Looking Back on Homebrew’s First Year with Conservancy
byon February 2, 2017
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There’s an app for that.
Need a way to download and save that cute cat video from YouTube so you can watch it offline? There’s an app for that. Want to collaborate with others using GitHub? There’s an app for that, too. But neither are in the App Store. Every day, hundreds of thousands of Mac users turn to Homebrew to download one of more than 3,000 useful software packages for their desktops and laptops that Apple does not include in its operating system and can’t be found in the App Store.
Since Max Howell began Homebrew in 2009 with the goal of creating an efficient package manager, over 6,000 people have contributed to the project. Max built the package manager to rely on software and libraries that come preinstalled in OS X and chose to limit support to recent versions of the Mac operating system so that the packages could be optimized as much as possible. Max delivered an early implementation and shepherded the project through 2013.
Mike McQuaid started contributing to Homebrew because he was an avid user. After employing Homebrew to outfit his work laptop with vital FLOSS software, he saw that there were ways that Homebrew could be improved. Mike rose from occasional contributor to maintainer to eventually become the project’s lead maintainer. Mike coordinates the technical aspects of the project, manages the vibrant community of volunteer contributors to the project and serves as Homebrew’s primary liaison with the Software Freedom Conservancy.
Software Freedom Conservancy recognized Homebrew’s technical and social successes and invited them to join as a member project in 2016. Software Freedom Conservancy was excited that they accepted the invitation and is proud to support them.
Mike was kind enough to spend some time answering questions about the project’s past success and its future goals.
We began the interview talking about the importance of having Homebrew join Software Freedom Conservancy. “I’ve been a fan of Software Freedom Conservancy for a long time thanks to using several of their member projects. Bringing Homebrew into Conservancy helps provide long-term security to the trickier financial and community aspects of Homebrew.” For example, Mike has been worried about the contingency plan for Homebrew so that its existence could outlive any single individual. Software Freedom Conservancy provides legal, fundraising and organizational support to this end.
On the technical merits, Mike described Homebrew’s cutting-edge architecture, implementation, and development practices. Every application available through Homebrew is described by a Formula. Each Formula is Ruby code and the process of adding and modifying Formulae is coordinated with Git. If a contributor wants to add a package for other Homebrew users to download and install, they can simply write a Ruby script and send a pull request to one of Homebrew’s maintainers.
Mike said that thanks to using Ruby and Git for describing Formulae and facilitating code changes, respectively, new contributors can make an immediate, positive impact on Homebrew. Using a popular language like Ruby and building a smooth workflow based on Git makes it easy for Homebrew maintainers and contributors to keep all of its Formulae up to date. Every day new features are added, bugs are patched and security vulnerabilities closed in Homebrew packages. If the process for updating Formulae was not as well designed as it is, Homebrew’s users could be stuck with outdated and insecure software.
The Homebrew community has spent significant time and energy building and implementing a continuous integration system. Continuous integration is a software development practice to test software for bugs every time new code is added. Every update to a Formula involves a modification to Homebrew’s code. Having an automated system to check Homebrew’s code every time a package is updated or added gives Homebrew’s developers assurance that the software is always ready for end users.
While Homebrew benefits from using the latest and greatest tools and techniques of FLOSS software development, it’s the active and vibrant community that really drives progress. Community is a very important part of Homebrew but such a positive, supportive, diverse community does not just happen. It takes leadership and Mike takes that role seriously.
In our interview, Mike talked extensively about the project’s commitment to community. Under his leadership, the project has established a code of conduct for its participants and created policies to encourage users to become committers, contributors to become maintainers and maintainers to become project leaders. Mike helped Homebrew create its code of conduct early on because he knew it would help create a more diverse community. While the code of conduct can be used as a tool to remove the rare disruptive member, it serves mostly to make explicit the community’s expectation that its members are to be respectful and welcoming to everyone who wants to join. “Homebrew is probably a little more diverse than your average open source project but it’s still woefully unrepresentative of society as a whole,” Mike said. “Homebrew has chosen to be proactive about diversity because studies have shown diversity makes better software and we don’t want anyone to feel alienated or excluded from our community based on who they are.”
This year Homebrew participated in the Outreachy internship program. Mike and the Homebrew team mentored Andrea Kao who worked on Homebrew’s continuous integration and testing system. Andrea said about her experience, “… [T]he Homebrew maintainer-mentors have all been so incredibly generous, encouraging, kind, and helpful to me over the past couple weeks and months. I’m so thankful for this generosity and for nabbing the Outreachy internship. In the space of two months, I’ve become an active member of several wonderful, worldwide communities—the community of Homebrew contributors, the Outreachy community, and the wider open-source software community.”
The project’s technical implementation and architecture and its commitment to building a positive, active community around Homebrew are evident from the number of its users and participants and the way they talk about the project. It is regularly among the top projects on GitHub. When version 1.0 was announced, a user commented, “[Homebrew is] great because the community is so vibrant, the user experience is so well thought out… it’s actually both a GitHub and Ruby showcase.”
Mike finished our interview by describing the project’s goals for 2017. The first goal is to improve support for installation of specific legacy versions of applications. There are many reasons why a user might need an older version of a package—to satisfy a dependency or to use a feature that no longer exists, for example.
The second goal is to improve Homebrew’s continuous integration system. As described earlier, having a continuous integration system is vital for a project like Homebrew whose code changes on a regular basis. Right now the system checks new code to make sure that it compiles. That’s a good start. However, new code could introduce bugs that are only evident when the software is run. In 2017, Homebrew will expand its continuous integration to test runtime functionality.
Conservancy is proud to have Homebrew as a member project and is excited to see what the future brings for the FLOSS package manager, its users and its community.
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