Project health, and why it’s important — part of the #shellshock afterwords

Tech media has been all the rage this year with trying to hype everything out there as the end of the Internet of Things or the nail on the coffin of open source. A bunch of opinion pieces I found also tried to imply that open source software is to blame, forgetting that the only reason why the security issues found had been considered so nasty is because we know they are widely used.

First there was Heartbleed with its discoverers deciding to spend time setting up a cool name and logo and website for, rather than ensuring it would be patched before it became widely known. Months later, LastPass still tells me that some of the websites I have passwords on have not changed their certificate. This spawned some interest around OpenSSL at least, including the OpenBSD fork which I’m still not sure is going to stick around or not.

Just few weeks ago a dump of passwords caused major stir as some online news sources kept insisting that Google had been hacked. Similarly, people have been insisting for the longest time that it was only Apple’s fault if the photos of a bunch of celebrities were stolen and published on a bunch of sites — and will probably never be expunged from the Internet’s collective conscience.

And then there is the whole hysteria about shellshock which I already dug into. What I promised on that post is looking at the problem from the angle of the project health.

With the term project health I’m referring to a whole set of issues around an open source software project. It’s something that becomes second nature for a distribution packager/developer, but is not obvious to many, especially because it is not easy to quantify. It’s not a function of the number of commits or committers, the number of mailing lists or the traffic in them. It’s an aura.

That OpenSSL’s project health was terrible was no mystery to anybody. The code base in particular was terribly complicated and cater for corner cases that stopped being relevant years ago, and the LibreSSL developers have found plenty of reasons to be worried. But the fact that the codebase was in such a state, and that the developers don’t care to follow what the distributors do, or review patches properly, was not a surprise. You just need to be reminded of the Debian SSL debacle which dates back to 2008.

In the case of bash, the situation is a bit more complex. The shell is a base component of all GNU systems, and is FSF’s choice of UNIX shell. The fact that the man page states clearly It’s too big and too slow. should tip people off but it doesn’t. And it’s not just a matter of extending the POSIX shell syntax with enough sugar that people take it for a programming language and start using them — but that’s also a big problem that caused this particular issue.

The health of bash was not considered good by anybody involved with it on a distribution level. It certainly was not considered good for me, as I moved to zsh years and years ago, and I have been working for over five years years on getting rid of bashisms in scripts. Indeed, I have been pushing, with Roy and others, for the init scripts in Gentoo to be made completely POSIX shell compatible so that they can run with dash or with busybox — even before I was paid to do so for one of the devices I worked on.

Nowadays, the point is probably moot for many people. I think this is the most obvious positive PR for systemd I can think of: no thinking of shells any more, for the most part. Of course it’s not strictly true, but it does solve most of the problems with bashisms in init scripts. And it should solve the problem of using bash as a programming language, except it doesn’t always, but that’s a topic for a different post.

But why were distributors, and Gentoo devs, so wary about bash, way before this happened? The answer is complicated. While bash is a GNU project and the GNU project is the poster child for Free Software, its management has always been sketchy. There is a single developer – The Maintainer as the GNU website calls him, Chet Ramey – and the sole point of contact for him are the mailing lists. The code is released in dumps: a release tarball on the minor version, then every time a new micro version is to be released, a new patch is posted and distributed. If you’re a Gentoo user, you can notice this as when emerging bash, you’ll see all the patches being applied one on top of the other.

There is no public SCM — yes there is a GIT “repository”, but it’s essentially just an import of a given release tarball, and then each released patch applied on top of it as a commit. Since these patches represent a whole point release, and they may be fixing different bugs, related or not, it’s definitely not as useful has having a repository with the intent clearly showing, so that you can figure out what is being done. Reviewing a proper commit-per-change repository is orders of magnitude easier than reviewing a diff in code dumps.

This is not completely unknown in the GNU sphere, glibc has had a terrible track record as well, and only recently, thanks to lots of combined efforts sanity is being restored. This also includes fixing a bunch of security vulnerabilities found or driven into the ground by my friend Tavis.

But this behaviour is essentially why people like me and other distribution developers have been unhappy with bash for years and years, not the particular vulnerability but the health of the project itself. I have been using zsh for years, even though I had not installed it on all my servers up to now (it’s done now), and I have been pushing for Gentoo to move to /bin/sh being provided by dash for a while, at the same time Debian did it already, and the result is that the vulnerability for them is way less scary.

So yeah, I don’t think it’s happenstance that these issues are being found in projects that are not healthy. And it’s not because they are open source, but rather because they are “open source” in a way that does not help. Yes, bash is open source, but it’s not developed like many other projects in the open but behind closed doors, with only one single leader.

So remember this: be open in your open source project, it makes for better health. And try to get more people than you involved, and review publicly the patches that you’re sent!

3 thoughts on “Project health, and why it’s important — part of the #shellshock afterwords

  1. If you are looking for a dead project look no further than Gentoo.The planet has been down for nearly a week now. Infra? Apparently standing in line for the dole.And if you talk about SCMs, read through https://wiki.gentoo.org/wik… . Then weep.Gentoo’s aura died sad and lonesome somewhere during EAPI discussions years ago.

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  2. Daniel what are you doing for fixing it or any other problem you might see?(that said while helping a little migrating to git this weekend.)

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  3. Nothing.There are other open source communities and projects where I can achieve more positive impact from any of the limited time I have available. You obviously view that differently and that is absolutely fine. I’m happy for the work you do in Gentoo or libav. I used to profit from the former and now I still profit from the latter. So thank you for the time you invest and the results you openly share with everybody.

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