Keeping open source software projects maintainable

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If your open source project gains popularity, it will stay included in other people’s projects and workflows for years. It’s impossible to predict if you’ll have time to maintain your work in the future, but there are ways to minimize the amount of maintenance your project requires to remain useful.

Keeping open source projects maintainable

Don’t add or merge features you won’t use yourself

It didn’t take long to add support for another database management system into your background job library. You spent an evening getting it to work, and fifteen minutes here and there to fix some issues in the weeks after releasing it. You don’t use that database yourself, but you have some users who do, and it doesn’t take long to get it set up when somebody reports a bug.

After a while, an issue comes up. Everything works for the database you use, but it’s affecting the one you added later. You don’t have a lot of time or motivation to fix it and setting up the database takes a while. The issue sits there for a couple of weeks until somebody else sends a pull request. You understand most of the fix, the code looks okay and you’re glad the bug is solved, so you merge it in.

When another issue comes in months later, you have a bigger problem than before. You still don’t have a lot of time to work on it, and you have code in your project you didn’t completely understand back when you merged it in. Let alone now.

Instead of merging new features or implementing them yourself, allow for easy extension. Consider separating your project’s database layer into an adapter that’s easy to swap out for something else. If somebody needs your library to run on MongoDB, for example, they can write an adapter themselves.

Don’t be afraid to tell contributors to maintain their fork instead of merging their pull request. If a feature doesn’t help your own use case, it doesn’t need to be in your project. This can be difficult if your users are requesting a something you don’t need, but it’ll make your project easier to maintain in the long run.

Drop support for old versions of your dependencies

You wrote a plug-in for your favorite editor that adds some useful functionality. It’s a couple of lines, but wrapping it in a plug-in allows you and others to install it using a plug-in manager.

A new version of the editor comes out, which adds some functionality that makes your plug-in even more useful. You update it to take advantage of that new feature and made sure not to break backward compatibility. It has a version check that loads the original implementation when running in an older version of the editor.

After a couple of years, you’d like to change the plug-in to add a new feature or handle some use case better. When you open the code, you can’t find a way to get this new feature working for the older versions of the editor.

You’re not sure if your changes will break anything, and you don’t have the ancient editor version running on your machine. Although your project is popular, you don’t know if anyone is still using the old version of the editor.

Whenever you start using a new version of a dependency, consider dropping support for older versions and bumping your major version number. If your users are tied to a previous version of your dependency, they should lock to an older version of your project. Dropping backward compatibility allows you to remove conditional code that’s difficult to develop on.

Don’t backport new features. Since you have limited resources you want your users to switch to new versions as quickly as possible, even if that means they’ll have to spend time updating their dependencies.

Hand over projects if you can’t help anymore

You maintain an add-on for some kind of test framework, that’s specifically suited for a problem you have. Since others have the same problem, your project is used by hundreds of people. You haven’t implemented anything you don’t use yourself, and you quickly drop support for old versions of the test framework.

After a while, you start using another test framework on a daily basis. Maybe because a new project at your job uses it, or your new situation doesn’t have that problem your add-on fixed. You stop using your add-on.

Your project still provides value for its users, but you don’t have time to reproduce issues you haven’t run into yourself. There’s a handful of people excited about your project, so you usually receive a pull request when something breaks.

After merging pull requests for a while, the code starts to lack structure because there’s nobody actively maintaining the project. The code becomes increasingly difficult to understand, and it’s becoming difficult to even press the merge button without breaking the build.

If you stop using your own project, you’re not fit to maintain it anymore. You don’t have to do all the work, but you need to be among the first to know when something breaks. If you don’t, you’re hurting the project more than you’re helping.

Hand the project over to somebody that actively uses your project and knows the code. If you can’t, open an issue in your tracker to announce you’re looking for a new maintainer. Explain that you can’t help anymore and mention that you won’t be answering issues or reviewing pull requests.


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