OpenStack TC mythbusting

On several occasions over the last months, I heard people exposing truths about the OpenStack Technical Committee. However, those positions were often inaccurate or incomplete. Arguably we are not communicating enough: governance changes and resolutions that are brought to the TC are just approved or rejected. That binary answer is generally not the whole story, and with only the headline, it is easy to read too much in a past decision. We should do a better job at communicating beyond that simple answer when the topic is more complex, and at continuously explaining the role and limits of the TC. Hopefully this blogpost will help, by busting some of those myths.

Myth #1: "the TC doesn't want Go in OpenStack"

This one comes from the recent rejection of a resolution proposing to add golang to the list of approved languages, to support merging the hummingbird feature branch into Swift's master branch. A more accurate way to present that decision would be to say that a (short) majority of the TC members was not supporting the addition of golang at that time and under the proposed conditions. In summary it was more of a "not now, not this way" than a "never".

There were a number of reasons for this decision, but the crux was: adding a language creates fragmentation and a support cost for all of the OpenStack community, so we need to make sure "OpenStack" as a whole is successful with it, beyond any specific project. That means for example having a clear plan for integrating Go within all our standing processes, while trying to prevent duplication of effort or gratuitous rewrites. The discussion was actually recently restarted by Flavio in this change. We'll need resources to make this a success, so if you care, please jump in to help.

Myth #2: "the TC doesn't like competition with existing projects"

I'm not exactly sure where this one comes from. I can't think of any specific TC decision that would explain it. Historically, back when we had programs, a given team would own a given problem space and could essentially lock alternatives out. But the Big Tent project structure reform changed that, allowing competition to happen within our community.

Yes, we still want to encourage cooperation wherever it's possible, so we still have a requirement which says "where it makes sense, the project cooperates with existing projects rather than gratuitously competing or reinventing the wheel". But as long as the new project is different or presents a different value proposal, it should be fair game. For example we accepted the Monasca team in the same problem space as the Telemetry team. And we have several teams working on various deployment recipes.

That said, having competitive solutions in OpenStack on key problem spaces (like base compute or networking services) creates interesting second-order questions in terms of what is "core", trademark usage and interoperability. Those are arguably more downstream concerns than upstream concerns, but that explains why the deeper you go, the more difficult the community discussion is likely to be.

Myth #3: "the TC does not set any direction"

There are multiple variants on that one, from "OpenStack needs a benevolent dictator" to "a camel is a horse designed by a committee". The idea behind it is that the TC needs to have a very opinionated plan for OpenStack and somehow force everyone in our community to follow it. Part of this myth is trying to apply single-vendor software development theory to an open collaboration, and misunderstanding how other large open source projects (like the Linux kernel) work.

While the TC members are all well-respected in our community, we can't unilaterally decide everything for 2500+ developers from 300+ different organizations, and expect them all to execute The Plan. What the TC can do, however, is to define the mission, provide an environment, set principles, enforce common practices, and arbitrate conflicts. In painting terms, the TC provides the frame, the subject of the painting, a color palette and the techniques that can be used. But it doesn't paint. Painting is done at each project team level.

In this cycle, the TC started to drive some simple cross-community goals. The idea is to collectively make visible progress on a given topic over the course of a release cycle, to pay back technical debt or to implement a simple feature across all of OpenStack projects. But this is done as a goal the community agrees to work on, rather than a top-down mandate.

Myth #4: "the TC, due to the Big Tent, prevents proper focus"

This one is interesting, and I think its roots lie in some misunderstanding of open source community dynamics. If you consider a finite set of resources and a zero-sum-game community, then of course adding more projects results in less resources being dedicated to "important projects". But an open community like OpenStack is not a finite set of resources. The people and the organizations in the OpenStack community work and cooperate on a number of projects. Before the big tent, some of those would not be considered part of the OpenStack projects, despite helping with the OpenStack mission and following the OpenStack development principles, and therefore essentially being developed by the OpenStack community.

Considering more (or less) projects as being part of our community doesn't decrease (or increase) focus on "important projects". It's up to each organization in OpenStack to focus on the set of projects it considers important. For more on that, go read Ed Leafe's brilliant blogpost, he expressed it better than I can. Of course there are some efforts (like packaging) where adding more projects results in diluting focus. But with every added project comes new blood in our community (rather than artificially keeping it out), and some of that new blood ends up helping on those efforts. It's not a zero-sum game, and the big tent makes sure we are open to new ways of achieving the OpenStack mission and have an inclusive and welcoming community.

What is the role of the OpenStack Technical Committee

This week we are renewing 6 seats in the 13-member OpenStack Technical Committee. This election has attracted a large number of candidates, which is a great sign that people care about the Technical Committee. At the same time, there is a lot of misconceptions in our community about what the TC is for, what it can or cannot do, and the overlap with other groups. I'll try to clarify that in this post.

A misleading name

Part of the reason why there are so many misconceptions about the role of the TC is that its name is pretty misleading. The Technical Committee is not primarily technical: most of the issues that the TC tackles are open source project governance issues. The TC is not really a committee either: it is a group of elected people who will vote on resolutions and changes that are proposed and which affect OpenStack as a whole. In the US, it is closer to the Supreme Court than to anything else.

The primary role of the TC is to act as the final decision stage when it comes to decision-making in the OpenStack open source project. It is extremely important in an open source project to have a "bucket stops here" body that is empowered to make decisions for the project if consensus and agreement cannot be reached elsewhere -- otherwise it risks complete stand-still. I have been involved in projects which were stuck in such governance grey area, and it is a pretty ugly situation. It's interesting to note that the mere existence of the final decision-making body is enough to achieve consensus at the lower levels: two teams will prefer to find agreement between themselves rather than call for final arbitration by the TC. This is a feature, not a bug.

An evolving mission

The mission of the TC is to lead the development of "OpenStack". As OpenStack evolved into one framework with a lot of collaborating components, each of which developed by project teams with their own governance, the mission of the TC also evolved. Those days we focus on the "OpenStack" experience. What does it mean to be an OpenStack project ? What does it imply in terms of development practices, general principles, common goals, cooperation, minimal QA or user experience ? Is this new group applying to become an official OpenStack project team following enough of those rules to be considered "one of us" ?

Some people would like the TC to single-handedly solve upgrades, scalability, interoperability or end user experience. Some other people would like the TC to let the individual project teams do as they want. Reality is, neither of those extremes are likely to happen. The TC is just 13 (usually busy) people, they can't solve all the issues in OpenStack by themselves. They are elected because we trust them to make the right decisions for OpenStack, not because they are the ultimate 100x engineers who can fix everything. On the other hand, the TC is not powerless: by continuously refining what it means to be an "OpenStack project", it can influence OpenStack project teams to address the right topics. We did that through assert tags, which encouraged teams to improve their upgrade story or adopt a sane feature deprecation policy. We'll do that through release cycle goals, to drive visible improvements across all the components in OpenStack.

Help, please

This is also why the TC needs all the help it can get. I'm excited we now have the Architecture workgroup, an open group of people interested in addressing long-standing architecture issues in OpenStack as a whole. I'm thrilled that we have a Stewardship workgroup, an open group of people encouraging leaders in OpenStack to adopt Servant Leadership practices and tools. We are electing 13 members to vote and make the final calls, but all the ideas don't have to come from those 13 members. If you're a candidate and you're not elected, it doesn't prevent you from working on governance problems and propose changes.

So... If you are an eligible voter, please take the time to read the candidates platform emails and vote. Whoever gets elected, they will need the legitimacy that only a good turnout in elections can give them. And if you are a candidate and don't get elected, please consider joining those open workgroups, and propose governance changes -- keeping "OpenStack" together is definitely not a 13-people task.

How splitting the Design Summit enhances the development process

I was recently privately asked how I expected the split of the current OpenStack Design Summit into two different events to enhance the overall OpenStack development process. Here is the answer I gave...

We are working on splitting the "Design Summit" into a more open requirements-gathering and feedback forum at the Summit on one side, and a separated event for project team members on the other side. I expect this change will greatly enhance the development process, for the following reasons:

  1. Key upstream developers and PTLs were too busy during the Summit week to actually watch and listen. Having them more available during the Summit week (where all of our community is present) should help a lot in getting the right priorities across. The feedback sessions were also not very well balanced (being organized as part of the upstream developer-centric event called the "Design Summit"). Making it more like a regular Summit event will help make it a neutral exchange forum between community peers (rather than dev kings listening to grievances in their throne hall).

  2. Project teams were lacking time to work together as a team: building trust, organizing the work, agreeing on priorities and assigning tasks. The current "Design Summit" doesn't work so well for that because it doubles as a general forum and a lot of people outside the team members were attending the sessions. There were also too many distractions to hang out between team members and build social bonds. This is why a lot of teams organized specific, separated events (the "midcycles"): to get more time together. The new "Project Teams Gathering" event is all about providing that time to work together as a team.

  3. Partly as a result of separate midcycle events, project teams operated in silos and were unlikely to be exposed or take on critical cross-project work. They would also skip the cross-project workshops at the Design Summit since so much is happening at the same time. The new event should provide specific time for cross-project work, without anything running against it. It should encourage team members from a vertical team (Nova, Neutron...) to join and participate in horizontal / cross-project efforts (QA, Infra, technology convergence, release theme...), to break out of their silo and become true "OpenStack" contributors.

  4. The timing of the "Design Summit" event was inefficient. It was too late to organize work, too early to get feedback on the recent release. By splitting the events, we put the main Summit further away from the release -- giving time for packagers, deployers, solutions builders to build a product and start experimenting with the new release. The quality of the feedback we get should therefore improve a lot. It also lets us put the new event closer to the start of the development cycle (closer to the previous cycle feature freeze), ensuring there is less "down" time between cycles (almost two months in the current setup).

So, in summary, I expect the new split event format to solve long-standing issues that made the "Design Summit" no longer efficient. It should increase our productivity, but also greatly improve the feedback loops between downstream and upstream.

Splitting out the OpenStack Design Summit

In a global and virtual community, high-bandwidth face-to-face time is essential. This is why we made the OpenStack Design Summits an integral part of our processes from day 0. Those were set at the beginning of each of our development cycles to help set goals and organize the work for the upcoming 6 months. At the same time and in the same location, a more traditional conference was happening, ensuring a lot of interaction between the upstream (producers) and downstream (consumers) parts of our community.

This setup, however, has a number of issues. For developers first: the "conference" part of the common event got bigger and bigger and it is difficult to focus on upstream work (and socially bond with your teammates) with so much other commitments and distractions. The result is that our design summits are a lot less productive than they used to be, and we organize other events ("midcycles") to fill our focus and small-group socialization needs. The timing of the event (a couple of weeks after the previous cycle release) is also suboptimal: it is way too late to gather any sort of requirements and priorities for the already-started new cycle, and also too late to do any sort of work planning (the cycle work started almost 2 months ago).

But it's not just suboptimal for developers. For contributing companies, flying all their developers to expensive cities and conference hotels so that they can attend the Design Summit is pretty costly, and the goals of the summit location (reaching out to users everywhere) do not necessarily align with the goals of the Design Summit location (minimize and balance travel costs for existing contributors). For the companies that build products and distributions on top of the recent release, the timing of the common event is not so great either: it is difficult to show off products based on the recent release only two weeks after it's out. The summit date is also too early to leverage all the users attending the summit to gather feedback on the recent release -- not a lot of people would have tried upgrades by summit time. Finally a common event is also suboptimal for the events organization : finding venues that can accommodate both events is becoming increasingly complicated.

Time is ripe for a change. After Tokyo, we at the Foundation have been considering options on how to evolve our events to solve those issues. This proposal is the result of this work. There is no perfect solution here (and this is still work in progress), but we are confident that this strawman solution solves a lot more problems than it creates, and balances the needs of the various constituents of our community.

The idea would be to split the events. The first event would be for upstream technical contributors to OpenStack. It would be held in a simpler, scaled-back setting that would let all OpenStack project teams meet in separate rooms, but in a co-located event that would make it easy to have ad-hoc cross-project discussions. It would happen closer to the centers of mass of contributors, in less-expensive locations.

More importantly, it would be set to happen a couple of weeks before the previous cycle release. There is a lot of overlap between cycles. Work on a cycle starts at the previous cycle feature freeze, while there is still 5 weeks to go. Most people switch full-time to the next cycle by RC1. Organizing the event just after that time lets us organize the work and kickstart the new cycle at the best moment. It also allows us to use our time together to quickly address last-minute release-critical issues if such issues arise.

The second event would be the main downstream business conference, with high-end keynotes, marketplace and breakout sessions. It would be organized two or three months after the release, to give time for all downstream users to deploy and build products on top of the release. It would be the best time to gather feedback on the recent release, and also the best time to have strategic discussions: start gathering requirements for the next cycle, leveraging the very large cross-section of all our community that attends the event.

To that effect, we'd still hold a number of strategic planning sessions at the main event to gather feedback, determine requirements and define overall cross-project themes, but the session format would not require all project contributors to attend. A subset of contributors who would like to participate in these sessions can collect and relay feedback to other team members for implementation (similar to the Ops midcycle). Other contributors will also want to get more involved in the conference, whether that's giving presentations or hearing user stories.

The split should ideally reduce the needs to organize separate in-person mid-cycle events. If some are still needed, the main conference venue and time could easily be used to provide space for such midcycle events (given that it would end up happening in the middle of the cycle).

In practice, the split means that we need to stagger the events and cycles. We have a long time between Barcelona and the Q1 Summit in the US, so the idea would be to use that long period to insert a smaller cycle (Ocata) with a release early March, 2017 and have the first specific contributors event at the start of the P cycle, mid-February, 2017. With the already-planned events in 2016 and 2017 it is the earliest we can make the transition. We'd have a last, scaled-down design summit in Barcelona to plan the shorter cycle.

cycle_overlap

With that setup, we hope that we can restore the productivity and focus of the face-to-face contributors gathering, reduce the need to have midcycle events for social bonding and team building, keep the cost of getting all contributors together once per cycle under control, maintain the feedback loops with all the constituents of the OpenStack community at the main event, and better align the timing of each event with the reality of the release cycles.

NB: You will note that I did not name the separated event "Design Summit" -- that is because Design will now be split into feedback/requirements gathering (the why at the main event) and execution planning and kickstarting (the how at the contributors-oriented event), so that name doesn't feel right anymore. We can bikeshed on the name for the new event later :)

This was also posted to the openstack-dev ML: please comment and follow-up there if you have thoughts to share.

OpenStack Common Culture

We are 5 years into the OpenStack ride (and 3 years into the OpenStack Foundation ride), and the challenges for our community are evolving. In this article I want to talk about what I consider the most significant threat for our open source community today: the loss of our common culture.

Over the past year we evolved the OpenStack project model to adopt an inclusive approach. Project teams which work on deliverables that help us achieve the OpenStack Mission, and which follow our development and community practices should generally be accepted under the "big tent". As we explained in this presentation in Vancouver, we moved from asking "is this OpenStack ?" to asking "are you OpenStack ?".

What does it mean to be OpenStack ? We wrote down a set of principles, based on the original four opens that were defined at the very beginning of this journey. But "being OpenStack" goes beyond that. It is to be aligned on a common goal, be part of the same effort, be the same tribe. OpenStack relies on a number of individuals working cross-project (on infrastructure, QA, documentation, release processes, interoperability, user experience, API guidelines, vulnerability management, election organization...). It is because we belong to the same tribe that some people and organizations care enough about "OpenStack" as a whole to dedicate time to those essential cross-project efforts.

This is why we standardize on logged IRC channels as a communication medium, why we ask that every project change goes through Gerrit, and why we should very conservatively add new programming languages to the mix. Some people advocate letting OpenStack project teams pick whatever language they want, or letting them meet on that new trendy videoconferencing app, or letting them track bugs on separate JIRA instances. More freedom sounds good at first glance, but doing so would further fragment our community into specific silos that all behave differently. Doing so would make recruiting for those essential cross-project efforts even harder than it is today, while at the same time making the work of those cross-project efforts significantly more complex. Doing so would make our community crumble under its own weight.

We started this journey with a pretty strong common culture. It was mostly oral tradition. We assumed that as OpenStack grew, our culture would naturally be assimilated by new members. And it did, for quite some time. But today we are at a point where we dramatically expanded our community (we doubled the number of project teams over the last year) and our common culture did not naturally transmit to newcomers. Silos with local traditions have formed. Teams don't all behave in the same way anymore. Most team members only care about a single project team. We struggle to move from one project to another. We struggle to provide common solutions that work for everyone. We struggle to recruit for cross-project efforts more than we ever did. OpenStack's future as a community is at risk. It's time to hold the culture line, rather than time to further relax it.

It is also more than time that we document our common culture, so that it can be explicitly communicated to everyone in the OpenStack ecosystem (current and prospective members). We started a workgroup at the Technical Committee, held a virtual sprint to get a base version written, and now here it is: the first version of the OpenStack Project team guide. Read it, refer to it, communicate it to your OpenStack community fellows, propose changes to it. It is an essential tool for us to overcome this new challenge. It's certainly not the only tool, and I hope we'll be able to dedicate a cross-project session at the Mitaka Design Summit in Tokyo to further discuss this topic.