03.02.2019

The Life of a Pull Request & Where Commit Bits Come From

Sometimes people will join into #voidlinux and ask why changes are taking so long to get merged. This is an interesting question, and it boils down into a few parts. In this article we’ll take a look at the life of a pull request and how it gets from idea to package.

For any package to exist, someone first has to want it. This want is often expressed as someone in IRC saying “I want to use Void, but I need package foo” and someone looks at it and decides they will package and maintain foo. Sometimes this want will manifest as an issue filled to the void-packages repository on GitHub, and sometimes it manifests as a “blind” PR showing up for a new package. This last one is what we’ll follow as it’s where things get interesting.

A Call to Action

When a PR is created, this triggers GitHub to notify people according to its settings. For some members of the project this will trigger an email, for some people this will trigger other automation via API, and up until very recently, the #xbps channel on freenode was NOTICE’d (this last one is gone as GitHub has removed this functionality with no clear replacement path).

This notification will hopefully grab the eye of at least one reviewer, who will then open the link to view the PR on GitHub, or will otherwise begin reviewing by their preferred means. Many of our reviewers prefer to pull the PR locally and view it in their editor of choice, or build it locally on more powerful boxes than Travis CI provides.

Changes Requested

This is usually the slow part of getting something accepted to void-packages. This is the part that involves going back and forth on what changes need to be made or what improvements are requested and often involves discussion of potential changes to package policy.

For folks in IRC this often will be a rapid fire exchange of comments in channel or query, and often ends with something like this:

15:30 <bobertlo> i'm making the suggested changes [...]
15:31 <maldridge> bobertlo: ping me when you're ready for review+merge

At this point the ball is back in the author’s court, and the committer is waiting for changes to be made. At this point it’s also considered that a committer is tenuously “assigned” to a PR.

In a good flow, the next thing that happens is another message from the author:

15:53 <bobertlo> maldridge: i pushed those changes

The Reviewer Follows Up

When a reviewer is “assigned” to the PR, it doesn’t really mean that they own it, but there is some expectation that they will follow the work through to merge unless they explicitly state otherwise. Sometimes this looks like a comment on a PR, and other times it looks like a poke in IRC to see if the author is still working on the changes.

At the end of this phase, the reviewer will either approve or dismiss the PR. Usually dismissing a PR is only done if the package is completely unworkable and the author and reviewer have come to an agreement that it won’t be accepted for some concrete reason, but other reasons exist.

Merged

When a package is accepted the reviewer will merge it, and then our automated build infrastructure will kick into action. A webhook from GitHub will signal to our infrastructure that a new change is to be built, and the systems will pull down the changes via git. After it has been ascertained what needs to be rebuilt, the change is dispatched to our builders to begin compiling the new or updated package.

After compilation, the built package is copied back to the build master and is signed, then indexed into the repository for interested users to download. Past this point is a complicated web of rsync that is beyond the scope of this article.

Why does it take so long?

First of all, it doesn’t. When you compare Void’s process to other distributions, the process of getting a package included can be as short as an hour from initial request to installable globally.

The slightly longer answer is that there are bottlenecks. One of the easiest to understand is that there are only so many servers we can build on, and the time it takes to compile packages (especially large ones) has to be taken into account.

The single largest bottleneck though is reviewer loading. In the process that’s described above, reviewers are loosely connected to PRs, and follow them through. While our reviewers are very fast in many cases, they are still human and can only hold so many things at once.

So if the reviewers are the bottleneck, the question logically follows: where do reviewers come from and how do they get their special powers?

Special Powers

Within the Void vernacular, people who can merge changes are referred to generally as people with a commit bit. For those who are curious, this term comes from privileged users on a BSD system often having a “wheel bit”. At the time of this writing, there are 13 people with a commit bit. These people can merge to almost any repository in the organization, but there are a few exceptions. Having a commit bit can also come with other powers, like the ability to op up in IRC, but such additional powers are not automatic, and are beyond the scope of this article.

So how does one get these special powers?

The astute Void follower may already know this answer, as has been documented for some time now on InfraDocs.

The full documentation can be found in the onboarding documentation. But to save the effort of going to that page, we’ll briefly recap it here.

First a person has to be noticed within the project as a good fit for having the ability to merge changes on their own. Usually this means that they’ve been an active contributor continuously for some time and have a history of submitting high quality work.

After an existing committer thinks they’ve found a good candidate, they’ll propose the membership change to the project owners in private. This allows the project owners time to discuss the proposal with the proposer and exchange information without needing to talk publicly. Sometimes there are circumstances that a proposer might not be aware of that may affect if they wish to continue suggesting someone, and this initial conversation gives a time to discuss that.

After this discussion has happened a final decision is made to either accept or reject the proposal. In the event it has been accepted, the candidate is informed and has the final choice to accept.

I’ve Got a Bit, Now What?

Just getting the powers though isn’t enough. People who hold a commit bit have to justify that they have them. This means means either reviewing changes, commenting on PRs, or otherwise advancing the state of the Void. In the past when people have left the project either by explicitly stating they’ve left, or by just not being a part of it for a while, we revoke powers. This helps us keep Void reasonably secure by knowing exactly who all has the ability to push changes to our repositories.

Of course if any of these people were to come back, they’d be welcome to once again demonstrate their skill and again earn the special powers as they did before. Just having had the power at one point is not sufficient cause to be handed it again.


In summary the life of a PR is part of a much larger process of getting and maintaining a pool of contributors and qualified reviewers. This process is quite involved, and this post only just scratches the surface. Interested persons are always encouraged to reach out to us in #voidlinux on freenode. The author of this post can always be contacted in #voidlinux as maldridge.