months I spent working on the project, my time ended up being mostly wasted on trying to track people down, either asking them to fetch the logs for me, review my changes, or simply “why did you do this at the time? Is it still needed?”. Add to this the time spent waiting for the tree to come “green” again so I could push my changes (which often times meant waiting for somebody in California to wake up, making half my European day useless), and the fact that I had no way to test most of the hardware-dependent code on real hardware because they wouldn’t ship me anything in Europe, and you can probably see why both I didn’t want to blog about it while I was at it and why I haven’t continued longer than I did.

Now how does this relate to me ranting about CI today? Well, yesterday while I was working on porting as many Ruby packages as possible to the new testing recipes for RSpec and Cucumber, I found a failure in Bundler — at first I thought about just disabling the tests if not using userpriv, but then I reconsidered and wrote a patch so that the tests don’t fail, and I submitted it upstream — it’s the right thing to do, no?

Well, it turns out that Bundler uses Travis CI for testing all the pull requests and – ‘lo and behold! – it reported my pull request as failing! “What? I did check it twice, with four Ruby implementations, it took me an hour to do that!” So I look into the failure log and I see that the reported error is an exception that is telling Travis that VirtualBox is being turned off. Of course the CI system doesn’t come back at you to say “Sorry, I had a {male chicken}-up”. So I had to comment myself showing that the pull request is actually not at fault, hoping that now upstream will accept it.

Hopefully, after relating my experiences, you can tell why the tinderbox still applies a manual filing approach, and why I prefer spending time to review the logs instead of spending time to attach them.

2 thoughts on “Why I don’t trust most fully automatic CI systems

  1. The we have stuff like Fedoras ABRT. Which could be awesome if done right. But currently it just builds big backlogs of bugs developers ignore as long as they could because a) they already know the breakage but they cannot fix it because their package is not at fault, b) the report(s) only contains useless information, and mass-duplication, c) useless comments filling page up page down making it hard to find actual useful infromation, c) the information of what is needed to replicate is often lacking and people are bad at follow those reports, which makes it hard to get answers on follow-up questions.All in all, I think bug reports should be written by humans.Now if they had a DB tracking all breakages, and then have a threshold to notify the devs and/or auto-file a bug when there was enough replications and data/crashdumps/comments/whatever to actually be useful, or have the possibility to manually file a crash in that DB as a bugreport, then that would be a much different thing. But a lot more effort in setting up then just dump everything into the bugzilla.

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  2. This is a problem with Tinderbox or how these groups are using Tinderbox not CI. The decision to lock-out the code is dumb. Far too many problems are in the build system not the code.Other CI systems do not do this. CruiseControl & CruiseControl.NET work well for their respective toolchains (Java & .NET).

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